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Scotland and the 1950 World Cup

Scotland team v Wales 1950


The story of Scotland's self-inflicted absence from the 1950 World Cup Finals in Brazil is almost incomprehensible to the modern-day football fan.

It is made all the more incredible on painful recollection of Scotland's subsequent World Cup traumas: at the 1974 Finals in West Germany when Scotland became the first country to be eliminated despite being undefeated; in Argentina four years later, when Scotland were 3-1 up against eventual runners-up Holland in their final first-round game, requiring just one more goal to go through…when Rep scored to kill off the country's hopes; in Spain in 1982 when Scotland were eliminated for the third time in a row on goal difference; worse, in the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy when a goal from Brazil eight minutes from time in Scotland's last first-round match, and an improbable 2-1 win for Costa Rica over Sweden, meant either third-placed Scotland or Austria could still make it through to the knock-out stages if South Korea could hold out against Uruguay… Yes, you guessed it, the South Americans scored in injury time.

With that assortment of nightmares in mind, the toes curl and the chest tightens all the more when you realise just how Scotland failed to make the trip to Rio for the first World Cup Finals since the Second World War. Scotland, it can surely be argued, invented the World Cup exit.

The four British football associations - those of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales - had withdrawn from football's governing body FIFA back in 1920. There had been arguments over the suitability of playing teams with whom Britain had recently been at war, and more importantly a general feeling that there was now too much foreign influence in what was surely a British game!

This disassociation from FIFA meant that there was no participation in the trio of World Cups that were staged before the Second World War.

Pre-war, Scotland hadn't played many matches against continental teams, but the record stood at two defeats in 15 games. Interestingly, Scotland's first defeat abroad was by Austria in 1931, and it was that country that would give Scotland its first defeat by a non-British team at Hampden, a few months after the 1950 World Cup qualifying debacle.

A year after the war ended, FIFA made a real effort to get Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales back playing international football. They offered the vice presidency of FIFA to an SFA member, as well as giving a place on the executive to the UK associations.

On top of that, FIFA offered the winners of the 1950 British International Championship a place in the World Cup Finals of that summer, thus guaranteeing the presence of one UK team in the Brazil. This was by far the most generous concession made to any country or set of football associations. Other nations had to play home and away matches in qualifying rounds. For the UK teams, though, they need only play three games. In Scotland's case, they had to play Northern Ireland away, then Wales and England at Hampden. In effect, then, the Home Internationals were doubling up as a World Cup qualifying group.

As if that wasn't enough, FIFA subsequently offered a World Cup invite to the runners-up in the 1949/50 Championships. Two teams out of four could be heading to Brazil!

Unbelievably, George Graham, secretary of the Scottish Football Association (SFA), declared that Scotland would only accept the FIFA invite if they went as British champions. Second place was no use: Scotland would have to top the group if they were to take part.

The first game went well, with Scotland thrashing Northern Ireland 8-2 at Windsor Park in front of 50,000 fans in October 1949. Henry Morris of East Fife scored a hat-trick on his international debut, yet incredibly he was never picked again for Scotland.

The second match, a month later, saw Scotland triumph 2-0 against Wales in Glasgow. A crowd of almost 74,000 watched as Celtic's John McPhail and Clyde's Alec Linwood got the goals to set up the decider with England. Despite scoring on his Scotland debut, Linwood, like Morris, was never to play again for Scotland.
Scotland in action v England 1950


England meanwhile had been doing even better than their old northern foes. They had trounced Northern Ireland 9-2 at Wembley and beaten Wales 4-1 away. However, goal difference at that time was not taken into account in the championships, so with Scotland and England each on four points, a draw would be enough for Scotland to become joint winners of the tournament and therefore they could go to Brazil as “champions”.

Sensibly, England, with second place at the very least guaranteed, had already told FIFA that they would be going, so the pressure was on Scotland for the deciding match, and 134,000 fans were there at Hampden on Saturday 15 April 1950 to remind them of it

The previous year Scotland had beaten England 3-1 at Wembley, though in 1948 the English had visited Hampden and left with a 2-0 victory. The match was likely to be close.

In 1950 there was no Scotland football manager per se; the international selection committee had the power to choose the team. Scotland's first manager, Andy Beattie, wasn't appointed until 1954. Club officials, who in effect ran the SFA, were used to choosing which players should play for their teams every Saturday, so there was no great outcry at the time for a manager to be appointed with the power to pick the team.

Despite that, the selectors don't appear to have been operating with a great degree of consistency. Eighteen players were used in the three games against Northern Ireland, Wales and England, and only five played in every tie. Incredibly, some of the selectors had never seen Willie Moir of Bolton Wanderers play. In season 1948/49, Moir was top scorer in the English First Division, so presumably this was enough to convince the committee that he could handle such an important game for his country. In addition to Moir, the other debutants were Ian McColl of Rangers and Willie Bauld of Hearts.

The teams at Hampden that day were as follows:

Scotland: Cowan (Morton), Young, Cox, McColl and Woodburn (all Rangers), Forbes (Arsenal), Waddell (Rangers), Moir (Bolton), Bauld (Hearts), Steel (Derby), Liddell (Liverpool)

England: Williams (Wolves), Ramsey (Tottenham), Aston (Manchester United), Wright (Wolves), Franklin (Stoke), Dickinson (Portsmouth), Finney (Preston North End), Mannion (Middlesbrough), Mortensen (Blackpool), Bentley (Chelsea), Langton (Bolton).

The first half at Hampden ended goalless, but after 63 minutes Chelsea's Roy Bentley shot from inside the box after getting clear of Woodburn. Cowan got a hand on it but it was too powerful and ended up in the net.

Scotland had to find a goal from somewhere if they were to reach the World Cup. Bauld came closest, hitting the bar, and with minutes remaining Willie Waddell smacked the ball inches over the bar. Scotland simply could not conjure up a goal and when English referee R Leafe blew for the final whistle, England were the champions. The inquest and begging began.

Scotland captain, George Young


Scotland captain George Young, encouraged by England captain Billy Wright, pleaded with the SFA executive committee to accept that they had been foolish in saying they would only go to Brazil as champions. However, SFA secretary George Graham was adamant that Scotland had given their word and that they would not go back on it.

We have heard it many times since: the World Cup was over for another four years at least.

There are three interesting footnotes to this sorry tale. First, England's trip to Brazil ended in embarrassment, for they lost 1-0 to the United States and were beaten by Spain to make a premature exit from the tournament. Before the England game the US manager Bill Jeffrey had said, “We ain't got a chance against your boys,” yet a headed goal by Gaetjens gave the States their astonishing victory.

There is a certain irony here: Jeffrey was a Scot who had emigrated to America, played for a works team against Penn State College and got his chance in football management when he was later asked if he fancied coaching that same college side.

Secondly, FIFA managed to get only 13 countries to come to Brazil, instead of the 16 it sought. France had been edged out by Yugoslavia in their qualifying group, but were then invited to take the place of Turkey. They declined because of the distance they would have to travel. Austria pulled out because they said their team was too young, and India qualified but refused to come. Argentina had fallen out with the Brazilian FA and so they boycotted the tournament.

Thirdly, for the 1954 World Cup, the qualifying arrangements were the same for Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. In '54 Scotland finished runners-up to England, yet they went to the World Cup. Perhaps Switzerland was a more preferable destination for the SFA executive committee than Brazil had seemed.

It is hard to fathom the stance of the executive committee. Perhaps it was arrogance or pride; it may even have been over-confidence in the abilities of its players; or possibly it was a lack of vision at how football was developing. Then again, the main issue may have been one of financing the national team's trip to South America.

However, we can say with certainty that by missing out on Brazil 1950, Scotland lost the chance to gain international experience, something that would haunt them in the early '50s as they began to lose to continental sides that for decades they had assumed they could beat.

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