Scotland at Youth World Cup 1983 remembered

Scotland graphic

It is the night current Scotland manager Steve Clarke realised he could be a professional footballer. Team-mate Brian Rice remembers it being "bedlam, just absolute mayhem".

Their manager, Andy Roxburgh, says his "boys literally became men" in the seething bowl of the Azteca Stadium on a June evening in 1983.

Official records state that 86,582 fervent Mexicans were inside the ground for the final Group A game of the Fifa World Youth Championship. Scotland were playing the hosts, with a win for either side enough to seal a place in the quarter-finals.

Having become European champions the previous summer, the Scots were contenders for the global crown. But defeat by Australia in their second game - after an opening with a win over South Korea - left them needing to beat the Mexicans. And to beat them in an arena unlike any other.

"Just driving up to the stadium, there were people everywhere making a racket," says current Hamilton Academical head coach Rice.

"Then to even be on the pitch during the warm-up... here were these wee guys from Scotland playing in the ground where Brazil had won the World Cup 13 years earlier. I remember making a point of putting the ball in the net where Pele scored and it was surreal."

Azteca Stadium
The imposing Azteca Stadium where Scotland faced Mexico

That would be Rice's only involvement on the pitch, but even those on the bench had to keep their wits about them as a bombardment of projectiles were hurled from the stands - a barrage that only intensified when Clarke scored the only goal to edge Scotland into the last eight.

"I took the corner, and it was dreadful," forward Pat Nevin recalls. "But that game has stuck with me, despite playing another 850-odd times in my career. I learned that night if you're not spooked when a crowd of that size are physically trying to attack you, then nothing will ever bother you."

Airforce Academies, oxygen masks & training in Paisley

The young Scots' fearlessness was laced with no little amount of talent.

The standout squad in Europe the previous summer was burnished for the world finals by the return of Aberdeen trio Neale Cooper, Eric Black and Bryan Gunn - who missed the continental success due to club commitments - as well as the addition of St Mirren's Clarke, Dave McPherson of Rangers, and Motherwell's Brian McClair.

A three-week stint at the United States Airforce Academy in Colorado Springs provided some eye-opening preparations for the teenagers.

"I remember training at the old Love Street before we flew out and having our blood taken," recalls Rice. "Then we went to America and we were there for three weeks going up and down from altitude. Mexico was something else, though."

The Scots started with a laboured win over Korea - Celtic midfielder Jim Dobbin scoring twice in the second half - before travelling to Toluca for their second match against Australia.

The temperature was recorded as 30 degrees in a city sitting more than 2500m above sea level and the Scots toiled. Despite a goal from another Parkhead midfielder - Paul McStay - Roxburgh's side would fall to a listless 2-1 defeat.

"The ball was flying all over the place because the air was so thin and I'd never experienced humidity like it," says Rice. "I was a sub and I remember boys getting oxygen masks at half-time because they were done."

'Maybe we got a wee bit carried away'

The conditions would prove problematic later in the tournament, too.

Poland had been swept aside in the semi-finals of the European Championships, but Roxburgh's players were physically and emotionally spent by the time of their reunion in the quarter-finals in Mexico. Under a midday sun and in 40% humidity, the Scots lost an early goal and could not muster a response.

The official Fifa tournament report says the Scots "literally ran out of steam" and had "clearly struggled throughout with the conditions" after a season of club football more intense than that experienced by many of their peers.

Scotland had become European champions the previous year in 1982

Rice talks of the squad "maybe getting a wee bit carried away", while Nevin suggests some weren't that bothered about losing as they "had kinda had enough by that point" and just wanted home.

Regardless of the reason, Scotland's World Cup was over, with only memories and places for Cooper and McStay in the World All-star XI to show for their efforts. The Poles would go on to lose to Argentina, who in turn lost the final to a Brazil team containing future stars such as Bebeto, Jorginho and Dunga.

'The best job I ever had'

Rice was one of several who struggled the following season, but Nevin thrived - moving to Chelsea and being named player of the year.

The Stamford Bridge forward was one of 10 members of the squad to go on and win senior caps, while the likes of Ally Dick thrived at club level, playing for Tottenham in a Uefa Cup final and being signed for Ajax by Johan Cruyff.

Roxburgh, now technical director of the Asian Football Confederation, reflects with great fondness on that astonishing 12 months for his squad.

"You don't spend on youth football; you invest and hope you get a good return," he says. "And with that group we did, and then some. It's a big part of the reason I got the national team job and it's the best job I ever had, going on this adventure with these young players."

World Cup squad
Bryan Gunn (Aberdeen), Dave Beaumont (Dundee United), Dave Bowman (Dundee United), Eric Black (Aberdeen), Steve Clarke (St Mirren), Neale Cooper (Aberdeen), Ally Dick (Tottenham), Jim Dobbin (Celtic), Brian McClair (Motherwell), Gary McGinnis (Dundee United), Jim McInally (Celtic), Ian Westwater (Hearts), Dave McPherson (Rangers), Paul McStay (Celtic), Gary Mackay (Hearts), Pat Nevin (Clyde), John Philliben (Stirling Albion), Brian Rice (Hibernian)

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