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Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

Posted by Polonius on 18 November, 2007

Yesterday, Scotland’s kick-ball team went down to another memorable defeat. We really do seem to have a knack for bumbling through the group stages of major tournaments doing almost enough to stay in until, in the last game, we have to beat one of the strongest teams in the world, sometimes by a preposterous margin. The most memorable example was perhaps the 1978 World Cup, where the nation had hyped itself up, partly through an excruciatingly embarrassing team song, to a level of confidence totally unsupported by the objective facts. After the usual mediocre performance in the first few games, we came to our last group match. To stay in the competition, we had to beat the Netherlands, one of the strongest sides in the world, by three goals. In the 68th minute, Scotland went 3-1 up; suddenly even the most level-headed dared to dream. The dream lasted four minutes.

Yesterday’s challenge was similar. We had to beat Italy, the reigning World Cup champions. The margin was immaterial – one goal would do. Even a draw would leave open a chance (but that would then depend on Partick Thistle beating Brazil, or something equally unlikely). We had home advantage (and Italy had never beaten us here); even the torrential rain was on our side. Still, it was a herculean task.
In this household, we’re not terribly interested in the game, so we hadn’t (unlike my mother!) taken out the necessary month’s subscription to Sky to get TV coverage. Nor was I sufficiently interested to go out to a pub to see it. But I dipped into the radio coverage between household chores. Until I heard, with 15 minutes to go, the score stood at 1-all. We’d scored once already, we could do it again. In the next few minutes, we came close twice (bear in mind, I’m going by the radio commentary). The commentators were agreed that the Italians were knackered. Sadly, it was not to be, and the Italians sealed it with a goal in the last minute.

I saw TV interviews with both managers after the match. From those, and commentaries I’ve subsequently read, it seems Italy’s winning goal followed a poor decision to give them a free kick that probably should have gone the other way. But Scotland seem to have had the advantage of two off-side decisions that denied Italy a legitimate goal and gave Scotland a more debatable one. The officials were poor, but we can’t complain.

While musing on this game, I was reflecting on the meaning of the term “national sport”. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the subject. But surely you can’t legislate for taste? It’s the shortest law I’ve ever read, but what’s it for?


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