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Scotland savaged by La Celeste

On June 13, 1986, Scotland came up against Uruguay in their final group game of the World Cup. The Scots - led by Alex Ferguson following the shock death of Jock Stein - were without a point from their two games, while Uruguay had taken just one. The match represented one last chance to make it into the knockout rounds and provide Stein with a fitting tribute, but what followed was one of the most bitter experiences of Ferguson's career.

"This is the most important match of my life," Alex Ferguson said as his Scotland side prepared for their do-or-die clash with Uruguay in Mexico. "I managed only an hour's sleep because it was so important for me to pick the right team."

Ferguson had felt the pressure as he stepped onto world football's biggest stage. He had risen to prominence through his management of Aberdeen, breaking the Old Firm's dominance at domestic level and winning the 1983 Cup Winners' Cup and UEFA Super Cup, and had found himself acting as assistant to the legendary Celtic boss Jock Stein as Scotland sought qualification for the 1986 World Cup.

However, on September 10, 1985, shortly after the end of Scotland's tense final qualifier against Wales, in which a 1-1 draw set up a play-off match with Australia, Stein suffered a heart attack and died. Ferguson, who had been sitting beside him when he collapsed, was understandably shaken to lose his friend and mentor at the age of only 62. "It was as if the king had died," he wrote in his autobiography, Managing My Life. "In football terms, the king had died."

Ferguson had no designs on the Scotland job - "I would have happily remained big Jock's assistant for the rest of my days," he said - but stressed he was "delighted and honoured" to be offered the chance to lead his country. He opted to remain in charge at Aberdeen while agreeing to become caretaker manager of the national team and seeing out his "obligation to Jock's memory". On that front, his first priority was to defeat Australia and finish the job of qualifying the nation for the World Cup finals. Scotland achieved a 2-0 aggregate win.

Ferguson was predictably hungry to succeed in Mexico. Scotland had made first-round exits at each of their previous five World Cups, but he felt this side could go further. He was confident enough in his options to leave out Liverpool defender Alan Hansen - as Stein had always planned - but had lost his Reds team-mate, Kenny Dalglish, to injury. "Everything was to be built around Kenny," Ferguson said after the forward's late withdrawal. "He was our lynchpin."

Even so, he believed he could navigate his way through to the knockout stage in a group also featuring Denmark, West Germany and Uruguay. "I simply believe we have enough good players to see us through, while our mood is the best in the group," he said.

Their hopes quickly receded. In the opening game, they went down to a hard-fought 1-0 defeat to Denmark. In the next, Gordon Strachan opened the scoring against West Germany, but Rudi Voller and Klaus Allofs hit back in the 23rd and 49th minutes to condemn the Scots to a second defeat.

Their hopes were not dead: with teams finishing third in their group still capable of qualifying for the knockout phase, Scotland remained in contention. Uruguay had drawn with West Germany in their opening game before being routed 6-1 by Denmark in their second, and Ferguson still believed his team could beat the South Americans and progress, although he was uncertain as to what he could expect from the final clash. "We don't know what the attitude of the Uruguayans will be after their hammering," he said.

Uruguay's response, it transpired, was to intensify the overt aggression that had already blackened their reputation during their brief stay in Mexico. After only 56 seconds, Jose Batista was sent off for a shocking challenge on Gordon Strachan, setting a new World Cup record.

The stretchers were called, but Strachan was able to play on, although the severity of the midfielder's treatment barely abated as the match wore on. He was unable to exert his creative influence, and was not alone. The Uruguay players, who harangued referee Joel Quiniou and demanded cards be shown to the Scotland players, regularly hacked at their opponents, and were seen throwing elbows on more than one occasion. They also brought a delay to the second half of the match as they kept their opponents waiting, while the closing moments of the encounter were marked by flagrant displays of time-wasting.

In the end, though, for all the distractions, Scotland were condemned by their inability to find an answer to a determined rearguard, and the skilled duo of Enzo Francescoli and Venancio Ramos - the former in particular - highlighted a finesse lacking in Ferguson's team. Scotland's failure to break the deadlock had seen ten-man Uruguay through at their expense.

Ferguson would take the blame in sections of the Scottish press for his decision to leave out the combative Graeme Souness, who at 33 had been struggling with the Mexican heat at the start of the tournament; others merely suggested his team were simply not good enough.

Nonetheless, they had maintained their composure during the match, refusing to respond to the violent tactics in kind, and at the final whistle shook hands with their opponents, with Ferguson mindful of Stein's words during that fateful qualification match in Wales. "One of the last things Jock said to me was that we should always play with dignity," Ferguson recalled as he prepared to board the flight home. "I believe we've done that despite the severest of provocations."

However, that emphasis on making a dignified exit had been temporarily relaxed at the post-match press conference.

In his own media briefing, Uruguay boss Omar Borras had described the referee as a "murderer" for having dismissed Batista so early in the match and said his team were the victims of "propaganda". He added: "We got a slap in the face in the very first seconds, and this affected our mental condition, yet we did try to win in spite of everything, and I think we could have won."

The Scotland camp was unwilling to engage with such arguments. Scottish FA secretary Ernie Walker said they had come up against "cheats and cowards" and had found themselves "associated with the scum of world football".

Ferguson, meanwhile, launched into a long rant in response to the opening question from the media pack.

"I'm sitting here and I'm saying to myself: 'What the hell is going on?' Look at this here. It's a shambles, a complete shambles," he said. "I mean, it's not just a part of football - it's the whole bloody attitude of the nation. You can see that attitude there. The whole thing. They have no respect for other people's dignity.

"I think what happened today, after the traumas that have happened to world football in the last year, the debacle out there today - I tell you, I'm glad to go home, believe me, because it's no part of football as we have been accepting it for years and years.

"For Borras to try to defend his team today, he doesn't have the talent that great men have, the ability to look at themselves. He's sitting there lying and cheating. He mutters a lot of rubbish about his country here. It's a disgrace what they did. Their behaviour turns the game into a complete farce. As far as Scotland's concerned, it's all right to say you're playing ten men - as far as Uruguay is concerned, they're used to that.

"It's a difficult situation playing against ten men. Our players were completely upset, and I have great sympathy for them. It's a tragic day for them. I would not criticise one of them, but there you are: we're out of the World Cup. I can't even say good luck to Uruguay because I don't think they deserve it."

Uruguay would go on to face Argentina in the second round, and Ferguson was bowing out of international football with a pronounced sense of disgust.

"You would never think in a competition such as the World Cup, with all that talk of a FIFA clampdown, that one team would be able to overpower the whole system, but that's what Uruguay have done," he said. "It's not my problem any longer. It's FIFA's problem. It will be Argentina's problem Monday."

What happened next? Uruguay were fined £9,000 by FIFA for their behaviour in the games against West Germany and Scotland and warned that a repeat would lead to their expulsion from the tournament. However, their expulsion came courtesy of a 1-0 defeat to Argentina in a second-round match that, while bad-tempered, did not overstep the mark as the Scotland match had.

Ferguson, meanwhile, left his role with the national team, and in November that year also left Aberdeen as he made his way south of the border for the first time to lead Manchester United.


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