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Oct 6, 2011

There's only one team in Tallinn

On October 9, 1996, one of the most bizarre matches in football history was 'played' at the Kadriorg stadium in Estonian capital Tallinn. Scotland had travelled to the country for an important 1998 World Cup qualifier, but a row over the poor standard of the floodlights at the stadium resulted in FIFA changing the kick-off from 6.45pm to 3pm local time. The Estonians refused to change their plans so, at 3pm, Scotland kicked off against nobody and the referee ended the game after just three seconds.

Scotland's campaign to get back among the elite of international football for the 1998 World Cup had begun well with a 0-0 draw against eventual Group Four winners Austria. The side had failed to secure qualification to USA '94, after five consecutive successes, so they were fully motivated for the qualifiers that were scheduled to begin with three away trips, and they notched up a 2-0 win in Latvia before they headed to Estonia.

Having met in a World Cup qualifier in 1993, there was already a growing relationship between the two countries and, in fact, some Scotland fans had even returned to Estonia to watch their matches in the Baltic Cup the following month. A meeting between the two FAs saw mutual respect and co-operation at an all-time high, although all that changed when the Scottish team touched down in Tallinn in October 1996 for their World Cup qualifier.

With the game set to kick off at 6.45pm and the light an issue at this time of year, Estonia had planned to use some temporary floodlights at their Kadriorg stadium, which were to be brought in from Finland. However, upon arrival, Scotland manager Craig Brown immediately voiced his concerns that the floodlights were not of the required standard and, because they were due to be mounted lower than usual on the backs of lorries, would cause problems for players in particular areas of the pitch.

Following protocol to the letter, FIFA commissioner Jean-Marie Gantenbain was called and, at an 8pm meeting on the night before the game, the Luxembourg native walked around the pitch with a light meter. The verdict came back, according to the Guardian's Patrick Glenn, that they were ''generally all right, but he was concerned about parts of the field''. Despite his assertion that the problem would be the same for both sides, Estonian FA secretary Einar Leppanen claimed that his organisation would comply if there was a change in the kick-off time. However, Gantenbain's decision was that the game should go ahead at the scheduled time, and Scotland agreed, under silent protest, to continue.

The protest, as it turned out, wasn't quite so silent, as a meeting of the Scottish Football Association's international committee late that night resulted in a fax being sent to FIFA to register their unease at the situation. At 2.30am, a copy was slipped under the doors of Gantenbain and match referee Miroslav Radoman, and by the morning Gantenbain had been contacted by his superiors in Zurich. FIFA was quite clear: the game would have to be moved to 3pm.

Scottish officials quickly attempted to spread the word to fans in local bars, while they laid on buses to ferry them to the ground at the rearranged time. The Scottish players were given new schedules as well, but the Estonians did not react well to the news. A statement from the Estonian FA revealed that they were not prepared to comply with the change because of several factors, most notably that many of their part-time players, as well as the supporters, were at work. Later, it was claimed that the team were actually over 80km away at a training camp in Kethna and were not ready to rush their preparations for the game.

Aiver Pohlak, the Estonia FA vice-president, claimed: ''We told FIFA that we could not move from the original time. They were asking us to be at the stadium at a time when we had scheduled the players' lunch. We will leave our training camp at 4pm and travel to the stadium. We know that Scotland will have already been and gone and there will be no match today.''

Unaware of Estonia's refusal to meet the new kick-off time, Scotland had continued their pre-match rituals and walked out onto the pitch alone to chants of ''There's only one team in Tallinn'' from the travelling Tartan Army. As the clock chimed, Radoman blew his whistle and Billy Dodds tapped the ball to captain John Collins. Inside three seconds, the whistle went again, this time for full-time. ''Easy, easy, easy'' were the cries from the stands.

''Not even Scotland could have lost this one, for there was really only ever one team in it: Scotland,'' Ian Gallagher of the Daily Express wrote. ''It wasn't so much Scotland the Brave but Scotland the One and Only when they faced up for their World Cup qualifier. Amazingly their game against Estonia lacked one essential element - a team to play against... So ended one of the most farcical episodes in all of world soccer history.''

The Scotsman reported: ''One kick in the Baltics and it was all over. Yes, Scotland coasted hopefully to victory against a weakened Estonia team yesterday in probably the shortest international football match ever played. Scenes of joy on the terraces, with the Tartan Army singing 'There's only one team in Tallinn', greeted the national team's performance, in which not one player put a foot wrong. Indeed several never put a foot anywhere. No one even put the ball in the net - not a Scottish strong point in any case.''

After the ghost game, Brown was left saddened by the events and said: "I am very upset. The players were psyched up for the match and there is a dreadful feeling of anti-climax. I am very surprised at the way in which Estonia have behaved. I was 99% sure that they would make a belated appearance and suffer a fine from FIFA to draw attention to their protest. I can't believe what has happened."

More than 600 Scotland supporters left the stadium in good humour though as, under article six, paragraph six of the FIFA World Cup rules, any team that forfeits a match will lose it 3-0. At that stage of Scotland's qualifying campaign, it would have been an important three points and without spilling a bead of sweat either. Estonia's players had turned up, at around 5pm, but nobody at the SFA considered that FIFA would ever allow the game to be replayed.

However, November 7 saw FIFA's World Cup organising committee come to the decision that it should be. The news saw murmurs of disquiet from the Scottish camp as the chairman of the committee was Swede Lennart Johansson. The Scots believed that Johansson was keen to give his country - who would eventually finish two points behind Scotland in Group Four - the best chance of qualifying and that they were being punished for a situation that was not of their making.

The re-match was scheduled for a neutral venue, Monaco, on February 4, 1997, and the two teams played out a 0-0 draw that ultimately mattered little in the final equation. Scottish fans took to wearing miner's helmets and torches taped to their glasses to commemorate the farce of events in Tallinn and the game has gone down in history as one of the strangest to have been played.

What happened next? Scotland claimed second place in Group Four behind Austria, and made it through to France '98. The 23 points they had gained in qualification meant they were the highest-placed runner-up in the group stages and avoided the play-offs. Estonia finished fifth and have still never beaten the Scots. The issue of a side not showing up was revisited in the Premier League in December 1996 when Middlesbrough cancelled a game with Blackburn with less than 24 hours' notice after their team fell ill. They were fined £50,000 and deducted three points that ultimately saw them relegated at the end of the season.

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