Saturday, March 30, 2013

Group 7 was less predictable – quite tough, in fact. No points donor here – Czechoslovakia, Scotland, and Wales. Wales was not expected to win, but rather to decide which country will go to the finals. The fierce local derby with Scotland was thought to benefit Czechoslovakia at the end. CSSR just won the European championship, thus having the edge, but playing against two representatives of the British isles was hardly to be a walkover. Czechoslovakia had the best schedule as well – starting and finishing the campaign, so if they delivered a heavy blow in the opening home match with Scotland, possible later mistake can be corrected at the last match of the group. Czechoslovakia was in perfect shape too – well rounded team and plenty of talent ready and waiting its time. Inevitable aging and retirement was not to be feared – there were already eager replacements, and not just hopefuls, but experienced players, national team members for years. Point in case: Ivo Victor retired, but Alexander Vencel was at hand – vastly experienced and generally considered unlucky to play at the time when Victor was active. So was the case with other players, and Czechoslovakian coaches were wise enough to gradually introduce new talent in the team .

Here is the squad starting the World Cup campaign: practically, the European champions, with Vencel instead of retired Victor. The new boys are two – Biros and Kozak, if they could be called newcomers: both already played for Czechoslovakia and now were simply becoming regulars. Kozak was actually a reserve coming in the second half and thus not in the picture. Czechoslovakia was still riding high on their fresh European victory and Scotland was destroyed 2-0.
The opening goal, scored by Panenka (second from left) was a beauty – long shot cannoned from outside the penalty area, leaving Rough helpless. As the Czech journalist commented tongue in cheek bellow the photo, even the talisman teddy bear (in the left corner of Rough's net) did not help. The initial blow was delivered. Everything appeared tailored to expectations: Scotland won their home fixture with Wales 1-0 – a difficult win, spelling out trouble. As expected, Wales was the group's arbiter not to be taken lightly. In Wrexham they destroyed the European champions – 3-0 – and suddenly were first in the group by goal-difference. Everybody had 2 points. Small groups provide for big pauses between matches – the next match was almost half a year later. Many things change in football between March and September – the most obvious problem is that March and September belong to two different seasons. By September 1977 Czechoslovakia was not quite in the same form it was in 1976. Motivation and determination was there, but Scotland was also motivated and was the host – Glasgow can be quite intimidating for visiting teams. Supported by endless cheer, Scotland won 3-1. Now they were leading, but nothing was decided yet. It was decided in October and in Liverpool, where Wales hosted their match with Scotland – Liverpool, instead of Wrexham, was chosen for capacity, but in UK home advantage is relative – fans easily travel short distances. Scotland prevailed, winning 2-0 and qualified for the finals. The last match was mere protocol – Czechoslovakia, entirely disinterested by now, won 1-0 against Wales. If anything, this group was one of the most dramatic.

1.SCOTLAND 4 3 0 1 6- 3 6

2.Czechoslovakia 4 2 0 2 4- 6 4

3.Wales 4 1 0 3 3- 4 2
Victorious losers – this is the squad starting the campaign in 1976 and losing 0-2 to the European champions. Rough and Gemmil are missing – not from the team, but from list of players above. Experienced squad, with many veterans from the 1974 World Cup. Perhaps not the team of the greatest talent, but perhaps the most spirited squad in the world. Pretty much the same initial losers ended as winners. Well done in the dramatic group.