Which paled when compared to Group 8 – Spain, Yugoslavia, and Romania. Three traditionally strong countries, very ambitious, and also with bruised egos. Old scores to be settled too. By far the toughest qualification group. Perhaps Yugoslavia was a bit weaker than the others – not because suffering decline, but because it was heavily wounded in 1976, when the country hosted the European championship finals and was expected to win. In front of home crowd, Yugoslavia lost their matches and finished 4th – that is, last among the finalists. This lead to something often done in football – it was concluded that a new team must be build from scratch. And inevitably the new team is envisioned as an young team, so to ensure the future. The old generation is no good, let see the new one. Of course, it is never radically new team – previously ignored for various reasons players are now included, as well as the younger members of the 'old' squad, plus many hopefuls. Lack of experience is one problem and another – youngsters are potential talents, who may turn out not to be up to really big things. Shaping a new team is convulsive process, needing considerable time – qualification rounds, however, leave no time for slow construction: results are required at once. A club may decide to sacrifice two-three years until getting strong squad, but national team has no such option: the pressures are too many and immediate.
Here is the squad for the future – the Yugoslavian squad used for the South American tour at the beginning of 1977. This is not the squad used for the serious matches, of course, but still shows the problems of building entirely new squad. Few of these above lasted and some clearly failed as national team players, although had otherwise impressive club careers – Svilar, Peruzovic, and Primorac are the prime examples. To a point, Vladic as well. The bulk left no trace and is hardly remembered. It was somewhat less talented generation than the one they replaced: point in case – Vladimir Petrovic. One of the best Yugoslavian wingers, a big star, and legend not only for Crvena zvezda fans, he never achieved the international recognition of his former teammate Dragan Dzajic. Somewhat lesser generation, yet, 'lesser' does not mean 'bad' – Yugoslavia was strong and if there was a weakness, it was traditional one: moody team, which may as easily play fantastic match, as give up.
Romania had rough years so far, but it was not a team to be relegated to the category of outsiders. Recent failures had to be remedied at last – it was not a team without ambition. Spain even more – too many failures and humiliations for their pride. And desire for revenge – it was Yugoslavia eliminating dramatically Spain from major competitions in the 1970s. Tough, ambitious group, driven by wounded pride. No favourite, no way of predicting the winner. A group promising high drama, if not enchanting football. And drama was delivered at once.
Spain won the opening match with Yugoslavia 1-0 in Sevilla. This was the only match played in 1976. In April 1977 Spain visited Romania and lost 0-1. There was high probability all teams to win their home fixtures by measly 1-0 and end with the same record. But the spell was broken in May, when Romania prevailed in Zagreb – 2-0. Now Romania was first and Yugoslavia had no points at all. However, the Romanian lead did not mean much – everybody had a chance to qualify. Spain elbowed Romania from first place in the next match – in Madrid Romania lost 0-2. It looked like Romania and Spain were to fight for the first place, Romania having slightly better chance for their last match was at home. In November 1977 Romania and Yugoslavia met in Bucharest and produced one of the most bizarre matches at the time. Both teams needed victory – a tie served neither, for Yugoslavia was to be eliminated and Spain had better chance of ending first, since they had to play very disinterested Yugoslavs. Perhaps the match was not all that great, but what excitement – both teams attacked from start to finish, not caring for defense – it was all or nothing. The match ended 6-4 for Yugoslavia. And what turns of fate: Romania was a favourtie before the match, the very likely winner of the group. Yugoslavia was last without a point. 90 minutes later Romania was eliminated and Yugoslavia suddenly appeared to be the most likely winner. Looked like all three teams will end with equal points and goal-difference will determine the winner. Romania had not even a theoretical chance, having negative -1 scoring record. One much left and Yugoslavia was playing at home against Spain. The 'Plavi' needed a win by two goals. Not impossible at all. But Spain had her own ambition plus desire for revenge – which they got. Spain clinched 1-0 victory, which was fantastic – Yugoslavia barred Spanish progress twice in the 1970s, so it was great to take revenge right in Belgrade.
1.SPAIN 4 3 0 1 4- 1 6
2.Romania 4 2 0 2 7- 8 4
3.Yugoslavia 4 1 0 3 6- 8 2
Mere numbers and final table hide the drama of the group – by far, the most exciting qualification group.
Spain finally ended their bad spell – for the first time since 1966 they qualified for major international tournament. Finally going to World Cup finals after so many years of disappointment. It has been so long, Spain was becoming even unfamiliar by now: the respected German magazine Kicker published wrong list of the players above – the names have to be read right to left to be correct. As for the strength, it was hard to tell – Camacho, Pirri, Asensi were big names certainly, but the rest? Juanito may be. Spain was viewed with skepticism – sturdy fighters, but it was not for nothing both Spanish clubs and national team did not win anything for a long, long time. Yet, keep in mind that Spain is not to be underestimated either. Something like that.. except in Spain, where finally everything was great. May be the World Cup next year?