In a way, 1966 was a good year for Scots: Estadio Azteca opened. This set in motion a chain of events that led to Diego Armando Maradona scoring twice against England in a World Cup quarter-final twenty years later.
Paying tribute to this inspired individual performance has formed a major part of the Tartan Army’s repertoire ever since. Tonight around 500 Scotland fans will finally get the chance to see for themselves where Maradona scored what some have described as the greatest ever goal. His second, when he skipped past Terry Butcher among others, wasn’t bad either.
The fear is Scotland will need more than a helping hand to emerge with a result tonight in their first visit to “the colossus of Santa Ursula”, the sprawling working class district in Mexico City where the ground is located. Even if they are helped by such illegal means, as Argentina were against England, the infringement is more likely to be spotted following eve-of-match reports VAR (Video Assistant Referee) will be employed for the first time in a Scotland match.
It later emerged this is an ‘off-line’ trial. The kit will be in place but the match won’t be disrupted for review purposes, though the Costa Rican officials are sure to be extra vigilant.
Mexico have lost just two competitive matches at Azteca since the stadium opened 52 years ago this week. They will be at full strength in this, their last appearance at home before heading to the World Cup finals in Russia. While this accounts for much of the interest – the game is a 72,000 sell out – it’s also the first time Mexico have played in Mexico City this year, so there was appetite to watch El Tri in any case.
It’s also a poignant occasion for McLeish, who wore a black ribbon pinned to his tracksuit top on the touchline during the 2-0 defeat by Peru four days ago. Once it seemed sure the lasting memory from this trip would be setting foot in Estadio Azteca for the first time. Now it will be forever associated with having news of Neale Cooper’s death broken to him while sitting in a hotel on the edge of the Pacific ocean in Lima.
McLeish noted his friend and former Aberdeen team-mate played at centre-half when Scotland defeated Mexico 1-0 in the World Youth Championships in 1983 in front of more than 80,000. “Big Neale was part of the last Scotland team to get a shut-out there,” he said (he was, Scotland lost their next game, also at Azteca, 1-0 to Poland with just 11,000 watching).
“It’s a fantastic venue,” added McLeish. “I said to the players the other night, these are the best days of your lives, in your young football days.
“Embrace it. Go show the world what you can do. But it’s easy for me just to give them big words, it’s up to them to show the mentality that they have what it takes.”
There was a sense of having escaped Estadio Nacional del Peru lightly on Tuesday. McLeish is aware many predict Scotland, faced with a combination of challenging factors, including heat, altitude and limited selection options, face a potentially ruinous evening in Estadio Azteca.
It hardly seems the place to blood one goalkeeper, never mind two. McLeish confirmed Hearts’ Jon McLaughlin will play the first half, Celtic’s Scott Bain the second. Jordan Archer, who endured a difficult debut against Peru, will be protected from further scrutiny.
“Who else can play?” asked McLeish. “They’re the only goalkeepers who are here! Listen, it’s their first game so they will feel a bit of an adrenaline rush and it will be up to them. But it’s an amazing place to make your debut.”
Scotland can’t help emitting experimental vibes once more after seven new caps were created against Peru.
Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell looks set to lead the line for his first international start. Jack Hendry, Ryan Christie and Graeme Shinnie should also feature in the starting XI.
“They (Mexico) are probably going to play their strongest team and then give a run out to six substitutes or something like that,” said McLeish. “And we’re playing with a team that is not the strongest team that Scotland have ever put out.”
Scotland’s preparations have been meticulous. They arrived in Mexico City last night, as late as possible and in line with advice to either arrive at least ten days prior to the game, or as near to kick-off as can be risked. The players had a walkabout on the Estadio Azteca turf in what remains, even so late in the day, significant and suffocating heat. “I’ll need the Factor duffel coat for me,” smiled the pale, formerly ginger-haired McLeish.
“We’ve done the kind of sports science stuff and there will have to be a lot of intake of water,” he added. “The fact we are going in just a day before, that’s supposed to work in your favour.”
Disrupted by a raft of pre-tour call-offs, Scotland have at least done everything possible to give themselves a chance here in Mexico. McLeish himself is proof how seemingly minor transgressions such as drinking Coca-Cola with ice in it can have a catastrophic effect on a player’s well-being. This mistake ruined McLeish’s entire Mexican World Cup adventure in 1986.
“I played in the first game against Denmark and then I took ill after drinking some ice in my Coca-Cola and Alex Ferguson did a fitness test for the Germany game,” he recalled. “I had some breathlessness.
“It was on the morning of the game and I was absolutely gasping and I said ‘no boss, there’s no way I can play tonight’. My legs were heavy, I’d been sick the night before, and I just couldn’t get from cone to cone in the fitness test in a time that would render me fit to play the game. So I watched it in my bed that night.”
Ferguson turned to David Narey and kept faith in the Dundee United defender despite McLeish recovering in time for the final group match against Uruguay. “I fell out with the boss on the way back,” recalled McLeish. “I kinda gave him the cold shoulder. Five months later he left for (Manchester) United anyway!”