Sunday 3 November 2019

''One team in Tallinn' - Estonia v Scotland, 1996

'One team in Tallinn, there's only one team in Tallinn,' sang the travelling Tartan Army stood on the terraces in their kilts, and certainly there was only one team on the field ready for a game of football that afternoon. Their scheduled opponents were more than sixty miles away due to dispute over the kick-off time.

In October 1996, Scotland travelled to Tallinn to face Estonia in a qualifying match for the 1998 World Cup. The Scots had four points from two games, it seemed they would have a fight on their hands with Austria and Sweden to claim a much coveted World Cup place, and so travelled to Estonia feeling they could not afford to drop points against the lowly ranked home side. However, when the night before the match Scotland complained about poor lighting at the modest Kadrioru staadion where the match was due to take place, little did they know the drama that would unfold.

The day before the match, Scotland's u21 side played on the pitch whilst the senior team also used it for a training session to prepare for the following days main event. It was during all this that Scotland manager Craig Brown started to have concerns with the temporary floodlights at the stadium. Brown felt the floodlights were not bright enough for the scheduled evening 18.45 kick-off and that certain parts of the pitch were difficult to see properly in the darkness.

Brown complained to the official Fifa commissioner for the match, Jean-Marie Gantenbein of Luxembourg, and although Gantenbein originally decided the match should go ahead as normal, by the following morning, however, he was not so sure and decided to consult with his bosses at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. Eventually, the powers that be, on the morning of the game, decided kick-off should be brought forward to 15.00 some three and three quarter hours earlier than planned, and crucially early enough for it not to be too dark for the now deemed inadequate floodlights.

The new kick-off time seemed all and well, that is until Estonia announced they were unavailable for this new start time. Some of their players were part-time and were apparently at work whilst others were at a training camp over sixty miles away and that was deemed too far for them to travel despite having been given more than several hours notice. Scotland were ready to play, though, and turned in anticipation of a revised 15.00 kick-off time. The travelling support were ready too, word had got around Tallinn's bars of the change of kick-off time. The game did actually kick-off on time, only Scotland kicked off with no one to play against.

The Scotland team, the referee, and his assistants all entered the pitch on time and went through the usual rituals. Hands were shaken, a coin was tossed, and the assistants doubled checked the nets were all in working order. Then Aberdeen striker Billy Dodds kicked the ball to John Collins of AS Monaco to get the game underway. Apart from the fact there was only one football team on the pitch it was just like any other match. 

'We only play in the daylight,' chanted the Scotland supporters on the terraces, unfortunately for them, it seemed Estonia only played after dark.

With the opposition a no show it was assumed Scotland would automatically be awarded a 3-0 victory. This seemed to be what the FIFA rulebook stated and had been the case in similar circumstances previously. The FIFA executive committee, chaired by Lennart Johansson, however, had other ideas... 

Johansson, who was president of UEFA and vice-president of FIFA, met with his executive committee about a month after the original match/fiasco and decided the game should be replayed at a neutral venue as opposed to awarding Scotland the victory. Many in Scotland were unhappy at this claiming it gave group rivals Sweden an unfair advantage, the same Sweden which happened to the native country of you guessed it, Lennart Johansson. That advantage was greatly increased by the fact that Scotland captain Gary McAllister who was due to be suspended for the original Estonia match would now be suspended for the next game instead against of course Sweden, naturally. Nonetheless, this decision was final and the match would be replayed.

The replayed match took place on 11 February 1997 at the Stade Louis II in Monaco and ended in a 0-0 draw. Despite this setback, Scotland overall had an excellent campaign finishing second in Group 4, two points ahead of Sweden and two points behind group winners Austria. With 23 points they qualified for the 1998 World Cup as the best runner up out of all the European qualifying groups, missing out on the lottery of play-offs and securing a direct place to France 98. Estonia finished second bottom of the group on four points and a few years later moved into a brand spanking new stadium with top of the range floodlights.

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