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Encounters with Mobutu, Franco and a quest to see Scotland in the 1974 World Cup

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Encounters with Mobutu, Franco and a  quest to see Scotland in the 1974 World Cup

“We have to be very careful,” one of the young Catalans who had given me a lift earlier in the day explained. “Here they can arrest you for anything.”

The year was 1974, and it was only when the windows were sealed that they were prepared to share their hatred of the despised dictator who had been in power for 35 years. His ascendancy followed the brutal 1930s Spanish Civil War, which cost hundreds of thousands their lives.

My new friends were spared further fear and intimidation when Francisco Franco died 18 months later. But the exchange in their Barcelona apartment was one of many examples of how very different the planet was 50 years ago when Scotland qualified for the World Cup finals in West Germany.

I had tickets for all three group games against Zaire, Brazil and Yugoslavia. Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Yugoslavia – also run by a dictator in Josip Tito – ceased to exist in 1992 and the land mass is split into six different nation states.

West Germany, of course, is now Germany, following the 1990 reunification. The last time I checked, Brazil was still Brazil. As for Scotland, almost uniquely amongst the nations of the world, we voted against regaining our independence in 2014. Scotland the Brave? Hilarious.

Zaire goalkeeper Muamba Kazadi (left) gathers the ball at the feet of Denis LawZaire goalkeeper Muamba Kazadi (left) gathers the ball at the feet of Denis Law (Image: Jim Hamilton/Newsquest)

I was aged 20 when that Barcelona conversation took place. I wasn’t long into my first job at the recently founded West Highland Free Press – we all lived and worked in the same house in the then ferry village of Kyleakin – and my colleagues generously agreed to let me take twelve weeks off for the trip of a lifetime.

For reasons my 70-year-old self find impossible to fathom, I decided the best route to West Germany was via England, France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, mainland Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete.

Having still not set foot on German soil, I made the return journey via Greece, Yugoslavia and Austria. And just to make it more challenging, I hitch-hiked all the way.

Because my travel costs were – ferry trips apart – zero, it was a remarkably cheap adventure. I was able to sleep outside most of the time, and all the better if there happened to be a beach near my final destination. A sleeping bag nestled on top of my rucksack, and on the very rare occasions when slumbering under the stars wasn’t an option, I’d head for the nearest youth hostel.

My necessities were drinking water and the map which ensured I was following the rough route I’d planned in advance. Nowadays we use mobile phones and other navigational aids to do the hard miles, but back then you had only your own organisation and wits.

It undoubtedly helped that English is the second language of many, but at that early stage of my life I could just about get by in rudimentary French also. If the drivers who gave me lifts didn’t understand either language, the map told them where I was heading.


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These days, in a less trusting world, you might expect to wait hours for a lift. What made the 1974 odyssey feasible and so enjoyable was the outstanding generosity of people in every country I passed through. Only very rarely did I have to wait more than 20 minutes with my thumb outstretched.

As had been the case in Barcelona – and even more fortuitously in Frankfurt when I finally reached my World Cup base – some of these Good Samaritans went the extra mile by offering me a bed for the night and food on the house. The world may have moved on in the last 50 years, but I’d contend it has lost much of its humanity and sense of community.

I have no recollection of why I threw North Africa into the mix, but any doubts I might have harboured about getting lifts on a different continent swiftly disappeared. I had one uplifting experience in Algeria, in particular.

I was standing at the roadside when a curious young Arab lad approached. His country had been run by France before gaining its independence twelve years earlier, so we were able to converse in that language.

My wee pal was desperate to know where the strange hitch-hiker was from. Ecosse meant nothing to him – I might as well have said Mars. But then a thought occurred. Celtic had become the first British club to win the European Cup in 1967, and five years later Rangers lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

President Mobutu of Zaire and his wife are welcomed from the royal train by Queen Elizabeth II, at Victoria Station, London, in 1973President Mobutu of Zaire and his wife are welcomed from the royal train by Queen Elizabeth II, at Victoria Station, London, in 1973 (Image: PA Archive)

“Celtic de Glasgow. Rangers de Glasgow,” I said in a final attempt to explain my nationality. His eyes lit up, and he invited me to share lunch with his extended family in their nearby compound. We sat in a large circle on the ground and the food, including my first taste of couscous, was delicious.

Travel through Sicily and Italy – including visits to Rome and Venice – was again smooth, as, perhaps more surprisingly, it was in Tito’s communist-run Yugoslavia. When I eventually arrived in Athens I was befriended on the ferry to Crete by a young Greek who was heading to a family funeral; I asked him for advice on the best place to spend a few days to rest up.

He told me to make my way south to Matala, and it turned out to be an inspired choice. It’s now a holiday destination with hotels, but back then it was an unspoilt village with a beautiful beach and caves which were home for a small number of European and American hippies. It was the perfect place to recharge the batteries ahead of the trip north to West Germany.

It was a wrench to leave, but there was no option if I was to reach Frankfurt in time for Scotland’s opening Group 2 game against Zaire on June 14. The journey north was uneventful, and the lifts again bountiful, which meant I reached my destination in plenty of time.

As previously mentioned, it was my great good fortune that a young man called Wolfgang stopped to give me a lift on my way into the German city. He was very outgoing, spoke perfect English, and, after listening to my account of the elongated journey, decided I was a kindred spirit, inviting me to stay in his flat for the duration of Scotland’s three group matches.

Francisco Franco in 1936 visiting the town of BurgosFrancisco Franco in 1936 visiting the town of Burgos (Image: Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

As Wolfgang was quick to explain, and with considerable relish, there was a great deal of unrest in his city. Police with water cannons, tear gas and batons were being deployed to break up riots. But despite coinciding with the World Cup, it had nothing to do with football or football fans – the cause of the violence was, almost unbelievably, public transport fare increases.

Students were heavily involved, as, perhaps, were the Red Army Faction, otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The self-styled communist and anti-imperialist urban guerrilla group had been formed four years previously in 1970.

I caught some glimpses of the street action, but my focus was now firmly on the game against Zaire. Unlike the later ones against Brazil and Yugoslavia, it was being held 140 miles away in Dortmund.

After two months of abstinence, it was a massive shock to be in the company of Scottish fans for the luxury of a train journey to the match. There was a – for once justified – optimism about how Scotland would fare in their third World Cup (England, despite winning the tournament eight years earlier, failed to qualify).

The 1974 squad was, almost certainly, Scotland’s best ever. The World Cup most people remember from that decade is the 1978 debacle in Argentina, but the players were not of the same overall quality and the absurd pre-tournament bombast was duly followed by embarrassment on and off the pitch.


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The squad for West Germany was managed by the self-effacing Willie Ormond. He had been a member of Hibernian’s Famous Five forward line, and therefore a very good player, but his managerial experience was limited to a good six year spell at St Johnstone before being handed the Scotland job.

Ormond inherited a squad which included some of this nation’s best-ever and most iconic footballers. It included Billy Bremner, Kenny Dalglish, Joe Jordan and Denis Law, but it was the depth which was truly remarkable.

With Brazil and Yugoslavia drawing the opening group game 0-0 in Frankfurt, the scene was set for Scotland to lead the group when they played World Cup debutants Zaire the following day. The mood inside the Westfalenstadion was ecstatic as goals from Peter Lorimer and Jordan put Scotland 2-0 up after 34 minutes.

Inexplicably, Ormond’s side didn’t press home their advantage over inexperienced opponents. The game ended in the same scoreline and, realising the implications, I sat with my head in my hands on the steps outside the stadium – while all around me the Tartan Army trooped out in full triumphal mode.

Goal difference was always likely to be the deciding factor in deciding which two nations qualified from the group. My gut reaction proved to be the correct one.

What we didn’t know at the time was how much the World Cup meant to Zaire. Previously colonised by Belgium, it got its independence in 1960 but democracy was short lived when an army coup enabled the dictatorship of Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko.

The Scotland team wave back to the fans at Glasgow AirportThe Scotland team wave back to the fans at Glasgow Airport (Image: SMG Newspapers)

Mobutu was determined to reap as much political capital as he could. Before the tournament the players were showered with gifts, including houses and jewellery – but there was a flip side as the squad were to discover. Promised money for the Scotland game was withheld, leading to the players threatening to boycott their second match against Yugoslavia.

FIFA, obviously, insisted Zaire fulfil the fixture. It went ahead four days later, but the players left their commitment in the dressing room and Yugoslavia won by the then record score of 9-0.

Mobutu was incandescent and told the squad if they lost their final game against Brazil by more than three goals their passports would be revoked and they wouldn’t be allowed to return home. Brazil won 3-0, which for the Zaire players must have felt like an honourable draw.

Scotland’s second game, against Brazil in Frankfurt, was highly memorable. The final score, in front of 62,000 fans, was 0-0, but only because of an agonising close-range miss by Bremner. Had it gone in it would have delivered a first, and so far only, win against the holders, who have lifted the trophy a record five times.

Ormond’s side went into the last game against Yugoslavia knowing they almost certainly had to win to reach the knock out stages (the Brazil-Zaire game was being played simultaneously). They lost their only goal of the tournament when Stanislav Karasi scored after 81 minutes, although Jordan equalised two minutes from full time.

Easing up against Zaire cost Scotland what would still be a first, and unique, qualification from a group stage. It was scant consolation that the Scots were the only side not to lose a game (winners West Germany, who beat Netherlands 2-1 in the final, were beaten by East Germany in the group stage).

I bade farewell to Wolfgang in Frankfurt, but saw him again the following year when he drove from Germany to Skye for a short stay at the West Highland Free Press house. My own journey home was via Amsterdam, bringing the number of countries I had travelled through to fourteen. 

Then it was time to face reality and return to Scotland to a job which I loved, and one which launched a 50-year journalistic journey.

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