Scotland have not participated at the World Cup since 1998. Since then, they have failed to qualify for five consecutive World Cups and have only played in eight of the twenty-one iterations of the competition. Many members of the Tartan Army would give an arm and a leg to see their side play on the greatest stage again, however they were once able to reject the opportunity to do so. Scotland had qualified for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil but nevertheless decided not to play.
The only show in town
To fully understand why Scotland chose to do this, the history of the British Home Championship must be delved into. Scotland, England, (unified) Ireland and Wales had withdrawn from FIFA in 1920. They felt uneasy about playing against First World War rivals, as well as not enjoying a growing foreign influence in the British game.
This gave the tournament a huge boost as it became the main form of international competition for all the British sides. Between the two wars, Scotland won the competition 11 times, Wales 7, England 7 and none for Ireland. Scotland were the dominant side during this period and it is unfortunate for them that they were not able to display this on the world stage, especially in its modern format and stature. This illustrates how competitive the tournament was, in 1937 the British Home Championship game between Scotland and England at Hampden Park attracted 147,415 supporters. Despite missing out on Uruguay 1930, Italy 1934 and France 1938, the British teams were enjoying their own international tournament. The huge number of teams at the Scotland-England game in 1937 is even more impressive when it is compared to the 45,000 fans that attended the 1938 World Cup Final between Italy and Hungary.
The success of the British Home Championship was undermining the importance of the FIFA World Cup by the start of the Second World War. If FIFA truly wanted a World Cup, then they knew they had to find a way to tap into the passion and ability displayed in Britain.
A generous olive branch from FIFA
Following the end of the Second World War, FIFA tried to get the British nations to re-join the governing body. As a bargaining tool, FIFA offered a guaranteed slot in the 1950 World Cup to the winners of the British Home Championship. This was a very generous offer and helps to illustrate the prestige of the competition at the time.
Other nations had to fight through rigorous qualification campaigns playing games across the globe, while the British teams were handed an easy route to the finals. The British teams remained reluctant and so FIFA offered another qualification place to the runners-up, meaning that half of Britain was guaranteed the opportunity to play in Brazil 1950. An agreement was made and the British teams were to return to FIFA and World Cup participation. However, the Scottish FA decided that should they come second, they would not partake in the World Cup. They felt that if they had not proved themselves as the best British team then they did not deserve the opportunity to play in FIFA’s competition. This heaped pressure on the Scottish team and knew that only a first-place finish would get them to Brazil.
All eyes on Scotland
Scotland went into the 1950 British Home Championship as champions, and it was also the final time the Ireland were represented as a unified nation. Ireland and Wales were far from the quality of Scotland and England, each team had to play each other once, and the Scotland England game was prescheduled as the final game of the tournament. The first round of fixtures saw Scotland beat Ireland in Belfast 8-2, and England beat Wales in Cardiff 4-1. Next, Scotland beat Wales 2-0 at Hampden Park, and England beat Ireland 9-2 in Manchester. Both Scotland and England were guaranteed a top-two finish, England had already confirmed they would be off to Brazil if they finished second, so all eyes were on Scotland to win their route to the finals.
A huge 133,191 supporters attended Hampden Park in April 1950, many in the hope of watching Scotland beat England. commentators at the time described it as ‘more than an international, it’s a cup-tie with Rio and the World Cup the glittering prize’. Both sides battled hard throughout the game with missed chances aplenty, England scored first but it was ruled out for offside.
Bert Williams, England ‘keeper, kept his side in the game with many great saves, straight from one of them England went on the attack and Roy Bentley put his side 1-0 ahead on the hour mark. Despite continued Scottish pressure, England held on to win. Scotland were afforded ‘the glory of going down fighting’ but they refused to go against their promise to not participate, despite encouragement from Billy Wright, England captain, for them to come to Brazil.
A decision never to be repeated
So that was that, Scotland had earned their opportunity to partake in the competition that they are desperate to play in once again. England did not represent themselves brilliantly in 1950, following defeat to Spain and a shock loss to USA following a goal from a Scottish emigrant, they were out. Scotland were not the only team to refuse participation in 1950, despite desiring a 16-team tournament only 13 contributed. Scotland joined France, Turkey, Austria, India and Argentina who all refused for differing reasons. Perhaps more baffling for all is that Britain was offered the same qualification process in 1954 and Scotland again finished second, however they chose to participate in Switzerland 1954. Scotland deserved their place in Brazil and could have been a strong team, and possibly a contender, in the competition, however they stood by their decision to miss out on an historic event — a decision that will never be repeated.