Scotland’s single encounter with Costa Rica – who visit Hampden Park tonight (1:45 pm Costa Rica time) as part of their World Cup warm-up schedule – left scar tissue on those Scots who were part of the occasion, as players, fans or media observers.
When the countries met in Genoa at the group stage of Italia ’90 a perilous consensus had formed within the Scottish camp that Los Ticos would be the group makeweights and could therefore be marked down as a banker win for Andy Roxburgh and his players.
A full peal of alarm bells should have rung when it was put about that Luis Gabelo Canejo had been identified as that folkloric figure, the dodgy foreign keeper. Alex McLeish, who begins his second spell as Scotland manager tomorrow night – and who played in what turned out to be an ignominious 1-0 defeat in Genoa – still winces at the recollection of native folly.
“At the time I didn’t think it was funny but I can see the humour in it now,” he said. “We were a bit anxious, uptight. It’s that old one, when Scotland are expected to win the game.
“The psyche with the players was, ‘we’re meant to win here, we should be giving a big display and the goalie is hopeless, bombard him with crosses…’ I think he took 17 out of 20.
“It was a typical day. The Costa Rica coach at the time used our press coverage – that we were hot favourites – against us. And we were usurped, unfortunately.”
Now it is Scotland who would be seen as usurpers by a country that qualified for the World Cup finals four times since 1998 – and reached the quarter finals in Brazil four years ago – while the Tartan Army was compelled to watch from afar. The 20-year-long exile from major tournament finals has had an inevitably corrosive effect on Scottish enthusiasm.
This match, played on an evening with many alternative entertainments at hand and against unfamiliar opponents, will likely attract an attendance of between 20,000 and 25,000, even though it will inaugurate McLeish’s second tenure, with hope of fresh momentum after the disappointment of the Scots’ narrow failure to reach the World Cup play-offs under Gordon Strachan.
In such circumstances, the ambience of Hampden can be sapping. “We want to give the fans who come to the game something back,” McLeish said.
“We thank them for coming. We know that it’s Friday night and Costa Rica are not the number one team in the world, but it’s a team that has qualified for the World Cup Finals. They are ahead of us in the Fifa rankings.
“If we beat them then we start to get up the rankings a wee bit. That’s important – it’s important to win. It’s also very important that I see these players can handle this well.
“A lot of them have already been at this level, but there will be an introduction of younger players and my message to them is ‘go for it.’ The gauntlet is down.”
As ever, though, Scotland are short of firepower. Of the three forwards who have made international appearances – Ryan Christie, Jason Cummings and Matt Phillips – none has scored. The other, Oliver McBurnie of Swansea, on loan to Barnsley – is on his first call-up, although he notched three goals in 14 appearances at under-19 and under-21 levels.
“We have Oli McBurnie, who is a big unit,” McLeish said. “He’s good at taking the ball in and Jason has his different skills. If we can create the right environment for these guys they can score for Scotland.
“McBurnie is wiry enough to help the team. Jason can be a bit of a maverick. He’s young and he has that wee bit of gallusness you would want to have in every single player.
“I’d have no fear over starting either. Maybe we will do something else, because we have looked at one or two other situations in training with players who are versatile. We can’t rule that out.”
McLeish has not observed the convention, employed to hike up the attendance at such low-key friendly fixtures, of hinting or specifying his line-up, other than confirming that Charlie Mulgrew will be captain. It can be assumed, given the efforts made to secure his services for Scotland rather than England, that Scott McTominay of Manchester United, will start.
McLeish did, though, indicate that, over the course of this match and Tuesday’s meeting with Hungary in Budapest, all of the uncapped players in this squad could play at some stage.
“There could be ten new caps in the two games,” he said. “There could be three or four playing in this one but we will try to pick a team to beat Costa Rica.
“They scored a lot of late goals in their qualifying campaign and they have good players and strength. They are a tall team and we have to stifle that, but they also have that ability, like all teams from that part of the world, to control a ball and use it well.
“That’s why they have dumped the USA out and held their own against Mexico, and deservedly qualified for the World Cup.”
It might be asking too much of a transitional squad to beat Los Ticos, but an extension of last year’s unbeaten run under Strachan would keep Scottish hopes of a new dawn ticking over.