FIFA had announced an expanded tournament for 1982, from 16 to 24 teams. This increased the number of places available for all sections, as follows;
UEFA – 14 places (1 taken up by Spain, the hosts)
CONMEBOL – 4 places (1 taken up by Argentina, the holders)
CONCACAF – 2 places
CAF – 2 places
AFC & OFC – 2 places
The two previous tournaments had seen the countries split into 9 groups with 8 group winners going through automatically and the 9th going into a play-off with a South American qualifier. But the expanded tournament gave UEFA the opportunity to have larger groups with the top two teams going through. Six groups had five teams in with a seventh group consisting of just three teams with just the winner qualifying.
GROUP ONE: Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, West Germany
GROUP TWO: Belgium, Cyprus, France, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland
GROUP THREE: Czechoslovakia, Iceland, Turkey, USSR, Wales
GROUP FOUR: England, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Switzerland
GROUP FIVE: Denmark, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia
GROUP SIX: Israel, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden
GROUP SEVEN: East Germany, Malta, Poland
Despite the change in England to 3pts for a win, FIFA had yet to adopt this internationally. Unlike these days there was no international calendar so countries negotiated dates for fixtures between each other, which may not be when other teams from the same group were playing.
Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, West Germany
West Germany and Austria both participated in the 1978 tournament and were expected to qualify again from this group. Finland began by playing in the first three matches, yet lost them all without scoring a goal. One of the games was a defeat to Albania, considered a surprise even then, especially as this was Albania’s first international qualifying campaign for seven years.
Austria comfortably won their opening two matches without conceding a goal and then in December, West Germany finally joined the party, when Manny Kaltz scored twice to help them to a 3-1 win in Sofia against Bulgaria. Kurt Welzl scored Austria’s only goal in the trip to Albania as he’d now scored in all three of their matches to this stage. The Germans then travelled to Albania and won 2-0 with Bernd Schuster scoring both goals. April 1981 saw the first big meeting between West Germany and Austria. The Austrians had earned a famous victory in the finals in Argentina over the Germans and were in buoyant mood when they arrived in Hamburg, but two goals in the last 15 minutes of the first half settled things for the home side. Krauss put through his own net and then Klaus Fischer scored to give West Germany a vital 2-0
Then in May, both Bulgaria and West Germany pulled off 4-0 wins against Finland, with Klaus Fischer scoring another brace. Austria then beat Bulgaria in Vienna with Hans Krankl and Kurt Jara getting the goals. The summer ended with Austria then thumping Finland, 5-1 with Krankl and Welzl again scoring. At this stage only Bulgaria could stop either West Germany or Austria, but when the Germans beat Finland, 7-1 in September that virtually clinched things for them. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge scored a hat-trick in the win in Bochum with Paul Breitner bagging a double. Bulgaria won in Tirana and then received a boost when Austria were beaten at home to West Germany. Walter Schachner opened the scoring but two goals from Pierre Littbarski and one from Felix Magath put the Austrians qualification in doubt.
Bulgaria then took on Austria in Sofia, sitting 2pts behind their opponents, Bulgaria needed to win. The game ended goalless leaving the Bulgarians to try and beat West Germany in Dusseldorf by 9 goals to stop Austria going through. West Germany then thumped Albania, 8-0 with Rummenigge scoring another hat-trick and Fischer another brace. Any slim hopes the Bulgarians had of overhauling Austria were dashed when Rummenigge scored another couple along with goals from Fischer and Kaltz to give them a 4-0 win. West Germany had lead the perfect campaign, winning every game, scoring 33 goals and conceding just 3.
QUALIFIERS: West Germany and Austria
Belgium, Cyprus, France, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland
This group looked really strong. Belgium had finished runners-up in the recent European Championships, Netherlands were runners-up in the 1978 World Cup and France had also competed in the last World Cup and Republic of Ireland were always a tough opponent.
The Irish got things underway in Nicosia when two goals from Paul McGee (QPR) and one from Mark Lawrenson (Brighton) helped them to a 3-2 win. The game was played in March 1980, a full three months before the European Championships were played. In September, the Dutch visited Lansdowne Road, Dublin. They were a much changed side from the ‘total football’ era with only Ernie Brandts and Willy van der Kerkhof still remaining from Argentina. Ajax’s new star, Simon Tahamata opened the scoring midway through the second half, but the Irish came back at them and Gerry Daly (Derby) equalised 12 minutes from time. Then with just 5 minutes to go, Mark Lawrenson headed in a Liam Brady free-kick scoring a famous winner and the Irish had produced one of their best results in recent times.
France then kicked off their campaign in October in Limassol where they beat Cyprus, 7-0. Michel Platini and Jean-Francois Larios both scored twice. Belgium then visited Dublin where Cluytens gave the visitors an early lead, but Tony Grealish equalised just before half-time. The game ended 1-1 and the Irish had picked up 3pts from two tough matches. Two weeks later they travelled to Paris but goals in either half from Platini and then Zimako gave France a 2-0 win.
In November, Ireland bounced back with an impressive 6-0 win at home to Cyprus. Gerry Daly scored twice, once from the spot, as Tony Grealish, Michael Robinson, Frank Stapleton and Chris Hughton also got on the scoresheet. On the same night, Erwin Vandenbergh scored the only goal as Belgium beat Netherlands, 1-0. A second defeat for the Dutch now put their qualifying hopes in jeopardy. Just before Christmas, Belgium won in Cyprus with goals from Vandenbergh and Jan Ceulemans as they remained the only unbeaten team in the group.
Into 1981 and Belgium played their return fixture against Cyprus. Gerard Plessers and Vandenbergh gave them a 2-0 lead inside 20 minutes but remarkably, Cyprus clawed their way back to 2-2, before Ceulemans scored the winner for Belgium. The Belgians were now level on points with Ireland with a game in hand. Four days later, Netherlands finally won a game when they beat Cyprus, 3-0. In March, Arnold Muhren scored the only goal of the game as Netherlands beat France in Rotterdam, and Jan Ceulemans scored the only goal, 2 minutes from time, to give Belgium victory over Ireland at Heysel Stadium and they went top of the group.
In April, Belgium were finally beaten. Vandenbergh gave Belgium the lead after 5 minutes in Paris but two goals from Gerard Soler and another form Didier Six, gave France a 3-1 lead at the break. Ceulemans got a goal back but the French had pulled off a crucial win. On the same night, van Kooten got the only goal of the game to give Netherlands a 1-0 win over Cyprus. September saw the return fixture between Belgium and France in Brussels. Czerniatynski gave the home side a half-time lead and then Vandenbergh clinched the win in the second period. At the Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam Netherlands took on the Irish. Ipswich’s Frans Thijssen put the home side in front, after a mistake by Heighway. 5 minutes before half-time, Heighway made amends with a cross into the area to pick out Brighton’s Michael Robinson, who met it on the half-volley and the game was level at the break. Midway through the second half, Johnny Rep took on Dave Langan on the left wing and the Derby full-back pulled him down. The referee pointed to the spot and the other Ipswich Dutchman, Arnold Muhren, converted the penalty to put Netherlands back in front. But within 7 minutes the Irish had come back. Good work down the right from Lawrenson saw him cross to the far post and as the defence froze, Stapleton got his head to the ball to equalise. 2-2 was a great result for Ireland and they’d taken 3pts off the runners-up in the past two World Cup Finals.
With just four matches to go, Belgium had qualified. This was a golden age for the squad whose success was based on a tight defence. Second place was still up for grabs with Ireland, Netherlands and France battling it out. Ireland just had a home match against France still to play, and the French were also due to meet the Dutch in Paris in what was possibly a winner-takes-all clash. Their final game would be a home match against Cyprus. The Dutch also had to take on Belgium at home.
On 14th October 1981, France arrived at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, to play in front of 55,000. Ireland had to win, but they had to somehow overturn an inferior goal difference of 4 goals. In addition, they didn’t really want the Dutch to do too well as they could overhaul the Irish instead. Just 3 minutes into the match, French defender Janvion was dispossessed on the halfway line and Michael Robinson lead a counter-attack crossing from the right where the ball was knocked into his own goal by Mahut. But within minutes the French had hit back. A patient build-up saw Bruno Bellone turn on the edge of the area and fire past Seamus McDonagh. Two goals in the opening 10 minutes did much to whip up an already excited crowd. Then in the 23rd minute, Liam Brady’s left-foot corner from the right was poorly dealt with by the French defence and when Mick Martin turned it back in the French keeper flapped at fresh air and Stapleton pounced to restore the lead for Ireland. As the French were looking for half-time to re-group, Janvion made another error in giving the ball away to Robinson and the striker made him pay by putting Ireland, 3-1 up. It had been a horror 45 minutes for France and the home fans were actually beginning to believe they might reach the World Cup finals for the very first time. With 7 minutes of the match remaining, Platini took advantage of some indecision by David O’Leary and got a goal back, but in the end Ireland won 3-2 to give themselves every chance of making it to Spain.
That evening Netherlands took on Belgium in Rotterdam. The Dutch simply had to win the game but would also had to beat the French in Paris to make the finals. Johnny Metgod gave them the ideal start with a goal after 6 minutes. Van Kooten then gave them a 2-0 lead at the break before Ruud Geels finished things off for a 3-0 win. The Irish had now finished their campaign and had an anxious wait for the other results. France had two matches, both at home, and if they won those they’d go through on goal difference at the expense of the Irish. But if they needed France to beat Netherlands, otherwise the Dutch would finish 2nd, and then they needed Cyprus to somehow scramble a draw in Paris.
In November France took on Netherlands in Paris. A draw was enough for the Dutch to go through, but the French needed to win. Ireland also wanted a home win to help their chances. After a goalless first half, Platini then broke the deadlock 7 minutes into the second half. Then in the last 10 minutes, Didier Six wrapped things up for a 2-0 win for France, and the Dutch were out.
The final game of the group was at Parc des Princes in Paris and France simply needed to beat Cyprus to go through. If they dropped points then Ireland would qualify. Two goals midway through the first half from Rocheteau and Lacombe gave the home side a crucial 2-0 lead at the break. The visitors just didn’t have enough to come back like they had against Belgium back in February. In the final 10 minutes Lacombe and Genghini added goals and the 4-0 victory was as emphatic as needed to be. In the end, the Irish had, had one of their best qualifying campaigns to date but it was just not quite good enough.
QUALIFIERS: Belgium, France
Czechoslovakia, Iceland, Turkey, USSR, Wales
Wales were in a tricky group, although none of the countries they were up against had qualified for the previous two tournaments, but the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia had re-built their sides from the 1970s with the Czechs finishing third in the recent European Championships. Back in those days, Turkey and Iceland were considered two of Europe’s minnows.
Wales began their campaign with a trip to Iceland. Buoyed by their recent 4-1 win over England, they were in confident mood. As the first half drew to a close, Crystal Palace’s Ian Walsh broke the deadlock to give Wales a 1-0 half-time lead. 8 minutes after the break, Swansea’s David Giles doubled their lead. Brian Flynn (Leeds United) then converted a penalty, before Walsh grabbed his second of the game and the Welsh had brought off a fine 4-0 win away from home. USSR then won in Reykjavik too, before Iceland won in Turkey.
In October Wales met Turkey at Ninian Park, Cardiff. Brian Flynn opened the scoring for the Welsh and then Leighton James converted a penalty to give them a 2-goal lead at half-time. In the second half, Ian Walsh scored and then James grabbed his second of the game and the Welsh now had two 4-0 wins from their opening two matches. On the same day, USSR trounced Iceland 5-0 in Moscow. Czechoslovakia finally got their qualifying campaign underway when they arrived at Ninian Park in November. David Giles scored the only goal of the game after just 10 minutes and the Welsh now had 3 wins from 3 with no goals conceded. In December, Czechoslovakia finally got things going when Zdenek Nehoda scored both goals in a 2-0 win at home to Turkey. The first six months of qualifying had gone very well for Wales and they went into 1981 very positive of their chances.
March saw the Welsh head to Ankara to meet a Turkey side who had no points and just 1 goal from their 3 matches so far. Leeds United’s Carl Harris scored the only goal of the game and Wales still hadn’t conceded. In April, Czechoslovakia won 3-0 in Istanbul to move level on points with USSR and it was clear the games between these three would be crucial to determining the qualifiers. May was a pivotal time in this group. Firstly, Czechoslovakia thrashed Iceland, 6-1, with 6 different scorers including the obligatory Panenka penalty. This moved them above USSR and to within 2pts of Wales.
Three days later Wales entertained USSR at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham. A win here would put Wales within touching distance of the finals, but try as they might they couldn’t break down a stubborn and well-organised Soviet defence and then game ended 0-0. With the Czechs hitting some form, you sensed this was an opportunity missed and as the Welsh were soon to discover, although they’d only dropped 1pt from their 5 matches, the harder fixtures were to come as they still had to travel to both Prague and Moscow.
The first of those fixtures arrived at the beginning of September when Wales travelled to Prague. 25 minutes gone and the Czechs had a free-kick on the right. It was floated in and spun off Byron Stevenson and into the net. Unfortunately, for keeper Dai Davies he was credited with the own goal, ending his record of almost 475 minutes without conceding a goal. Halfway through the second period, the Czechs clinched the 2pts when good work from Nehoda on the left produced a cross for Licka to head in and the game was won. Wales had finally been beaten, they were just 1pt above the Czechs who had a game in hand, and 4pts ahead of the Soviets, who had 3 games in hand.
But two weeks later, Wales received a boost as Czechoslovakia failed to beat Iceland. They needed a goal 13 minutes from time from Kozak to earn a 1-1 draw. The Czechs had now lost their advantage, although their superior goal difference now put them top of the group and they only had two matches against USSR to come, whereas Wales still had a home match against Iceland where they hoped to regain the goal difference advantage, at least. On the same night, USSR beat Turkey 4-0 and they were just 2pts behind with 2 games in hand.
USSR then beat Turkey in the return fixture where Oleg Blokhin scored another couple of goals in a 3-0 win. They now shot to the top of the group as USSR, Czechoslovakia and Wales were all now locked on 9pts. A week later, Wales had a great chance to clinch qualification as they welcomed Iceland to the Vetch Field, Swansea. On his home ground, Robbie James got them off to a good start with the opening goal after 25 minutes. The game then suffered two partial floodlight failures. The game continued through the first one but the referee decided to take the players off after the second failure a minute before half-time. The game was held up 43 minutes before the players returned to play out the final minute of the first half, then changed ends quickly to then begin the second half. Soon after, Asgeir Sigurvinsson equalised, and the tension grew. But within 7 minutes, another Swansea lad, Alan Curtis, put the Welsh back in front with a header from a corner and the faithful were back in full voice. But another 7 minutes later and there was gloom around ‘the Vetch’ as Sigurvinsson scored his 2nd. Wales couldn’t break through again and the game ended 2-2. It was an awful blow for the Welsh who still felt cheated by losing out to Scotland four years earlier. Hopes for the Welsh now rested with USSR. If they could beat the Czechs in both games, Wales would be through.
Two weeks later and the first part was complete as two goals from Ramaz Shengelia gave USSR a 2-0 win in Tblisi against Czechoslovakia. At this point it was still possible Wales and Czechoslovakia could qualify at the expense of the Soviets, if they both won their games against them. But in November, first half goals from Daraselia and Blokhin gave USSR an important lead against Wales and when Gavrilov completed the scoring in the second half, a 3-0 win confirmed qualification for USSR. All that was left for the Welsh now was the hope USSR would beat the Czechs, eleven days later.
29th November 1981, the final match of the group, in Bratislava where Czechoslovakia met USSR. Anything other than victory for USSR would mean Czechoslovakia, not Wales, would qualify. There was hope early on for the Welsh as Blokhin scored after just 14 minutes, but then with 10 minutes of the first half remaining, Rostislav Vojacek scored for the home side. It would prove to be his only goal in a 40-game international career, yet it meant Czechoslovakia would join USSR in Spain. For the Welsh, they could be proud of their campaign as they came so close, but in the end there were always rumours of ‘a deal’ done between two communist nations to deny them.
QUALIFIERS: USSR, Czechoslovakia
England, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Switzerland
Denmark, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia
Italy was the favourite in this group, having finished 4th in both the last World Cup and European Championship. Greece had qualified for the last European Championship for the first time in their history and were confident of keeping their form going. Denmark and Yugoslavia were considered dark horses, with Luxembourg very much the whipping-boys.
The first game saw Yugoslavia win 5-0 in Luxembourg, with two goals from Zlatko Vujovic, Safet Susic, Vladimir Petrovic and Ivan Buljan. Two weeks later, they kept up their 100% record with a 2-1 win in Ljubljana against Denmark. Frank Arnesen put the visitors in front from the penalty spot after just 5 minutes. In the 18th minute, Yugoslavia were then awarded a spot-kick and up stepped goalkeeper, Dragan Pantelic, to equalise. Just before half-time Vujovic scored, what proved to be, the winner. Into October and Italy opened up their campaign with goals in either half from Fulvio Collovati and Roberto Bettega when they won 2-0 in Luxembourg. Four days later Greece showed their potential when Dinos Kouis scored to give them a 1-0 win in Denmark.
Italy then had two games in November, both at home and both won by 2-0. Denmark arrived in Rome and were seen off when Francesco Graziani scored both goals. Then a fortnight later they beat Yugoslavia in Turin when Antonio Cabrini converted a penalty with Bruno Conti scoring the 2nd. At the end of the month, Denmark finally got some points on the board when they beat Luxembourg at home, 4-0. Arnesen scored another couple with Preben Elkjaer and Allan Simonsen scoring. In December, Italy travelled to Athens and won 2-0 against Greece to end the year as the only unbeaten team in the group, and still yet to concede a goal too.
Into 1981 and Greece beat Luxembourg, 2-0 in Thessaloniki and although they had won, there were concerns the margin may count against them later on. Kouis had scored one of the goals and he was again on target against the same opponents in the return fixture in March. Greece again won 2-0 to move into 2nd place behind Italy.
If the Greeks were to push Italy hard, they needed to get a result in Split when they met Yugoslavia, but things couldn’t have gone worse. Slijvo opened the scoring for the home side inside the first 10 minutes and by half-time they were 3-0 up, with Halilhodzic and Pantelic again from the spot. 10 minutes after the break and Vujovic had added another two goals and the game was done. Kostikis got one back but the Yugoslavs had put down a marker with an impressive 5-1 win. Two days later, Denmark won in Luxembourg but had to come from behind.
Then in June, Per Rontved became the first player to score against Dino Zoff in the Italian goal when he gave Denmark the lead in Copenhagen. Two minutes later, Arnesen added a 2nd before Graziani grabbed one back. Lars Bastrup scored a late 3rd for Denmark and they’d pulled off a dramatic 3-1 win against a team who had won all their previous matches.
Denmark now joined Yugoslavia and Greece on 6pts, although they only had 2 games left whereas the Greeks had 3 and the Yugoslavs, 4. But that win over Italy certainly opened things up a bit.
After all their hard work, though, Denmark then threw it all away when they were beaten at home by Yugoslavia in September when Vujovic and Petrovic scored either side of an Elkjaer goal. The 2-1 win put Yugoslavia on top of the group on goal difference. Denmark then travelled to Greece and were 2 goals up by the break, with goals from Soren Lerby and Arnesen. Anastopoulos got a goal back for the home side but Elkjaer restored the visitors 2-goal lead and Denmark ran out 3-2 winners in the end. Denmark was now on 8pts with Yugoslavia and Italy but behind on goal difference and needed both teams to lose their remaining matches.
Three days later came the return fixture between Yugoslavia and Italy, in Belgrade. Vujovic scored first for the home side with Bettega equalising and the game ended 1-1. The result suited both sides as Denmark were now out and Greece were going to have to beat both teams to stand any chance of qualifying. Their first opportunity came in November when they visited Turin, but they were unable to conquer as Conti’s goal was cancelled out by Kouis in a 1-1 draw. This confirmed Italy’s qualification at the finals as Greece couldn’t catch them. For the Greeks, they had a home match against Yugoslavia coming up, but this was after the Yugoslavs entertained Luxembourg so it was conceivable the Yugoslavs may well have secured qualification by the time they arrived in Athens.
Towards the end of November, Yugoslavia played host to Luxembourg and repeated a 5-0 win from their opening game a year earlier. This confirmed the qualifiers from this group would be Italy and Yugoslavia. This meant the game in Athens a week later was academic, although Yugoslavia won that as well with Surjak and Jerkovic scoring in a 2-1 win. Italy then finished things off with a win over Luxembourg as they had four years earlier to deny England.
QUALIFIERS: Yugoslavia, Italy
Israel, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden
Scotland was Britain’s only representative in the previous tournament in Argentina, yet failed to reach European Championships in Italy, two years later. The same was said for Sweden and these two were the favourites to go through from this group. Portugal were not the force they are today, but Northern Ireland were hopeful of doing well as they were about to win the Home International Championship. Israel was the unexpected package.
As with Group Two, this group kicked off three months before the European Championships when Northern Ireland travelled to Tel Aviv to meet Israel in March 1980. The game ended goalless. Then in June, Israel managed to hold Sweden to a 1-1 draw in Stockholm as Damti equalised Ramberg’s first half goal. Scotland were then the visitors to Stockholm and a Gordon Strachan goal 18 minutes from time, gave Scotland a crucial 1-0 win.
15th October saw two matches in the group. Northern Ireland welcomed Sweden to Belfast. 20,000 packed into Windsor Park to witness Noel Brotherston (Blackburn) give the home side the lead after 24 minutes. Four minutes later, a good run down the right from Gerry Armstrong saw the Watford striker cross to the far post where Sammy McIlroy was able to head the ball into an empty net as Hellstrom, the Swedish keeper, was left stranded. Then with 8 minutes of the first half remaining, full-back Jimmy Nicholl burst forward and hit a left-foot shot from about 25 yards past Hellstrom to give the Irish a 3-0 lead. That’s how things stood at the end, and the Irish were off to a dream start in their campaign, with the Swedes in trouble after no win in their first 3 matches. At Hampden Park Scotland and Portugal drew 0-0, a result which would’ve pleased the Portuguese more than the Scots.
In November, Sweden’s qualifying campaign continued to stutter as they went to Israel and were again without a win when they drew 0-0. A week later, Northern Ireland were at the Estadio da Luz where they suffered their first defeat, losing 0-1 to Portugal after a goal from Jordao. 1pt now separated all five nations, and it was clear any victories could be crucial.
Before the year was out Portugal inflicted the first defeat on Israel when they beat them 3-0 in Lisbon, with 2 goals from Coelho and another from Jordao. Portugal were now 2pts clear at the top of the group and looking dangerous.
Into 1981 and in February, Scotland played their first ever international in Tel Aviv. Kenny Dalglish scored the only goal of the game 10 minutes into the second half and Scotland beat Israel, 1-0. Then in March came the much anticipated Scotland v Northern Ireland meeting at Hampden Park. There were no goals going into the final 20 minutes of the game when the Irish had a free-kick deep in the Scottish half on the left wing. McIlroy took it and found Hamilton unmarked at the far post and he couldn’t miss. It was the first goal the Scots had conceded in the campaign, but within 5 minutes they were level. Willie Miller powered through midfield and played a lovely through-ball for John Wark to slide the ball past Pat Jennings. The game ended 1-1, which meant 50% of the matches in this group ended level.
The following month Scotland had their return fixture with Israel at Hampden Park. Nottingham Forest’s John Robertson scored from the penalty spot after 21 minutes. Then barely 10 minutes later he did it again. Then in the 54th minute, Davie Provan made it 3-0, before Sinai got a goal back but it was not enough. Scotland ran out 3-1 winners and extended their lead at the top of the group.
The next evening at Windsor Park a packed crowd saw Northern Ireland take on Portugal. A tightly fought game was goalless until the 74th minute when a free-kick on the left from Sammy Nelson was floated into the area. After a challenge it looked as if the ball was going out for a goal-kick, but Terry Cochrane did well to keep the ball in, turned and crossed it back into the 6-yard box where Gerry Armstrong got up to head the ball in. It proved to be the difference between the two sides as the Irish won 1-0. They moved above Portugal into 2nd place, although Portugal still had a game in hand.
In June, Sweden were involved in two matches. At the beginning of the month Northern Ireland were the visitors to Stockholm and a goal from Hasse Borg gave Sweden their first win of the campaign, 1-0. Then three weeks later they were at home again when Portugal visited. They won that game too, 3-0, and threw the group wide open. Sweden moved up to 3rd, level on points with Northern Ireland and 2pts behind Scotland. Portugal dropped to 4th but still had a game in hand.
In September, Scotland played their final home match when Sweden arrived at Hampden Park. 20 minutes in and John Robertson took a free-kick on the left wing and Joe Jordan got his head to the ball first and scored the first goal. With 10 minutes to go, substitute Andy Gray, was tripped in the penalty area and John Robertson stepped up and scored another penalty to give Scotland a good 2-0 win. Scotland were virtually there, although mathematically it wasn’t confirmed but now the race was on for 2nd place.
As with most of the other groups, October was going to be a pivotal month. Northern Ireland and Scotland met at Windsor Park. These were heady times for Northern Irish football and another packed ground watched a nervy goalless draw which suited both teams, although the Irish would’ve preferred a win. On the same evening, Portugal met Sweden in Lisbon. Thomas Larsson put Sweden in front in the first half. Minervino Pietra equalised midway through the second half as the Portuguese needed to win, but then with just a minute to go Persson grabbed a dramatic winner for Sweden, as they won the match 2-1. There were just 3 games left, and Sweden’s campaign had finished on a high as they won 3 of their last 4 matches. But Northern Ireland’s goal difference was superior and they only needed a draw against Israel to go through. The draw for Scotland was enough to confirm their qualification. Portugal had 2 games to go, including a visit to Israel and then a home match against Scotland.
At the end of October, Portugal travelled to Israel. The Israelis had drawn their first 3 matches, then lost the next 3. Beni Tabak scored for the home side, but Jordao hit back immediately to equalise for Portugal. Instead of going onto take control of the game, the Portuguese appeared to freeze. Damti put Israel back in front in the 14th minute, and then 4 minutes later Tabak scored again. Just 18 minutes gone and Israel were leading 3-1. On the half hour Tabak completed his hat-trick and the visitors were stunned, never to recover. Israel pulled off a famous 4-1 win, for which the Irish were eternally grateful. Portugal could now no longer qualify and all depended on the Irish game against Israel. It was a shock result, for which few saw coming. Portugal had not competed at a finals since 1966 and the days of Eusebio, and they’d put themselves in a good position but in the end, they just froze.
18th November 1981 and 40,000 packed into Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland take on Israel. A draw was enough for the home side, and thankfully for the watching fans, Gerry Armstrong didn’t let them wait too long. It seemed so many of the Irish goals in this campaign came from a free-kick on either wings, and tonight was no exception. Jimmy Nicholl took it, Billy Hamilton got up first to nod the ball down and there was Gerry Armstrong to fire the ball in. The crowd went wild and Northern Ireland had qualified for their first appearance in the finals since 1958.
On the same night, Scotland visited Portugal and Paul Sturrock gave them the lead after just 9 minutes, but a double from Manuel Fernandes in each half gave the Portuguese a win, but it was too late for them. For Scotland, it was their third successive World Cup qualification.
QUALIFIERS: Scotland, Northern Ireland
East Germany, Malta, Poland
Poland had grown to enjoy 3-team groups when they beat England and Wales to reach the 1974 finals. They were in with East Germany and Malta. The Germans had also reached the 1974 finals, famously beating their neighbours in the West. Malta were nothing more than cannon fodder.
The opening game, December1980 though, was Malta at home to Poland. The Maltese had finally managed to get a ground with proper grass, but a political dispute denied them the use of this stadium for the opening game of the group. So on their old artificial pitch they attempted to take on a side who’d played at the last two finals tournaments. After a goalless first half, Wlodzimierz Smolarek put the visitors in front after 55 minutes. But 20 minutes later it all kicked-off. Leszek Lipka appeared to be in an offside position, and the linesman flagged as much, but when Lipka rather apologetically slid the ball into the net the Yugoslav referee gave the goal. Cue consternation from the Maltese players, management and supporters. So much so that stones & other missiles were thrown onto the pitch and the game was held up and eventually called off. FIFA took a lenient view on Malta, forced them to play their next home game in Sicily, and awarded this match to Poland.
Four months later, Malta were back in Valetta playing host to East Germany and Emanuel Fabri gave them a shock lead on 11 minutes. But the Germans came back with goals from Schnuphase and Hafner to lead at half-time. East Germany eventually won 2-1.
It was clear the destination for qualifiers in this group would be determined by the matches between Poland and East Germany, and their first meeting came in May in Chorzow. Polish midfielder, Andrzej Buncol gave Poland a 1-0 win with a goal in the 55th minute.
The following October, the two met again in Leipzig. Poland were ahead after just 2 minutes when Andrzej Szarmach scored and then just 3 minutes later, Smolarek had made it 2-0. That’s how it stood until 8 minutes into the second half when 3 goals were scored in an 8 minute period. Schnuphase again scored from the spot to get a goal back for East Germany, but then Smolarek scored again only to Streich get a goal back for the home side. Poland eventually won 3-2 to confirm their qualification for a 3rd successive finals tournament.
All that was left was for both Poland and East Germany to have a competition between each other to see how many goals they could score against Malta. East Germany were first up when they thumped the Maltese, 5-1 in Jena. Four days later Poland then thrashed them 6-0, when Smolarek scored another double.