Scotland await verdict after Estonian farce

WORLD CUP FOOTBALL: Estonia face sanctions for failing to turn up at revised kick-off time after dispute over floodlighting

It was a scenario with which every Sunday morning player will be familiar; one team turns up, the other does not. The difference here in the Kadriorg Stadium yesterday was that this was a World Cup qualifying match, not a park kickabout, and Estonia's extraordinary refusal to fulfil the fixture left Scotland all dressed up with no one to play.

In order to satisfy their obligations to Fifa, the game's world governing body, the Scotland team duly marched on, in full kit, three minutes before the rearranged kick-off time of 3pm local time. With the Estonian half of the pitch empty, the Scots lined up in formation. Billy Dodds rolled the ball forward from the centre spot to John Collins, captaining his country for the first time. The referee immediately blew his whistle and led the Scotland team off.

With the exception of the national anthems, all the formalities had been observed. Collins shook hands with the Yugoslav referee, Miroslav Radoman, while the linesmen checked there were no holes in the goal nets. No sooner had the thousand or so Scotland supporters launched into an ironic chorus of "get in tae them" than Radoman ended the farce.

Ended it, that is, as far as Scotland were concerned. As they prepared to leave for the airport, the floodlights at the centre of the controversy flickered into life. The electronic scoreboard was still stubbornly showing the kick-off as 6.45, and the Estonian military began assuming their positions. The Estonian team eventually turned up at the stadium later in the afternoon.

Scotland's fans, who had made a 2,000-mile round trip for the games with Latvia last Saturday and Estonia, took the abandonment in good humour. They sang: "There's only one team in Tallinn" as they dispersed, though the biggest cheer came when a kilted fan charged on with a ball and dribbled it into the goal.

Even now this bizarre episode may not be over. The initial indications from Fifa's match delegate, Jean-Marie Gantenbein of Luxembourg, were that Scotland would be awarded the match. Later however, Fifa said that no decision had been made and that reports from the referee and Gantenbein, as well as a protest from the Estonian authorities, would be considered by the World Cup organising committee. A decision will be made at the committee's meeting on 7 November.

A Fifa statement pointed out that its regulations state that when a team does not report for a match the opponents should be awarded a 3-0 victory and the three points, "except in cases of force majeure recognised by the organising committee".

Keith Cooper, a Fifa spokesman, said: "The Estonian FA have indicated to us that they had a logistical problem which prevented them getting to the stadium on time for the revised kick-off and that could be taken into account if it can be proved to be true."

Estonia, meanwhile, may face severe penalties, possibly even expulsion, by Fifa. They will undoubtedly ask why Fifa's stadium committee, which is chaired by the former Scottish Football Association secretary Ernie Walker, passed the Kadriorg stadium in the first instance.

However, the Uefa president, Lennart Johansson, who is also a Fifa vice- president, indicated the possibility of a different outcome. He told Swedish television: "Based on the facts I have, I think the match should be replayed. That would be best for all the parties involved."

The saga of the game that never was had begun innocuously enough 24 hours earlier when Gantenbein, the Fifa delegate for the Group Four fixture, raised doubts about the standard of the temporary floodlighting hired from Finland. Craig Brown, the Scotland manager, asked to see them on "full beam" after Tuesday's Under-21 match and was unhappy with what he saw.

As a result, the Scottish FA faxed a complaint late on Tuesday night to Fifa's headquarters in Zurich. Copies were also placed under the doors of Messrs Gantenbein and Radoman. Brown said that his team would play at the appointed hour - 6.45pm - but only under duress.

Fifa's emergency committee convened at 2.30am yesterday and upheld Scotland's protest. The delegate informed both national associations that the game would now start three and three-quarter hours earlier, in daylight.

The Estonian FA, however, refused to accept the ruling. High among their considerations was the fact that BBC Television had agreed to pay them pounds 50,000 for the right to screen the match live in Scotland. With the Dunblane Memorial Service already scheduled for coverage at the new kick- off time, there was no question of the BBC showing the game live. That would have meant the Estonians having to accept a drastically reduced fee.

Even as late as 2.30pm, with his squad out on the pitch warming up, Brown was convinced that Estonia would turn up to play. But a vice-president of their FA, Aivar Pohlak, insisted that their Icelandic coach, Teitur Thordasson, was sticking to his original plans. The players were having lunch 65 miles away, he said, and would be turning up for a 6.45 start.

That way the Estonians would incur only nominal fines for not being at the ground two hours ahead of kick-off and for handing in their team-sheet late. But they were not bluffing, and Pohlak went on to accuse the Scots of being unsporting. "It was made clear this morning that we couldn't come before the original agreed time," he said. "When we got the instruction we told Fifa we couldn't change. We believe the Scottish FA has been very unfair to us."

Mart Tarmak, another vice-president of the Estonian FA, said later that his country would be prepared to play Scotland twice in Britain rather than concede the points. He said: "We would prefer if Scotland would come back here for a re-match because our supporters deserve to see the match which they have paid for. If not, we will be prepared to play in Scotland twice." Estonia are due in Scotland next March.

Jim Farry, the SFA's chief executive, expressed sympathy for Estonia's predicament, admitting he would be less than pleased if a game at Hampden Park were suddenly switched to midday. But he added: "Fifa's committee reflected overnight and consulted the delegate this morning. It was his firm view that the conditions did not meet the minimum requirements.

"We received a fax at 10am informing us that the match was to kick off at 3pm. And that was their final decision. Our argument was not based purely on the power of the lights. It was on the sporting principle that our goalkeeper couldn't see the ball coming in from the left side of the pitch, which of course affects both teams."

Asked whether the issue of television rights was "the bottom line", Farry replied: "Finance was mentioned."

Thordasson, the Estonia manager, said he felt there was "something dirty" about the whole affair and added: "I feel terrible. It was too late for us to change the time when we were told."

One reason why Scotland are keen that the match should not be replayed is that Gary McAllister was suspended for this fixture but will be available for Scotland's match next month against Sweden.

Yesterday's remarkable events had echoes of 1973, when Russia refused to play Chile in Santiago in a World Cup play-off match as a protest against the recently established Pinochet regime. The Chileans kicked off and walked the ball into the net before the referee called a halt.

SCOTLAND (team that took field to play Estonia, World Cup qualifying Group Four): Goram; McNamara, Boyd, Calderwood, T McKinlay, Lambert, Collins, Burley, Dodds, Jackson, J McGinlay. Substitutes: Leighton, White, McAllister, Gemmill, B McKinlay, McCall, Freedman.

Referee: M Radoman (Yugoslavia).

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