Scotland must play an Estonian encore

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The Independent Online
Scotland's hopes of a smooth passage to the World Cup finals were dealt a double blow yesterday. Fifa, the governing body of the global game, ordered last month's phantom fixture in Estonia to be replayed, as well as ruling Gary McAllister out of Sunday's Group Four meeting with Sweden in Glasgow.

The tournament's organising committee - chaired by Fifa's Swedish vice- president, Lennart Johansson - instructed Scotland to return to the Baltic republic before 16 March next year. Fifa will pay the Scots' costs.

Meanwhile, the one-match ban on McAllister, which the Scotland captain understood he had served in Estonia, must be carried over to this weekend's match at Ibrox. Colin Hendry, the official vice-captain, is likely to don the armband despite the fact that John Collins assumed the skipper's duties for the game that never was.

The re-match will take place - "if weather conditions permit," the statement added portentously - in Tallinn, the scene of last month's farcical events. Last night, however, the chief executive of the Scottish Football Association, Jim Farry, warned that rescheduling the trip in an already congested itinerary would not be simple.

While committing the SFA to abide by the decision, Farry said: "My view is that there will be a major difficulty in arranging this match within the timescale set. There is a possibility of a date in December, and one in February, but much could depend on the weather."

The saga began in earnest on the morning of the original game. Acting on representations from the Scots about the quality and positioning of the floodlights in the Kadriorg Stadium, the Fifa delegate was authorised to bring the kick-off forward by nearly four hours to 3pm local time. Estonia, whose players are part-timers, failed to turn up in protest. A fully kitted-out Scotland side were left to go through the motions of kicking off against non-existent opposition before the referee called a halt after three seconds.

Cast in the unfamiliar and uneasy role of a "big" country, Scotland originally believed they would be awarded a 3-0 walk-over victory. In the meantime, sympathy grew for the Estonians, one of Fifa's newer and poorer members, who submitted a 22-page document to the inquiry pleading their case. Disquiet was also expressed by other countries in the section.

Scottish reservations about going back to Tallinn are based on logistical problems rather than any fear of failure (they stand 25th in Fifa's world rankings against Estonia's 112th place, and beat them twice in the last qualifying series). Having sent out a side in good faith a month ago, Craig Brown, the manager, will be forced to make an additional imposition on the goodwill of the clubs whose charges he effectively borrows.

David Will, the Brechin City director who sits on the organising committee, described McAllister as "the innocent victim". He added: "I'm resigned to the decision and obliged to accept it, though I can't say I'm entirely happy with it. The thing that does surprise me is that the match is going ahead in Tallinn and not at a neutral venue."

The phlegmatic Brown, mindful of the possibility that Scotland might have to return, had sought to play down ill-feeling towards Estonia. Nevertheless he was clearly annoyed at losing his midfield linchpin for the critical game against the group favourites, Sweden. "It's been galling to hear other nations pronouncing on the issue," he said. "Gary will find it even more galling now that these protests have been successful."

In a statement explaining its decision, Fifa noted that Estonia had not shown up for the re-arranged kick-off time, but accepted that there were "extenuating circumstances." Its disciplinary committee will consider the possibility of sanctions against the Estonian FA on 23 November.

Sepp Blatter, the general secretary of Fifa, claimed the ruling had been made in a "sporting spirit", adding: "Estonia had wanted to play the game. The point was that they did not have enough time to re-organise the arrangements after receiving a fax from Fifa at 9am, and this was taken into account."

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