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When the beautiful game turned ugly for Scotland

IT is the colour of their sky-blue shirts which earn Uruguay their nickname of La Celeste.

Gordon Strachan is hacked down by Jose Batista who was sent off after 56 secondsPhotograph:  Getty
Gordon Strachan is hacked down by Jose Batista who was sent off after 56 secondsPhotograph: Getty

Yet in Spanish, the word can also mean "heavenly". Never has a name been so unfitting. A strange marriage of the beautiful and the ugly game is stamped over Uruguay's football history. They may be blessed with enough natural talent to become world champions twice, yet having played against them it is the dark side which remains in Graeme Sharp's memory.

The former Scotland striker discovered first-hand how far they would go to satisfy a World Cup obsession. Sharp still shudders about that day in the intense heat in the 1986 finals in Mexico when the SFA secretary, Ernie Walker, labelled Uruguay "the scum of world football".

Jose Batista was sent off after 56 seconds by French referee Joël Quiniou, for chopping down Gordon Strachan. The speed of the dismissal remains a World Cup record. The two-time winners of the Jules Rimet trophy shamed themselves with a cynical hatchet job on Alex Ferguson's team.

A picture from the game shows Sharp's long hair being pulled by a defender but the Glaswegian reveals that was the least of his problems. The former Everton forward was repeatedly spat at and had to endure defenders sticking their fingers up his backside every time they marked him.

Sharp does not think Uruguay - who became world champions when Brazil were hosts in 1950 - would get away with that sort of behaviour now, but he does believe the modern incarnation still have a win-at-all-costs mentality which will be to the fore when they face England in Sao Paolo on Thursday.

"It was easily the worst stuff I had experienced in my whole career," says Sharp of the game in Neza­hualcóyotl, 28 years ago. It was the last act of the Group of Death, which paired the Scots with West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay. While the Danes and the Germans took the top two places, Fifa's decision to offer four spots in the last 16 to the best third-placed teams, gave Uruguay a lifeline.

"They only needed a draw, while we needed a win to stay on," says Sharp, now 53. "Some of the things they got up to were horrendous. Spitting, pulling your hair, putting their fingers where they should not be.

"When wee Gordon got scythed down and the red card came out in the first minute, we thought we would get protected but their game plan didn't change when they went to 10 men. They only needed a point and sat deep. The referee could have sent others off for some of the tackles but it was the stuff that was going on while he was not looking that was so bad. They would spit in your face and I could also feel it in my hair.

"I know people thought my hair getting pulled was bad when they saw that picture. But that was easy to deal with compared to what went on at every set-piece behind your back. They'd put their fingers up my backside.

"They were trying to provoke a reaction and get you sent off. Fergie had warned us before the game that they would do everything to break your spirit and not to retaliate but that was disgusting.

"They didn't need to do it - they had great players like Enzo Fran­cescoli. Everyone says the World Cup is supposed to be the pinnacle of your career but not for me. That was my one game - I'd sat on the bench for the Denmark and German matches - and for me the World Cup was horrendous.

"I do not think Uruguay, or any team, would get away with that sort of behaviour now. There are so many television cameras now at the World Cup, that nothing is missed. If you get away with it in the game, they can still hand out punishment later with video evidence.

"But Uruguay still have a win-at-all costs mentality. Luis Suarez proved that in the last World Cup by using his hand to deny Ghana that goal in the quarter-finals. He knew he'd be sent off and miss the semi but he didn't stop for a second to think about that. Suarez would do anything to win.

"Uruguay cannot get away with the physical stuff they did to Scotland. That era has gone. But the modern Uruguay now do other things - like diving, crowding around referees to put pressure on them - to compensate. I think they will give England a hard time on Thursday."

Sharp's goals for Everton - he is the club's record post-war scorer - earned him legendary status with the fans and he now works at Goodi­son Park as a supporters' liaison officer. Still living on Merseyside means he has been able to see the phenomenal progress of Suarez on the other side of the city.

"Luis Suarez is a fabulous player," said Sharp, of the prolific Liverpool forward. "People say he's lucky but he makes his own luck. Unfortunately, the controversial stuff follows him around, like diving and biting Branislav Ivanovic in the Chelsea game. He has a tremendous desire to win - but at all costs."

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