On July 4, 1988, FIFA made the controversial decision to give the 1994 World Cup to the United States. The U.S. team had qualified for the 1988 Olympics, proving that the sport did have a pulse, however small, in the U.S. and FIFA wanted to help reinvigorate soccer in America.
The U.S. beat out finalists Brazil and Morocco for the right to host the tournament and FIFA was widely criticized. One journalist even compared the decision to “holding a major skiing competition in an African country.”
America only had a microscopic soccer culture at that point and even though it was one of the most popular sports to participate in among American youths, it still had not grabbed the attention of the populace. Professional soccer in America had died when the North American Soccer League folded in 1984 and few seemed to care.
Nonetheless, the tournament became an important opportunity to spread the game in America and gave the world some great moments to look back on.
The Group Stage
The 1994 World Cup took place in a world that was just coming out of the Cold War. For the first time ever, Russia competed as Russia, not as Soviet Union. And Germany, who had won the tournament in 1990 as West Germany, came into the tournament competing as a unified German team for the first time since 1938.
The opening ceremonies of the tournament were steeped both in the ridiculousness of 1990’s culture and America’s attempt to add its own pageantry to the game. In Chicago, at Soldier Field, talk show host Oprah Winfrey emceed a ceremony which concluded with Diana Ross singing and dancing her way up the field to take a penalty—which she missed.
The 1994 tournament was also the last of the old 24-team format, but the first World Cup in which three points were awarded for a win instead of two points under the old format. This last change, along with the rule that eliminated the goalkeeper’s ability to pick up a backpass, occurred as a result of what many saw as an overly defensive World Cup in 1990.
The day after the tournament opened, despite only being the group stage, gave fans one of the most memorable moments of the tournament. Ireland was to take on Italy in New York City, a city largely populated by Irish and Italian immigrants to America in the 19th and early 20th century.
On that day, Ireland got the better of world powerhouse Italy 1-0 on a beautiful strike by Irish midfielder Ray Houghton.
The group stage of the 1994 World Cup also saw the end of footballing legend and Argentine captain Diego Maradona’s international career. He had played with the team in their first two games, both victories. Then, on June 30, just hours before Argentina was to play their final group-stage match, it was announced that Maradona had been removed from the tournament for failing a drug test.
He had led the team to the championship in 1986 and a second place finish in 1990, but would play no further part. After he left the squad, Argentina lost 2-0 to Bulgaria in the final game of the group stage and then 3-2 to Romania in the Round of 16.
The U.S. team also had several notable moments in the group stage. They had managed to tie Switzerland, 1-1, on a free kick by Eric Wynalda—a goal that has largely disappeared into the annals of history. But the biggest memory all soccer fans have of the U.S.’ run through the 1994 World Cup would come against Colombia several days later.
Colombia had entered the tournament as one of the favorites and were led by their captain, the unmistakable Carlos Valderrama. The U.S. would win the game, 2-1, and Americans will forever remember the flag-draped celebrations that took place after the game.
However, the true impact of what had happened that day did not become obvious until 10 days later. On July 2, Colombian defender Andres Escobar, who had scored an own goal during the game against the U.S., was murdered back home in Colombia in what was widely reported as a revenge killing for his mistake in the game.
The Knockout Rounds
Roberto Baggio, a star with Italian powerhouse Juventus, had entered the tournament with many expecting him to be the star. He had been the Ballon d’Or winner and FIFA World Player of the Year in 1993 and had finished second and third, respectively, in those awards in 1994. However, through Italy’s first three matches and 88 minutes of their Round of 16 game, he had yet to score.
But Baggio finally managed to break his slump at the most important moment. With Nigeria only minutes away from a massive upset, Baggio scored to draw Italy level at 1-1. Then, in the 102nd minute of extra time, he won the game when he converted a penalty to push Italy through to the quarterfinals.
The game against Nigeria sparked Baggio and he scored again in the quarterfinals, again dramatically in the 88th minute against Spain to take Italy through to the next round. In the semifinals, Italy was set to meet Bulgaria.
Bulagria had come out of nowhere in the tournament, led by their star and eventual Golden Boot winner, Hristo Stoichkov. Bulgaria had won four games en route to the semifinals, even eliminating defending champion Germany in the quarterfinals.
Against Bulgaria, Baggio once again proved to be the difference, scoring twice and leading Italy to the finals and leading himself to his own cruel destiny.
Brazil had made their way to the finals with wins over Russia and Cameroon in the group stage, a victory over the hosts, the U.S., in the Round of 16 and a 3-2 win over the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals they faced Sweden, the only team they hadn’t beaten in group play.
Brazil was led in the tournament by two legendary strikers, Romario and Bebeto, who finished with a combined eight goals. Romario ended up as the tournament’s Golden Ball winner as the best player and scored the winner against Sweden in the semifinals to put Brazil through. Bebeto became an iconic figure in the tournament because of his goal celebration honoring the birth of his child only days earlier, after he scored against the Dutch in the quarterfinals.
In the final, Italy and Brazil battled for 120 scoreless minutes. Italy had come into the tournament having bitterly lost in penalties in the semi-finals of the 1990 tournament and now faced the prospect of winning or losing the entire tournament by the same fate.
In the fifth and final round of penalties, with Brazil leading 3-2 and Italy needing to score to keep its hopes alive, Roberto Baggio stepped to the spot. Since breaking out against Nigeria in the Round of 16, it had been his tournament. Now, the hopes of all of Italy rested on his shoulders.
With the chance to keep Italy alive in the shootout, Baggio’s penalty sailed well over the crossbar and Brazil had won.
The 1994 tournament has left fans, both in the U.S. and throughout the world, with many great memories. Cameron forward Roger Milla, who was an unbelievable 42 years old in the tournament, scored against Russia and became not only the oldest player ever to play in a World Cup, but the oldest to ever score a goal.
Saeed Al Owairan of Saudi Arabia scored one of the best goals in the history of international soccer, even though it has become largely forgotten. Perhaps it has become forgotten because he was not from a world football powerhouse, or perhaps because no one knew who he was. Still, it is worth watching as he took the ball starting in his own half and ran through four Belgian defenders before scoring.
The 1994 tournament also saw greats like Dennis Bergkamp and Jurgen Klinsmann. Bergkamp developed a fear of flying because of a scare during the 1994 tournament which affected his ability to play in European matches for the rest of his career. Klinsmann, of course, would later move to the United States and now manages its national team.
For the United States, things would never be the same. Major League Soccer was launched in 1996 with 10 teams and recently announced plans to expand from its current 19 teams to 24. Professional soccer is alive and well in America and any European traveling to Portland, Seattle or Kansas City would not be able to argue there are not passionate and engaged fan bases.
The 1994 tournament also gave the U.S. its first soccer “stars” in players like Earnie Stewart, Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa, Cobi Jones, John Harkes, Tab Ramos and Eric Wynalda—role models for future generations of American players.
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