Remembering the World Cup: USA 1994 Image via FIFA

Remembering the World Cup: USA 1994

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 Moves from one end of the pitch to the front of the goal. The crowd on their feet, the noise in Windy City is a rhythmic cacophony. Steadies. Shoots. Horribly misses. Yet the goals splits open, and she continues running anyway, it was routine after all; or at least it was supposed to be. That’s right, Diana Ross at the opening ceremony of the 1994 World Cup didn’t completely go according to plan, the likes of Bill Clinton and Helmut Kohl in attendance for her gaffe in Chicago. Not that she’d be the only one with high-profile misses before the tournament ran out.

The World Cup in the United States was the first one with three points attached to a win, the first one in 20 years without England, and the first ever involving Nigeria. The Super Eagles shook off the disappointment of missing out to Cameroon in 1990 to book their spot this time, and were pitted in Group D with Greece, Bulgaria, and Argentina (they we’d be seeing more of over the next World Cups). Clemens Westerhof’s team got off to the perfect start, with a 3-0 win over the Bulgarians, and Rashidi Yekini’s famous net-bulging celebration in Dallas. Game Two wasn’t quite so good, as despite taking the lead through Emmanuel Amuneke, two goals from Claudio Caniggia ensured a defeat for the Eagles to Argentina. But Nigeria topped the group with six points, following a 2-0 win in the third game against Greece, and they, alongside Argentina and Bulgaria, headed for the last 16.

Group D wasn’t the only group where three teams had six points, Group F also shared that trait. The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia- a surprise package in the tournament, who produced a memorable goal through Saeed Al-Owairan- and Belgium all finished with two wins and a defeat, but that was nothing strange compared to the final standings in Group E, where all four teams were separated by the virtue of goals scored. Perhaps it should have seen as a forewarning of weirdness when the Republic of Ireland beat Italy in the opening game of that group. The Azzurri had the best player in the world in Roberto Baggio, but succumbed to a Ray Houghton goal in East Rutherford. The Irish finished second in the group after a 2-1 defeat to Mexico, where John Aldridge scored and threw his famous tantrum, and a goalless draw with Norway, who had the misfortune of being the only side eliminated from this group, after scoring just once.

But no group stage elimination would make the headlines like Colombia’s. Pitted in Group A with hosts USA, Switzerland and Romania, there were high expectations for the Colombians after their terrific qualifying campaign, so much so that drug cartels and other citizens allegedly gambled on the national side. So, a defeat to the Romanians in their first game in Pasadena wasn’t part of the plan. Game Two needed to go well, but it didn’t, a 2-1 defeat to the hosts on the same ground as the first game signalled elimination, a game when defender Andreas Escobar had the misfortune of scoring an own goal, an inadvertent act he paid for with his life, 10 days after the USA loss. The USA, meanwhile, would be heading to the next round, to face Brazil, who topped Group B. Group B produced two of the eventual semi-finalists, Brazil and Sweden, and a few notes of history. In the final round of games in the group, Russia hit Cameroon for a 6-1 win, where Oleg Salenko scored five of Russia’s goals, and Cameroon forward Roger Milla became the oldest goalscorer in FIFA World Cup history at the age of 42. It was the most, and only, notable acts in the tournament from both teams, who headed home after three games.

Brazil saw off USA in the last 16, the game in Stanford most famous for the clash between Leonardo’s elbow and Tab Ramos’ jaw. Sweden, meanwhile, ended the Saudi Arabians’ journey with a 3-1 victory in Dallas. In Foxborough, Nigeria and Italy locked horns in the last 16. With 88 minutes played, Nigeria were a goal up and a man up, Gianfranco Zola having been sent off (in rather dubious circumstances, it should be said). In a matter of minutes, the Super Eagles would match Cameroon’s achievement of an African team reaching the quarter-finals, in their debut tournament. So it was time to keep concentration, and do nothing rash. Unfortunately, two in the Super Eagles side didn’t consider pointless arguing instead of defending when an opponent gets a throw-in close to your box as something rash, so a culmination of events led to Roberto Baggio rolling in an equaliser, to force extra time. Not satisfied with shooting themselves in the foot the first time, Nigeria did it again, this time Sunday Oliseh was caught in possession in the middle of the pitch, another culmination of events later, Baggio- from the penalty spot- was getting his and the Azzurri’s second, and Nigeria would be heading home. Upset averted.

But an upset did occur in the last 16, in Pasadena, where Argentina, finalists of the previous tournament, were sent packing by Romania, a brace from Ilie Dumitrescu and a Gheorghe Hagi strike knocked out La Albiceleste, who by then were already without skipper Diego Maradona, sent home during the tournament for testing positive for cocaine. Oh, remember when this column said Diana Ross wouldn’t be the only penalty casualty in the tournament, step forward Alberto Garcia Aspe, Marcelino Bernal and Jorge Rodriguez, three of whom entered the Hall of Ross, as their penalty misses knocked out Mexico in the last 16 at the expense of Bulgaria.

Suddenly, Bulgaria, who had never won a game in a World Cup before this tournament, were quarter-finalists, but surely their journey would come an end, as they faced Germany in the last eight. Sure enough, Germany struck first, Lothar Matthaus with a penalty two minutes after halftime. It stayed that way till 15 minutes from the end, then things turned upside down. First, Hristo Stoichkov struck home a free-kick, then Yordan Letchkov delivered a superb header to turn things around. In the space of three minutes, the world champions were staring elimination in the face, and elimination would come, much to the joy of the non-participating English (well that’s what BBC said). Romania’s journey also came to an end in the quarters, penalty shootout heartbreak against Sweden despite Florin Raduicioiu’s double, Miodrag Belodedici with the decisive miss.

Sweden would re-unite with Brazil, after their group stage stalemate. But there had to be a winner this time, in Pasadena, and there was, Romario with the sole deciding strike 10 minutes from time. In the other semi, in East Rutherford, Baggio was Italy’s main man, his double was enough to see off Bulgaria. Bulgaria would be thrashed in the third place play-off by the Swedes, but they had already exceeded expectations, and it was a World Cup for them to savour, particularly since their record after this tournament reads: played three, lost two, scored one and conceded seven.

And so on to the final, in Pasadena’s main bowl, with Italy and Brazil facing off. They had met in that entertaining final in Mexico 24 years earlier, when Brazil won 4-1. This final, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction, a considerable low-key- to put it mildly- display from both sides meant for the first time in the history of the World Cup, the winners would be decided by a penalty shootout.

The first two were misses, Brazil’s Marcio Santos following Italy Franco Baresi in failing to find the net, to keep it goalless after one kick each. The next four were successful, Demetrio Albertini and Alberigo Evani for Italy, Romario and Branco for the Brazilians; then Daniele Massaro missed for the Italians. When Brazil skipper Dunga scored, it was match point, which meant Arrigo Sacchi’s side couldn’t afford another miss. Up stepped Baggio, the man who had taken them this far, and in completely ironic and tragic fashion, ‘The Prince’ skied his attempt. Baggio slumped to his knees in devastation, Brazil goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel took to his knees in elation, La Selacao were world champions for a fourth time.

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