June 17th marks 25 years since the opening ceremony of 1994 FIFA World Cup, a tournament which still holds the record for the being the best attended World Cup in history, with nearly 3.6m people going to see one of the 52 matches on offer. 25 years on, USA ’94 remains one of the most memorable tournaments in the illustrious competition’s history, so let’s take a walk down memory lane and remember the time when the United States was at the center of the footballing universe.
In what would become a staple of the process of choosing a host nation, FIFA selected the United States to host the 1994 edition of its showpiece event under controversial circumstances. By selecting the USA over Morocco and Brazil on Independence Day 1988, FIFA had given the rights to host soccer’s biggest event to a country with no active professional league for the first time ever.
The North American Soccer League had at one point been hugely popular, boasting some of the greatest players in the history of the game amongst their team’s squads, including Johan Cruyff, George Best and, perhaps the most famous of all, Pele. At the league’s peak, NASL teams had amassed a who’s who of world soccer, but it folded in 1984 after a sharp decline in interest in the sport. By the time the FIFA Executive Committee sat down to vote, the USA had had no professional soccer to speak of for four years, and would not have for another eight after that. To give the World Cup to the USA over three time champions Brazil, where football is more of a religion than a sport, would have been unthinkable.
However, over half of the FIFA Executive Committee thought differently and USA 1994 was given the go-ahead, with one caveat – they had to create their own professional football league. This led to the creation of the MLS, which is now a very popular league in its own right, with its matches being broadcast worldwide.
Fast-forward six years and we are at Soldier Field in Chicago in front of 63,117 fans with millions watching on television around the globe, waiting to see reigning champions Germany take on Bolivia. Before they took the field however, everyone was treated to the traditional pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony. Hosted by Oprah Winfrey, the show was due to be highlighted by legendary singer Diana Ross scoring the first “goal” of the event, where she would take a penalty into a gimmick goal, which would then split in two.
That’s what was meant to happen anyway. What actually happened was much different, but would actually become quite apt as the tournament drew to a conclusion (more on that later!). Singing I’m Coming Out, which was to signify the US’s new outlook on the Beautiful Game, Ross ran the length of the pitch, and promptly hooked her right-footed spot kick wide by about six feet. Not the worst penalty I have ever seen but not the way you want to have your opening ceremony remembered by.
Thankfully, once the actual soccer began it was not as disastrous. With 24 teams qualified instead of the now standard 32, the teams were split up into 6 groups of 4 with 16 qualifying for the next stage. This meant that four third-place teams would go through, making it harder to be knocked out at this stage than to make it through to the knockout phase.
The USA were one of the beneficiaries of this nuance, as the hosts finished 3rd in Group A behind Romania and Switzerland, knocking out one of the pre-tournament favorites Colombia in the process. This group included the first ever World Cup match to be played indoors when the United States and Switzerland played out a 1-1 draw in front of 73,425 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome.
Tragically, immediately following his return to Colombia with the rest of his teammates, Andres Escobar was shot and killed, purely because his own goal eliminated Colombia. It has been rumoured that Escobar’s own goal had caused high-ranking members of a power drug cartel to lose a significant amount betting on Colombia’s progress at the World Cup. It was also said that Escobar was in the wrong place at the wrong time during an extremely dangerous time in the country. Either way, it is an extremely unfortunate and sad story in relation to USA ’94.
Now, back to the positive stuff. Groups B and C hosted world giants in Brazil, Spain and defending champions Germany, as well as Cameroon, who lit up Italia ’90. While favorites Brazil progressed with minimal fuss, South Korea, who came into the tournament with a World Cup record of a stellar 0 wins, one draw and seven defeats, gave both Spain and Germany a scare. 2-0 down with four minutes to play, South Korea rallied to draw with Spain in Dallas, and almost repeated the feat 10 days later against the Germans in the same venue, ultimately going down to a 3-2 defeat.
Group D was an example of how crazy the 24-team structure could be because, despite winning their first two games by an aggregate score of 6-1 against Greece and Nigeria, Argentina only finished third in the group following a 2-0 defeat to tournament surprise package Bulgaria at the Cotton Bowl. Had this been a 32-team event, Argentina would be heading home after a week!
One member of the Argentina squad who was sent home after a week was the legendary Diego Maradona. Maradona is one of the best players to have ever played the game and won the World Cup in 1986 almost single handedly. To see just how single handedly it was, look no further than the Hand of God goal against England, where a goal was given after Maradona knocked the ball over England ‘keeper Peter Shitlon’s head with his hand. Maradona said after the game that it never hit his hand but that it was the Hand of God and the name of the World Cup’s most infamous goal was coined.
However, eight years after scoring one of the most infamous goals in World Cup history (and one of the best ever in the same game), Diego Armando Maradona went from national hero to national villain after failing a drug test, testing positive for ephedrine, and was sent home in disgrace, never to play for his country again.
Group E had its own drama as all four teams finished on four points, with a win, loss and draw each. It was such a tight group that all teams had a goal difference of zero (that is, they scored the same amount as they conceded). In the end, three of the four teams were knocked out with Norway missing out on goals scored, having won 1-0, lost 1-0 and drawn 0-0. Now, I know what many of you are probably thinking; “How can anyone find this exciting when there’s almost no goals?” This is one of the nuances of soccer – a game can be exciting without goals, and Ireland’s 1-0 victory over Italy at Giants Stadium is still fondly remembered today, proving that even 1-0s can be exciting in their own ways.
One of the more memorable moments in this group is in the Ireland-Mexico game in Orlando where Ireland’s John Aldridge, for lack of a better term, completely lost it. While the Mexican team were more accustomed to the close to 100-degree heat, Aldridge was melting like the Wicked Witch of the West as he was waiting to be substituted on. It was close to five minutes before he got on, and he had to wait patiently, standing at the side of the pitch unable to escape the heat.
As someone who comes from a part of the world where it struggles to get above 10 degrees and you are delighted when you even catch a glimpse of the sun, I can understand his frustration. However, his frustration soon boiled over and he proceeded to vent his anger at any one who moved, including his manager Jack Charlton, a World Cup winner in 1966.
Group F was another nervy group which ended in Saudi Arabia shocking Belgium in the last game to finish 2nd in the group thanks to one of the goals of the tournament from Saaed Al-Qwairian. Because of this, Belgium ended up in the same predicament as Argentina where they had won their first two games yet were still reliant on them being one to the best 3rd placed teams to progress. Despite finishing at the bottom and having lost all three games, Morocco did not disgrace themselves in a group that was tighter on the pitch than it was on paper, having lost all three games by just one goal.
The knockout phase started in a dramatic fashion as Argentina, without their disgraced talisman to call on, were knocked out by Romania in front of over 90,000 people in Pasadena. Despite Maradona being sent home they still boasted talented players such as current Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone, playmaker Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta, one of the country’s greatest players of the 90s and early 2000s. However, despite this firepower, they were no match for a Romania side who consistently punched above their weight on the international stage and, as a result, Argentina, who had played in the last two World Cup finals, were eliminated in the Last 16.
Elsewhere, the United States prize for qualifying from their group was an Independence Day showdown with Brazil. The hosts did not disgrace themselves by any manner of means against a Brazil team reaching the peak of their powers, going down 1-0 thanks to a Bebeto goal 20 minutes from the end. An excellent showing from the Americans who did themselves and their country proud with their performances. Other than the Romanian win, there were no more shocks in the Last 16, although Italy survived a scare, needing extra time to be Nigeria 2-1 to progress to the quarter-finals.
The last eight saw yet another shock, as the holders Germany crashed out after a 2-1 defeat to unfancied Bulgaria at Giants Stadium. Haven taken the lead just after halftime thanks to a Lothar Matthaus penalty (who would call this Giants Stadium home a few years later when he joined the MetroStars) but two quick fire goals from the Bulgarians left German hearts broken, as they would no longer have the chance to repeat as world champions.
This stage also saw four giants of international soccer face each other for a spot in the semi-finals and they did not disappoint. Old rivals Italy and Spain started proceedings at Foxboro Stadium in a back and forth match which was settled by a late goal by the Devine Ponytail himself, Roberto Baggio, with a goal on 88 minutes to send the Azzurri through to the next round at the expense of a talented Spanish side.
Following that came one of the best matches of the tournament however as Brazil and Holland squared off at the Cotton Bowl, which seemed to be *ahem* the Place To Be for all of the memorable matches. In a match that had three changes of the lead, the Brazilians came out on top, eventually defeating the latest golden generation of Dutch soccer 3-2 in a fantastic contest. In the last quarter-final match, Sweden overcame Romania on penalties to reach their second World Cup semi-final
On to the semis we go and it was the end of the line for two of the surprise packages of the tournament as it was relatively straightforward for Brazil as they saw off Sweden 1-0. Similarly, Italy followed the script where others had failed, as they toppled Bulgaria 2-1 to end their hopes of a World Cup final after a spirited run to the last four. So the final two are Brazil and Italy in repeat of the legendary 1970 final, which Brazil won 4-1.
And, in a match between two teams who had scored a combined 19 goals between them in the run up to the final? One on the worst World Cup finals in history of course. Brazil and Italy proceeded to give the 94,194 in attendance at the Rose Bowl a cagey 0-0 in normal time, then exactly the same for the 30 minutes of extra time that those watching had to endure. As a result, the match went to a penalty shootout, the first time this would decide the winners of the World Cup.
Even the penalty shootout didn’t lead to goals straight away as the first man up for both teams missed their kick. On round four of the shootout, when Danielle Massaro missed for the Italians and then Brazil captain Dunga put his away, the pressure was all on one man to keep Italy in with the game. Up steps Roberto Baggio, who had been Italy’s main man through the tournament with the weight and the expectation of a whole country on his shoulders.
Remember what I said about Diana Ross’s penalty kick? Well, in the same way the World Cup started with an awful penalty, it ended in the same manner, as Baggio puts the ball into orbit and hands the World Cup to Brazil for a fourth time. Baggio was in an unenviable position and a lesser man would have shied away from taking that kick completely knowing what it meant to himself, his teammates and his compatriots in the stadium and back home. Pressure can do strange things to people, and it certainly did to Baggio, who if you gave him the ball for a penalty would probably score nine times out of ten. Unfortunately, for Italy, this time was the 10th.
The road to USA ’94 may have started in controversial circumstances but by the time the big show began, all of that was forgotten. This was one of the best remembered World Cups be it for the Bulgarian heroics to get to the semis, the famous Brazilian baby cradle celebration or excellent soccer which was the meat sandwiched into two rubbish penalties.
In the run up to the announcement of the 2018 and 2020 World Cup hosts, my pick for one of them was the United States, and I thought they almost guaranteed on to be one of the hosts. We all know how that went and the nefarious means behind that, so I was delighted to hear that the USA, Canada and Mexico had been successful in their joint bid to host the 2026 edition. If 2026 is anywhere close to this one, then we are definitely onto a winner.