Remembering World Cup 94 – The American Dream!

Now that most domestic seasons are starting to wind down, I thought it was time to think about the World Cup.

In June, Russia will host their first World Cup but in this article I thought I’d look back at one of my favourite competitions and that was USA 94.

I was ten, when that particular World Cup took over my summer.

Thankfully the tournament went much better than the opening ceremony, the highlight of which was a horrendous miss from singer Diana Ross. Her penalty went wide of the goal but still sensationally managed to split the goal posts!

Despite the fact that no British country made it to the U.S, my interest was still huge! I was so excited to see the best players from around the world descend to the shores of the United States.

The players I was looking forward to seeing were stars like Romario, Hristo Stoichkov, Rai, Dennis Bergkamp, Gabriel Batistuta, Carlos Valderrama and most of all Roberto Baggio (more about the divine one later).

As with many World Cups in that era, before the all encompassing internet was accessed by everyone on the planet, we were also introduced to new players. These men would soon become household names.

I’d never heard of Henrik Larsson before the summer of 94, yet he and Sweden took the competition by storm. As a kid, I thought Henrik was actually a girl (the long dreadlocks confused me!).

The hosts had a whole bunch of talent I’d never really seen before. The standout, for me, was defender Alexi Lalas. He was a hairy bearded ginger, who looked ready for a rock stage rather than a football field. But in fairness to him and his colleagues, they impressed and managed to defy the odds and get out of the group stages. They would end up losing narrowly to Brazil in the Second Round.

Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos also springs to mind. I’m not sure if I was transfixed because of his goalkeeping ability or his multi-coloured fluorescent top that must’ve blinded opposition strikers (it was probably a bit of both to be honest).

I also recall being desperate for Brazil to bring on a young seventeen year old that was in their squad. Ronaldo, dubbed the new Pele, was said to be a raw powerful natural goalscorer. He wouldn’t step onto the pitch in the States but he was well worth the wait when he finally took the footballing world by storm a few years later.

I should note the cracking Diego Maradona goal against Greece in the opening Group D match. Nothing odd about that, the Argentine attacker was known for his world class strikes. No, it was the sight of a batshit crazy Maradona hunting down the nearest camera and screaming down the lens that we all remember. Obviously FIFA tested his urine and I’m betting it looked more radioactive than the Springfield nuclear power plant! It tested positive and he was given a lengthy ban.

Another abiding memory I’ve got of that tournament doesn’t actually involve anything that happened on the pitch.

The BBC had a cracking opening title sequence that just embodied the fine weather, the exciting atmosphere and the fabulous football that was on offer that summer. Hearing ‘America’ the West Side Story tune still takes me back to my bedroom, watching teams like Brazil, Italy and Bulgaria excel.

In the group stage, the biggest game that I can recall was Ireland’s win over Italy.

The Italians were considered one of the main favourites for the whole thing but they stumbled in the first game against what was seen as a mediocre Irish side managed by an eccentric World Cup winner in Jack Charlton.

Over 75,000 watched on at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey as the heat soared. The Italian side boasted the likes of Baggio, Giuseppe Signori and Paolo Maldini, while Ireland had relative unknowns like Tommy Coyne, Phil Babb and Terry Phelan.

The Ireland side showed no signs of nerves as they took the lead through a superb Ray Houghton left-footed strike, that was followed with some sort of over enthusiastic forward roll celebration. The dogged Irish withstood all the pressure that the Azzurri side could pile on and won the game by a goal to nil.

In the knockout stages, the quarter-final between the Netherlands and Brazil was sensational. The Brazilians would win the exciting five goal encounter 3-2.

Romario stabbed home the opener in the fifty-third minute. At the time Romario was one of the most prolific goalscorers in Europe and he was already enjoying this World Cup.

Ten minutes later and it was his strike partner Bebeto who would claim his nation’s second. He picked up a loose ball outside of the penalty area, dribbled it inside of the box, took it around the keeper and stroking it home. His baby rocking celebration alongside Romario and Mazinho is now legendary.

A minute after that strike and the Dutch managed to half the deficit. Dennis Bergkamp controlled a long throw-in before expertly guiding it past Brazil goalie Claudio Taffarel.

The Netherlands then found an equaliser in the seventy-sixth minute, as Lazio midfielder Aron Winter steered his header into the net.

There was still time for a winner and it was left-back Branco would found it for the Brazilian side with a thunderous long distance free-kick with just nine minutes remaining.

In the semi-finals, it was Italy and Roberto Baggio versus Stoichkov’s Bulgaria. They were up there as probably the best European footballers of that time, well actually since Italia 90′ Roberto was the world’s top player.

Baggio had shone in his homeland and it was now expected he’d take this competition by the scruff of it’s neck.

The striker failed to find the net during the group stages but the superstar came to life in the latter rounds. Bobby netted a dramatic brace against Nigeria in the Round of 16 and then he grabbed a late winner in the quarter-final against Spain.

Barcelona man Stoichkov had grabbed three strikes in the group games and then scored in both games leading up to the semi against the Italians.

It would be Baggio and the Azzurri that would prevail over the Bulgarians.

The Juventus hitman grabbed another double, the pick of which was his second strike. He showed excellent awareness as a nice chipped through ball fell over his shoulder inside the area, without taking a touch to steady himself the Italian number ten superbly connected with the ball on the half volley and sent it beyond the despairing goalkeeper.

That set up a fantastic looking World Cup final between European giants Italy and South American powerhouse Brazil.

Questions marks over the Selecao’s goalkeeper and defence had always been at the surface. The three time winners hadn’t tasted success since 1970 and had never won the illustrious cup without Pele being in their squad. They did have a terrific attack, with Romario and Bebeto leading the line.

Italy had been to the semi-finals in 1990 and had the amazing Roberto Baggio in their ranks. They also had a strong backline with AC Milan duo Franco Baresi and Maldini at the heart of it!

It was the defenders that proved to be the winners during the game as it ended in a goal-less stalemate, not what the finals had deserved to be fair. Both sides just seemed more nervous about losing the game that they didn’t go all out to win it.

So it was down to a palpable penalty shoot-out.

Experienced campaigner Baresi stepped up first and he blasted his penalty over the bar. He was followed by Brazil’s Marcio Santos and he too failed to score.

The next four would stick their penalties away and it would be two each as both sides went to take their penultimate spot kicks. Italian forward Daniele Massaro then weakly struck his kick and saw Taffarel palm it away from goal.

Brazilian captain Carlos Dunga then strode forward with intent and he sent Gianluca Pagliuca the wrong way.

The team in shiny golden yellow strips were now on course to securing a famous victory and taking their world title tally to four.

Yet it’s the formidable, almost unflappable, Baggio that has the chance to prolong the Brazilian success story and put the boiling pressure back onto the South Americans.

The 94,194 fans inside the Rose Ball fell silent as they waited for the inevitable sight of the net bulging, the world watched through their TV screens expectedly and no doubt the next Brazilian penalty kick taker was just deciding on where he’d put his chance of winning the biggest international tournament.

Baggio skips forward, time stands-still, and then he strikes the ball and it goes high. It keeps going higher and higher, even after it passes over the bar the ball seems to continue into the skies.

No one can quite believe it, apart from the jubilant Brazil side as they pile onto the pitch celebrating their greatest victory!

Roberto Baggio is alone, just looking at the penalty spot as if it’s going to open and swallow him up. I bet the hitman would’ve chosen to be in Dante’s Inferno rather than standing there dumbstruck in Pasadena.

Dunga would then clutch the World Cup trophy and we had that happy ending of smiling faces and dancing Brazilians.

If this year’s tournament in Russia can be half as creative, dramatic, entertaining and wonderful to watch then we’ll have one hell of a World Cup on our hands!



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