World Cup Memories – USA 94


In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90; France 98; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

It’s hard to remember exactly how my love affair with the United States started, but before I was 19 and visited the country for the first time, I had become fascinated by the thought of one day living in New York.  While several factors probably contributed to that: movies of course, but more than that, television, since the shows I was most fond of in my formative teenage years were The West Wing, E.R, Seinfeld and even Friends; plus my love of the NFL and baseball which turned into full-flung fandom by the time I was 16.  But while the genesis of this interest in America is unclear – and it proved to be a well founded desire, since when I moved to Brooklyn it became clear that it was home – the World Cup of 1994 must have been a huge contributing factor.  Just take into account the opening credits from the BBC’s coverage of the tournament (click here to see them) – it was full of Razzmatazz, an upbeat soundtrack and great images: the Status of Liberty; the U.S. Capitol; the Brooklyn Bridge; the Chrysler Building; three cars bouncing down a road…it all just looked so…American.Now, 20 years later, this will be the first World Cup I am watching as a citizen and fully-fledged fan of the US national team – part of the reason that has come about is due to USA ’94.

Because of the time difference between the UK and America, many of the games kicked off late at night – or in the case of the semi-finals and final, early hours of the morning – so much of my viewing was on a 10″ television in my bedroom, using the bedcovers to shield the light to avoid waking up the rest of the house.  Maybe staying up till all hours to watch football might seem crazy, but with the tournament occurring only every four years I would do it again now, even as a sleep-deprived parent, rather than just a teenager who often stayed up late anyway.

Onto the tournament itself: like Italia 90, there were 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup in the USA, so once again the first round consisted of six groups of four countries, with the top two guaranteed a place in the knockout rounds, alongside the four third-placed teams with the best records.  The tournament kicked off with a glitzy opening ceremony, complete with Diana Ross missing a penalty from just a few yards in front of a massive goal and the USA’s opening match against Switzerland at the Pontiac Superdome in Michigan was the first in World Cup history to be played indoors.  That moment of history was just one small part of the competition’s many storylines however, as there were several fascinating narratives that emerged during USA 94.  I will start with the most tragic.

Colombia and Andreas Escobar*

*I suggest everyone should watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Two Escobars” about this subject – it is available for streaming on Netflix in the US

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup, Colombia were being touted as one of the potential favorites, with Pele even predicting that they would win the tournament – at the time the Brazilian legend’s prognostications were taken seriously, now he is notorious for being wrong with his picks.  However, there was a good logic behind the thought that Colombia could go far in the competition: they had been in good form in the two years before the tournament – although they finished only third in the Copa America, they did secure their qualification for the World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Argentina.  More than that, they had a group of players who were dynamic, exciting to watch and skillful – most notably the big-haired Carlos Valderrama in midfield, Rincon and Faustino Asprilla up front, plus the assured defensive presence of Andres Escobar.

One player who was missing from the squad was the talented but eccentric goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, who was deemed not fit enough to be included in the 23 heading to the United States due to an 8 month spell in prison for kidnapping.  It was a big loss for Colombia – even though he had made a notorious mistake against Cameroon in their Second Round defeat at Italia 90, Higuita was a dominant presence for his country in goal and in the 1989 Copa Libertadores final, he had saved all four penalties he faced in the shootout to help Atletico Nacional become the first Colombian side to win the trophy.  In that penalty contest, Andres Escobar had scored his spot kick to give Nacional the advantage before Higuita shut out Olimpia, and Nacional were owned by the renowned drug lord, Pablo Escobar.  During a period that was known as narco-soccer in the South American country, many leaders of cartels used football clubs not just to launder money, but also as their own personal play things as they competed with each other for domination, with Pablo Escobar even ordered the death of a referee after he felt he had cheated his side out of a victory.

For all his myriad faults and crimes, the one thing that could be said about Pablo was that he loved his football team and wanted them to come to visit and play with him first in his compound, then in the Cathedral Prison where he was incarcerated.  Some of the players were happy to do this and considered the drug lord a friend who had built football pitches in poor suburbs that could not previously afford them – in particular this was true of Higuita, who claimed that following his arrest, the only thing he was asked about was Escobar – but Andrés was more reluctant to cosy up to the notorious criminal, but had little choice in the matter.  However, in December 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot and killed by the Colombian National Police and after that, there was no protection for the national football team and that would prove to be fatal for Andres Escobar in particular.

Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper - the only own goal of his career.
Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper – the only own goal of his career.

In their opening match, Colombia dominated Romania but could not find the break through and were then caught on the break by their opponents, who took the lead through Florin Raducioiu, then doubled their advantage thanks to a brilliant goal from Gheorghe Hagi.  Just before half time, Adolfo Valencia got Colombia back in the game, but they could not find an equalizer and Raducioiu added a third for Romania in the last-minute to make the final score 3-1.  Following the loss, the Colombian players received death threats and it was made known to the manager, Francisco Maturana, that if he should select the midfielder Gabriel Gomez for the match against the USA, the entire squad would be killed.  Although he was reluctant to do this and wanted the veteran Gomez in his lineup, Maturana felt like his hand was forced and thus dropped the player who was known as “Barabbas”.  Once again, Colombia were all over their opponents in their second fixture, but they could not put the ball into the net and in the 35th minute, Andrés Escobar diverted a cross from Tab Ramos past his own goalkeeper.  The look on his face suggested that the defender knew the serious implications that could come from his mistake and although Colombia conceded another in the second-half before grabbing a late consolation, it was the own-goal from Andrés that stood out.

Despite a victory in their last match against Switzerland, the highly touted Colombian team were eliminated in the first round and on July 2nd in the car park of a nightclub in Medellin, Andrés Escobar was shot six times in his car and died.  According to reports, Andrés was berated by people for having scored the own goal and called a “faggot”, to which he replied that it was an honest mistake – and it seems that his decision to talk back was another error since it cost him his life. A vehicle that was used by the shooter(s) was connected to the Gallon brothers – who had previously worked with Pablo Escobar, but then later joined “Los Pepes (Los Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar = People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) but they then paid off the prosecution to focus the investigation on their bodyguard, Humberto Castro Munoz as the sole shooter.  Munoz was convicted and served just 11 years of a 43 year sentence before being released in 2005, while the Gallon brothers faced no charges for the murder, even though their bodyguard would likely only have shot Escobar on their orders.  The Colombian defender was just 27 when he was killed and the death put the rest of the tournament in perspective, though not for BBC pundit Alan Hansen who – the day after Escobar was murdered – said that an Argentine player “warranted shooting” for some particularly poor defending in his team’s second round defeat to Romania.

2eckw87Maradona Fails Drug Test

During Argentina’s opening match, Fernando Redondo played a ball into Maradona on the edge of the box and the little maestro fired it into the top corner to give his team a 3-0 lead over Greece.  The star of the 1986 World Cup then celebrated by running up to a camera on the touchline and screamed like a man possessed, eyes wide and screaming wildly – making everyone who witnessed ask the question: what is he on?  Following Argentina’s second match against Nigeria – which they won 2-1 – the answer was revealed to be ephedrine, since FIFA announced that Maradona had failed a drug test, after he tested positive for the banned stimulant.  That would prove to be Maradona’s final match for Argentina – a sad end to the controversial international career of one of the best players to take to a football field.  

As for Argentina, after the promising start that had seen them win both of those opening two games and scoring six goals in the process – including a hat trick for Gabriel Batistuta in the match against Greece – following Maradona’s suspension they lost both of their next two fixtures.  In the final group game, they were beaten 2-0 by Bulgaria, whose goal in injury time knocked Argentina from first to third on goal difference and they were subsequently eliminated by Romania in a match I will get onto next.  In the aforementioned second round match against Romania, Ille Dumitrescu opened the scoring with a free-kick that he was trying to cross from but that ended up flying into the top corner, before Batistuta equalized

Hagi and Stoichkov Emerge

Whenever I think about the 1994 World Cup, two players stand out for me and they were not playing for the usual suspects of football’s most prominent nations like Brazil, Germany or Italy (as great as Romario, Klinsmann and Roberto Baggio were).  For me, USA ’94 was encapsulated by the midfield geniuses of Gheorge Hagi for Romania and Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov. In the group stages, it was Hagi’s pace and skill on the breakaway that had seen Romania catch Colombia out on the counter-attack as he set up Radicioiu, before he himself scored with a magnificent free-kick into the top corner.  Romania lost their second game 4-1 – their goal was scored by Hagi – but they progressed to the knockout rounds with a 1-0 victory over the host nation and it was in the second round that their midfield maestro took over, along with Ille Dumitrescu.  It was the winger, Dumitrescu who opened the scoring, finding the top corner with a free-kick from which he probably intended a cross, but after Argentina had equalized via a Batistuta penalty, Romania really turned on the style.  First, Hagi played an absolutely exquisite pass into Dumitrescu inside their opponent’s penalty area and all the future Spurs player had to do was softly guide the ball into the net; then in the second-half, the roles were reversed as Dumitrescu laid on a pass that Hagi rifled into the net and Romania found themselves 3-1 up against the two-time World Champions.

In the quarter-final against Sweden, although it was Radicioiu who scored both of Romania’s goals, it was Hagi once again pulling the strings in the midfield. He was the heartbeat of the team, which was very unfortunate to exit the tournament via a penalty shootout for the second successive World Cup.  After his performances at USA ’94, Barcelona signed Gheorge Hagi and although his spell at the Catalan club was not too successful, he then moved to Galatasary and helped lead them to four consecutive league titles, as well as a UEFA Cup triumph.

Hristo Stoichkov was already a Barcelona player at the time of the 1994 World Cup, but the competition was the first time I had ever seen his combination of explosive acceleration and skillful play, alongside a fantastic finishing ability. These talents made him someone I instantly enjoyed watching.  Stoichkov was the driving force behind the Bulgaria team, which recovered from their opening match defeat against Nigeria to qualify for the knockout stages, where they overcame Mexico on penalties before eliminating the reigning champions, Germany in the quarterfinal stage.  Although Bulgaria were beaten by Italy in the semi-finals, they had far surpassed pre-tournament expectations and Stoichkov proved himself to be one of the best players in the world, scoring 6 goals at USA 94, joint with Russia’s Oleg Salenko for the golden boot.

baggio kneesRoberto Baggio – The Divine Ponytail

The most famous moment in Roberto Baggio’s career is probably when he missed the crucial penalty that ended Italy’s hopes in the 1994 World Cup, but often that will be mentioned with the caveat that without his brilliance in the earlier rounds, they would never have even made the final.  What is less remembered is the inauspicious start that “the divine ponytail” had to the tournament.  Italy were beaten in their opening match by Jack Charlton’s Ireland; then against Norway, Baggio was withdrawn in the 21st minute after goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was dismissed for handling outside the area and an outfield player had to be removed so that the replacement keeper could be brought on as a substitute.  The manager, Arrigo Sacchi, gave his reasoning for withdrawing Roberto Baggio was that he needed ten players who would run hard for the rest of the match, believing that the talented playmaker’s work ethic was not right for the situation in which Italy found themselves.  It was a goal by Roberto’s unrelated namesake, Dino Baggio, that earned the Italians a victory against Norway despite being down to 10 men; then Daniele Massaro scored against Mexico in a match that ended in a 1-1 draw, but ensured that Italy progressed to the knockout stages as one of the four best third placed teams (all of the countries in Group E ended up on 4 points and were separated by goals scored and head-to-head results).

In the knockout stages however, it all became about Roberto Baggio, as he grabbed a crucial equalizer against Nigeria in the final minute to force extra time, then converted a penalty in extra-time to put Italy into the quarter-finals.  There they played Spain and once again it was Baggio who scored the crucial goal, rounding the keeper and providing a cool finish with just two minutes of the 90 remaining – although Italy were fortunate not to concede a penalty when the score was 1-1 as Tessoti clearly elbowed Luis Enrique in the penalty area.  Against Bulgaria in the semi-final, there was a four minute spell midway through the first-half that was Roberto Baggio at his absolute best, as he scored two fantastic goals that propelled his country into the World Cup final.  On several occasions against Brazil, Baggio was carrying an injury that required heavy strapping, but still created good chances that just would not go in.  In the end came the shootout and his infamous miss, as he blazed the penalty over the bar.  The truth is, even if the ponytailed one had scored his spot kick, Brazil still would have had the chance to clinch the World Cup with their next penalty, so while his miss did confirm the loss, it certainly was not the only reason Italy were beaten (Baresi and Massaro had also missed before he ever stepped up).  While that might be the enduring image of Roberto Baggio from 1994, it is well to remember that for three matches in the knockout rounds, he carried his nation on his shoulders and put in a run of performances as good as any of the all-time great players.

250Brazil Win For First Time Since 1970

Despite winning the tournament, Brazil are almost a side note in my memories of the 1994 World Cup and that is, in part, because they were not a team that was particularly enthralling to watch.  They were personified by their captain, Dunga: a holding midfielder who did nothing flashy, but worked hard and did the simple things well – which was indicative of the whole squad, save for the brilliance of Romario up front.  In the group stages, they comfortably beat Russia and Cameroon, before drawing with Sweden in what turned out to be a preview of the semi-final matchup.  Against the hosts in the second round, Brazil had Leonardo sent off for a wild elbow and the USA held them out until the 72nd minute, when Bebeto scored the only goal of the match.

Their quarter-final contest against the Netherlands proved to be one of the best games of the tournament and was probably Brazil’s best performance.  They took a 2-0 lead with goals from Romario and Bebeto – who famously honored the birth of his third child a few days before with a baby-rocking celebration.  However, Dennis Bergkamp and Aron Winter got the Dutch back on level terms but, nine minutes from time, Branco hit a free kick from 30 yards with the outside of his left foot that curled beautifully inside the far post to give the South Americans a 3-2 victory.  Brazil returned to the World Cup Final for the first time since 1970, where once again they would play Italy, but this time there was no spectacular 4-1 thrashing.  This time, the Brazilians had to rely on a penalty shootout to lift the trophy for a fourth time, more than any other nation to that point (they won again in 2002 to take their tally to five, while Italy claimed a fourth World Cup triumph themselves four years later).

A few other memories from USA 94:

  • Some of the officiating was awful and there were many dubious red cards shown – most notably for Gianfranco Zola against Nigeria, plus Luis Garcia and Emil Kremenliev in the Mexico vs Bulgaria second round match.
  • Ireland’s defeat against the Netherlands in the Round of 16 was notable for a horrendous error by the previously reliable Pat Bonner, who allowed a shot from Wim Jonk to slip through his hands and into the net.
  • Probably the best goal of the tournament came from an unlikely source: Saeed Al Owairan of Saudi Arabia, who scored a brilliant solo goal against Belgium in his country’s final group match to secure their passage to the knockout stages.
  • After the tournament, there was a lot of hope for Spurs fans as we bought not only Jurgen Klinsmann (who scored a great goal against South Korea), but also Romanian stars Ille Dumitrescu and Gica Popescu…alas it turned out that you also need defenders and Ossie Ardiles’ “famous five” up front (Sheringham, Klinsmann, Barmby, Anderton and Dumitrescu) were not provided with enough defensive help for Tottenham to go anywhere.  Still, it was exciting to watch.

And again I am going to include some other people’s views of the 1994 World Cup – first up Larry, who had first-hand experience of the tournament and whose tumblr can be found here and is on Twitter @uccoachlarry

After the US barely made it to Italia ’90 with that crazy Caligiuri goal in Port of Spain, we were relieved to be hosting, with no need to qualify.

I started volunteering for the organizing committee in Chicago in January and worked enough hours to receive some decent benefits.  I spent some quality time watching Canon do a photo shoot about 4 days before kickoff, getting to meet the famous groundskeeper George Toma in the process.  Then I had the great opportunity to play an informal scrimmage on the pitch itself, as the TV crews needed to have a dry run.  We didn’t play long and were threatened with a fate worse than death if we damaged the turf in any way, but we got to do a run through of the team walkouts, national anthems, team photos, and then kickoff.  I also managed to score a large number of unused press tickets for friends for one of the matches.

Germany opened WC94 against Bolivia with a 1-0 victory, but behind the scenes we had a small problem.  The fax machine to send the lineups from the locker rooms to the press box broke not long before kickoff.  The solution?  I picked up the team sheets underneath the stands at the north end.  I ran, and I mean RAN, them out a driveway, through the media center outside Soldier Field, up and down stairs to get across a public walkway, and then up the outside of the entire structure to reach the press box on the second level of luxury boxes.  I made it in time for the graphics to be produced, but not by much, and it took nearly 40 minutes before I could breathe properly again.  After the match, I aided in controlling press access to the “mixed zone,” the media area where reporters could speak with the players outside of the locker rooms.   Let’s just say, the press have the manners of hyenas trying to reach that last scrap of gazelle carcass.

For the next four matches, I had to herd photographers on the endlines, dealing with their seating and sight lines issues.  I was kept busy enough to have witnessed live only single goal, out of 15 scored, as even penalty kicks could not be watched while sorting out the scramble for pole position behind the nets.

I participated in a Danish TV interview during a barbeque thrown for the volunteers after we hosted matches on consecutive days.  I have never found out if it aired or what part I played in the final piece.

I did take about 5-10 minutes during the Round of 16 match between Germany and Belgium to watch the interplay between Voeller and Klinsmann.  Their almost telepathic sense of each other’s movement just amazed.

I still have hard time believing the US beat Colombia or Ireland defeated Italy.  I do remember that awful elbow Leonard landed on Tab Ramos’ head.

Luckily, my brother got married in Orange County, California that summer, so I flew out in time for the semifinal at the Rose Bowl, taking in Brazil’s victory over Sweden.  I skipped the 3rd place match, as I that happened the day after the wedding.  I had my World Cup boss’ ticket for the final, and I happily took my seat in row 6574 for the big game.  At least I was one row in front of ESPN’s Bob Ley.  Of course the future CEO of A.S. Roma had finagled a field pass even though he was merely a student intern for a TV production group.  The match itself, of course, disappointed in its quality, especially the penalty kicks.  I can still see Baggio’s effort sailing well into the crowd.

That night we hit the World Cup after party at Universal Studios, got to see Cobi Jones walking through the traffic to reach the entrance faster, and had  a great time accessing the VIP section through the exit area.

And another fan who got to go to a game at USA ’94, Sean, who can be found on Twitter @morrissey81

Soccer - FIFA World Cup USA 1994 - USA v RomaniaDue to a well planned work conference/client visit on my Father’s part, the first processional soccer Game I ever attended was the USA vs Switzerland World Cup match in Detroit Michigan, June 18th, 1994 (back when humans – and not just wild packs of coyotes actually lived in Detroit).  Despite the obnoxiously 90ish uniforms, I had very high hopes for the US squad.  Being a goalie, I had a Tony Meola poster hanging on my wall and I had all the faith in the world that Eric Wynalda, Cobi Jones, and Alexi Lalas would carry us to the championship, or at the VERY least become world class soccer analysts down the road (I was 11, cut me some slack…)

The game ended in a somewhat lackluster 1-1 draw, but I will never forget that match.  Seeing the speed of play and the way the players who were nowhere near the ball move around the field was something that truly fascinated me and still does whenever I can attend a professional game.

Growing up, my family had New York Yankees season tickets so by the time the ’94 World Cup game came around, I had been to dozens of baseball games and seen many of the league’s best players – including a large handful of future Hall of Famers – up close.  However, I still remember that day in Detroit as being the first time I ever saw a “celebrity” in the flesh.  For whatever reason, I will never forget the sight of the US players in person.  Seeing these ”famous” players I had seen so much on TV the weeks prior to the tournament  in-person, playing the same sport I played, gave me a whole new respect for soccer. It was the first time I truly realized the magnitude and international popularity of the sport.

Oh and the infamous OJ Simpson white Ford Bronco chase happened that same weekend…so that, alonside Alexi Lalas’ red afro, will forever be imbedded in my memory of the World Cup as well.



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