Football goes Stateside: The 1994 FIFA World Cup - Part 4
The knockout stages began on July 2, 1994 in Chicago and Washington. Berti Vogts’ Germany had received very little from the young guns, which led to Vogts turning to the old heads in the squad.
Jürgen Klinsmann scored five goals in all at USA ’94 (in fact, he scored in all but one of Germany’s games), his strikes dragging Germany through the group stages. The ageless captain Lothar Matthäus had dropped into the role of sweeper, his intelligent play and undiminished skill proving invaluable.
The darling of German football, Rudi Völler, was coming off a poor season at Marseille, but he turned back the clock here to come up with two goals against Belgium to help Germany win 3-2.
Spain had been gliding like an unobtrusive large fish throughout USA ’94, but here they showed no hesitation in polishing off Switzerland 3-0. The Spanish had been quietly brimming, and a lack of eyeballs pointed in their direction no doubt went a long way to reducing the pressure as the qualified for the quarter finals.
But then came some shocking news. In the early hours of July 2, the eliminated Colombian team’s captain Andrés Escobar was shot six times in the parking lot of the El Indio Bar in Medellín, Colombia. He did not live to see the hour out.
A horrifying tragedy
Future amateur historians have often been quick to label this murder as ‘punishment’ for his own goal against the USA in a Group A match. The squad already had ominous threat of supposedly dire consequences hanging above their heads.
The fear was palpable, and it was perhaps because of it that Colombia desperately went for it against the Americans.
Escobar was a popular character, quiet, unassuming and a gentleman by all accounts, and he was understandably devastated for his ‘contribution’ to Colombia’s 2-1 defeat.
Calling it retaliation for the heinous ‘crime’ of scoring an own goal is probably jumping to conclusions. While it is true that the perpetrators at the bar that night did sarcastically taunt him for his mistake, and were quick to hurl abuse at him, Colombia, as a society, had lost any modicum of control it may have had with the death of the notorious Pablo Escobar.
The other Escobar had been a towering figure of authority. Allegedly, his permission had to be sought before any drastic action was to be carried out in the city of Medellín.
After his death, people were now only answerable to themselves. No one had to get the green light from the ‘big man’.
Murdered as punishment?
Violence and mayhem dogged the region, with the delicate ecosystem spiralling out of control. It is under this cloud that the tragic and untimely death of Andrés Escobar should be viewed.
The Colombians held Escobar in high regard and claim he was killed by “society”. The situation that night in the parking lot was already quite heated. Escobar was protesting his innocence for the own goal, but then a gun was drawn and bullets were fired. Escobar was behind the wheel of his car.
He had accepted an offer from Milan for the upcoming season. He had recently got engaged to be married. He was just 27.
15,000 people were around to see Escobar’s body finally laid to rest. They came to say goodbye to the gentleman whose life had been brutally cut short in his own hometown.
Sweden bounce back from Italia ‘90
Almost as a tribute to one of the sport’s most tragic figures, Sweden thumped Saudi Arabia 1-3 in Dallas the following day.
The Swedes had endured a miserable time four years earlier in Italy but came back rejuvenated for USA ’94. The trio of Martin Dahlin, Thomas Brolin and Kennet Andersson were at the forefront of the tournament’s most potent attack – Sweden ended up with 15 goals from 7 games.
Sweden had perfected the balance in attack: they cleverly mixed up the elaborate play with the direct hoofs, using the impressive height of Andersson (6’4”) to cause mayhem in the opposing penalty box. They had blazed a trail through the tournament, their intelligence conveyed through fluidity in switching between attacking approaches almost at will.
In this, it presents a striking contrast with their Scandinavian brethren Norway. The Norwegians had also fallen back on a more direct style of football, also choosing to shut down games more often than not, but were unable to harness the fearless dribbling of Erik Mykland, or the goal scoring capabilities of Øyvind Leonardsen to greater effect.
An instant classic
But even more incredibly, later that same day, Romania faced off against Argentina in a clash destined to steal the show, perfectly representative of the dichotomy that dominated the tournament; the experienced Argentines coming up against the hot blooded Romanians.
This where the constant pillorying of USA ’94 begins to look decidedly sketchy. Because the doom-and-gloom narrative of the World Cup conveniently forgets the masterful Romanians.
Romania were led by the fearsome Gheorghe Hagi, a diminutive midfielder with a wand of a left foot, an intense, devastating presence with ferocity and grace almost equal to that of the opposition’s greatest ever player.
Indeed, Hagi was nicknamed the ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ and was tipped as the player who could take an unfashionable side like Romania places.
Italia ’90 had been a huge disappointment for both Hagi and Romania, as they were made to look extremely ordinary, but it was a different story four years later.
It turned out to be one of the best games of the tournament, and one of the finest in World Cup history, a thrilling encounter that got off to an absolutely sensational start, roller coasting towards the Romanians first before the old power that was Argentina pegged them back.
Hagi stepped into more of a supporting role this time, but Ilie Dumitrescu will rightly claim his place in history, scoring two and setting up the other for Hagi, Romania holding on despite a goal from Abel Balbo 15 minutes from time to bring the 1990 runners up to their knees.
Sober Fourth of July
After a thrilling July 3, the Fourth of July seemed almost blatantly insolent to the flag waving, firework toting spirit of chest beating American patriotism.
The Netherlands defeated Ireland 2-0 in Orlando, with Brazil overcoming the USA 1-0 in Stanford later the same day. The Americans had been quietly buzzing in a tournament on home soil - and indeed this was the kick starter for the sighting of the Stars and Stripes at every World Cup since then – but although Independence Day ended in predictable and unexciting fashion, ignited only by Leonardo’s dismissal for a hideous elbow on Tab Ramos, Marcio Santos holding fort on the way to one of five clean sheets at the World Cup, it could scarcely have predicted the drama that was to follow.
A farcical Mexico/Bulgaria encounter on July 5 (six yellow cards in total, besides two dismissals, all equitably distributed) was decided 1-3 on penalties in Bulgaria’s favour but Nigeria almost delivered the shock of the tournament earlier in the day.
Baggio rescues Italy from the jaws of defeat – and not for the last time
Emmanuel Amuneke had put Nigeria ahead after 25 minutes, Gianfranco Zola had been outrageously sent off for an innocuous infringement, and the Africans were leading 1-0 with two minutes to go and on the verge of a sensational upset against one of the ‘traditional’ powers when arrived the moment that fans had been waiting for since the tournament began.
Roberto Baggio had landed in America with the weight of expectation on his shoulders but had failed to click in the group stages.
The mark of truly great players is how they step up when you really need them, and Baggio had seen just about enough of Italy making a royal mess over and over.
Having equalised on 88 minutes, Baggio then scored a penalty in extra time to down the Nigerian dream at 1-2.
The fight back against criticism had begun, and from that point on, only one man mattered.