Football goes Stateside: The 1994 FIFA World Cup - Part 5
USA ’94 peaked at the quarter final stage. Of that there is no question.
The four game series that began on July 9 probably didn’t include the best game played at the World Cup. But it is the electrifying sense of drama and occasion that they conveyed which makes incidents from the quarter finals of USA ’94 some of the most repeated football stories from the ‘90s.
Italy were staggering like a drunken sailor, with Baggio the only part of the nervous system righting their balance when they were on the cusp of falling over. Spain, on the other hand, realised that this was their big chance.
Spain’s big moment
Going back to 1920, when the first Spanish ‘national team’ had taken part in the Antwerp Olympics, returning home with a silver medal, Spain had often struggled to produce the goods when it really counted. Regional politics, ‘cowardly’ referees and ‘those cheating Italians’ had all been blamed for several failures in the past.
This time, however, it was a different story. The stage was set for Spain to record an epochal victory at a World Cup, to atone for a track record of underachievement, to vanquish those demons and seal a spot in the semi-finals. And all against the old foe, too. Payback would be sweet.
Alas, it was not to be!
Italy, for once, were on top in a game. Dino Baggio put them 1-0 up in Foxborough after 25 minutes, but this is where Spain began the revival that almost saw them turn the tables completely.
Jose Luis Caminero equalised in the second half and the tension in living rooms from Coruña to Cádiz rose to breaking point, for the gleam of the semi-finals was eminently attainable. Spain piled on with fervour, forcing Italy into a corner, desperately fending off the Spanish assault.
Spain were going absolutely hell for leather: the defender Sergi had been withdrawn on the hour for the experienced striker Julio Salinas to give Spain more thrust up front.
And then, with less than ten minutes to go, Spain’s chance came.
A long pass was dropped perfectly behind the Italian defence and Salinas, who had escaped their attentions, took the ball into the box, preparing to belt the thing into the far corner and to never have to pay for drinks again.
He hadn’t counted on the goalkeeper.
Gianluca Pagliuca rushed out, waving his arms like a windmill, but smartly closing down the angle of the shot. Salinas faltered once, and the world held its breath. He finally swung his foot after what seemed like an age, but tamely tapped it against Pagliuca’s leg. And the world howled in frustration.
And Spain’s chance went.
Salinas misses, Baggio converts
And where Salinas had failed Spain, Baggio succeeded Italy.
A couple of minutes from the end, Giuseppe Signori nudged the ball into the path of Baggio, who had a completely unobstructed charge towards goal. He rounded the onrushing Zubizarreta, even as a Spanish defender was racing back onto the goal line.
The angle for the shot was narrowing by the millisecond but the certainty of Baggio’s exquisite first touch meant that you just knew he would score, no matter how tight the angle.
It is perhaps this sense of inevitability that places artists like Roberto Baggio a notch above other talented forwards like Salinas, who was a convenient scapegoat for Spain’s failings, and is 1994’s villain for a whole generation of aficionados. It wasn’t really fair, but when is football ever?
Two and a half hours after the first game, the second kicked off.
The Cotton Bowl in Dallas saw the Netherlands and Brazil, by and large, drift aimlessly for the first 45 minutes. Little in the first half suggested the astonishing see-saw that was to follow. And those who ceased viewing the game at the halfway mark, no doubt, still weep tears of despair at such poor judgment and folly.
A rip-roaring second half
All Brazil were waiting for was an in. And it came, not long after the restart. Romario finished off a no-nonsense counter attack after fifty three minutes to put Brazil 0-1 up. Ten minutes later, Bebeto profited from an error on the part of the Dutch backline.
The game looked over, but scarcely a minute later, off a throw in, Dennis Bergkamp snaked the ball past three defenders and Claudio Taffarel in the Brazil goal to make it 1-2. The audience barely had time to catch their breath.
Bergkamp vociferously appealed for a penalty on 75 minutes, but nothing came of it. No matter, as Marc Overmars swung in the corner a few seconds later, and Aron Winter plundered a header into the back of the net.
Incredibly, this astounding contest had one more devilish twist left. Having blown a two goal lead, Brazil could have seriously succumbed to jitters, but a 30-year-old fullback ensured they progressed to the semi finals instead.
Branco was a survivor of the Brazil squad that travelled to Mexico ’86 but was only playing against the Netherlands on July 9, 1994 because Leonardo had been suspended for his elbow on Tab Ramos.
A little after the 80-minute mark, Brazil won a free kick a long way from the Dutch goal. The protocol in such a situation would be to sling the ball into the penalty box and hope for a favourable diversion.
Branco decided to give protocol the finger, and Brazil were immensely glad that he did.
The ball was lashed with ferocity, the swerve and flight carrying it into the far corner and put Brazil 2-3 up. The wind was knocked out of the Dutch sails; their morale crushed by the staggering strike, and they could not find a reply.
The dream was ended, and Brazil went through.
The Bulgarians rock Germany
Unbelievably, July 10 came close to going one step further. New Jersey was positively roasting for the midday kickoff, with the fancied Germans controlling the first half, although they were unable to break through the steadfast Bulgarian defence.
On 47 minutes, Lothar Matthäus put Germany 0-1 up, converting a penalty won by Klinsmann. Rudi Völler had a tap in denied for offside shortly afterwards, but although it was still close, it appeared the battle hardened Germans would advance to yet another semi final.
Nobody could have foreseen the turnaround that was to occur.
With 75 minutes gone and the game escaping from the Bulgarians, they got a free kick. Similar to Branco the previous day, the free kick had the potential to change lives and to make global heroes, for however brief a moment.
It had the potential to send a whole nation crazy with joy, and to disappoint another immensely. The question was – would this potential be fulfilled?
Bulgaria’s star striker Hristo Stoichkov was in no doubt as to the answer. It was his eldest daughter Mihaela’s birthday, and the little girl would have been proud to see her father put a superb free kick beyond the desperate scramble of Bodo Illgner in the German goal.
It was not over yet. Three minutes later, just three minutes later, a beautifully knitted Bulgarian move was clipped into the box when midfielder Yordan Letchkov, his modest, tax officer-like appearance successfully veiling his technical and tactical acumen, sprinted into the area and threw himself at the ball in the only way that would get him there first.
Illgner could not stop a bullet diving header – the echoes of which can be heard to this day and which Phil Ball once compared to Antonio Maceda’s last minute header against Germany in Spain’s third group stage game of Euro 1984 – even if his life depended on it.
There exists a spectacular freeze-frame shot of Letchkov diving through the air to meet the ball, perfectly capturing the essence of an hour, a minute, a second and a moment in what coach Dimitar Penev described as “the greatest day in the history of Bulgarian football”.
Romania and Sweden trade blows
By contrast, the last quarter final was not quite as sensational, but was a much more closely fought encounter. Romania had rocked and rolled by punishing opponents on the counter attack until this point, but Sweden were much more their equal.
Romania didn’t get an inch, and Sweden took the lead through Thomas Brolin a little before the 80 minute mark. Coach Tommy Svensson was two minutes away from successfully masterminding a huge win, but Florin Raducioiu’s goal kept Romania in the tournament for at least another 30 minutes.
Raducioiu put Sweden 2-1 up on 100 minutes, although Kennet Andersson’s goal five minutes from the end of extra time dragged the game to penalties.
The shootout was, frankly, exemplary. Håkan Mild missed Sweden’s first penalty, but he was the only one in an otherwise faultless performance. Dan Petrescu missed for Romania, and Henrik Larsson put Sweden 4-5 up, meaning that Romania had to convert or they would be eliminated.
Miodrag Belodedici failed to do so, and, fittingly, a match between the closest of opponents went right down to the wire, not settled until the final kick of the game.
But after the historic quarter finals, USA ’94 hit a brick wall, fractured its nose and collapsed in a heap, never to recover.
An upset on the cards?
On paper, July 13 looked like a fantastic opportunity. The upstarts of Bulgaria and Sweden had a superb chance to topple the old powers of Italy and Brazil. A place in history was up for grabs and suddenly, for two small nations that had stormed to the semis, there was something tangible to lose.
Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Sweden had several walking wounded even as the game began, their lack of depth beginning to tell, but they held off Brazil 0-0 for 80 minutes, before Romario decided he had seen enough and stamped his mark on the game in truly authentic fashion.
His goal ten minutes from the end was announcing to the world that he was the class and the finesse that separated champions like Brazil from troublesome infants like Sweden.
Earlier in the day, Roberto Baggio had produced two fantastic goals within five minutes of each other to airlift Italy into a 0-2 lead. Drifting past two players, he placed the ball in the bottom right corner for his first, before rapidly smashing the sphere in again from another seemingly impossible angle.
Stoichkov scored before halfway point, this time with a penalty, but Bulgaria had run out of steam. Man of the match Baggio had inspired Italy to yet another victory, and it seemed nothing would stop the march of this rarest of talents.
Italy and Brazil had progressed to the final, while Sweden and Bulgaria had fallen at the penultimate hurdle. The predictable outcome of the semi finals had lost some of the goodwill that USA ’94 had worked hard to accrue in the early knockout stages.
At least we had a final. But first, the formality of the third place playoff had to be done with.
Sweden go out with a bang
The third place playoff is usually little to write home about. But this time, it produced a remarkable result, lost to the passage of time, but one which is worth recounting.
Bulgaria exited the tournament quite lamely, in fourth place, and a far cry from the enthralling side that had wowed us all at numerous points over the past 30 days.
Sweden were the beneficiaries, Thomas Brolin, Håkan Mild, Henrik Larsson and Kennet Andersson all helping themselves in a sensational first half flurry. Sweden were leading 4-0 at the break, and it stayed that way for the remaining 45 minutes.
Third place at USA ’94 ties with an identical finish at Brazil 1950 as Sweden’s second best performance at a World Cup out of the eleven they have competed in to date.
There was just the final to go, and July 17, 1994 promised to be a day of reckoning.