Football goes Stateside: The 1994 FIFA World Cup - Part 3
The idea of hosting a World Cup in America had raised its fair share of questions, not least of which was the spectators. The European traditionalists alternately guffawed and snorted derisively at the idea of ‘those Americans’ not merely taking to ‘soccer’ but fully embracing it.
The crowds, however, proved to be a pleasant surprise. Perhaps not quite as appreciative of the miniscule nuances and subtleties that come from watching live football every weekend, and with the ‘real men’ of American football shoved down their throats every time the Super Bowl came knocking, it is to their credit that USA ’94 brought a bright, enthusiastic and, for the most part, impartial human dimension to the tournament, despite the unforgiving temperatures.
Their sense of excitement and curiosity was symbolic of many, many things. It was almost the defining mindset of the ‘90s, the fresh faced vigour that came with the new decade, the last major tournament of discovery before the internet and extensive global football coverage made the unknown painfully mundane, the rising American interest in the sport that eventually helped Major League Soccer onto its feet, the raw, visceral emotions that sport has the power to evoke, and, of course, the four teams that won our hearts at USA ’94.
These four nations embodied all of the above, and their tales are worth telling. It may seem a non-issue to viewers younger than 20 to see African teams blazing a trail through the World Cup. But back in 1994, they were rather an exotic commodity, probably regarded with intrigue by your average European viewer.
Cameroon was just one team – and they were the extent of perspective on African football. The modern African teams, while perhaps not winning material, are tipped to cause a few upsets before they are through.
The two extremes of African football, with Cameroon 1990 at one end of the time frame and a golden generation of Ivory Coast players at another, lead to Nigeria’s 1994 vintage being rather forgotten. That is an extremely unfair slight on what is quite possibly the most talented side Africa has dispatched to a World Cup.
The Eagles have landed
Nigeria brought so much joy to so many fans around the world, and it is moments like this that make us believe once again in the purity of sport, an innocent sense of idealism increasingly lost to money-spinning opportunities and hype machines.
After twenty minutes of Nigeria’s first game against Bulgaria on June 21 (which they eventually won 3-0), Rashidi Yekini scored their first ever World Cup goal. His celebration told the whole story, the emotion writ large on his face, a rare confluence of circumstances that left few dry eyes among those watching.
There is a desperately disheartening end to Yekini’s story. He passed away in 2012, in ill health for some time and suffering from a number of mental conditions including depression and bipolar disorder, at the age of 48, his actions having brought so much joy to so many people.
Sadly, topping Group D proved to be a curse in disguise. While leading 0-1 against a hapless, already eliminated Greek side, Daniel Amokachi hammered home a 25 yarder of quite stunning quality, which catapulted them into a Round of 16 encounter with Italy.
They could do very little about the ponytailed brilliance of Roberto Baggio, who broke their hearts late on, and had the score in the Greece game stayed 0-1, they would have faced Mexico instead. Fine margins.
Bulgaria – Eccentric but excellent
Bulgaria themselves proved to be a handful. Big personalities populated their ‘roster’ for the World Cup – indeed the only legitimate opposition to the magnificent ‘Mad’ Hristo Stoichkov came from among his own teammates - which, hindsight suggests, had enough quality to make it out of their group at least.
But Bulgaria had never won a game at a World Cup before this. Old form, however, proved to be no marker, as the Bulgarians were scarcely distinguishable from a bulldozer at USA ’94.
They had taken Colombia’s mantle when the South Americans failed to qualify – a heroic quality to much of their audacious play, spearheaded by the six goals of Stoichkov, a streak of invention and a refusal to lie down in the face of adversity.
A 3-0 defeat to Nigeria in their first game proved to be a minor hiccup; Greece were then dispatched 4-0 in the second. Down to ten men in the last game against Argentina, they stole a late goal, which meant they won the game 0-2.
Argentina, who had been leading the group before Sirakov’s header, dropped to third while Bulgaria finished second.
Norway’s costly approach
The events of Group E, spanning 10 days in June 1994, are almost a perfect microcosm of USA ’94 itself – euphoria, great drama and ‘pragmatic’ football. All teams finished on 4 points (the only time this has happened in World Cup history) and those that got through did so by the narrowest of margins.
The eye watering football that formed part of the complaints at USA ’94 was just one of those courses that football seemed to take. Really, Norway were one of the few sides arriving with the specific intention of putting their collective head down and killing the game from start to finish, a decision born, no doubt of the limited resources at their disposal.
There were actually only three 0-0 draws at the tournament (with the Norwegians responsible for one of them), and Norway’s agricultural style could, in theory at least, have served them well.
Their caution, however, proved to be their undoing. Marshalled by the rapid human shield that was Rune Bratseth, the defence only let in one goal in the group stages, but Norway failed to make the best of their chances, especially damaging given their games were often on a knife edge.
Case in point: On June 23 against Italy, goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca became the first custodian to be dismissed at a World Cup for handling outside his area after 20 minutes. Captain Franco Baresi was also injured during the match, Paolo Maldini shifting to the centre in his absence.
Italy were staring down the barrel when Roberto Baggio, very surprisingly, was withdrawn for the replacement between the sticks, but Norway failed to take advantage, allowing Dino Baggio to steal an absolutely critical goal for the Italians just short of the 70 minute mark.
Norway also scored just once, edging a close game against Mexico in Washington. The hosts’ neighbours actually went on to top the group but it was Ireland who delivered the most incredible result of the group stages, or perhaps even the entire tournament.
The luck of the Irish
Italy were managed by Arrigo Sacchi, who had achieved massive success with Milan in the past, his multi talented side the toast of Europe during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Italy’s World Cup squad probably boasted greater strength in defence and their one shining attacking star, Roberto Baggio, coming off an injury, was supposedly unwanted by Sacchi.
Faced with a clash of ideologies, Italy became increasingly dour and cynical as the tournament progressed, falling back deeper and deeper and simultaneously hoping Baggio would produce something out of thin air.
On June 18, 1994, the Republic of Ireland defeated Italy 0-1 in New Jersey, former Manchester United centre half Paul McGrath awesome on the day, producing a superb defensive display to shackle Baggio.
‘The Divine Ponytail’ could do little but shake his head as the exquisite swish of Ray Houghton’s foot sent the Irish and their fans absolutely wild. Italy had defeated them four years earlier, and revenge was very, very sweet.
A heated touchline spat between Charlton and forward John Aldridge against Mexico soured the mood somewhat, although Aldridge recovered to score a critical consolation goal that led to Ireland finishing above Italy, who were third.
Last bow for Dutch heroes
In Group F, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman and Danny Blind pulled on the famous orange jersey of the Netherlands for the final time at a World Cup, as they topped the group.
One of the finest custodians of his generation, who had a rather low key career regardless, Michel Preud’homme was named the best goalkeeper of the tournament as Belgium qualified in third. En route, they defeated the Netherlands in the ‘Low Countries derby’, with Preud’homme on top form.
The rise of Saudi Arabia – and the fall of Morocco
Most significantly, debutants Saudi Arabia proved to be the best thing about Group F. Sami Al-Jaber set them on their way to a 2-1 win over Morocco, highlighting both the rise of the Middle East’s finest, while signalling the beginning of the end for a side that topped a group containing England, Portugal and Poland to reach the second round in 1986.
Belgium were then beaten 0-1 on June 29 in Washington, Riyadh native Saeed Al-Owairan scoring one of the most iconic World Cup goals, an eye-catching, mazy solo effort which was one of the highlights of the tournament.
Saudi Arabia qualified in second, that victory in the capital not only making up the points gap but also raising their tally of goals to above that of Belgium.
The last of the group stage games was played on June 30, and after that, the six third place teams were ranked.
From that collection of teams, Argentina, Belgium, Italy and the hosts advanced to the Round of 16. The tournament was heating up nicely.
Colombia had flown home in disappointment, but another horrifying tragedy was about to cast a pall over the world of sport, coming, as it did, a couple of months after the passing of Brazilian hero Ayrton Senna in Italy.