The football fraternity often sees the United States of America as a newbie in the world of football. The Americans have always been regarded in contempt by their European and South American counterparts due to their low interest in the sport and their insistence of calling association football "soccer".
Before 1994, the greatest achievement for the Yanks was their third-placed finish in the inaugural World Cup in 1930, in a tournament which had a lower standard of competition than the modern day world cup tournaments.
Soccer - Made in The US of A
Even though soccer became popular with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s with players like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer as a part of the Cosmos club, the North American Soccer League was declining, and in 1985 it shut down due to financial problems.
The country was left with no professional soccer league, which is why it was a surprise to learn that US was being considered as an option to host the 1994 FIFA world cup.
It finally happened and the opening ceremony was in Chicago in typical American fashion. The level of the glitz and glamour set a benchmark for all future World Cups. The event had everything -- from notable political personalities like American President Bill Clinton, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to Oprah Winfrey and a musical performance by Diana Ross, which became memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Ross started her performance by running towards the penalty spot to kick a football into the goal with the goal then splitting in two as part of a pre-orchestrated stunt. Ross kicked the ball sideways, missing the goal, but the goalpost gave away anyway, according to plan, with the performance resuming regardless of what happened.
Group Stage Craze
The group stage was the last of a bygone era with FIFA expanding the tournament from 24 teams to 32 in 1998. Roger Milla’s goal overshadowed Oleg Salenko’s five-goal haul, and the former became the oldest goalscorer in World Cup history.
Maradona announced his comeback with a goal against Greece and celebrated it with a bizarre roar to the camera. Later, it turned out that Maradona was tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, ruling him out for the rest of the tournament. Ireland shocked the world by beating 3-time world champions Italy, with a flawless chip by Ray Houghton.
The group stage had many surprises with Romania, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria qualifying for the round of 16. But nothing came close to the shocking news of the assassination of Andres Escobar, who infamously scored an own goal which resulted in the elimination of Colombia from the World Cup.
The Heat Is On
The knockout stages kept the momentum flowing for the tournament with every match providing a spectacle bigger than the other. Bulgaria continued to surprise the world with Hristo Stoichkov ripping defences apart and eliminating the defending champions Germany in the process.
Players like Dennis Bergkamp and Gheorghe Hagi lit the tournament, giving their countries a run for their money. The knockouts also led to an iconic celebration when Romario, Bebeto and Mazinho came together to honour the birth of Bebeto’s son.
However, all eyes were on Roberto Baggio who was the current Ballon d’Or winner. He didn’t make a significant contribution in the group stage but made an astounding come back for the business end of the tournament. Baggio was a sight to behold on the pitch: his ponytail and playing style inspired millions around the world. He scored wins against Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria. Baggio single-handedly brought Italy to the final.
Final Fantasy 94
At last, the deciding match was here: Italy against Brazil in the World Cup Final. Both teams were very different from each other and their predecessors. Italy was under manager Arrigo Sacchi, who gave away with the traditional defensive style of Catenaccio and made way for a fast-paced attacking approach inspired by his work at AC Milan. Brazil also changed their iconic Samba flair for a more pragmatic and reactive technique of football.
The final neither represented the unpredictability nor the level of entertainment that was so far built in the tournament. Both teams cancelled each other out for more than two hours. The Rose Bowl with its Californian heat provided an exhausting atmosphere for the players and the fans.
There were no goals in sight and the game went to penalties that became the deciding factor for the first time in World Cup history. After eight penalties, Italy was behind 3-2 and needed their last kick to go in; and the man to take it was Roberto Baggio. It was onto Baggio to save Italy for one last time.
He stepped up for the kick, and it went over the crossbar; that was it - Brazil had won the World Cup. The Brazil squad ran towards their goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel to celebrate their win over Baggio, who disappointedly looked down in despair.
The 1994 World Cup, may have started in doubt but ended in giving fans some memories to cherish forever. From embarrassments to upsets, joys to despair— this World Cup had everything. The tournament also sparked an interest in soccer in the United States and led to the foundation of Major League Soccer (MLS).
The event marked the largest average attendance record of any tournament and left all praises for the United States, as they constructed a spectacle that had never been seen before.