1994 World Cup: Coming to America

In 1994, the World Cup came to America.

The 'Greatest Show on Earth' came to the U.S., with Brazil beating Italy in the final

Brazilian captain Dunga receives the World Cup trophy from former U.S. vice-president Al Gore. ((Getty Images))

In 1994, the World Cup came to America.

Played out during a four-week period under scorching summer temperatures, the 1994 World Cup brought the global game to the biggest and most demanding sports market in the world for the first time in its illustrious history: the United States.

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

Would the World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet, be a success in the U.S.? Many had their doubts. The North American Soccer League went under in 1984 and with no major domestic league to replace it, soccer was relegated to the periphery of the American sporting conscience ever since, unable to compete with the big-five (football, baseball, basketball, hockey, college sports).

QUICK FACTS

  • Number of participating teams: 24
  • Top scorer: Bulgaria's Hristo Stoitchkov and Russia's Oleg Salenko (6 goals)
  • Number of games: 52
  • Total goals scored: 141
  • Average goals per game: 2.71
  • Highest scoring game: Russia's 6-1 win over Cameroon on June 28
  • Total attendance: 3,587,538
  • Average attendance: 68,991

A World Cup on American soil, the soccer-hating critics said, would be a dismal failure with the roster of international stars, virtually unknown to the U.S. audience, destined to play before half-empty stadiums.

How wrong they were.

The 1994 tournament shattered World Cup records for total attendance (3,587,538 spectators) and average attendance per game (68,991) - Italy 1990 (2,517,348 total) and Brazil 1950 (60,773 average) were the previous record-holders.

More important, fans in the U.S. witnessed the rebirth of attacking soccer at the World Cup. Thanks to the outlaw of the back pass and the introduction of three points for a victory, the defensive postures and the "afraid of losing" mentality that prevailed at the 1990 World Cup was nowhere to be found in the U.S. as teams were committed to attacking soccer and entertaining the American spectators.

The fact that so many of the game's powers failed to qualify (England, Denmark, Portugal, France and Poland) had no bearing on what was generally regarded as an exciting and enthralling competition, the final notwithstanding.

Jurgen Klinsmann was in fine form early for Germany. Goals in a 1-0 win over Bolivia in the tournament opener in Chicago and a 1-1 draw with Spain preceded a two-goal effort in a 3-2 win over South Korea in Dallas, helping the Germans top Group C ahead of the Spaniards.

The nation's sports media focused its attention on the U.S. team, which kicked off its Group A campaign against Switzerland at Detroit's Pontiac Silverdome, a 1-1 draw. A stunning 2-1 victory over heavily favoured Colombia in Los Angeles followed, an own-goal by Colombian defender Andres Escobar paving the way for the American victory and the South American country's early elimination. It proved to be a costly error for Escobar in more ways than one.

The U.S. dropped a 1-0 decision to Romania, but the Americans had done enough to finish ahead of Colombia and advance to the knockout stage as one of the four third-place teams.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: Brazil's 3-2 victory over the Netherlands in the quarter-finals. Romario and Bebeto were at their lethal best in Dallas, brilliantly linking up to give Brazil a 2-0 lead early in the second half, only for the Dutch to level the score shortly after. Branco's powerful strike from 30 yards out with nine minutes left sealed a sensational victory for Brazil. Honourable mention to Romania's 3-2 win over Argentina in the second round.

MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT: Romario. The Brazilian dynamo scored five goals in the tournament, but more important, he was at the heart of Brazil's potent attack with his pace, creativity and vision. Everything he touched turned to gold as he led Brazil to its fourth World Cup title and claimed the MVP award. Honourable mention to Italy's Roberto Baggio and Bulgaria's Hristo Stoitchkov.

SPOTLIGHT: Colombia's Andras Escobar paid the ultimate price for his own-goal against the U.S. when he and his teammates returned home in disgrace after being knocked out in the first round.

On July 2, less than two weeks after the U.S. game, the Colombian defender was assassinated in brutal fashion for his mistake, gunned down outside a restaurant in a suburb of Medellin. According to his girlfriend, the killer callously shouted "goal" for each of the 12 bullets he fired into Escobar.

Humberto Munoz Castro was found guilty of Escobar's murder in June 1995 and sentenced to 43 years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to 26 years due to his submitting to the ruling penal code, but Munoz was controversially released from prison in 2005 after serving approximately 11 years of his sentence.

The brutal murder of the 27-year-old Escobar, who was negotiating to sign with Italian club AC Milan at the time, still casts a macabre shroud over the World Cup and the game of soccer to this day.

AND ANOTHER THING: Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top professional soccer league in the United States. It was formed in 1993 in fulfillment of the promise made by U.S. soccer officials to FIFA to establish a pro league in exchange for staging the 1994 World Cup on American soil.

The league kicked off in 1996 with 10 teams and boasted surprisingly strong attendance the first season. Numbers declined slightly after the first season, but stabilized in subsequent years thanks to the league's TV deal with ABC and ESPN.

Unlike other pro sports leagues, MLS is organized as a "single-entity" organization, meaning the league (and not the individual teams) contracts directly with the players. As a result, MLS is able to control spending and labour costs, implement a revenue-sharing scheme, and promote parity across the league.

Brazil was held to a 1-1 draw by Sweden, but still finished first in Group B ahead of the Swedes. The Brazilians, short of quality players in midfield, were forced to rely on the individual brilliance of forwards Romario and Bebeto, a duo that terrorized opposing defenders throughout the competition.

The most exciting game in Group B was, without question, the Russia-Cameroon affair. Roger Milla, back for another go at age 42, tallied for Cameroon, but Oleg Salenko scored a World Cup-record five goals to lead the Russians to a 6-1 victory.

Over in Group D, Greece, making its World Cup debut, lost all three of its games and was outscored 10-0 as it crashed out. Nigeria, another first-timer, Argentina (with an aging Diego Maradona) and Bulgaria (led by talented Barcelona forward Hristo Stoitchkov) finished tied on six points and all advanced.

Argentina won its first two games and with a revitalized 34-year-old Maradona playing his best soccer in years, the South American powerhouse looked like the favourite to win the tournament. But, just as quickly as they skyrocketed to the top of the World Cup heap, they came crashing down after Maradona failed a drug test (he tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine) and was expelled from the tournament.

In Group E, Italy lost 1-0 to Ireland in its first game in New York. Reduced to 10 men in their next game against Norway after goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off in the 21st minute, the Azzurri looked to be dead and buried.

Dino Baggio came to the rescue, however, scoring in the 69th minute to lift Italy to the victory. A 1-1 draw with Mexico in Washington followed and although all four teams finished tied on four points, Norway was the odd team out (on goal difference) and Italy squeaked into the second round as one of the third-place teams.

Another three-way tie ensued in Group F, the Netherlands coming out on top ahead of Saudi Arabia and Belgium on goal difference.

Germany (over Belgium), Spain (against the Swiss) and Sweden (versus Saudi Arabia) had an easy time earning victories in the second round, but the surprise of the round was Romania's shocking 3-2 win over Argentina in Los Angeles. Gabriel Batistuta, the prolific striker who played for Fiorentina in Italy, bagged his fourth goal of the tournament but Argentina looked lost without Maradona against a pesky Romanian side.

The Dutch blew past Ireland in balmy Orlando, the elegant Dennis Bergkamp leading the way with his second goal of the tournament, before all eyes focused on the Brazil-U.S. game in California.

Brazil went a man down when Leonardo was shown a red card just before halftime, but there was to be no duplication of the U.S. Olympic hockey team's victory over the Soviets in 1980, no "Miracle on Grass." Bebeto's goal in the 73rd minute, set up by an exquisite pass from Romario, killed off a valiant American team that could hold its head high after a splendid effort.

In Boston, Hristo Stoitchkov continued his torrid scoring pace with his fourth goal of the tournament against Mexico as Bulgaria won in a penalty shootout.

As for the Italians, they were engaged in a physical affair with Nigeria in Boston. Losing 1-0, the Azzurri saw their problems compounded when Mexican referee unfairly red carded Gianfranco Zola in the 76th minute. The Italians looked certain to be going home early, but it was at this moment that Roberto Baggio, the reigning European and world player of the year, came alive for the first time in the tournament.

The Juventus forward scored in the 89th minute and then potted the game-winner in extra time from the penalty spot. From that point on, a rejuvenated Italy took flight on the wings of Baggio.

It was Baggio, dubbed the "Divine Ponytail" for his Buddhist beliefs, who rescued Italy against Spain in the quarter-finals when he scored the winner on a brilliant solo effort with two minutes left in regulation. Baggio and the Italians were looking dangerous.

As were Brazil. Romario and Bebeto, short of service from a pedestrian midfield, had to rely on their skill and guile to torment the Netherlands in Dallas. Though the Dutch fought back from a 2-0 deficit, the mighty Brazilians earned the victory late on a booming shot from defender Branco.

Sweden sent Romania home with a victory on penalties in San Francisco, while Bulgaria authored one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. Lothar Matthaus's penalty shot just after halftime gave the Germans a 1-0 lead, but two goals less than three minutes apart, one off a sensational free kick from the golden boot of Stoitchkov, gave Bulgaria a well-deserved 2-1 win over the defending world champions.

The semifinals offered up an enticing matchup between Italy and Bulgaria in New York, pitting two of the game's most prolific and dangerous strikers (Baggio and Stoitchkov) against each other.

It was the Italian, though, that looked the more dangerous of the two. Baggio effortlessly ripped apart the Bulgarian defence with his pace and crafty runs, scoring in the 20th minute and adding a second goal just five minutes later. Stoitchkov pulled one back for Bulgaria on a penalty shot before halftime, but the day belonged to Italy, and, more specifically, the majestic Baggio.

On the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, Brazil found the going tough against a well-organized Sweden team. Kept in check for most of the game, Romario finally unlocked the Swedish defence in the 80th minute, his fifth goal of the tournament handing Brazil the victory.

Stoitchkov failed to add to his goal tally in the third-place game (he finished tied with Russia's Oleg Salenko as the top scorer in the competition with six goals) and Bulgaria slumped to a 4-0 loss to Sweden. Still, Bulgaria could be proud of its accomplishments in the U.S., especially after failing to win a single time in their previous 16 World Cup matches.

THE FINAL

Brazilian players run to join their teammates as Italian midfielder Roberto Baggio bows his head after he missed his penalty kick. ((OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images))

Over 94,000 fans jammed into the Rose Bowl on July 17 to see two of soccer's biggest superpowers, Italy and Brazil, collide in a final where the winner would claim the ultimate bragging rights as the first nation to win four World Cup titles.

It should have been a classic encounter, one that brilliantly capped off what had been, up until that point, an entertaining and thrilling competition. Instead, it conjured up the dour memories of the 1990 final between West Germany and Brazil, as FIFA's worst nightmare was realized: a goalless World Cup final decided by penalties.

It didn't help matters that Baggio and Romario, who both squandered scoring chances, were carrying nagging injuries, robbing them of their ability to influence the game with their visionary play.

While the Brazilians poured forward in numbers, the Italians (using four defenders and a defensive stopper in front of them) relied on the counterattack.

The veteran Franco Baresi, having recovered from recent knee surgery, and the incomparable Paolo Maldini, Baresi's second lieutenant, did a masterful job of containing Brazil. Both goalkeepers, Italy's Gianluca Pagliuca and Claudio Taffarel of Brazil, were called upon to make some big saves, none more important than Taffarel's stop on Baggio in extra time when he tipped a 25-yard shot just over the crossbar.

Romario and Bebeto could not conjure up the magic they so frequently did earlier in the tournament against a solid Italian defence, though Romario did force Pagliuca to make a fine save off a header.

Brazilian manager Carlos Alberto Parreira threw on Paulo Rosa Viola as a substitute in extra time. If only Parreira had done so earlier: Viola, a true livewire with the ball at his feet, gave the Italian defence all it could handle with his wizardry and dribbling skills.

So it would be penalties, an unfortunate way to decide a final, but a fate that seemed inevitable from the opening kickoff.

Baresi and Brazil's Marcio Santos both missed and, after the teams exchanged two successful kicks, Daniele Massaro's lethargic effort was saved by Taffarel. Dunga's goal gave Brazil a 3-2 advantage, meaning Baggio had to score to keep Italy's hopes alive.

The divine striker, who had exhibited such deadly precision throughout the tournament, calmly strode forward to the penalty spot and with the weight of an entire nation's hopes resting on his broad shoulders, ran up and took his shot.

But unlike previous occasions, he chose power over precision. It proved a costly decision - Baggio's blast sailed over the crossbar into the blue California sky.

Twenty-four years after winning its last World Cup, also against the Italians, Brazil was crowned world champions for a record fourth time.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

  • The 1994 tournament shattered the World Cup records for total attendance (3,587,538) and average attendance per game (68,991). Germany 2006 (3,353,655 total attendance) and Brazil 1950 (60,773 average) are the next highest totals. The overall attendance mark is even more impressive when you consider that the 1994 tournament was made up of 24 teams. The 1998 World Cup was the first to feature 32 teams and had 64 total games, 12 more than the 1994 competition.
  • The United States-Switzerland contest in the opening round at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit was the first World Cup match to be played indoors. Natural grass was shipped from California and installed over the existing artificial turf.
  • Cameroon's Roger Milla was 42 years and 39 days old when he scored against Russia in the opening round, making him the oldest player to score and play in a World Cup game.
  • Claudio Caniggia scored the 1,500th goal in World Cup history in Argentina's 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the first round. FIFA awarded the inaugural Yashin Award for the best goalkeeper of the tournament to Belgium's Michel Preud'homme. The award is named after the Soviet Union's Lev Yashin, considered by most critics as soccer's greatest goalkeeper of all time.
  • American music icon Diana Ross provided a moment of unintentional comedy for television viewers around the world when she somehow missed scoring into an empty net from a few yards out on a penalty shot during the opening ceremony of the tournament.
  • Brazil was held to a shocking 1-1 draw by Canada in an exhibition game in Edmonton weeks before the start of the tournament.
  • The 1994 tournament marked the first time Russia competed in a World Cup since the breakup of the Soviet Union.