Despite – or possibly because of – the absence of all four home nations for the first time since 1938, the 15th world cup finals delivered goals, shocks, controversy, tantrums, scandals and milestones in abundance. Debutants upset the applecart. Favourites tumbled early. From iconic kits, like Jorge Campos’ psychedelic fruit pastille nightmare, designed by a goalkeeper who’d clearly been huffing poison arrow frogs, to Bolivia coach Xabier Azkargorta ’s greatest managerial moustache in world cup history, the tournament was one month-long vivid, primary coloured assault on the senses. 20 years – 20 years! – on, here are 10 things from USA ’94 that left an indelible mark on football’s collective consciousness…
10) Diana Ross’ penalty miss
Soldier Field in Chicago provided as glitzy and OTT an opening ceremony as you’d expect from a nation that doesn’t ‘do’ understatement. There were cowboys and marching bands, the president was in attendance, and we’d already seen a glorious pratfall from Oprah Winfrey, who managed to stumble and go sprawling across the stage in front of a watching television audience of around 750m. Then came the pièce de résistance. Diana Ross skipped up the pitch belting out “I’m Coming Out”, but one thing she probably didn’t want the world to know was that she was not exactly Paul Breitner from 12 yards.
Some bright spark choreographer had arranged for her to take a penalty into a ginormous set of goals midway through the song. As she faced down the goalkeeper, she took an odd, hunched run-up, bottled it a couple of times, then tiptoed forward and skewed the ball miles wide. The goalposts, which were supposed to split apart triumphantly, now seemed to do so forlornly, as if shamed by Ms Ross’ failure. This, we would learn, was a moment of foreshadowing. It was also bloody funny and a damn sight more entertaining than anything in the dreary opening game between Germany and Bolivia.
9) Yekini reaches into history
After claiming the African Cup of Nations with a performance of stylish dominance in Tunisia, Nigeria were tipped to be to USA ’94 what Cameroon had been to Italia ’90. Now the rest of the world could be introduced to the talents of Finidi, Amokachi, Amunike and the rest. The first word though, went to the man who’d top-scored at the ACON, the late Rashidi Yekini. While his goal was all but gift wrapped for him, his tap-in rounding off a brilliant eight-pass move, the celebration was one of the tournament’s most iconic. Standing in the goal, reaching through the net, closing his eyes and shaking his fists with joy, ‘the Bull of Kaduna’ showed just what it meant to score your country’s first ever goal at a world cup finals.
Despite uneasy relations between players and coach Clemens Westerhof, the Super Eagles impressed in the USA, topping their group and coming minutes from knocking out Italy in the last 16. Like the Indomitable Lions before them though, they’ve never managed to look as good since. Yekini is sadly missed.
8) Wor Jack goes ballistic
Even the most optimistic Irish fan couldn’t have anticipated the incredible start they’d make to their American adventure, as Ray Houghton’s brilliant/spawny left foot lob sailed over Gianluca Pagliuca to give the Republic a deserved but nonetheless surprising win over Italy. They were brimming with confidence as they went into their next group game with Mexico, the only misfortune to have befallen them at that stage being the humidity playing havoc with Andy Townsend’s vile blonde highlights job – the worst highlights he’d be involved with this side of the tactics truck. “The lads have been calling me Valderrama but I feel more like Val Doonican,” said Townsend of the abomination atop his head, displaying more wit and awareness than he ever would again.
In Orlando though, Ireland wilted in the 110-degree heat and a Luis Garcia double put Mexico firmly in control. Jack Charlton was already concerned about the temperatures after Tommy Coyne had been so dehydrated post-Italy that he’d taken four hours to produce a drug test sample and then collapsed on the team bus. The Ireland manager became embroiled in a running battle with jobsworth touchline officials as he desperately tried to get water to his players. Things erupted midway through the second half as he attempted to send on sub John Aldridge but was prevented from doing so courtesy of some bizarre FIFA bureaucracy on the sidelines. Gesticulating wildly and effing and most certainly jeffing, Charlton’s fury at the officials was caught in full by cameras. Aldridge got in on the tact too, audibly bellowing for the benefit of ITV’s teatime audience: ““F**K OFF YOU! T**T! YA D**KHEAD YA!”
When he finally did get on, Aldo reduced the arrears with a neat header, but it wasn’t enough to avoid defeat. Charlton was handed a touchline ban for Ireland’s crucial final game with Norway. A goalless draw was enough to see the Irish through to a second successive last 16 appearance, where they promptly came a cropper against Holland. Oh Pat Bonner…
7) Al-Owairan’s wonder goal
Saudi Arabia arrived in America as 500/1 rank outsiders. Another country making their world cup bow, they were written off as fodder for the European sides in their group, Holland and Belgium. Yet there was plenty of talent in the Saudi line-up, from goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea, who would go onto become the second-most capped footballer in history, to creative midfielder Sami Al-Jaber, to enforcer Fuad Amin, bizarrely compared to Ugandan despot namesake Idi by the none-more-Partridge Clive Tyldesley, who was forced to concede: “he’d have struggled in this heat though, big Idi”.
Their star, however, was Saeed Al-Owairan, known as ‘the Maradona of the Arabs’. After giving the Dutch a huge fright by taking the lead before losing 2-1, the Saudis took on Belgium, and Al-Owairan showed how he earned his nickname. Picking the ball up in his own half around 70 yards from goal, he ran past one Belgian, then another, then another. He’d gone past four by the time he reached the opposing penalty area, and if he got a shade lucky by getting away with overruning the ball at one point and with the last defender somehow missing a ball that was there for the taking, his marvellous run got the finish it deserved when he slid into to clip the ball high over the advancing Preud’homme and into the net.
It was the only goal of the game and put Saudi Arabia – 500/1 Saudi Arabia – into the last 16. It would also take goal of the tournament honours. Al-Owairan would have a very public fall from grace in his homeland, falling foul of the country’s hard-line anti-alcohol laws and being sent to prison after being caught drinking. But his shining moment against Belgium earned him world cup immortality.
6) Hagi’s genius
From the Maradona of the Arabs to the Maradona of the Carpathians. If we’re playing ‘Whose World Cup Was It Anyway?”, compelling cases can be made for Romario, Baggio and Stoichkov, but the early rounds belonged to Gheorghe Hagi. After showing bursts of his enormous talent at Italia ’90, the Romanian number 10 had stagnated at club level. A move to Real Madrid didn’t work out, and he’d even struggled to find consistency when slumming it in Serie B with Brescia.
Tournament football was what he was made for though and he was the standout performer as Romania exploded out of the traps against Colombia on only the second day of the competition. Making the bullets for Florin Radiciou with an imperious display of grace and subtlety, he scored one of the goals of the tournament himself, an amazing curling, angled chip from all of 35 yards that sailed over Oscar Cordoba and into the far corner. This wasn’t one of those flukey, messy-sounding ‘cross-cum-shots’ that the papers never quite seem to know how to spell. Hagi meant it. He looked up, measured his shot, and delivered it to perfection.
Romania’s ruthless, rapier-like counter-attacking was years ahead of its time and it was all anchored by Hagi’s Napoleonic creativity, which did for a ragged, reeling post-Maradona Argentina in the second round. It all ended for Anghel Iordănescu’s team on penalties after a topsy-turvy struggle with fellow surprise packages Sweden, but Hagi (a qualified dentist according to his Wikipedia page, surely that can’t be right?!) left the US a superstar.
5) Maradona self-destructs
… and from the Maradona of the Carpathians to the real deal himself. In hindsight, the only thing shocking about Diego Armando Maradona’s drug test woes is that it felt shocking at the time. The game is littered with great comeback stories but by any standards, the transformation of the 33-year-old doughy, drug-addicted playboy who’d wheezed his way through the play offs against Australia into the lean machine who turned up in the States in the best shape since 1986 really stretched credibility to breaking point.
What was saddest about the whole situation was that Maradona’s brilliant performance against Greece couldn’t have just been down to the ephedrine he tested positive for. The genius was still there, the vision, the ability to pick a pass others wouldn’t even contemplate. Then came that brilliant goal, the culmination of some brilliant Argentine one-touch passing before he lashed in from just inside the box, and then that crazed celebration, tanking, hulking, wide and wild-eyed into living rooms around the world, a man out of control, raging.
When news of his failed test broke after Argentina’s next match, a 2-1 defeat of Nigeria four days later, everything suddenly made sense. True to form, the man himself blamed everybody else, friends, enemies, shadowy forces perpetrating conspiracies, and what could have been one of the great swansongs instead marked the final descent of the greatest footballer ever into parody and punchline. You really let the tortoise get away this time, Diego.
4) Bebeto rocks the cradle
Though it has become a tiresome ode to a millionaire’s working testes, in June 1994 Bebeto’s tribute to his newborn son was an exotic treat that lit up the world cup. Bebeto spent so much time living in the shadow of his more famous, more talented, on-again off-again buddy Romario, but the Deportivo striker was a fearsome penalty box predator who scored some crucial goals en route to Brazil’s triumph at the Rose Bowl. The Seleção were already a goal up in their exciting quarter final against the Netherlands when Ed De Goey’s goal kick was headed back towards goal and the Dutch players, noticing Romario coming back from an offside position, stopped, expecting a flag. It never came, leaving Bebeto to calmly wander around De Goey to double his country’s advantage. Chuckling maniacally to himself, he set off for the touchline, frantically rocking his arms from side to side as if cradling a baby, and was joined by Romario and Mazinho, who followed suit. A craze was born.
Brazil did their best to throw that lead away, Bergkamp and Winter equalising for a Dutch team that never quite hit their stride in America. It was left to the veteran left back Branco – only playing because of Leonardo’s suspension following the hideous elbow that fractured Tab Ramos’ skull in the previous round – to do what he did best, ramming home a low 25-yard free kick to see Brazil through and prevent Bebeto’s dance from looking even sillier.
As for Bebeto, the baby boy the goal was dedicated to made his professional debut in 2012. Just last week, he and his old man recreated the celebration.
3) Letchkov shocks the world
After getting an abject hammering from Nigeria, it didn’t look good for Bulgaria. But after easing past Greece in their next game and then surprising Argentina, they made it to the last 16, led by the directness of Hristo Stoichkov and with telling support from the brilliant Krasmir Balakov. They also had a solid spine that included wig-wearing custodian Bobby Mihailov, wolfman Trifon Ivanov and target men Emil Kostadinov, whose last minute goal in Paris had famously put his nation into the finals at France’s expense.
It took penalties for Bulgaria to squeak past Mexico in a match marred by abysmal refereeing, but the hero of the hour was balding Hamburg midfielder Yordan Letchkov, who’d scored the winning spot kick. Nobody gave them a chance in the quarter finals however, where reigning world champions Germany awaited. Berti Vogts’ ageing side was yet to hit top gear, having suffered from a lack of competitive games that was the down side of automatic qualification for the holders. Still, they’d marched through the rounds without really breaking sweat, surviving the disgraced exit of key midfielder Steffen Effenberg – sent home for giving his own fans a one finger salute against South Korea in Dallas – not to mention a truly horrific world cup record…
It looked like it was going to be business as usual at Giants Stadium as well. After a goalless first half, Letchkov conceded a penalty that Lothar Matthaus calmly converted. Moments later, the Germans hit the post. But with 15 minutes remaining it was Matthaus who turned villain, conceding a free kick 30 yards from goal – very much Stoichkov territory. The self-regarding Barca star duly obliged with a brilliant curling free kick that left Bodo Illgner standing. Suddenly the momentum shifted and the champions lost their belief. Just three minutes later, Yankov (no sniggering) heaved a ball into the box, and suddenly appearing into the picture from nowhere was Letchkov, dashing across his marker and flinging himself full-length to crash a header into the net. Just like that, Bulgaria were in the semi-finals in their very first world cup. And the holders were out.
It was, by some way, the shock of the tournament. German defender Martin Wagner had been knocked unconscious with the score at 1-0, and when he was told, on coming round and enquiring as to the final result, that it had finished 2-1, he asked “who scored our second?”.
The only one who wasn’t surprised was Letchkov. “I have known for several years that I am a star,” he said. “Now you all know that I am a star.” If ever a man had earned the right to blow his own trumpet…
2) Baggio’s heartbreak
Poor Roberto Baggio. He had dragged a not especially impressive-looking Italy all the way to the final. He’d rescued them against Nigeria in the 88th minute of their second round game with an equaliser and then produced an outrageous chipped pass to earn the winning penalty (which he scored himself) in extra time. He’d scored the winner against Spain in the last eight with a superb finish from a tight angle. He’d scored two stone-cold beauties to see off Bulgaria’s challenge in the semis. But he also pulled his hamstring in that game, and left the pitch in tears. Italy were in trouble. They’d won without Baggio against Mexico in the groups, but desperately needed their talisman for the final against favourites Brazil. So, like El Cid’s corpse, he was patched up and sent out into battle in the hope his very presence would inspire his own side and frighten the opposition. Baggio was clearly nowhere near fit however, shuffling through the game like a peculiarly dreamy, sun-kissed zombie, and fluffed Italy’s best chance of a disappointing final when he found himself with space in the area only to shoot over. It wouldn’t be the last time.
0-0 after 120 minutes, the world cup final, for the first time and history, would be settled by a penalty shoot out. The Azzurri had already missed two spot kicks when Baggio stepped up, needing to score to keep their hopes alive. As the camera zeroed in on the divine ponytail however, that familiar steely confidence was AWOL. The run-up was long – possibly even too long – and the man who had scored more penalties than any Italian in history lofted his shot high over the bar, giving Brazil their first world cup in 24 years.
The immediate aftermath saw all eyes focus not on the victors, but on the best player in the world, standing, hands on hips, at the scene of his failure, his own world caving in. “It affected me for years. It the worst moment of my career. I still dream about it,” he would say in his autobiography.
The miss was the moment he would unfairly be remembered for. Baggio would eventually bounce back for both club and country, but the aura he entered USA ’94 with was gone forever.
1) The murder of Andres Escobar
Tragically, one event thousands of miles away, on a different continent altogether, would provide a reminder that the biggest competition in football was, in reality, just a few men kicking a ball about. 10 days after his own goal had contributed to fancied Colombia’s early exit, Milan-bound captain Andrés Escobar was shot dead in the car park of the El Indio club in Medellín. Knowing the dark forces that were heavily involved in Colombian football, Escobar had warned his team mates not to go out in public in the wake of their elimination, but for some reason he ignored his own advice, and after an altercation outside the club he was gunned down, his assailants punctuating each shot with cries of “own goal”.
So much has been written about the murder, yet a full picture of the events is yet to emerge. Was Escobar the victim of a planned hit, a punishment from gambling syndicates who had lost hundreds of thousands when Colombia failed to get beyond the group stage? Or was it a heat-of-the-moment argument that got dramatically out of hand? Either way, the consequences were that Colombia lost one of its proudest sons, the game lost one of its finest defenders.. 120,000 lined the streets of Medellín to pay their respects at his funeral.