Captivated in the Summer of 1994
The first World Cup ever to be held in North America was the tournament of 1994 which sprawled across the gargantuan United States of America from Orlando to Pasadena, mandating teams to travel up to 3,680 km and three time zones just in the Group Stage. Nonetheless, this competition captivated me more than any other. Perhaps it was my age, a 14 year old with a summer of nothing to do but dedicate my soul to the beautiful game every day, dusk till dawn from June 17 through July 17. Or maybe the anticipation had been mounting from the last World Cup; Italia 90’, when England were cruelly defeated by West Germany in the semi-final on penalty kicks. I had let football take over my 10 year old emotional state, sobbing uncontrollably when Chris Waddle fired the fifth and final penalty wildly over the cross-bar thereby relegating the Three Lions to the 3rd and 4th place ‘friendly’.
The stories of USA 1994 were captivating. There were three debutants in the form of Greece, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia expressing the Global diversity of football. For the first time ever an independent Russia and a unified Germany were part of the competition. Three African nations, with Cameroon and Morocco joining Nigeria, had qualified bringing a composition of strength, stamina and raw athleticism to a country whose sporting prowess is based on such attributes. Not forgotten was the frustrating omission of Yugoslavia because of UN Sanctions due to the Yugoslav Wars. A unified football team may have helped mitigate the escalation of human tragedy. Their squad contained many of the great players that had won the World Youth Cup in 1987 and one Dejan Savicevic, the left footed magician who was considered one of the greatest in the world at the time. USA '94 was the first World Cup where three points were awarded for a win rather than two to encourage attacking football encompassing goals, goals, goals – possibly amended to peak the interest of the North American audience. There was also a mandate from FIFA that in order to host the World Cup the USA had to incorporate a professional league, which gave rise to Major League Soccer being founded in 1993 and beginning operations in 1996. For all of FIFA’s flaws, the constant desire to develop football in countries across the globe is commendable.
When the tournament began it certainly was submissive to expectations and actually exceeded initial intention with stories of ecstasy, agony and tragedy.
The immense but controversial Diego Maradona saw his World Cup career end due to a failed drugs test. Immediately after his magical left foot pile driver into the top corner versus Greece, superseded by his celebration of passion and anger potentially fuelled by the excesses in his blood stream, El Pibe De Oro (the 'Golden Boy') tested positive for a plethora of banned substances. He was subsequently suspended from the competition.
The highly regarded, but less than extraordinary Columbia squad collaborating with talents such as the electric and eccentric Carlos Valderrama and the combustible Faustino Asprilla failed to get out of the group stage. Furthermore the established captain, Andres Escobar was tragically murdered when back in Columbia in retaliation to scoring an own goal versus the USA that contributed to Columbia being eliminated after two Group matches. This gave light to the dark side of sport after Medellin police confirmed that the motive was a shooter(s) who had lost a lot of money gambling on Columbia being victorious. Ironically, Andres Escobar had dedicated his career to promoting a positive image of his nation.
Bulgaria was the phenomenon of the tournament and even though they had the mercurial talent of Hristo Stoichkov, making it to the semi-finals was unheralded. Forever etched in my memory as one of the marvellous moments of the World Cup is the sight of Yordan Letchkov’s flying, frontal hair patch header versus Germany to knock out the reigning World Champion in the quarter-finals.
Finally, there was the goal of the tournament from Saudi Arabia’s Saeed Al Owairan versus Belgium which saw him accelerate from 60 yards cruising through two men on either side of him, jinking one man to the right, accepting a lucky bounce to nutmeg a defender all before unleashing a 8 yard drive into the top corner; a goal that exuded pace, power and patience.
USA 94’ also produced what for me was the greatest ever World Cup Game when Brazil defeated the Netherlands in the quarterfinal 3-2. There was goals of quality and guile such as Romario’s half volley from the cross of Bebeto, Dennis Bergkamp’s exquisite long ball control to settle the ball before firing into the far corner and finally, the impeccable execution of a free-kick to win the game that was thumped off the majestic left foot of Branco.
There were other side notes such as the evolution of the Nike Tiempo football boot made famous by the prodigious Romario. Jack Charlton patrolling the sidelines in his white mesh hat at Giants Stadium when Italy were shocked by Ireland. Gheorghe Hagi initiating the trend of wearing white ankle socks outside of team socks, Jorge Campos’ wild fluorescent kits and the plastic bags of water laid out on the sidelines to hydrate the players which eventually littered the field. It all combined to create a month of fascination, intrigue and most of all entertainment.
Despite all of the captivating storylines, what enthralled me most about the 1994 World Cup was the pleasure of watching the unconventional but nevertheless magical Brazil side.
Brazil was known for playing flowing football with elegance and flair with the objective of always outscoring the opposition. Consistently instilled was a philosophy that demanded a defender to attack and an attacker mandated to mesmerise. The goalkeeper was instructed to quickly distribute with their feet and not lay precedence to protecting the goal because if their philosophy was implemented astutely, Brazil would dominate possession and mitigate the need to defend.
The 1994 squad broke the norm. While still playing the beautiful game with elegance and class, Brazil were led by Carlos Alberto Parierra, a manager who insisted on a methodical approach incorporating a steely determination combined with shape and discipline. They would intimidate teams through a variety of components contained in their new arsenal. Brazil could still outscore the opposition through ball movement that caused dizziness and chagrin, but if a gladiator-like battle was required this squad had the competencies to appease the request.
Composing the back-line was the fearsome central back pairing of Aldair and Marcio Santos whose main focus was to win balls on the ground or in the air thereby nullifying opposition attacks. They were one of the most complimentary pairing's while being strangely identical. Both were very technically gifted so when they won the ball they had the composure and confidence to play a directed pass and occasionally made a tactical jaunt up field assisting in attack. I recall watching Aldair play triangle tika taka in the opposite 18 yard box on more than one occasion. Brazil also added the dimension of being fearsome on set-plays due to the twin towers occupying the 18-yard box as aerial threats. Playing the left wingback position was Leonardo, a player so elegant in his movement that he seemed to canter to a rendition of 'Waltz in A Minor' by Frederic Chopin. He was a calm, graceful fullback who was such a dignified footballer that he made each touch and pass look like a masterpiece. Following the World Cup I meticulously endeavoured to model my game after him due to the impact he had on my malleable football potential - if only I were left-footed! On the right was Jorghino who would maraud up and down the flank with pace and strength. He had amazing crossing ability exemplified by his sublime, curling chip onto the head of the diminutive Romario who scored to beat Sweden in the semi-final.
The midfield warrior of Dunga would drive his squad with passion and strong tackling ability; more comparable to Roy Keane than Ronaldinho. He had the engine of a Honda, nothing beautiful but reliable, consistent and maneuverable when needed. Dunga was a ball winner and understood that the basic description of his duty added a major complexity for the opposition to contest with. Completing the central midfield was Zhino, a slightly understated player due to the more eloquent names within the squad. He was a slick passer of the ball who had so much stamina that he could play full throttle for 90 minutes.
Finally the attacking duo of Romario and Bebeto were formidable. The former being one of the most elegant players I have ever seen play the beautiful game. He would collect the ball and glide rhythmically forward as if he were on ice-skates, making the most established of defenders look mediocre. Bebeto was more workmanlike but still technically scintillating. I remember a goal where Bebeto received the ball on the left flank and played it into the middle of the box without taking note of who was present, subconsciously visualising his partner Romario being there to finish; present he was. He stuck the ball with his laces, in mid-air and eloquently half-volleyed into the bottom corner. He made it look so simple but watching intently, I knew this technique was extremely difficult to master. It can be compared to a hockey player redirecting a slap-shot from the point through the goaltenders legs or into the roof of the goal. It requires great coordination.
Complimenting the stability of the squad were role players like Mazinho and Branco who would come into the team and maintain consistency. They were not football artists but they held an air of comfortable cockiness which the Selecao is meant to exude. Not to be forgotten were the young guns, Cafu and Ronaldo. Cafu played a minimal role in the World Cup Final coming in after 21 minutes for Jorginho who was substituted due to injury. Ronaldo, as we are well aware of now, was the future of the Canarinho. I recall the camera sporadically diverting to the sidelines on numerous occasions to capture a naïve, enthusiastic 17 year old with the ambition to emulate the great Pele. Fenemeno would adorn the great yellow kit for years to come and win a second World Cup in 2002 living up to all expectations along the way.
The Brazil 1994 team was exactly that, a team. They weren’t the most technically gifted Brazil ever to grace a major competition but they still played sparkling football while abiding to their responsibilities. In football and sport in general, teams win championships not individuals and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether you are a player or a coach, remember that your success is a direct result of the team around you and the comfortable incorporation of all members within the group, from the kit-man to the superstar, will render positive results.
‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much’