With the 2014 World Cup approaching, I thought it might be a good time to start getting nostalgic. In my lifetime there have been 7 World Cup tournaments. The first in 1986 I remember nothing of; the second in 1990 I remember odd snippets but took no great interest in it other than getting a full Scotland kit for my sixth birthday.
USA 94 is a different story though, and it’s here where I begin my World Cup nostalgia trip. It’s the first World Cup I really properly remember, where I had that wonderful experience of watching players I’d never heard of from countries of which I had a vague awareness. This isn’t intended to be a scientific blow by blow account of the 1994 tournament; rather, it’s me remembering the bits that stick in my head. My intention is to make this a regularly irregular series up to the start of the 2014 tournament next June.
Because my birthday tends to fall around the start date of a World Cup, I tend to buy a football shirt with some of my birthday money. In 2010 it was the Brazil away shirt; in 2006 it was the fantastic Mod-esque Netherlands away shirt.
In 1994, having devoured the Shoot! preview of the tournament and noted Pele’s prediction that they were potential champions, I plumped for a Colombia home shirt. Edson’s view was based, not entirely wrongly, on their 5-0 away win against Argentina in qualifying. That Colombia side on paper was excellent, with Andres Escobar, Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla providing a quality spine through the team.
In the end, of course, the hype and the pressure proved too much for the South Americans. Defeats to Romania and the USA were followed by a meaningless win against Switzerland. This was of course rendered all the more meaningless by the senseless murder of Escobar a week after Colombia’s final match, the star centre-half seemingly paying the ultimate price for his own goal against the Americans and its impact on the gambling income of the cartels.
Despite the awful and tragic end to their campaign, I’ll always remember 1994 for the three weeks I became an honorary Colombian. That their current side is the best since that ’94 vintage will add a further dimension to next year’s tournament. And may influence another shirt purchase.
While Colombia failed to live up to their pre-tournament hype (never trust Pele’s predictions), Bulgaria did quite the opposite and punched a long way above their weight. Their side revolved around and was dictated by one man – Hristo Stoichkov. He was the one truly world class player in their side, and along with the be-hair-transplanted Borislav Mihailov was absolutely vital in ensuring Bulgaria’s unprecedented passage to the semi-finals. That a number of their side went onto play badly for Aberdeen perhaps shows how important the unit and its ability to make the most out of Stoickov was.
Having never won a World Cup match before (or indeed since), that Bulgarian side was an absolute joy to watch in ’94. Their win against Argentina in the group stages, the bizarre second round game against Mexico (more on that later), followed by Stoichkov’s magnificent free kick and Lechkov’s exemplary diving header in victory against the Germans, Bulgaria gave the footballing neutral one hell of a tournament in being able to follow a classy underdog, almost all the way to the final.
The Irish qualified for their second successive finals tournament in 1994, and were given the gargantuan task of an opening match against the Italy of Baresi, Maldini and Roberto Baggio. Ray Houghton’s chip over Gianluca Pagliuca will live long in my memory, as will Paul McGrath’s imperious performance at the back, ensuring Ireland kept a clean sheet.
From that 1-0 win in front of tens of thousands of Irishmen in New York, the Republic’s tournament foundered somewhat. A 2-1 defeat to Mexico was followed by a treacherously boring 0-0 draw against Norway. The chaps in green advanced to the last 16 on goals scored, where they faced the Dutch.
An early goal from Dennis Bergkamp was added to by a tame shot from Wim Jonk which somehow squirmed its way past Packie Bonner, much to the chagrin of the Irish. The adventure was over but as ever Ireland made many friends through that tournament, myself included.
Mexico v Bulgaria
In probably the most bizarre game of the tournament, the second round match between Mexico and Bulgaria eventually saw the Eastern Europeans go through on penalties. But what that result doesn’t show is the entirely tiresome and comically inept display of the Syrian referee Jamal al Sharif. In a game that was largely bereft of rough play, Mr al Sharif firstly gave Mexico an extremely soft penalty for a foul on striker Zague, which brought the Mexicans level after Stoichkov’s spectacular opener. This was followed by inexplicable red cards firstly for Bulgaria’s Emil Kremenliev, then Mexico’s Luis Garcia. The match was also notable for a 7-minute break while a goal was repaired, the crossbar having broken in half. In the end, the two sides played the game out to the shoot-out, while I was introduced to a new and unfortunately to be repeated concept – that of the referee looking to be the centre of attention. That Al Sharif never refereed another World Cup match perhaps tells its own story.
There’s more World Cup `94 to follow in a week or two.