A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A . If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.
As part of our semi-commemorative issue recognizing the 10th Anniversary of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the Armchair Midfielder looks back at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly from what is still considered the most successful World Cup competition of all time. This issue also marks the two-year anniversary of our 2-nil spanking of Mexico at the World Cup, but we have years and years to talk about that game. Back to ’94…
Packed Houses / Perfect Venues: When more than 3.5 million people came through the turnstiles to pack stadiums throughout the tournament, the entire world was forced to wake up to the fact that America is a great soccer nation after all, with plenty of futbol-crazed fans, from second-generation immigrants of all nationalities in our big cities to the legions of youth soccer kids from our suburbs. With the ’94 edition being the most highly attended World Cup ever, even FIFA had to be surprised by the Organizing Committee’s ability to average just under 69,000 fans per match and achieve sell-out crowds of more than 93,000 for two of the USA’s opening round matches.
USA 2, Colombia 1: With every host of the competition having successfully navigated its way to the Round of 16, the pressure was on the U.S. to show they belonged by making it out of Group A, and they did just that. A tie with Switzerland in their first match gave them the confidence needed to step it up and challenge pre-tournament heavyweight Colombia. We all know what happened on that day: an own goal by Andreas Escobar [Editor’s Note: See THE UGLY below for more on that] gave the U.S. a surprising 1-0 lead in 35th minute and then Earnie Stewart finished a brilliant through ball from Tab Ramos to further stun the crowd in the 52nd minute. With a whopper of a 2-0 decision on the horizon, the U.S. continued to stymie Colombia until the end of regulation when Adolfo Valencia struck in the 90th minute to pull one back. But it was too late; the U.S. had earned four points in its first two matches. Although the U.S. fell to surprising group winner Romania 1-0 in its third match, the four points and even goal differential was just enough to advance as the third place team out of Group A (Switzerland also had four points, but a superior goal differential) and the last of the 16 teams headed to the next round.
Bulgaria’s Cinderella Story: After going winless in its previous 17 World Cup matches, Bulgaria finally got its first points in impressive fashion, crushing Greece 4-0 in its second opening round match and then shocking Argentina 2-0 advance to the Round of 16 as the second place team in Group D. They proved to be a legitimate contender, advancing past Jorge Campos and Mexico on penalty kicks and then defeating defending champion Germany 2-1 in the quarterfinals before falling to Italy 2-1 in the semi’s and getting spanked 4-0 by Sweden in the Third Place Match. The Eastern European team’s unlikely run made a star out of forward Hristo Stoitchkov, who bagged six goals and finished the tournament tied for the scoring lead.Striker, the Mascot: “When criminals in this world appear / And break the laws that they should fear / And frighten all who see or hear / The cry goes up both far and near / For Underdog! Underdog!! Underdog!!! Underdog!!!!” So the official mascot bared a slight resemblance to the cartoon superhero, sans cape and unitard. But who cares? Everybody likes dogs that play soccer. Just ask the 18 people who saw “Air Bud: World Pup” in the theaters. And besides, creating fictional characters based on other fictional characters is a long-standing tradition in sports mascot history. I know I wasn’t the only one to notice the resemblance between Footix, the 1998 World Cup cockerel mascot, and the University of Kansas Jayhawk. Alas, both tournament mascots were far better than Kaz, Ato and Nik, the trio of digitally-created anime creatures that haunted Korea/Japan 2002, or the creepy laughing faces in the Germany 2006 logo.
Three is the Magic Number: FIFA’s decision to increase the points for a victory from two to three was an important and overdue move that encouraged teams to play for a win and increased the amount of attacking soccer throughout the opening round. Its effect on the modern game remains, from the most recent World Cup to just about every professional league around the world.
Far Out, Man: The Peter Max painting that served as the official 1994 World Cup poster is easily one of the best, and probably the most famous, of its kind in the 72-year history of the tournament. While known for his trademark hippie-trippy Cosmic 60’s style, the renowned painter of countless Super Bowl and Grammy posters kept it simple for the commissioned USA ’94 poster. The watercolor work, which features a player kicking the ball while seemingly suspended in space above a flag covering the continental United States, is awash in vibrant rainbow strokes and could be seen as symbolizing the colorful makeup of U.S. citizens. It was also a departure from the boring, rigid designs of past posters. It remains one of his most popular event posters of his vast portfolio. THE BAD
The Snoozer Final: One hundred and twenty minutes of dull, scoreless soccer made the final match a bit hard to watch, especially for those braving the blazing heat at the Rose Bowl that day. It also gave countless ignorant radio talk show hosts more ammunition for their tired “soccer is a boring and low-scoring” rants. While it was a missed opportunity to capture the interest of more Joe Sportsfans that day in Pasadena and around the country on the ABC broadcast, thankfully it didn’t affect the bottom line at all. The tournament as a whole CLEARLY won over the American fans and media. As for Baggio, who played so well in getting Italy to the final, you had to feel bad for him when he sent his do-or-die penalty kick effort high over the bar. Not because his team lost, but because that picture of him and his fashion disaster mullet-tail looking at the sky in exasperation is forever frozen in time in photos and World Cup videos.
Europa!Europa!: Even though Europe accounted for exactly half of the 24-team field, it was still a surprise that the continent produced seven of the eight quarterfinal teams. But what was great for Europe was a bummer for the rest of the world, with exciting teams like Argentina, Mexico and Nigeria sent packing and Brazil left alone to wrestle the title away from UEFA.
Forever in Blue Jeans: Being different is not always good—a lesson that Adidas learned with the infamous denim-looking jersey with stars swirling around the body. Who was the marketing genius behind that one? Did they really think that people loved their American blue jeans so much that they might want to wear a blue-jean shirt? The second kit, with the red and white vertical stripes (Get it? One uni has stars, the other has stripes), was hardly an improvement. Note to Adidas: National Team jerseys shouldn’t be gimmicky. They should be class. The Stars & Stripes uniforms presented a classic case of an idea that probably sounded good in a brainstorming session, but ended up an embarrassment. Thankfully for countries around the world, Adidas has since stopped experimenting and gone back to the more classic look of yesteryear.
Ouch!: Leonardo’s reckless elbowing of U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos in the 43rd minute of what was at the time an even affair was one of the ugliest and most blatant fouls in tournament history. The fact that it very likely affected the outcome of the match, with the scrappy Ramos finishing the rest of the first half laying limp just beyond the far touch line and needing to be subbed at halftime, makes it all the more unnerving. With Harkes missing the match due to yellow cards in two of the team’s three opening round matches, the U.S. was forced to finish the second half missing the heart of its midfield and of course gave up the winning goal to Bebeto in the 72nd minute for another in a long line of narrow one-goal losses to the world’s best team.
The Hand of God Meets the Drug Test of FIFA: Fans in Argentina and around the world were shocked to learn that THE Diego Maradona had tested positive for drugs prior to the tournament and was expelled from the tournament. Looking back, it marked the beginning of the end for perhaps the best pound-for-pound (circa 1986, not his current girth in 2004) player to ever play the game. Sadly, Maradona’s legacy continues to be tarnished with admittance of heavy cocaine use and countless failed rehabilitation efforts that have left Argentina’s favorite son a shadow of his former larger-than-life personality.
17 Shots: Forget the bad foul on Tab and Maradona’s drug problem. The most disturbing and disappointing single event surrounding the tournament, and unfortunately the one memory that most everyone – soccer fan or not – can recall, was the brutal murder of Colombian defender Andreas Escobar, who contributed the own goal in the team’s 2-1 loss to the USA that sealed their fate in the tournament. The unbelievable tragedy was a sad display of the intense passion for futbol and its inseparable link to pride in one’s country boiling over into a ridiculous and regrettable fit of rage that robbed an innocent man of his life.
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