The 1990 FIFA World Cup Draw was virgin territory for U.S. Soccer officials as they attended the event for the first time as participants.
Only 20 days before the draw on Dec. 9, 1989, in Rome, Italy, the United States became the 24th and final team to qualify after a 1-0 victory against host Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 19 in Port of Spain. Former National Team head coach Bob Gansler, secretary general Keith Walker, current U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati – then international games committee chairman – immediate past president Gene Edwards and communications director John Polis represented the USA at the draw.
“We were just trying to digest all of that,” Gansler said. “Certainly it was an immense experience down in Port of Spain. Then it was a bit surreal in Rome because you’re entering a little bit of nirvana. It’s the ultimate stage of the game. … You’re looking about the place; you’re seeing the countries of the world, participating in the same program. No matter what the draw was going to be, we loved the fact that we were able to participate.”
Not surprisingly, the events surrounding the draw followed a familiar path, with at least one country upset about the seeding.
“The Italians stated to us unequivocally that we would be seeded in Verona,” said West Germany coach Franz Beckenbauer at the time. “It is a decision that denotes incompetence.”
West Germany, which won the championship, wound up playing its first-round Group D matches in Milan and Bologna. The five other seeded countries were host Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Belgium and England.
Even the USA was involved in a bit of controversy when the FIFA Executive Board voided the federation’s agreement with NBC and SportsChannel America for the TV rights to the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The U.S. Soccer Board of Directors agreed to a five-year, $11 million deal with NBC and SportsChannel to televise some 290 hours of National Team games.
“It is not that FIFA disapproves of NBC,” said FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter. “But we feel that all the United States networks must be invited to bid for the television rights.”
Before the Saturday draw, soccer legends spoke about the upcoming tournament.
“The World Cup will be the greatest in history,” Brazilian great Socrates said. “Especially because Italian fans are passionate and have a fantastic organizational background.”
The topic of English hooligan fans, not surprisingly, surfaced when English soccer legend Bobby Charlton spoke.
“I hope the English fans behave so English teams can compete in Europe again,” he said about the UEFA competitions that the English had been banned from. “Their behavior is paramount to that happening.”
Finally, the draw rolled around at the Palazzo dello Sport, the site of the 1960 Olympic boxing finals.
No fighting this Saturday, only entertainment: tenor Luciano Pavarotti sang and two Italian rock stars – performed the official World Cup song in public for the very first time.
There was even some humor. When Argentine federation president Julio Grondona brought the World Cup trophy onto the stage, emcee Pippo Baudo mistakenly introduced him as “Julio Maradona.”
Movie star Sophia Loren helped out with the draw, as did players representing the six countries that had won the World Cup up until that time – Pele (Brazil), Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (West Germany), Bobby Moore (England), Daniel Passarella (Argentina), Bruno Conti (Italy) and Ruben Sosa (Uruguay), who at the time was still playing with Lazio in Italy’s Serie A.
Blatter explained the process, which would take 39 steps. “I am only the director and there will be a lot of innocents to help the draw,” he said.
There were yellow balls in three pots – the 18 unseeded teams.
There were yellow balls in six pots, with the numbers of each team would be placed in each group.
And there was one pot with three numbers – to signify the three levels of teams.
Loren picked the U.S. first and the draw was on.
Seventeen countries followed. Cameroon – after which Blatter pointed out that defending champion Argentina and Cameroon would play in the inaugural match on June 8. "No reaction for Argentina-Cameroon?" he asked. There still was no reaction. Costa Rica, United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Egypt, Austria, Soviet Union, Scotland, Yugoslavia, Spain, The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Colombia, Uruguay, Romania, Sweden, and finally, Ireland.
Only minutes after the draw was completed, Gansler spoke about the U.S., which was grouped with Italy, Czechoslovakia an Austria.
"First of all, we feel fantastic about being here," he said at the time. "It's going to be grand experience. Over 100 countries out there would love to be a part of this. At this level, there are no poor teams, only good teams and better teams. Obviously in this group we're with the favorites and Czechoslovakia and Austria."
The U.S. was primed to make its first World Cup appearance in 40 years against Czechoslovakia in Florence that June 10, meeting Italy in Rome four days later and competing the first round vs. the Austrians back in Florence on June 19.
“We have overcome a lot of psychological hurdles that kept the team from better performances,” Gansler said at the time. “I do believe we did a lot of growing up in Port of Spain.”
Gansler, his coaching staff and U.S. Soccer had their own unique challenges a generation ago. Information was at premium, as this was before the digital age and instant info as we know it. In fact, fans today can obtain more information and videos on the Internet than coaches could have back then.
“Unlike today, video and knowledge of the other folks was not available,” Gansler said. “I remember the aftermath getting a lot of tapes, especially from Czechoslovakia and Austria. Italy, it was a little bit more available.”
Just doing the basic scouting of other teams was a challenge.
The federation purchased a special videotape player “that transposed the European tape to what we had here,” Gansler said. “I recall that most vividly because that was not done that easily either. It took a little bit of time. We eventually got it.”
A generation later, Gansler put the draw and his World Cup experience into perspective.
“We went there to compete, as strange as it might sound to some people nowadays because we certainly have come an extremely long way,” Gansler said. “I still think it’s not a matter of saying we can go and play with anybody. We said we could compete with anybody. I thought, ‘Hey, we had Czechoslovakia and Austria.’ We thought we’ll go out, roll up our sleeves and compete. It’s not going to be the same quality of soccer, but that’s to be expected. So, we welcomed the challenges. Playing the host country of the event [he laughed]. That seems like an awful big item to digest.”
- Michael Lewis