An event over sixty-years-old, sixty-four to be precise was to take centre stage yet again for the 15th World Cup finals. An astounding record breaking total number of 157 nations, far and wide, would contest the 22 places available for a 24-team tournament. Germany as holders, and America, the host nation, already had its places reserved.
The qualifying process would take over some 20 months – from March 21st 1992 until November 1993 – and some 582 games before completion. This was from the first match in the Oceania section to the very last in Buenos Aries Argentina. The World Cup had been long awaited with tremendous excitement and anticipation by fans worldwide. These 15th finals would take place in a country which it was said ‘All Dreams Were Possible’ AMERICA, possibly the greatest country in the world. Indeed, nowhere on planet earth was there a place more fitting to hold sports greatest contest…the world held its breath.
Though widely accepted as a great choice of venue, heavy criticism, long speculation and debate preceded the award of the finals to America – this from many hardened and outraged voices. It was not due to a fear of any inability to stage a major sporting event, or a lack of resources available, but because of the real lack of interest within the sport in a country with a population of over some 250,000,000 people.
By awarding these finals to a country with no pro-league, no tradition, nor role-models or superstars – for the home grown talent to look up to – FIFA, for the first time were to break the cycle of alternating between Europe, Latin and South America. It had been the first time a nation would host a tournament under these circumstances.
For America, the last frontier unconquered, the last of the unbelievers, it was the best and last chance for soccer to really take off. This part of sporting history would be a superb advert for a league of its own; a real chance to promote interest within the game so that it could go on and become a real national sport. The success of the finals could not be measured in mere words to the future of the game in a country where its inhabitants were obsessed with high scoring statistics. This was within a culture that did not share any fascination with the underdog or losers. One thing for certain, the warmth and natural joy for the occasion shown by the American public was sure to make it a tournament to remember. America’s great enthusiasm for doing things correctly and exuberantly was certain to overcome any misgivings or doubts.
As with all the World Cups of recent, the qualifiers would come from five or six continents – Europe, South America, Africa, Concacaf, Asia and perhaps Oceania. Because European soccer possessed most of the quality teams, a huge proportion of the qualifiers would come from that hemisphere. In South America nine nations (Chile was expelled from competing) battled for three assured places with the possibility of a fourth should they defeat the winners of the Oceania region. The recent improvement of African nations meant FIFA made a further slot available from that zone. Strong claims at the end of the last World Cup for more entrants, had been voiced following Cameroon’s remarkable run in Italy. And so it was to be as possibly some of the most naturally gifted players on earth had the opportunity to really show their abilities on the world stage. And what of the sides from Asia, Oceania, and the Concacaf regions;generally thought of as the weakest in soccer with the standard pretty poor. Well that was with the exceptions of the consistent and often brilliant Mexicans and East Asia giants South Korea – the dominant force of the that region. The Japanese were in emergence as were a few Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, and Australia from Oceania who almost made the 86 finals.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
With all competing nations finalised the second part of this series was to take centre stage, this some two years after the first qualifier between Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic.
As in 1982, when the finals were first bloated, 24-teams worldwide were to do battle for soccer’s highest honour. Teams were put into six groups of 4 teams with the object to eliminate eight nations by the end of the first round. Four of the 6 teams in third position would progress as points, goal-difference, goals scored were to come into the equation. From then on the affair will simply be reduced to lottery in an attempt to avoid any statistical farces such as when neighbouring countries the former West Germany and Austria conspired to see Algeria shoved out in 82. Final group games would also be played on the same day simultaneously.
For the first time ever, 3 points per win was introduced, a victory to become more priceless and crucial than ever. This surely was to encourage greater attacking football with a new competitive edge given to the first stage.
Players that received cautions in the group matches would see the slate wiped clean as the tournament moved into the second phase. Video evidence would also be called upon if needed, while players would be stretched-off on an electric cart if they were injured; no player to receive treatment on the field. Players rising before they were taken off would be booked. Tackling from behind with no attempt to play the ball would result in the offender receiving his marching orders. The names of each player would be imprinted on the back of their shirts as three substitutes would be allowed to participate in a single game – two outfield players and a keeper. In positive situations linesmen were instructed to give the benefit of doubt to attacking teams. Player’s running back not interfering with play would not be deemed offside.
Referees were encouraged to make all stoppages in order to extend amount of time the ball is on the field.
Though all the positive changes would be great, the real success of the finals depended on the quality of judgements made on the field; the flow of the game, the cracking down on players violating rules blatantly, such as standing over the free-kick etc. Officials that did not uphold the law sufficiently enough would themselves be dealt with stiffly.
A concern voiced by mainly the European nations was of the unsavoury problems of rasping heat and altitude in mid-afternoon temperature with players sure to struggle in acclimatising and in gaining an equal share of the air. Its last effects were experienced at the 86 Mexico finals, sparking off a series of investigations into its effects
As for the football itself, it would be the first time since Mexico 86 that all previous winners would not be present.
Brazil, the only side ever present to date, were the joint 3-time winners and favourites. This was nothing new as they went into every tournament as The Peoples Team, though it had been 24 years since its last triumph led by the legendary PELE in Mexico. The team displayed a brand of football from another planet that was to captivate the worldwide public imagination and raise the game to new heights. It was to end with the destruction of the Italians in a classic duel of the Azteca in front of a colossal audience of 100,000 fans – perhaps was the finest side to grace the world stage. They had been the only nation to win the finals outside its continent. The 30,000 or so following at these finals and some 180 million back home were fully expecting to see football of a similar kind, which if produced would certainly re-capture the trophy and end the long suffering and wait and would once again re-establish their reputation as the ULTIMATE BEST.
Even so called minnows of yesteryear were no more with each and every side aiming to emulate and even surpass the achievements of Cameroon who in 1990 brought a breath of intrigue, a touch of romance before ending up the people’s favourites. Their free-wheeling cavalier style, mixed with a touch of aggression, will long stay in the memories of many. Could an African team really challenge for top honours? They certainly possessed the great individuality and ability needed, but just as important they seemingly lacked the teamwork or discipline. Could they combine the two and conquer world football? However Nigeria, fresh from their Nations Cup win looked the likelier to posing a threat to European and South American domination.
From Europe, Italy and Germany – the only nations to match Brazil’s feat of 3 wins – looked to be the most threatening contenders. The Italians had been far from convincing in the qualifiers using some 60 men. They boasted seven of the Milan side that had demolished Barcelona plus Roberto Baggio. However, they needed to find some of the imagination and steel from the teams of 1970 and 1982. The past masters of pacing themselves in competition, Germany had relied more on resilience than brilliance in the capture of its three trophies. Holland completed the trio of the most fancied Europeans; though clearly not the side of 88, they had shown signs of a re-emergence, witnessed at the 92 Euro-finals. Constant internal bickering had been their downfall at the 1990 World Cup. With neither Ruud Gullit nor Marco Van Basten, Dutch hopes were to rest heavily upon Dennis Bergkamp. Argentina, winner of two of the last four finals and a runner-up in another were also one of the favourites to continue the tradition of South American dominance on the continent. They were under rehabilitation following a disgraceful and cynical World Cup of 90 that tarnished football’s image. Yellow cards were amassed in abundance, not forgetting the few red ones. The anti-soccer came to the boil in the infamous final duel against the equally disgusting Germans. And one wondered, could the return of Diego Maradona yet inspire his country to another triumph, this after his late call-up? Many felt he was way past his best, selected on reputation rather than current ability. In his heyday, he was the most magnificent player ever to take to the field, ruling the field supreme, a man of unmatchable brilliance possibly matched only by the great Pele as the greatest in the history of the game.
Of the outsiders Colombia, football’s most recent power, had been a name high on everyone’s lips. They had won nothing but had built up an outstanding record of recent with its most famous result a semi-legendary 5-0 destruction of Argentina.
Uruguay and England were the major absentees with the finals to miss out on the talents of Enzo Francescolli – who had failed miserably in 86 and 90 – Ruben Sosa as well as Paul Gascoigne who had shone 4 years earlier in Italy. The elimination of two African nations, Ghana and Zambia was also to shed tears to the eyes of many. Ghana for being one of the continents elite – the world not to witness Abedi Pele or Antony Yeboah – and Zambia for having an entire squad wiped out due to an untimely tragic disaster beyond human control. Perhaps the cruellest (not forgetting Zambia) eliminations were that of Japan and France, who being only seconds away from qualification saw themselves edged out. The Japanese found themselves pegged back 2-2 by Iraq enabling bitter rivals South Korea into taking centre-stage with the finals to miss out on seeing the most talented Asian player Kazuyoshi Miura.
One thing for certain was that the fans – the thousands to make the trip and the billions of armchair followers – were assured of witnessing sports greatest entertainment flourish to new heights; quality, skill and the rest with one able to sit back relax and fully enjoy the occasion. It was hoped that this tournament would be able to satisfy the American thirst for adventure, excitement and high scoring. As with the World Cup, one lived in hope. With all the talent on view, it was sure to succeed. Could it possibly fail?
Months of anticipation, speculation, and hype was to come to its end at the Soldierfield stadium packed to a capacity 63,117, the curtain finally about to rise on football’s greatest festival. The holders and no newcomers Germany were stepping into the unknown against Bolivia.
It was a spectacle to savour, an occasion sampled many times by the Germans. But for rank-outsiders Bolivia it was to be a totally new experience with the majority of the worldwide audience never having seen the team perform. It was certainly the biggest day in their football lives.
Germany, the defending champions, 3-times winners, 3-times runners-up, 3-times semi-finalists were competing in its 69th tournament game. They had won 39 of them and would begin with seven of the side that triumphed in Italy; a third of that squad played in 90 with only Augentahler and Littbarski missing which suggested new talent had not broken through. A great team in its day it appeared this team was on its last legs?
Outsiders from the original South America Group B, Bolivia experienced a fairytale qualifying campaign that had got off to the most sensational of openings with the total destruction of Venezuela away 7-1, this followed by wins over Uruguay (3-1), Brazil, Ecuador (1-0), and Venezuela (7-0) the highlight of which was the 2-0 defeat of 3-time world Champion Brazil in La Paz. All its home games had now been won, of course with the help of its secret-weapon altitude. A realisation of World Cup qualification had now become a distinct possibility…But at whose expense, Brazil or Uruguay?
With the trip to Brazil they had the chance of securing a place in America. However, on this occasion they would suffer retribution and defeat for the first time, and it would be heavy with its party put on hold following a crushing 6-0 loss. The result enabled Uruguay to make ground and the nations contested a crunch Montevideo return; the home fans seeking revenge for the humiliation in La Paz. A 2-1 defeat for Bolivia was to leave all three nations, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia on 10 points. For the final game, Bolivia travelled to Ecuador needing to avoid defeat. That was accomplished with a 1-1 draw against a side that had lost to flyweights Venezuela.
The electric atmosphere and colourful scenes spread throughout the marvellous arena, the humidity to reach 70 degrees, suggesting the heat would be better suited to the Bolivians. Indeed it was said that players could lose up to 10-11 pounds during 90 minutes.
No defending title-holder had won the opener since 1966 with only four goals having been scored. A goal from Erwin Vandenbergh in Barcelona 1982 separated Belgium and Argentina. Italy and Bulgaria shared a goal-a-piece before 500/1 rank outsiders Cameroon beat Argentina in Milan despite having 2 men sent-off.
For today’s match, one would only have to wait only six minutes for the first significant occurrence with an immediate clamp down on the tackle from behind. Jurgen Kohler was to receive the first of what was to be many a yellow card. Five minutes later, Karl-Heinz Reidle was to hold his head in dismay after he failed to score with a header. Moller, playing just behind the front two, had created the clear opening. Perhaps Reidle, normally a fine headerer of the ball was forced to slightly back-pedal before the attempt. The first East German to play for the unified team Matthias Sammer saw his well-connected half volley palmed away by the confident looking Bolivian keeper Trucco. Willed on by most of the crowd, the underdogs whom had begun cautiously gained in confidence and almost stole into the lead on 33 minutes. This followed their best attacking move with Erwin Sanchez striking the game’s first real venomous drive a fully 30-yards-out. The effort forced IIlgner into getting everything behind his body to acrobatically push the ball away to safety. Had it beaten him it would have been Bolivia’s first ever World Cup goal. The South Americans had failed to find the net in its previous seven internationals. A superb, though slightly over-hit Sammer ball, threatened to put Moller, making a well-timed run, in the clear. But the keeper was quick to read the danger and cleared his lines.
However, for all Bolivia’s hard graft and stubbornness its defence, caught square, finally caved in; this following a catalogue of defensive errors on the hour. Hesitance was shown in dealing with the punt over the top from Matthaus with the ball to bounce off the chest of Hassler and past the badly positioned keeper and into the path of Jurgen Klinsmann who surely was never to score an easier goal for Germany. Having time and space the blonde striker was to roll the ball into an empty net for his 21st International goal. It was to be a true DROP OF LUCK. After managing to get in from behind, attacking full-back Cristaldo almost punished the Germans for being too square, but lack of control enabled a stumbling Bodo Illgner to get his hands to the ball. Though making a fight, it was interesting to see no change of tactic from the trailing side, still refusing to play an extra-attacker in support of the isolated Romallo. Things looked up with the entrance of the highly distinctive Marco Etcheverry, the nation’s most brilliant star. He was unable to participate from the onset due to a lack of fitness after recovering from a broken leg that had kept him inactive for seven months. He made an immediate impression with his first touch, the superb killing of the ball, which was to delight the fans. Sensationally, it was not to last as he was only to make the briefest of appearances. He saw himself dismissed following a clash with Thomas Berthold, seeming to swing an arm in a sign of frustration, after losing possession. It did not seem malicious enough to warrant a sending-off and was truly a sad end for a player of his quality, a blow to the finals. Berthold himself had just returned to the squad after being out of favour for a long while, this following a verbal attack on coach Berti. There was no way back for Bolivia as a German display of usual efficiency was to triumph over a well-drilled Bolivian side. Germany, traditional slow starters knew they would have to improve if they were to even have half a chance of retaining the trophy. Reeling from the loss of their star man, harshly dismissed, could Bolivia come back? In a game not dirty in the least five yellow cards were dished out by an under pressure official determined to lay the law under the watching establishment.
With a repeat of their 1990 finals clash against South Korea, the Spanish looked to join Germany at the top of the group. At the same stage 4 years earlier Michel Gonzalez hit all three Spanish goals in a comfortable 3-1 victory. Everybody expected a similar outcome from today’s encounter, apart from the Koreans themselves, of course.
Spain, one of Europe’s strongest nations had always been an enigma constantly failing to deliver on the big stage, despite boasting some true class individuals. The appointment of their no-nonsense coach Javier Clemente signalled the team’s biggest transformation in recent memory. This controversial figure was a Spanish version of Brian Clough, but ten times nastier, a man whose views had upset many people – alike the great man of Nottingham past. He completely changed the face of the recognised style. Out went the flamboyancy to bring in a more solid approach based on teamwork. Legendary Spanish stars, Emilio Butrugeano, Michel and Martin Vasquez were ousted as a greater Barcelona foundation was preferred.
Winners of the biggest qualifying section they had not missed the World Cup finals since 1974. Spain’s long route began with an impressive 3-0 home victory over the Albanians. However they found their seemingly smooth route hampered by tame scoreless draws in Baltic Latvia, Northern Ireland, and worryingly at home to Republic of Ireland. Latvia’s Baltic neighbours Lithuania suffered a five-goal crushing before Spain suffered defeat for the first and only time in Copenhagen. Winning ways were restored to virtually end Northern Irish hopes with the 3-1 home victory, followed by and a two-zero triumph in Lithuania, then the scintillating destruction of Albania 5-1; in a match rife with rumours of bribery levelled against the Spanish. Playing a 3-3-3-1 formation they produced their finest display of the campaign, a rampant and previously unbeaten Irish Republic seeing themselves stunned in Dublin, Spain ending the game as convincing 3-1 winners.
The group’s outcome rested on the final games in which any one of Spain, Denmark or Irish Republic could be edged out. In one hell of a tussle in Seville, 86-capped Zubizaretta saw himself sent-off early. However, 10-man Spain used all its guts to hold out before finding a winner 10 minutes from time to qualify.
South Korea had lost seven of its previous eight tournament encounters, a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in 86 represented its best ever result. They hoped to improve on its performance of 90, losing all 3 games, this after having impressed at Mexico 86. The team represented 1/3 of the world’s population. All players were home-based or in either Japan or Germany.
Sandwiched in between Japan and China, the South Koreans, the biggest force ever in Asian football, were one of 28 teams that competed for the two qualifying berths.
The first phase resulted in clear-cut qualification with Bahrain left in its wake by a clear 6 points winning seven ties with the 0-0 draw in Bahrain’s capital the only blip. Twenty-two goals were scored while they did not concede a single goal.
The final group fixtures – in a mini-league – were to spread over a period of two weeks in Qatar. The six-team group was unique in that all competing nations had endured hostility of some kind, ranging from hundreds of years to the very present. Therefore, it was no surprise that the group was given the nickname ‘The Group of Death.’ It was both Koreans against past colonial masters Japan, and against each other, and of course Iraq against everybody especially Iran. Of the six, only Japan and Saudi Arabia had failed to reach the World Cup finals.
With the comprehensive overturning of the Republic of Iran 3-0, South Korea took a firm grip of the group from the first day. Still reeling from the effects of Gulf war bombardment, Iraq, presented Korea with its second obstacle (2-2) with Saudi Arabia soon to follow. A 1-1 draw was not the result sought with its campaign to lie in the balance as they lined up to face an ever-improving Japan. After years of domination many felt that the Koreans were no longer the unquestionable giants, clearly in the shadow of the Japanese over the last year – a sight neither Korea could take. This confirmation of a change in the times was confirmed with Japan not only to control the match but also win by the single goal to move level on points with the South in a game as important to the nations as qualifying. Korea’s national broadcast network described the result as the heaviest blow to the country since annexation by Japan in 1910.
The final day’s soccer saw five of the six nations still in contention; Japan and Saudi Arabia on five with Korea, Iran and Iraq on 4 points. Saudi Arabia had confirmed its place already leaving Iraq, Japan and Korea to contest the final slot. Today would pit them against its neighbours from the North, still in isolation, best remembered for inflicting Italy’s greatest shame and for participating in the classic duel with Portugal. A 3-0 victory over North Korea virtually put out an Iraq team that needed a footballing miracle win over Japan by six goals. Things were looking good for the Japanese as Iraq trailed 2-1 – the Korean tie had already finished. Japanese television relayed its team had won through, but studio announcers and guest were left choked as Iraq with 10 seconds remaining found an equaliser to knock Japan from top to third and out of the finals with Korea given an unexpected lifeline. Japan’s elimination was to produce an emotional outpouring of grief across the nation. It was said over 50 million people, just over half the nation, had tuned in at midnight. Players had to be carried off with the pillar of the team Rui Ramos to announce his retirement at 36. They were ‘so near yet so far.’
As with many sides nowadays both employed a lone striker and a sweeper, Clemente to keep faith with Julio Salinas whom had not started a game for Barcelona all season. Zubizaretta, one of the 2 men who played in the 90 clash (the other Bakero a sub today) was suspended for this tie, due to his expulsion against Denmark in the qualifiers. Canizares was brought in to cover. His confidence would surely have been shaken when the manager announced that his suspended 90-cap keeper would definitely start the next match.
The early exchanges looked promising with good movement, passing and technical ability shown from both sides. It would be Spain to strike first; however, Luis Enrique unsure of whether to shoot or pass got it wrong. Indeed Enrique was to be the main source of danger for the opposition, continually demonstrating his natural dribbling skills. One such run was to cause a near heart-stopping moment for Korea with the defender to bring him down just outside the box. The game’s most controversial incident arrived on 25 minutes with the dismissal of inspirational Spanish skipper Nadal. He chased the through ball in on goal with forward Ko Jeong Woon who then tumbled to the ground. The Spaniard was harshly adjudged to have made a foul when it looked nothing more than a clumsy challenge. Having given the free-kick the official had no option but to send the player off for the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity. Fernando Hierro took over the captaincy. The resulting free-kick saw Hong’s low drive force the keeper – who saw the effort late – into a fine save. Korea, showing no lack in confidence themselves enjoyed a psychological swing to dominate the remainder of the period as Spain had totally failed to make use of their superior strength and aerial power. Instead they played in a withdrawn manner that allowed the Koreans who were not afraid to shoot at any opportunity to create their first clear-cut chance. Wang played in from behind went in-between two defenders and instead of going around the keeper chose to hit it first time – the wrong choice. Canizares was able to make the save. For Spain, on the back of a major drubbing and without their captain, a necessary re-think was required.
Korea’s dictation of events continued into the restart with a combination of Noh Jung Yoon and Spain’s Ferrer to almost produce a bizarre goal at the near post with Canizares to make an instinctive reaction save. Korea would pay for its missed opportunity with Spain to go ahead through a combination of Goikoetxea and Salinas. Barcelona’s misfit striker Salinas to slide in his l8th International goal in his 43rd game after Choi In-Young had shown defensive hesitance. The lead was consolidated within five minutes, the ball flicked over cleverly for Goikoetxea to head his first International goal for Spain. It was 46 years ago to the day that Korea had been thumped nine goals by Hungary. What had looked an uncomfortable situation was now commanding for Spain, now in total control. The steam and fire seemed to have gone out the Koreans. Seo Jung Won, a 9-goal striker of 37 internationals, found himself ordered on by coach Kim to add some pace into the attack. His impact was immediate as at times he proved too lively for a Spanish defence, twice waltzing past Sergi. However, having got into dangerous positions on the byline he wasted the opportunities with ambitious near post efforts. With time running out and legs tiring Spain took the predictable step of defending deeper, especially with just 10-men and an injury to Hierro. As Spain tired Korea gained an upsurge of energy and strength and to no surprise a goal was forced home, even though it was sure to be a mere consolation on 85 minutes. Captain Hong’s free-kick deflected past the wrong-footed keeper left with no chance. Spirits were on the high and with the Spaniards waiting for the final whistle an equaliser arrived. The Europeans to see their impregnable lead wiped out with the sweeper once again to play his part; his clever pass finding Seo Jung-Won whom had beat the offside trap before he calmly side-footed home from close-in to send the Dallas crowd into raptures. The Europeans were to pay a heavy price for allowing the Asians to come at them. In a real case of NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER the first sensation had arrived.
For the second day of the World Cup Group A came to an open, host nation America to take on Switzerland while the highly fancied Colombians met the occasional brilliant Romanians – when the mood took them.
It was Switzerland and not Italy that had been the pacesetters of European Group 1. It saw them become the talk of Europe. Estonia, appearing in its first competitive game for 50 years was the first to suffer, crushed 3-0 with maximum points gained in the 3-1 defeat of Scotland in Berne. Star of the Borussia Dortmund team Stephane Chapuisat hit 2-goals as the tally was completed by a finely hit Georges Bregy free-kick. Scotland’s misery was compounded by the sending-off of Richard Gough for deliberate handball. However, the real test for the Swiss was to come in Calgliari with a clash against group favourites Italy. It was a contest to decide whether or not the team possessed the right credentials to make a sustained qualifying challenge. Once upon a time this would have been a home banker, but Switzerland passed its most severe test with mistakes from Torino’s Marchegiani to gift the visitors a seemingly unassailable lead with seven minutes remaining. However, two scrappy goals saved the home side from the jaws of death including a goal in the final seconds from Eranio. Qualification had now become a very distinct possibility. Ten Swiss managers had tried and failed since 1966. Switzerland, a few points clear of its rivals, furthered the gap, easily defeating lowly Malta before Portugal, convincing losers to Italy took a patched up team to Berne in hope of reviving its fading hopes. They produced a fine all-round display that would hinder Switzerland unimpeded progress with the visitors to gain a 1-1 draw. Switzerland’s winning streak continued with a 2-0 win in Malta, but it was the 1-0 win over Italy that would bring the nation its greatest pleasure for a first win in 40 years over its northern neighbours. As Italy’s hopes nose-dived, Scotland’s ended as Switzerland gained the 1-1 draw in Glasgow. A 1-0 defeat in Portugal did little to sidetrack its march ahead, qualification secured with the emphatic 4-0 crushing of Estonia in the nations final group match.
A capacity 73,425 fans packed the Detroit stadium for the making of World Cup footballing history for the first in-door tie ever. A day true American soccer fans had been waiting for; 6 years from when it had been announced that the finals were set for America. The eyes of the nation was to be on a team that knew they had to deliver if it wanted to stay in the limelight – and it would be crucial for any continued interest at these finals. Most Americans did not understand what they were witnessing but were nevertheless enthusiastic and demanded something big.
It would be interesting to see how far the hosts had come since 1990 when they lost all three group games. The first a 5-1 defeat at the hands of the former Czechoslovakia, a match seen by just a one million American television audience before Italy triumphed just 1-0. There had been talk of Italy matching Hungary’s record 10-1 victory of 1982 before finally going down to Austria 2-1. USA had not won a tie since victory over England in 1950.
The Swiss themselves, competing for the first time in 40 years, had not won a match since 1954. Their tactics were pretty much straightforward. They would be handicapped by not having their first choice line-up, leading marksman Adrian Knup out with an ankle injury to leave golden boy Stephane Chapiusat to carry the threat upfield alone. The USA – without the most noted names of world soccer – for two years relentlessly prepared for this day. They felt the occasion; emotion, fitness and enthusiasm would take them to an historic victory and win the nation over – in a country in which only winners are accepted. Having still to face Colombia and Romania one felt whichever team lost today would go out.
Switzerland made the more measured start with Chapiusat in 90 seconds to fire low into the side netting. Tony Meola was then forced into some fine goalkeeping with his first save, getting down well to the left to deny Sforza. In a game played heavily in midfield veteran Georges Bregy and Alain Sutter looked the only ones able to rise to the occasion – always making themselves readily available for the team, easily shining above the rest, especially with their intelligent passing and very noticeable extra technical quality. The only disappointing feature for the Swiss was their inability in making better use of their crosses; the full-back Marc Hottiger prominent throughout. What the contest required was to finally arrive from the classy Bregy, a known free-kick specialist who was to bend an effort delightfully over a sloppy wall and past the flat-footed Meola just inside the post. More trouble almost followed with Chapiusat allowed to pick up the ball and let fly from 30-yards. However, the 44th minute would see American spirits lifted and fortunes revived with an equaliser in what was a real case of DEJAVU, the Detroit crowd brought to life with a goal to match Bregy’s effort. Eric Wynalda, whom suffered from food poisoning, to show great execution from a free- kick, impeccably and accurately lifting the ball over the wall and high into the right hand corner past the fully-stretched Pascolo.
Switzerland’s disappointment increased after claims for a penalty were turned down. At the other end Wynalda and Dooley combined to put Ramos clear on the right but he could do no more than drag a low cross shot wide off the far post – the move to get the crowd into a frenzy.
But Switzerland to its credit refused to let the game drift and should have gone ahead on 54 minutes, Quentin from close range prodding the ball into the hands of Meola. Sforza and Ohrel did no better with their own attempts on goal as home spirits took a high when Dooley burst clear on the left, but his choice of shooting with his left foot proved wrong when the opportunity favoured the other, the effort going straight into the hands of a grateful Pascolo. Sutter, dominant as ever, was unable to cap a fine strong run that took him past 3 men, the feeble effort hit into the arms of Meola. Both sides seemingly went through the motions as the clock ticked away, both were to rue missed chances, the result perhaps fair if mutually frustrating. The Swiss were the marginally accomplished of two ordinary teams as America gained its first point since 1950.
Later that afternoon at the Rose-Bowl, the two favoured teams lined-up for what promised to be a real attacking feast with a lot expected from attack-minded Colombia, reckoned to be the finest South American side. They were the most explosive new force in world soccer; a side blessed with individuals like Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla, just two out of the many. But Romania had stars of its own, none more so than Gheorghe Hagi, the nation’s finest ever player, the Maradona of Europe.
Colombia qualified as winners of South-America Group A – only the team-finishing top gained automatic entry. Under Francisco Maturana, the team had been one of the most flamboyant teams of the 90 finals of Italy.
The campaign opened in frustration with 1986 finalists Paraguay in Barranquilla to gain a worthy 0-0 draw, a lot of luck to fall for the visitors. Peru was defeated by the single goal before an unbeaten Argentina with 2 wins already made the trip to Colombia looking to consolidate its position. The two nations had played out two draws in recent COPA America duels. The style was turned on in a bruising match of high tension with Ivan Valenciano in his first game, after Asprilla had been dropped, scoring within three minutes as the home side to ended the 31 unbeaten game sequence of Argentina. The victory was marred by the recorded 28 deaths during celebrations; drunkenness, fights and traffic accidents the reported causes.
Physically strong Paraguay would again blunt out Colombia, the rain-soaked pitch to stop the visitors from playing its fine brand of soccer, 1-1 the scoreline. With Argentina and Paraguay doing one another no favours by drawing 0- 0, Colombia stole the chance to move clear by dismantling pointless Peru by four goals. The result assured Colombia one of the top-two positions.
For the final game, Colombia travelled to Argentina, the scoreline to put the group leaders on the world soccer map with a semi-legendary 5-0 win in Buenos Aries. The result was to almost put the Argies out with unlikely favour to come from Peru. As ever in Colombia the victory would not come without consequence with numbers up to a hundred in the death toll. One wondered what would happen if Colombia won the finals?
Anyway led by captain Carlos Valderrama they were sure to be a credit to the finals with Maradona having to eat his words when he stated quiet emphatically – Colombia were not able to compete with his country. That was putting it nicely to actually what he had said.
To make certain of qualification Romania needed to win its final match in Cardiff, while a draw could possibly still see them progress. A mistake from Neville Southall was to gift the Romanians the lead it craved, Hagi’s drive to somehow squirm under the body of the Everton keeper. Wales equalised as an opportunity then presented itself for the home side to take the lead following a penalty award in their favour. The tension became unbearable with Paul Bodin to smack his drive onto the crossbar and let Romania off the hook. The visitors sealed Wales fate with a sucker punch Raduciou winner near the end, the striker to send Wales out at the final hurdle with it yet to be another case of ‘a bridge too far’
Romania began in cracking form with a dozen goals rattled in home wins over Faroe Islands and Wales, Hagi as ever the inspiration. A five-month break elapsed with a return to action in Belgium resulting in a narrow single goal defeat. It did not improve as the Czechs left the Romanian capital with a 1-1 result leaving them trailing Belgium, the pacesetters by 5 points. Back-to-back wins over Cyprus looked to have put them back on track, but, in the ‘Battle of Kosice’ it all went wrong with disaster to befall the team crushed 5-2. Dinu and his entire coaching staff got sacked with Angehel Iordanescu brought in to take control for the final 3 games. Faroe Islands saw themselves crushed by four with the narrowest of wins over Belgium to follow. Iiie Dumitrescu’s two strikes gave the nation a victory of importance before their visit to Cardiff.
Colombia promised to play the South American way and kept to its word as they moved into total domination of the opening stages producing real exhibition football. The 91,865 crowd were thrilled by Colombia’s pace, skill and trickery. Their fluidity and precise passing was dynamic as all players demonstrated how comfortable they were in receiving the ball anywhere on the pitch. The Romanians were totally unable to get any foothold as they failed to string more than two passes. They chased shadows as the much-vaunted trio of Faustino Asprilla, Adolfo Valencia and Freddy Rincon flourished. Asprilla was so elusive, Valencia so fast and powerful not to mention direct while Rincon proved to have a bit of all the qualities mentioned. But for all the adventure and intricate ingenuity of their fine passing patterns they still had failed to contrive any openings on goal, seeming to lack that final cutting edge as Romania needing the assurance of an extra defender stoutly defended in a manner of an away side in a European tie; this with all of the support in Colombia’s favour. Asprilla was within inches of connecting to Valencia’s chip into the 6-yard box while Mihali was fortunate not to receive a yellow card let alone not to be sent-off. This was after bringing down Valencia on the edge having dangerously surrendered possession. As often in football, the dominant team was to get hit by the sucker punch. Romania, soaking up the pressure, was to go in front with virtually its first attack, unbelievably so much against the run of play. The outrageously gifted Hagi dummied Gomez and as the defenders backed-off he threaded a ball to lone striker Floroin Raducioiu, scorer of nine goals in the qualifiers, no-one scored more. He held off three defenders, twisted and turned before giving a clear-cut finish, firing crisply past Cordoba. Now one would see what the Colombians were really made of? Valencia responded with a fine chip that forced the fully-stretched Stelea into a fine save. Under the leadership of Gheorghe Hagi Romania suddenly found its feet, its captain, free of specific duties, such as defending, flourished displaying fine skill and control always available, a springboard to attack. With Colombia’s finest chance Rincon from point-blank-range, saw himself denied by an instinctive reaction save by the legs of Stelea. That man Hagi again reminded all of his brilliance, an audacious chip from 30-yards, just about palmed away by the keeper. Now more evenly balanced one could detect a frustration creeping into the Colombian play. It was to increase further as that magician Hagi was to bring the stadium to its feet with a 40-yard floated chip that was to fly over the head of the stranded Cordoba and into the far corner just under the bar – 2-0. Valencia, Colombia’s finest attacker today, once again showed his true quality, making space he turned and hit venomously at the opposing goal, the ball met with an equally fine save. But this man was not to be denied with Colombia to get a long overdue goal as the half came to a close. Valencia’s near post power header was to fly past Stelea and bring Colombia back into the tie, a renewed tonic for a second half fightback.
Hagi, with as much space as in the first period would again unhinge the Colombians, his pass to pick out Dumitrescu whose effort was beaten out before Raducioiu blazed wastefully over. Heavily marked and kept very quiet Faustino Asprilla finally broke free, this after slick combinations with Perez and Valderama. His effort driven straight at the keeper was parried away. That fearsome Hagi-Raducioiu combination would again come close to paving a way through Colombia’s inept defences. The quick reactions from a keeper forced speedily off his line to clear the danger. At the other end golden boy Asprilla, a true live wire, showed tremendous touch and speed as he got into the 6-yard box, but forced slightly wide he failed to match it with a finish, the ball screwed low and wide off the far post.
A true classic in every sense, one dominant in possession the other razor sharp on the break while remaining disciplined in defence. Asprilla was to be in the thick of things again after he was put in by Valderama – seemingly playing too deep. He twisted and turned, delayed the shot before going over under the challenge. It looked a clear penalty with it a surprise stronger claims not being voiced. Under pressure from Romania’s defenders his partner Valencia rather snatched hurriedly at another opportunity, the ball sliced over. A feature of the Colombian play was its obsession in attacking the heart of the Romanian defence as its play was to totally lack varied options. They continually sought to steam-roll through a defence well marshalled by the steal of Belodedici who earlier had a concerning moment after coming off worse in a 50/50 challenge.
Individually the Colombians had it in abundance; collectively they trailed the eastern Europeans, who always kept their discipline, by a mile. Two minutes from time Colombia was to receive the final body blow as Romania sucked up the pressure before hitting them on the break. Florin Raducioiu was able to get away from his dozing markers to seal the outcome by knocking the ball into an empty net inflicting only Colombia’s second defeat in 3 years and some 40 games. This after Cordoba had failed to collect the quickly taken free kick from Hagi.
In a technically brilliant game Hagi was to reign, easily the finest player seen at these finals, this after his ACTS OF TRUE CLASS.