The 1994 World Cup has an odd place in American soccer folklore. It’s considered the start of the modern era, when the US emerged from the wild lands of global football. In the years following the tournament, we got a new domestic league, the men’s national team started punching above their weight, the women’s national team dominated, and overall soccer became less of a niche hobby.
Yet while the tournament itself was seminal, the football itself was beside the point. We know there was football. We still remember Diana Ross. And Andrés Escobar. And Diego Maradona. And denim kits. But the play on the field has become a worn photograph, or something half-remembered late in the night after opening the third bottle of wine.But it’s worth remembering in full.
This week we look back at the 1994 World Cup Final.
Heading into the tournament, Brazil was at the tail end of a lengthy football drought. Following the country’s golden era which ended with Pele’s triumph at the 1970 World Cup, La Seleção went through a slump that lasted more than 20 years. Brazil did triumph in the 1989 Copa América, but their record in the World Cup was what mattered most, and it was dreadful. If they were going to turn things around, 1994 would be the year to do it.
Italy meanwhile fared somewhat better in the interim, lifting the trophy in the 1982 World Cup, finishing as runners-up in 1970 and third place in 1990 (which they hosted). Yet they had a chip on their shoulders in Europe, having failed to qualify two years prior and crashing out in the semifinals in 1988.
Italy performed well leading into the 1994 final, with Roberto Baggio recovering from a slow start in the group stages to put on an attacking masterclass in the knockout rounds. Italy secured a chance to win it, but the tournament had taken its toll. Baggio went into the showdown with Brazil at the Rose Bowl nursing a bad hamstring and having to take injections of painkillers in order to play.
The game itself was 90 minutes of the irresistible force Brazil hurling itself at the immovable object Italy. It was tense. Chances were few and far between. Try as each side might, neither team could score a goal in regular time. Extra time was much the same, but more sluggish and haphazard. You watched the game like you watch a daytime soap opera— a slow-rolling disaster, painfully drawn out, but leaving you unable to look away.
Of course, everyone remembers the penalty shootout, Baggio’s world famous miss in particular. With Italy behind in the count, Baggio had to score. And, well.
The man who was supposed to dominate the tournament ended up leading his side to the edge of glory, only to throw them all off a cliff.
That was that. Brazil won their fourth World Cup title, their first since the end of their golden era. Italy slinked off in disgrace, forced to rebuild. They wouldn’t lift the trophy again until 2006, when they beat one of their fiercest rivals in the home of one of their other fiercest rivals.
As for American soccer fans, 1994 remains very special. But it’s worth remembering that, as foundational as it is to our mythology, it’s not all about us.