There will never be a weirder year in American sports than 1994. The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair. OJ Simpson charged with double murder. The World Series straight up didn’t happen. All while the greatest basketball player on the planet was platooning the outfield for a minor-league baseball team in Alabama.
And the World Cup was somewhat awkwardly staged in a country without a top-level soccer league, whose collective attitude toward the sport ranged from apathetic to downright hostile, where domestic TV announcers were made to explain the game to the uninitiated masses and where weapons-grade commercialism was not a bug but an essential feature.
Welcome to USA 94.
It’s not easy to upstage the quotidian psychedelia of a World Cup opening ceremony, but the celebrities enlisted for the tournament’s lavish kick-off at Chicago’s Soldier Field managed to do it. Oprah Winfrey tumbled off a platform and appeared to twist her ankle immediately after welcoming a worldwide television audience of 750 million, and moments before Diana Ross slipped while taking a penalty as part of a choreographed stunt.
Not even Daryl Hall and Jon Secada could salvage the day, although Jürgen Klinsmann, two decades before his tumultuous tenure as USA manager, managed to save Germany’s skin in the holders’ 1-0 win over Bolivia. Of course, what could have been the most hypnagogic sports-adjacent moment of the year wasn’t even the strangest moment of the day thanks to OJ’s infamous White Bronco chase a few hours later.
None of the Britain’s four home nations managed to qualify – for the only time at a World Cup since 1938 – lending uncommon British support to the Republic of Ireland’s cause. Their faith was rewarded with a gripping upset of the Italians before 75,338 fans at Giants Stadium, and they were sufficiently entertained by Jack Charlton and John Aldridge’s unforgettable touchline meltdown against Mexico. (“We’re from Ireland, not the bloody Gobi desert,” Charlton later said.)
There were truly hideous kits that lived down to their mid-90s vintage. There were iconic hairstyles: Carlos Valderrama’s epic orange blowout, Roberto Baggio’s stately ponytail and the flaming red mop and goatee of USA defender Alexi Lalas. And the celebrations! Bebeto’s famed rocking baby flourish after scoring for Brazil and Nigeria’s Finidi George heralding his strike against Greece by barking like a dog.
After the inelegant, negative play that defined Italia 90 – where Argentina made it to the final scoring all of five goals – Fifa introduced a series of measures to incentivize attacking play: awarding three points for a win instead of two, relaxing the offside rules and banning the back-pass. They worked. There were 2.73 goals a game, a crowd-pleasing leap forward from the record low of 2.21 four years earlier. Many were fine and a few were sensational, like Gheorghe Hagi’s wonder strike against Colombia and none more than Saeed Al-Owairan’s slalom from the halfway line in Saudi Arabia’s group-stage win over Belgium.
And the drama was hardly limited to the pitch. Diego Maradona was expelled from the tournament after testing positive for the banned stimulant ephedrine. And one of the most inspired upsets of the tournament – when the hosts upset pre-tournament favorites Columbia thanks in large part an own goal by Andrés Escobar – resulted in tragedy as the 27-year-old defender was gunned down in his Medellin hometown only days after his error.
The matches weren’t bad either. USA 2-1 Colombia (tragic epilogue notwithstanding), Romania 3-2 Argentina and Bulgaria 2-1 Germany were all white-knuckles, none more gripping than Brazil’s electric 3-2 win over the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.
Individual efforts abound. Hristo Stoichkov, who shared the Golden Boot with Russia’s Oleg Salenko (who scored five against Cameroon), almost single-handedly powered Bulgaria’s spirited run to the semi-finals, where they were undone by a Baggio brace. And Romario was at his imperious best in leading Brazil to their first final in 24 years.
It all culminated with a titanic final between Brazil and Italy – two powerhouses with seven World Cups between them – that badly fell short of advance billing over 120 scoreless minutes and did little to dispel stereotypes, which meant for the first time the final would be settled by spot kicks. Franco Baresi and Daniele Massaro also missed for Italy, but it’s Baggio whose fatal misfire into the Los Angeles sky will be remembered, gift-wrapping Brazil’s fourth title and first since 1970.
By all objective metrics USA 94 was a rousing success both financially and publicly. More than $210m was generated in ticket sales alone. The 52 matches drew nearly 3.6 million spectators, filling America’s colossal football stadiums to 96% capacity while setting records for average and total attendance that stand today even accounting for the expansion of the tournament. The only surprise is Fifa waited 32 years to come back.