The worst penalty of all time?

America 1994 was a turning point in world football.  By awarding tournament, the stakes were raised and it became all about the money rather than the game itself.  You only have to see the logic of scheduling games at lunchtime in the middle of the American summer to realise that it was the TV companies and the major sponsors that dictated the play and not the sensibility.

All of a sudden we had Budweiser and McDonalds thrust down our throats at every opportunity, which is not a bad thing, but a Gillette razor or a Canon TV was a bit more problematic.  The US were awarded the tournament on the proviso that they had in place plans to launch their own professional league (The MLS was launched two years later), and benefited from the huge stadiums that had previously been built for the NFL teams.  Big stadiums meant big crowds and the tournament still holds the record for the highest average attendance at over 69,000.  And big attendances meant more money flowing into FIFA’s Swiss bank account in ticket sales.  Only $16.6bn for four weeks work – small time really.

So the world’s biggest game came to the world’s biggest commercial market.  And England were?  Well, most of the players were watching the tournament on their sun loungers in Magaluf or Mijas after a poor qualifying campaign at the hands of Graham Taylor.  Sure, many will point to the game in Rotterdam where Ronald Koeman scored the decisive goal to essentially eliminate England when he should have already been off the pitch through a red card. “Do I not like that” Taylor was heard muttering throughout the documentary made about the qualifying campaign.  Car crash TV at its very best.

So the world was denied the skills of Andy Sinton, the graft of Paul Parker, the comedy of Stuart Ripley and of course the ears of Carlton Palmer.  Not that it mattered to us English too much as we would still be cheering on Jack Charlton’s Irish right?

To get over the hurt of our non-qualification I had booked to spend three weeks on a Greek island, as far away from civilisation as possible.  When I say “I” I actually meant “we” as four years on from the car crash engagement during Italia ’90 I had met my soul mate.  Best not dwell too much on the details of how we met (you can read it here), but all I will say that as an 18 year old she was very well developed.  The idea of the holiday was to really get to know each other (it was our first trip abroad together), to get away from it all and to relax.

So we arrived on the tiny island of Kalymnos via ferry from Kos on the 17th June 1994.  The first thing we saw was a bar and having worked up a real thirst on our long trip we entered in, just as the opening ceremony of the tournament started, beamed like on a huge screen.  Well, it would have been rude not to have stayed wouldn’t it – I mean it only happens every 4 years.

Nobody ever remembers anything about the opening ceremonies of tournaments.  They all try and out do each other in terms of number of people involved, loudest music and biggest fireworks but this one will live in the memory forever.  Held at Soldier Field in Chicago it was full of American hype with President Clinton addressing the world before Oprah Winfrey fell off the podium.  But that all paled into insignificance when it came to the “finale”.  Diana Ross, in mid song hopped down from the stage, ran the length of the pitch and with only the keeper to beat from 10 yards, put the ball wide.  So wide that the goal exploded in stunned disbelief.  Even today she is know more than her miss than for any of her singing achievements.

So onto the tournament itself.  World champions Germany kicked it all off in Chicago with new boys Bolivia in a bad tempered game that saw 6 books and the South Americans play maker Etcheverry sent off after 3 minutes of coming on as a sub.  Interestingly it was the first win from a defending champion for over 20 years.

The opening round of games was simply too tempting to miss.  Every day we headed down to the deserted beach, got our 6 hours of sunshine, quick dip in the Ionian Sea before heading back up to the bar for our fill of Metaxa, Souvlaki and World Cup football.  Ireland upset half of New York with a famous 1-0 win over Italy, celebrated by the crappest bit of gymnastics ever by a footballer and with Norway beating Mexico an upset in that group was on the cards.  Brazil started with a win and Bebeto’s opening goal led to the often mimicked “rocking baby” celebration.

Whilst I was missing England not being at the World Cup, I should have been used to it as since I was born this was the third World Cup they had not qualified for (and actually in 1970 they qualified as champions).  However, we were having the best time ever in the sun.  These were the days that we all remember in the early days of a relationship – when you didn’t want to leave each other’s side.  When you only had another beer if it was “alright with you” and didn’t mention the word “porn”. And football was certainly on the agenda every night.  Whilst time does blur the memory a little, here are the ten things I remember from those sunny days.

1. Those tricky Romanians – Few people had heard of Hagi, Raducioiu or Petrescu before the tournament but their run to the semi-finals was very impressive.  Crap against Switzerland in the group stages, empirical in the games versus Columbia and Argentina the talisman Hagi pulled the midfield strings and scored one of the goals of the tournament against the Argentinians. A penalty defeat to Sweden in the quarter finals was no disgrace, and off the back of the tournament big name transfers changed the face of Romanian football forever.

2. Salenkwho? – Two games played two defeats gained was hardly the start that Russia expected in the World Cup.  With only 2 teams going through in the expanded tournament Russia were out, but in their last game played a Cameroon side who could still go through assuming they won, and Brazil beat Sweden.  Oleg Salenko had scored the Russian’s only goal of the tournament with a four minute penalty in the 3-1 defeat to Sweden.  Nobody expected much from the game but Salenko created World Cup history with 5 goals in a 6-1 victory.  Not a bad way to win the golden boot!

3. Crap Greeks – I am sitting here reminiscing watching the Greeks failing to turn up against the South Koreans and I remember back to 1994 when they were truly awful.  Spanked 4-0 by Argentina and Bulgaria in their first two games, they at least had some pride to play for in the final game against Nigeria.  But as in Euro2008 and as I fear in South Africa they simply couldn’t be arsed and just argued with themselves.  Even the locals where we watched the game started laughing at coach Panagoulias, making reference to him as Αρχίδια – literal translation as man with bollocks.

4. Same old Maradona, always cheating – The footballing world was stunned to see the old Maradona back in action in the opening games.  The 1986 version that ran the game, creating chances and even chipping in with the odd decent goal or two.  They looked unstoppable…until it was announced that Maradona had failed a random drug test and was banned from football.  From world beaters to being beaten by Romania in one easy step.

5. Nobody saw them as a challengerov- Like their neighbours Romania, Bulgaria had hardly set the footballing world alight in their history.  They hadn’t previously won a game in the history of the finals so expectations were low when they were paired with Argentina, Nigeria and Greece.  After their 3-0 defeat to the Nigerians in the opening game there was open dissent in the camp and few expected them to do any better against the Greeks in their next match.  Ninety minutes and four goals later they were singing a different song, and when Argentina minus Maradona were dispatched 2-0 they were round to round two.

A penalty win against the Mexicans and they were into a quarter final game with Germany where nobody gave them a hope.  Sitting in a bar full of Germans in Kalymnos it gave me so much pleasure to see two goals in three minutes, including a great header from Letchkov to see them reach the semi-finals.  Despite a spirited showing against Italy it ws a bridge too far for them.  We can forget about the 3rd/4th play off game against Sweden can’t we?

6. Losing it in Orlando – We know that the match scheduling for TV was a farce.  None more so than the lunchtime kick off in the 100 degree heat of Orlando against the Mexicans.  Denied the opportunity to rehydrate his team, and the ridiculous delays in being able to make a substitution, Jack Charlton and John Aldridge lose it with the officials and are sanctioned by the officials.  Fortunately their draw with Norway in the final game sees them through to the next stages anyway.

7. Lucky Italians…again – Another disappointing group stage performance from the Italians saw them win one, draw one and lose one, qualifying only on goals scored.  Two minutes to go in the second round game against Nigeria and they were 1-0 down and looking like they would be on the way home.  But some magic from the Divine Ponytail first took the game into Extra Time, and then he scored again in the one hundredth minute from the spot to set up a quarter final with Spain.  It was a Baggio show again as this time Dino scored the first and then Roberto broke the Spanish hearts with an 87th minute winner.

Semi-finals and that man Baggio scored another double to take them into the final against Brazil.  The rest?  Well see below.

8. Quarter Final drama –For once the knock out stages provided some great drama.  Amazingly in such hot conditions, seven of the eight quarter finalists were from Europe, with only Brazil being the rest of the world representative. Brazil’s 3-2 win against Netherlands was the game of the round and featured a fantastic goal from Denis Bergkamp who due to his fear of flying had left England for the USA back in March.  Sweden versus Bulgaria went to penalties after Kennet Andersson’s late equaliser.  In the penalties it was left to Henrik Larsson to score the winning spot kick.

9. The most disappointing final ever – part 2 – For the second final in a row the final was a disappointment and decided from the penalty spot.  Whether it was the heat (the game kicked off at 12.34pm in the Los Angeles heat) or the expectations of the watching world, Brazil and Italy failed to produce any penetration or attacking sense during two hours of play.  So it went to penalties.  According to Jonathan Pearce, Roberto Baggio had a dream as a child that he would score the winning goal in a World Cup final.  Whether we believe Mr Bullshit or not here he was within one kick of making that dream come true.  He had had a fantastic tournament, without a doubt the international star that he should have been.  And he ballooned the ball over the bar and Brazil were World Champions again.

10. The aftermath – Was football ever the same after USA 94?  It came the year after the formation of the English Premier League and there was certainly some commercial ideas had it across the pond.  FIFA, seeing the opportunity to allow anything to be sponsored that moved.  As for me, well by the time the next tournament would be starting I would nearly be a married man and life would change for me forever too.

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