My knowledge and interest in the "World Game" increased exponentially in the years between 1990 and 1994. We had a girl in my Army Reserve unit who had been stationed in Germany during WC 1990 and I used to ask her about it all the time, what it was like to be there when they won it all. Also, due to the magic of videotapes I was able to watch old matches and finally get to see some of the players that I'd only read about in action. I remember being mesmerized by Marco Van Basten and becoming a fan of AC Milan - still my favorite club team to this day - because of him. We had a soccer store back home in Nashua and I bought a cheap replica of Germany's 1990 World Cup shirt and wore it proudly during my intramural games. My friend Dave (who we called "The Slav") shared my love of soccer and the international games in particular and since he was my only friend who cared anything about the game, he and I spent a lot of time watching highlights and reading about matches, teams and players wherever we could find information.
World Cup 1994 was being hosted by the US so by the time it started I was at a fever pitch. I had hoped to see as many matches in person as possible (Foxboro, MA was one of the host cities) but I didn't think it'd be possible as I had graduated college the year before and was still looking for a real job by the time 1994 rolled around. By the late spring of 1994 I found myself living in a house in Dover, NH with a couple guys I didn't even know and it was there that I watched the US-Switzerland match which kicked off World Cup 1994. I remember it like it was yesterday; Switzerland scored first on a free kick and I thought "Here we go again, the US is so bad...". But then something amazing happened. Not long after going down 1-0, Eric Wynalda curled a free kick perfectly in the top corner of the Swiss net to tie the match 1-1. At that one moment I started to realize that maybe the US wasn't that bad after all. That goal, which was truly world class, gave the US team instant legitimacy. With a point in their first match, I was hopeful that they might advance to the second round but they had to play Columbia next and Columbia were one of the favorites of the entire tournament. Pele himself had actually picked them to win it all. I'd actually seen Columbia play in person a few weeks earlier as they played Northern Ireland in a friendly at Foxboro Stadium and The Slav and I had gone. They were an impressive team led by colorful Carlos Valderrama famous as much for his huge red afro as his sublime playmaking ability. I had gotten a job in advertising sales at one of the big radio stations on the coast called WERZ and had to work a big functon that night so I was really upset at having to miss the match. At some point in the night one of the DJ's grabbed me and told me they had the match on at the bar. It was in the second half and the US was actually ahead 1-0! Everybody was shocked. Suddenly Stewart took a pass and scored a second goal and the US were up 2-0 on mighty Columbia. Valencia scored in the 90th minute for Columbia and there were some nervous moments but oh the joy when the ref sounded the whistle. With one match remaining, the US were actually tied at the top of their group, it was unthinkable. The expectation and drama going into their last match was unbelievable. They could win the group if they won but could still advance with a loss. One thing sticks out to me about that match and that was the goal that Romania scored. Petrescu took a shot from the corner and Tony Meola played the angle about as bad as you could possibly play it. For me personally it was a harsh reminder that despite a couple good results, the US were still nowhere near the level of the "big" soccer countries. They lost to Romania 1-0 in their last match but still advanced to the second round where they had to face Brazil. There they played the match of their lives (on the 4th of July no less) but lost 1-0. The World Cup was over for the US but their Cinderella run had sparked an interest in many Americans in the World game. For me, it was just nice to see other Americans finally starting to realize how beautiful the "World Game" was.
I have a ton of great memories from World Cup 1994. Among them:
* So many great matches stand out in my mind such as Spain-South Korea (where the Koreans scored twice in the last 5 minutes to finish with an improbable 2-2 draw) and the amazing Quarterfinal between Romania and Sweden but believe it or not, the best match of the tournament - and still the most entertaining World Cup match I've ever seen - was, for me, Bolivia-South Korea. Drawn in a group with Germany and Spain, both teams knew they would have to win that match if they had any chance of going through to the next round and both teams just completely threw everything at each other for 90 minutes. I've never seen anything like it, just back and forth, back and forth. There must have been at least 500 shots off the crossbar and an equal number of great saves. I was on the edge of my seat the entire match, it was just breathtaking to watch. And the most amazing part? The final score was 0-0.
* WERZ had advertising accounts with one of the corporate sponsors of the WC and because of this I was able to get tickets to two first round matches (Argentina-Nigeria and Argentina-Greece). At the second match, The Slav struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to him who, as it turned out, had a bunch of tickets to the Quarterfinal match to be held at Foxboro. We had no idea who would be playing and we paid a hefty price for them ($120 a piece) but I didn't care, nothing would stop me from missing the chance to attend a World Cup Quarterfinal match. And it worked out perfectly as the match turned out to be Italy-Spain. I wore my AC Milan shirt and the Slav wore his Inter Milan shirt. The hatred between those two teams is like the Red Sox-Yankees times a thousand and sure enough, as we walked into the stadium an old Italian guy jumped in front of us and started pointing to our shirts and screaming excitedly in Italian. It was a great World Cup moment for me.
* The Quarterfinal match itself was unbelievable. 12 years after hearing the words "Italy beat Germany to win the World Cup" and developing a love affair with Italy's soccer team, I was actually getting to watch them in person...and in a World Cup match. I could have died right at that moment. With the match tied near the end, Beppe Signori intercepted a pass near midfield and fed a streaking Roberto Baggio. I'd already become a huge Baggio fan in World Cup 1994 so when he took the pass, dribbled wide past the keeper and buried a shot from a near impossible angle to win the match in the 88th minute and send Italy into the semifinals I was practically ready to name my first kid Baggio Thibodeau.
* Rudi Voeller's last hurrah. Voeller was one of the main players I remember watching on Channel 11 as a kid and I'd always loved him. Berti Vogts was not playing him in the group matches and I was mad because I knew it was probably my last chance to watch him and I thought he was better than Karl-Heinze Reidler anyway. When he finally played in the second round match against Belgium, he put on one of the greatest displays of how to play the game that I've ever seen, scoring two goals. Watching him and Klinnsman together was just like watching perfection.
* World Cup 1994 was just a great tournament but the one bad thing about it was that neither England nor France qualified. To have a World Cup without at least one of those teams, it just always felt like something was missing.
Up Next: 1998