The story of the 1994 World Cup
Between now and the start of the World Cup, we will be looking back at previous tournaments with the help of some of the key characters and the BBC's archive footage. Today, we speak to the scorer of one of the best goals at USA '94 and two members of the Swedish side that went close to upsetting eventual winners Brazil.
United States, June & July 1994
From a disco diva to the 'Divine Ponytail', USA '94 ended in the same way it began - with the horror of a missed penalty. But, while I still laugh at clips of Diana Ross making a hash of her spot-kick in the opening ceremony, I won't ever forget the tears of Italy's Roberto Baggio after he blasted over to lose the shoot-out that saw Brazil become the first country to win the World Cup four times.
That was the final act of a thrilling tournament that, despite a disappointing final, the tragedy of a murdered player and the disgrace of a legend's failed drugs test, succeeded - temporarily, at least - in conquering football's final frontier - the United States.
I remember hearing jokes (or at least I think they were jokes) in the build-up that American TV executives had lobbied for bigger goals because of a fear of too many 0-0 draws, and for games to be split into quarters to allow for more advertising during the intervals.
That sounds far-fetched now, even in the era of the Premier League and their plans for a 39th-game, but we shouldn't forget there were serious doubts whether the US public, who at the time did not have a professional league of their own to watch, would embrace the showpiece of 'soccer' (I promise not to call it that again). There was no need to worry, however, as a record total of 3.6m fans filled vast stadiums for all 52 matches.
Despite the often fearsome heat and humidity, they witnessed some thrilling games - partly down to the way Fifa had reacted to the overly negative-tactics that marred Italia '90 by making a win in the group stage worth three points, and also banning the back-pass and relaxing the offside rules.
Confusion reigned over referees' interpretation of the latter (doesn't it always?) but the end-result, as intended, was more attacking play and more excitement too - well, until the final anyway. Normally this would only be good news but I sat my A-levels during the tournament and, as I'm sure many of you can empathize, revision is nigh-on impossible when there's a World Cup game on, even a rubbish one. Sadly (if only for the sake of my grades and my academic future), there weren't many of those.
From the start there were shocks aplenty, starting with the Republic of Ireland's victory over Italy at the Giants Stadium in New York in a match that was notable for Ray Houghton's looping early winner and a vintage defensive display by Paul McGrath - who had the aforementioned Baggio in his pocket.
Houghton, who was having his hair cut when I spoke to him last week (thankfully he decided against the blonde highlights his team-mate Andy Townsend had put in ahead of this tournament), recalled how a dressing room mix-up helped settle their nerves and set up a famous triumph against the eventual runners-up.
"We were in our white away kit but, just before we were meant to be going out, we realised that's what the Italians were wearing," Houghton told me. "We weren't too happy about having to get changed again, but it did take our mind off the match. We'd been told the crowd (of more than 75,000) would be two-thirds Italians but, when we walked out, it was the other way round. Our support was quite incredible.
"We started well and I will always remember my goal. When I hit it, I thought 'if it doesn't go over, then the keeper will save it'. So when I saw it dip and hit the back of the net, it was just pure elation. After that, Paul was awesome. What was even more impressive was that he had a shoulder injury that was causing him a lot of pain. Most players, particularly today, just wouldn't have played, but it was typical of Paul to carry on and he was exceptional for us."
The Republic, who had been adopted by many British fans, myself included, in the absence of any home-nation qualifiers, lost their next game against Mexico - an encounter that you might remember for John Aldridge's touchline outburst when the fourth official stopped him coming on as substitute. If this was your first World Cup then you probably learnt some new words that day.
Jack Charlton's men still reached round two but were soon on their way home after failing to trouble a classy Dutch side. Houghton feels they simply ran out of steam, and explained: "We had an ageing squad and the heat was a massive factor.
"When we played Mexico in Orlando it was about 110 degrees and there were problems getting water to us on the pitch. I got booked for picking up a bag of water that had been lobbed at me, which was ridiculous given the conditions, but the bags were even more of a nonsense because when you opened them, all the water fell out so you couldn't drink any anyway. To be honest, they weren't the best conceived plan by the Irish FA."
Italy recovered to - just about - reach the last 16, where their poor form continued. The Azzurri were 90 seconds away from being eliminated by Nigeria until Baggio came alive - following up his own equaliser with an extra-time penalty winner - but they were not the only fancied nation in trouble.
Argentina imploded against the talented Romanians after Diego Maradona, still their talisman at the age of 33, tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and was expelled from the tournament.
But even that shocking news was put into perspective by the fate of Andres Escobar, who was part of an under-achieving Colombian team that had finished bottom of their group despite having the likes of Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla in their squad.
Escobar, a 27-year-old defender, was gunned down outside a restaurant in his home city of Medellin just days after his own goal in a 2-1 defeat by the hosts. His funeral was attended by 120,000 mourners but it has never been confirmed whether his death was down to a lone angry fan or, as rumoured at the time, drug lords who had sustained heavy gambling losses because of Colombia's early exit.
Brazil were left as the only South American - not to mention non-European - team in the quarter-finals. With the exception of their strikers, Romario and Bebeto (and their memorable 'rock the baby' celebration in honour of the latter's new-born son), Carlos Alberto Parreira's side had less flair than their predecessors but far more steel, personified by their captain Dunga, which was a quality they needed to see off the US after having Leonardo sent off before half-time for a vicious but uncharacteristic elbow that shattered Tab Ramos's cheekbone.
They could still turn on the Samba style when needed, however, and Branco's brutal free-kick settled their classic last-eight clash with the Netherlands. Elsewhere, another late show from Baggio edged out Spain and the biggest upset of the tournament saw outsiders Bulgaria knock out holders Germany, with balding midfielder Yordan Letchkov famously grabbing an unlikely winner with a stunning diving header.
Sweden joined them in the last four, but only after a nail-biting end to their clash with Romania, which was decided on penalties. A young Henrik Larsson, who until then I'd only noticed because of his dreadlocks, put away the Scandinavians' sixth effort before Miodrag Belodedici had his shot saved.
"I was very, very nervous," Larsson recalled with a laugh. "I was 22 at the time and one of the coaches told me 'Henrik, you will have to take the sixth penalty'. I said 'sure, no problem' but it became a problem when I had to go and take it because I knew if I missed all the blame was on me. I have learnt since then that sometimes at these moments you make it, and sometimes you don't - I was lucky enough to score that time, Thomas Ravelli saved the next penalty and we were into the semi-finals."
The high-scoring Swedes were up against Brazil for a place in their first final since 1958 but, having fought out a 1-1 draw during the group stage, they were not overawed. Brazil went through thanks to Romario's 80th-minute header but Sweden played for most of the second half with 10 men and another of their heroes that summer feels they were not outclassed.
"Romario and Bebeto were two great strikers but if you look back, Kennet Andersson and I scored more goals than they did in that World Cup," Sweden striker Martin Dahlin told me. "We didn't fear them but the problem we had was that we had three or four players who were playing in that game despite injuries.
"I was one of them myself. I had a calf injury that meant I couldn't really do myself justice and play as well as I had done earlier in the tournament. So, we were not only playing with 10 men after Jonas Thern was sent off, but we were also playing with injured players and, looking back on that now, maybe myself or one or two others shouldn't have played at all.
"I think the biggest difference between Sweden and Brazil in 1994 was that they had 20-plus world class players and we had 11 or 12 who were as good. They could easily change one, two or even three or four players and still be one of the best teams in the world, or even the best. We couldn't do that but our group game was a better sign of how close we were to being on their level."
Another two-goal salvo from Baggio had ended Bulgaria's run and set up what was billed as a battle between him and Romario for the trophy and the glory. It should have been a classic in the vein of Brazil's win over Italy in the 1970 final - their last triumph - but the reality saw two exhausted sides fight out a tame stalemate at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. That meant, for the first time, a World Cup final would be decided on penalties.
Baggio, who took his country's fifth spot-kick, was not the only Italian to fail to score in the shoot-out - Franco Baresi skied over the bar and Taffarel denied Daniele Massaro - but his miss was the decisive one and sadly, in a glittering career, the moment for which he is most famous.
For Parreira, who will be in charge of the hosts South Africa at this summer's tournament, success was vindication of his belief that Brazil would only regain their mantle as world champions if they added defensive discipline to their attacking verve - a tactic that had not brought him much popularity back home. "Although most of the Brazilian and international press were always criticising my philosophy, I stuck by my ideas and my principles," he said afterwards. "It feels great because, like Frank Sinatra in that song, I did it my way."
Let me know your memories of 1994 - I hope it didn't ruin your A-levels too. On Monday - with the help of the England captain - we look back at France '98, when Beckham kicked out and Ronaldo went walkabout as Les Bleus triumphed.