The international football world was taken by surprise when the United States of America won the draw organized by FIFA’s to host the world’s marquee sporting event. Waves of disappointed seem to resonate in the build-up to the World Cup, with fans from all around expressing their outrage that a country, which referred to the sport as “soccer”, would organize this prestigious event. Certainly, this decision was a real touchdown for the FIFA organizing committee in sparking interest in a new, relatively unexploited market. I did not pay much attention at the time to the politics of the game, as I was overjoyed to be reunited once again with one of my favourite traditions. Every great civilization had their calendar and mine was the World Cup, every 4 years. At this crucial point in my journey, noticing the evident lack of enthusiasm in most of my peers, I realized that I was not part of some uniform culture. I seemed to have adopted elements of others I had lived in trying to make sense of my world. Although I was cheering for what I identified as my continent – South America – this was not my official home. If the Brazilian national team routed a top tier squad such as Germany, you would barely hear a car drive by your house honking its horn in celebration. Canadians were anxiously waiting during the heat of summer for Hockey Night in Canada and were somewhat oblivious to football. In Brazil however, if the same were true, governments and businesses would declare a national holiday to commemorate the victory and everyone would pour into the streets in celebration.
|Diana Ross during the opening ceremonies on Soldier Field, Chicago, USA|
The Americans managed to put on quite a spectacle during the ceremonial inauguration, regardless of foreign sceptics watching from their living rooms at a distance. The opening ceremony was directed by Oprah Winfrey from Chicago’s Soldier Field, where she introduced top performers of the time, Daryl Hall, Jon Secada and Diana Ross displaying their talents to the largest audience in their musical career. I remember Diana Ross strutting down the field, waving her arms, as she was lost herself in the beat of her music, passionately singing away until she met a ball on the opposite end of the pitch, kicked it well wide off the mark and the goal collapsed. She was supposed to direct her kick into the back net and the idea was that the force behind the blast would crack the net in half – that was supposed to be the illusion anyway. It was funny nonetheless. Regardless, I salute the Americans for their outstanding job as hosts, as they managed to set records in average attendance (nearly 69,000), breaking the standing record from the 1966 World Cup in England. The total match attendance of nearly 3.6 million for the final tournament remains the highest in the competition’s history, despite the expansion from 24 to 32 teams in the 1998 World Cup. Shortly after the entertaining show welcoming teams and viewers to the wonderful United States of America, the wait was finally over as defending champs Germany and South American minnows, El Diablo Etcheverry’s Bolivia kicked off. Of course, my key match opener came a few days later as Diego Armando Maradona returned to the football world from retirement in another attempt to lead the Albiceleste to glory and regain his sainthood in the competition.
Their opener was in Foxboro, in the outskirts of Boston, facing Greece. The Argentines opened with a star-studded line-up with José Antonio Chamot, Roberto Sensini, Oscar Ruggeri, Diego Simeone, Fernando Redondo, Abel Balbo, Claudio Canniggia, Gabriel Batistuta and El Diego. They completely routed the Greeks 4 – 0, leaving their fans ecstatic and believing that the team could go all the way. Batigol scored a hat trick but Diego’s cracker was the real highlight celebrating his comeback. After this match, Juan Alberto, Brian and I took our ball to the street to kick around, trying to replicate the impeccable Argentine futbol lindo. The following game, this same line-up struggled to topple Nigeria easy past them 2 - 1. The Super Eagles put in an outstanding performance proudly representing the African continent and eventually topped Group D, ahead of Bulgaria, Argentina and Greece. The end of this game however, signified the end of an era for Argentines and a knockout punch to the Pampa heroes’ morale. Maradona was instructed to pack his bags and withdraw from the competition as he failed a drug test, testing positive for ephedrine doping. He gave a brief press conference following this disastrous news rocking the world where he seemed to be at a loss for words - something unusual throughout his life. I will never forget what he said at that moment: “Me cortaron las piernas (they cut off my legs).” I felt as if a family member of mine had been shot as my idol was forced out of a game he blessed for years and the first player to ever make me dream as I watched my first ever international fixture. Later on, it was claimed that Rip Fuel, a supplement he used in training in Argentina, did not contain the doping ingredient but the US version did. As he ran out during the competition, he was took the local blend without he or his personal trainer understanding the difference. He would never dress the colours of Argentina ever again, a true loss for the beautiful game.
As Argentina carried on, the players lost their flair and elegance on the field. The motivation, the belief, and all ingredients of success were packed in Diego’s suitcase headed to Buenos Aires. The stars seemed to fade along with any hopes of redemption exiting early in the first stage of the knockout round to Romania. Other teams in the CONMEBOL such as Bolivia, Colombia (dubbed favourites by former Brazilian international Pelé) followed the same draconian fate so the hopes of an entire continent rested on the shoulders of Dunga, the Brazilian skipper and his lads. For the first time in my life, I saw myself supporting the verde amarelha. The street footy had turned to Romário and Bebeto, squaring off against the evil forces of the Netherlands and Sweden. Nothing would stand in the way of the most coveted trophy on the planet going to South America once again. A sweet triumph was brewing once more with the little guy taking on the deep pockets and fat wallets of the industrialized and developed world. Top clubs in the European leagues may have had exceptional training facilities to develop their players and long standing academies attracting wonderkids, but the Brazilians possessed a natural talent that could not be learned. Day in and day out, it seemed the samba boys were having fun, smiling away and dancing as the other teams fought to touch the ball. This was the famous joga bonito of a day I had never had a chance to witness from the country’s golden age. Teams facing them grew frustrated as they were forced to become spectators.
On July 17th, 1994, the city of Pasadena, California was hosting the final, this time between Roberto Baggio’s Italy – a striker in top form both domestically and internationally – and Brazil. In Ottawa, the Bickfords and the Marquez got together to watch this fabulous show unfold, cheering on the South Americans. The only thing Italian in the house was a pizza we had ordered. Without any offence to the inhabitants of Il Bel Paese, it was Brazil time to shine that day. It was a long match, not because of the lack of goals, but the nerves and intensity of the players radiated out of the television and into our psyche. There were very few clear chances in favour of the in-form Brazilians and those that were on target met an invincible Gianluca Pagliuca, keeping his country’s hopes alive. The match went on to penalties and Italy’s Roberto Baggio skyrocketed his shot far from troubling Brazil’s Taffarel between the posts, leading in turn to a sea of yellow and green flooding the field as a the Samba Boys won their fourth title. The tournament came to a close and we piled into the Marquez’ van driving down the streets of Ottawa honking the horn and waving the Venezuelan flag in solidarity with the new champions. Some people waved at our vehicle, perhaps thinking our country had recently achieved its independence. I was happy my adoptive continent of South America had once again shown its resilience.