When FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States, many people around the world were skeptical. Heck, many people here were skeptical. As it turned out, there wasn't any need to worry.
It was a different landscape in the soccer world 20 years ago.
CONCACAF was a one-team federation with Mexico virtually being assured a World Cup berth every four years. The U.S. had qualified for the 1990 Cup thanks only to a FIFA ban on El Tri for having fielded overage players on its youth squads.
There was no professional outdoor soccer league in the U.S., the old North American Soccer League of the New York Cosmos of Pelé and Giorgio Chinaglia fame had folded in 1984.
There was an indoor soccer league, the National Professional Soccer League, but FIFA looked at that as a bad American perversion of the grand old game. Many of the guys on that 1990 U.S. squad were playing on the semi-pro or barely-pro teams of the Western Soccer Alliance.
Traditionally, FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, takes the opportunity to grant Cup host nation status to a country whose soccer infrastructure could use a cash infusion or a promotional boost. Places like, say, South Africa or Brazil or Russia or Qatar, to name but four.
And there can be no doubt that in July 4, 1988, the United States was the ultimate soccer fixer-upper.
That’s when the bid for the 1994 World Cup was awarded. There were nine stadiums that were used for the Cup, most of them NFL or NCAA stadiums that could be adapted to soccer without much fuss.
Except for Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. which was too narrow to fit a regulation-sized pitch. Various options were considered, including constructing a massive platform that wouldlift the entire pitch a few feet (a carpet of real grass had to be laid down on the artificial turf flooring, anyway) which would gain the extra 4 yards that were needed to allow a 75-yard field to be laid in.
In the end, FIFA just accepted the idea of playing on a narrow field—some of the English Premier League stadiums have slightly narrower pitches, anyway, and it was determined that it was better to have games in the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. than to host them someplace nearby, like, say, New Haven, Conn., instead.
Sounds awfully forgiving of FIFA, doesn’t it? Not one of the stadiums involved required extensive renovations—the worst was the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, which got a $7 million facelift.
Why would that notorious finicky organization allow such slapdash behavior from an economic giant, when it extorts as much infrastructure improvement out of developing countries like South Africa and Brazil?
Can you say, “multibillion dollar sports market virtually untapped by soccer”? Thought you could.
FIFA made the development of a professional league a precondition of the U.S. receiving the Cup bid and, by the time the World Cup got underway on June 17, 1994, preparations were already underway to start up a new top-tier U.S. soccer league. It wouldn’t be until February of 1995 that Major League Soccer would be officially formed with a huge leg up from U.S. Soccer. The league would begin play in 1996 with 10 franchises.
People in the United States worried about security. People around the world worried that people in the U.S. wouldn’t care about this festival of international peace and deathly-important competition.
But then the games started and all the worries melted away.
Jürgen Klinsmann was the star striker for Monaco in the French league. The team had a sudden drop in 1993-94 from second (first, after Olympique Marseilles got caught in a bribery scandal) to ninth, and Klinsmann had spent a couple of months injured with a torn ligament.
He was also one of the big names on the World Cup’s defending champion squad. Sort of. His West Germany, which won in 1990 with Klinsmann scoring three goals, had merged with East Germany to create a unified squad that FIFA recognized as defending champs.
The Germans were the heavy favorites to win the Cup for a fourth time.
In Redlands, Calif., Landon Donovan was attending Moore Middle School. He was one of 90,469 people who jammed into the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, to watch an underrated Romanian team defeat Argentina, 3-2, in the Round of 16.
In Nacogdoches, Texas, Clint Dempsey felt validated, at last, by the Cup coming to the U.S. An abiding soccer fan who played with immigrant kids on the dusty fields that surrounded the trailer park he grew up in, Dempsey finally had a chance to watch his international heroes—people like Argentina’s Diego Maradona—play in the flesh.
He begged, borrowed and hitched rides to Dallas, a six-hour drive from Nacogdoches, in order to watch Cup games.
''I got to go to some of those games and it was awesome,'' he told the New York Times in 2013. ''It was where I felt I belonged, because my whole life growing up in Texas I really felt that the game I was interested in, everybody else wasn't. So I found my niche.''
His one disappointment is that by the time Argentina played Bulgaria at the Cotton Bowl on June 30, Maradona had been sent home after testing positive for ephedrine. Tim Howard was 15 years old in 1994 and already playing goalie for U.S. youth teams. He went to two games at Giants Stadium. “Awesome!” he thought.
Michael Bradley’s father, Bob, was coaching at Princeton at the time, his tenure as U.S. national team coach was 12 years in the future. Bob took his young son to watch the July 5 Round of 16 match at East Rutherford in which Bulgaria eliminated Mexico on penalty kicks.
"I may have been only 6," Bradley recalls, "but I remember very clearly that goal Hristo Stoichkov scored. It was so brilliant."
Games across the U.S. sold out as immigrants, tourists, and, yes, even native-born Americans came out in droves to watch the polyglot spectacle of the Cup.
Even if, sometimes they didn’t quite get their terminology straight.
At a game between Saudi Arabia and Morocco in the Meadowlands, in which the ads that flanked the field scrolled from English to Spanish to Arabic, one white suburban father was overheard explaining to his 7- or 8-year-old son that the referee was giving that player who had just committed a foul, “a green card.”
As for the tight quarters of the field at Giants Stadium, it didn’t seem to mar play too much.
And the 1994 Cup produced some electric soccer.
Stoichkov and the Bulgarians were a revelation, finishing fourth.
For the second Cup in a row, after Cameroon’s run to the quarterfinals in 1990, African teams made an impression. This time it was Nigeria, which qualified first out of Group D and then lost a heartbreaker against Italy in extra time.
There were disgraces, too. Maradona’s ephedrine issue, which at first he blamed on a trainer, but which he subsequently suggested that FIFA had given him a covert nod to use to help him lose some of the weight he’d put on.
Then there was the tragic story of Andrés Escobar. A defender on a much-touted Colombian side, Escobar had the misfortune of sticking his leg out on cross by the U.S.’s Eric Wynalda and deflected the ball straight into his own goal.
Had that 2-1 loss to the U.S. been a tie instead, it would have been Colombia in the Round of 16, not the U.S., and, maybe Escobar would still be alive. He was killed on July 2nd in Medellín, Colombia. It's not totally clear whether or not the own-goal played a part in his killing.
On a much less somber note, there was also the “disgrace” of the penalty-kick shootout, which wasn’t totally new, having been introduced to World Cup play in 1982. But in 1994, the title game wound up a 0-0 draw, and the Cup title was decided by penalty kicks for the first time in Cup history.
The defining image of the championship was Italy’s Roberto Baggio standing with his hands on his hips, looking down in disgust after the penalty kick he had just taken sailed over the crossbar and sealed Brazil’s 0-0 (3-2) fourth Cup win.
But never mind those things, because overall the 1994 Cup was a rousing success.
Nearly 3.6 million people attended the games—the most ever—which is even more impressive when you realize that there were only 24 teams in that competition, participating in 52 games, not 32 teams and 64 games as has been the case in every Cup since.
Klinsmann scored 5 goals and propelled the Germans to the quarterfinals, where they were eliminated by an upstart Bulgarian squad.
The MLS has proven a stable, long-term success. Next season, New York City FC will join the Red Bulls as the second MLS team in metro New York and the 20th franchise in the league. A couple of weeks ago, MLS reportedly signed an 8-year deal for $90 million.
If any team these days is getting a semi-automatic pass straight to the Cup from CONCACAF, it's the U.S., not Mexico.
And a very large portion of Team USA's roster, as selected by national team coach Klinsmann, either is currently playing in the top European leagues or recently did so and chose to come home to the MLS.
At Sunday's U.S.-Turkey tune-up for the Cup at Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, N.J., all the signs were in English. A fierce rooting section dubbed "The Outlaws" chanted and sang throughout Team USA's 2-1 victory.
And nobody confused yellow cards for green cards.