Americans adore drama. The race for invitations to their biggest-ever party reached a wildly dramatic climax. The 15th FIFA World Cup™ was the last to which only 24 tickets were available and, heading into its final day of qualification, nine were up for grabs despite the fact most regions had settled their slots.
Only one-third of Europe’s 12 slots had been seized. Comparative minnows Greece, Norway, Russia and Sweden had taken them, while the likes of England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, despite the top two in each of the six six-team groups qualifying, had work to do.
Drama was all but a given. Nobody, however, could have foreseen it coming so rapidly or from such an unlikely source. To finish runners-up in Group 2 behind Norway, England had to thrash San Marino by seven goals in Bologna and hope Poland beat the Netherlands in Poznan. Yet just 8.3 seconds after kick-off in northern Italy, 22-year-old Davide Gualtieri prempted an under-hit Stuart Pearce back-pass and poked the ball past David Seaman to fire the Apennine microstate ahead. It remains the fastest goals in World Cup qualifying or finals history. “It was so fast that a lot of spectators still had not sat down in their seats!” recalled Gualtieri.
It took England over 20 minutes to equalise and, though they ultimately won 7-1, Gualtieri’s effort ensured they failed to keep their side of the bargain by winning by seven goals. Fortunately, perhaps, it mattered not. Dennis Bergkamp’s brace and Ronald de Boer’s late strike ensured the Netherlands beat Poland 3-1 to finalise their flights across the Atlantic
“It was only after the game when all the journalists swarmed me that I realised how historic the goal was," said Gualtieri. "The front cover of the next day’s Daily Mirror had a big picture of me on it with the headline ‘End of the World’. It made me very popular in Scotland!”
The headline-dominating goal in Group 1 was, by contrast, one spectators waited 83 minutes to witness. Italy and Portugal went into their San Siro showdown level on points and goal difference at the summit. Both knew that third-placed Switzerland, given that they faced rock-bottom Estonia at home, were highly likely to secure one of the pool’s two passes to the USA, and the Swiss did with a 4-0 success. With the deadlock intact and little time remaining in Milan, though, young midfielder Dino Baggio stabbed home a loose ball to ensure Italy qualified for their ninth successive World Cup and Portugal’s wait for their third invitation to the competition continued.
“Dino’s goal was a great relief,” said Franco Baresi afterwards. “Sometimes you have one of those games where you just can’t seem to score, and Rui Costa, Paulo Futre and Joao Pinto were players who could make something happen out of nothing.”
The unlikely hero of Seville
Group 3 provided another tense, three-way finale, with European champions Denmark leading both Spain and Republic of Ireland by a point at the start of play. Peter Schmeichel, the Laudrup brothers and Co needed just a point in Seville, and their hopes were given a significant boost when Roja No1 Andoni Zubizarreta was sent off after ten minutes for hauling down elder sibling Michael. However, an infallible display from substitute goalkeeper Santaigo Canizales, who hadn’t even been afforded time to warm up before being thrown on for his Spain debut, and a 63rd-minute Fernando Hierro header, firmly against the run of play, nicked Javier Clemente’s ten men the victory they needed.
That result would have been sufficient for Denmark to sneak through behind Spain had Northern Ireland managed to hold out for victory over Republic of Ireland after Jimmy Quinn superbly volleyed them into a 75th-minute lead. However, Alan McLoughlin’s sweet half-volley snatched Jack Charlton’s visitors the draw they required to pip the Danes to a World Cup berth on goals scored.
Charlton explained: “I brought Ray Houghton off and he wasn’t very pleased. He said, ‘I’m the only one getting any chances’, and I said, ‘you’re the only one missing any chances!’ So I put Alan McLoughlin on and I said, ‘you play in behind the front two and you pick up the [clearances] on the edge of the box’. Alan did just that, took his volley really well.
“What a feeling for us,” said Charlton. “It must have been devastating for the Danes. It was unbelievable how close it was.”
A hero in Cardiff, a villain in Paris
Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Wales all went into Group 4’s climax in the running to progress. As it transpired, Florin Raducioiu’s late winner in Cardiff and a goalless draw in Brussels proved enough for the Romanians and the Belgians.
Another last-gasp goal ripped up the script in the fight to finish second in Group 6. France needed a point at home to Bulgaria and they were all set to celebrate just that when, with the scoreboard reading 1-1 and just 20 seconds remaining, they won a free-kick near the Bulgarian corner flag. Inexplicably, though, David Ginola attempted to cross the ball rather than run the clock to zero. The attacker’s overhit effort launched a counter-attack, which culminated in Emil Kostadinov doing superbly to keep control of a bouncing ball and smashing it home off the underside of the crossbar to complete his double and an implausible 2-1 victory.
“With only 30 seconds remaining we were there, but we got stabbed in the back and at the worst possible time,” raged France coach Gerard Houllier. “The referee still had his whistle to his mouth when Ginola won that free-kick near the corner flag.”
The final match in USA 1994 qualifying unfolded in Buenos Aires. Australia had held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in Sydney, and their resilient defence kept the game at deadlock for almost an hour at the Monumental until Gabriel Batistuta’s cross took a wicked deflection off Alex Tobin and looped over goalkeeper Robert Zabica.
A dramatic day was over – one from which fans could begin salivating over the prospect of seeing Roberto Baggio, Batistuta, Bergkamp, Pep Guardiola, Gheorghe Hagi, Roy Keane, Paolo Maldini, Diego Maradona, Enzo Scifo, Ciriaco Sforza and Hristo Stoichkov kick around an adidas Questra at places like the grandiose Giants Stadium, the indoor Pontiac Silverdome and the iconic Rose Bowl.