Brazil back on top in football's final frontier
© Popper Foto

The United States was the setting for a hugely successful 15th FIFA World Cup™ which drew record crowds and ended with Brazil celebrating their first world title since 1970. If the Final itself was a disappointment, Brazil beating Italy on penalties after a goalless draw, there were no complaints about the entertainment that had gone before.

There were plenty of goals – 141 was the highest total since 1982 – and no shortage of drama. Bulgaria, who had never won a FIFA World Cup match in 16 previous attempts, provided the biggest upset by beating Germany en route to the semi-finals. Argentina's 1986 hero Diego Maradona, meanwhile, tested positive for drugs and was expelled from the tournament, his team following suit soon after by losing a five-goal thriller to Gheorghe Hagi's Romania.

It was a tournament that was also touched by tragedy. Colombia defender Andres Escobar was murdered on his return home having scored an own goal against the United States in a group match that confirmed the South Americans' surprise early elimination. That result took the hosts into the second round where they were hardly disgraced in going down 1-0 to a Brazil side who proved the world's best.

Huge crowds
'Soccer' in the US has never held the widespread appeal of basketball, baseball and American football and it came as a surprise to many when the country was granted the honour of hosting the FIFA World Cup. In choosing the USA, however, FIFA President Joao Havelange was bidding to conquer football's final frontier and it proved the right decision with the event attracting a record total attendance of 3,587,538 spectators.

Another record of 147 countries entered qualifying but some of the expected European contenders did not make it, notably reigning continental champions Denmark, England and a France side eliminated by a Bulgarian goal in the last second of their last qualifier. The surprises did not end there. The first round, where a win was now worth three points, threw up several of them. Italy went down 1-0 to Ireland in their opening game and scraped into the Round of 16 as one of the best third-placed teams.

If Colombia's aforementioned demise was unexpected, so few people had predicted that Saudi Arabia would survive the group stage yet they won twice. Indeed Saudi striker Saeed Owairan struck arguably the tournament's finest goal, a slaloming run and shot that beat Belgium. Russia's Oleg Salenko managed his own scoring feat, establishing a new record after netting five times in a 6-1 victory over Cameroon. Roger Milla's goal in the same fixture, meanwhile, meant he broke his own record as the FIFA World Cup's oldest scorer – at 42 years, one month and eight days.

'The Divine Ponytail'
Another African team, Nigeria, were 90 seconds away from overcoming Italy in the Round of 16 only for Roberto Baggio to rescue the Azzurri's ten men. The African champions had topped their group and threatened a major shock before Baggio's equaliser and extra-time winner. The 'Divine Ponytail' was in the form of his life. His late goal downed Spain in the last eight before he then struck twice more to deflate Bulgaria in the semi-finals. This after the Bulgarians, with their own inspirational figure in Hristo Stoichkov, had astonished everybody by putting out the holders, Germany.

Stoichkov would eventually share the adidas Golden Shoe with Salenko but for another of the tournament's star forwards, Romario, an even greater prize beckoned. He and strike partner Bebeto both found the net in an exciting 3-2 quarter-final defeat of the Netherlands – a game that featured the latter's famous baby-cradling goal celebration in honour of his new-born son. Romario then registered the only goal of the semi-final against a Sweden side who produced their best performance since 1958 by finishing third.

So to the Final in Pasadena, a repeat of the 1970 climax and a contest between two countries who had already collected three world titles each. In theory, it was a dream finale but the reality was a stalemate. For the first time, the destiny of the trophy would be decided by penalties and, cruelly, it was Baggio, who had done so much to get Italy there, who missed the crucial last kick. His right leg heavily bandaged to protect his injured hamstring, the little No10 lifted the ball high into the blue California sky and Brazil were champions again, 24 years after their last success.

Captained by the tough-tackling Dunga, this Brazil may have lacked some of the flair of previous incarnations but Carlos Alberto Parreira's squad were perfectly prepared and boasted a formidable front pair in Romario and Bebeto. With those two in tandem, Parreira could even afford to leave a 17-year-old called Ronaldo on the bench. But more of him later...