There can be little doubt that the period spanning the late 1970s through to the mid-1990s was a golden era for the Argentinian national team, featuring two FIFA World Cup™ wins, one runners-up spot and two triumphs in the Copa America. Both continental successes came under the steady hand of coach Alfio Basile, whose team travelled to USA 1994 as serious title candidates after amassing 33 games without defeat.
However, they would find their path blocked in the Round of 16 by a Romania side led by mercurial creator Gheorghe Hagi, the two teams coming together in a clash loaded with significance both on and off the pitch. FIFA.com takes a look back at a thrilling match played out in stifling conditions in Los Angeles, an encounter which sealed Hagi and Co’s place in Romanian football history and spelled the end of Basile’s successful reign at La Albiceleste’s helm.
Though they needed to negotiate a difficult play-off against Australia to clinch a USA 1994 berth, Argentina touched down on American soil with a squad boasting such iconic talents as Diego Maradona, Fernando Redondo, Diego Simeone, Abel Balbo, Claudio Caniggia and Gabriel Batistuta. Group-phase wins over Greece and Nigeria soon followed, only for disaster to strike the Albiceleste camp when Maradona tested positive for a banned substance. Also deprived of key attacker Caniggia through injury, Basile’s charges sank to defeat in their final Group D encounter against eventual semi-finalists Bulgaria and scraped through to the Round of 16 as one of the best third-placed sides.
Romania’s progress through Group A was also somewhat erratic, having followed up an impressive 3-1 opening win over Colombia with a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Switzerland. And having squeezed through to the next round with a 1-0 success against the host nation, nobody was really sure just what to expect next.
In the fierce Californian summer heat, Argentina took to the field with two changes enforced by the absence of Maradona and Caniggia. Coming in to stiffen the midfield was Jose Basualdo, while a youthful Ariel Ortega was handed the responsibility of feeding strike pair Batistuta and Balbo. Romania, meanwhile, set up their stall around a rugged defensive line and a solid midfield geared up to make full use of their speed on the break.
And after surviving two early scares when keeper Florin Prunea needed to be at his agile best to deny Balbo and Batistuta, coach Anghel Iordinescu’s charges took the lead thanks to an 11th-minute free-kick from the left flank by Ilie Dumitrescu, which wrong-footed Albiceleste custodian Luis Islas and sailed into the far corner. Stung by the goal, Argentina struck back within five minutes via a Batistuta penalty, after the powerful forward was brought down by Daniel Prodan just inside the box.
Yet Batigol barely had time to celebrate his fourth strike of the competition. Just two minutes later, Dumitrescu latched onto an inch-perfect pass from the roving Hagi to touch the ball past Islas and into the net – the culmination of a textbook counter-attacking move. Argentina showed spirit to take the fight to Romania for the remainder of the first half, though their European opponents looked capable of extending their lead with each lightning break.
The second period followed a similar pattern, with Basile’s team throwing men forward in search of an equaliser, only to be denied time and again by the reflexes of Prunea and some wayward finishing. They would pay dearly for their profligacy on 58 minutes when a Basualdo misjudgement left his team overrun at the back. Dumitrescu was able to carry the ball half the length of the field and commit several defenders before releasing the onrushing Hagi, whose first-time shot with his weaker right foot flew past the hapless Islas.
Argentina continued to battle bravely despite this latest setback, with Basile throwing on prolific striker Ramon Medina Bello for defender Roberto Sensini in a bid to reduce the deficit. Continually repelled by Prunea, La Albiceleste’s pressure finally paid off after the keeper’s only slip-up of an immense display – a spill from a long-rang Fernando Caceres effort that Balbo tucked away on 75 minutes. Hagi and his men held firm, however, to see out a 3-2 win and seal a place in the quarter-finals.
There can be little doubt that Dumitrescu’s two goals and sublime assist for Hagi’s clincher made him the stuff of nightmares for the Argentinian defence. Quick, creative and with an eye for an opportunity, the Romania No11’s displays on US soil earned the 25-year-old a lucrative move from Steaua Bucharest to English side Tottenham Hotspur. Spells at Sevilla, West Ham and Mexican outfits Club America and Atlante followed before he returned home in 1998 to play one final season with Steaua before hanging up his boots.
“We showed we’re not a group of individuals, we all play as a team, which is what football’s about. [Ilie] Dumitrescu was the star today but tomorrow it could well be someone else. I’ve been told that the victory over Argentina was like a second Romanian revolution, following the first one which toppled [Nicolae] Ceausescu. No doubt about it, we’re talking about the biggest win in the history of Romanian football,” Romania captain Gheorghe Hagi.
“Argentina weren’t the same buoyant team they were before I left, when we’d been united and happy. But you can’t blame the players as they gave everything they had. I think we paid dearly for lapses in concentration but that’s it. I feel deeply sorry for every Argentinian and for fans around the world who love football,” Diego Maradona, commenting on the game for Argentinian television.
Romania made the trip to San Francisco to meet quarter-final opponents and fellow tournament surprise packages Sweden. Following a 2-2 draw after extra time, it was the Swedes who kept their nerve to win 5-4 on penalties, Dan Petrescu and Miodrag Belodedici failing from the spot for the eastern Europeans.
Argentina, for their part, headed for home as Basile’s tenure as coach was brought to an end. Handed the reins and charged with renewing the squad with a view to France 1998 was Daniel Passarella, who had skippered his country to triumph at Argentina 1978.