Revisiting the Chaos of the 1994 World Cup

The 1994 World Cup was a truly chaotic affair from start to finish. We revisit the tournament’s best and worst moments.

If you look up the word “chaotic” in the dictionary, it doesn’t mention anything about the 1994 United States World Cup. But it should, because if you can’t define USA ‘94 as chaotic, then I am not sure what else you can define it as. Diego Maradona causing trouble, a mental opening ceremony, and some pretty weird and wonderful football on show all combine to make a stew of brilliant pandemonium that is thriving on cult hero status to date.

Football fans will often discuss their favorite World Cups, along with the ones they think are disasters. Italia ‘90 is usually everyone’s favorite for its nostalgia and romance. Japan/Korea ‘02 is often regarded as a terrible tournament alongside South Africa ‘10. The U.S. 1994 edition lies awkwardly on the axis of both.

At the time when the U.S. was awarded the tournament, beating Brazil and Honduras to the host role, it was controversial. The U.S. was, and still is by certain groups, regarded as not a “proper” footballing nation (whatever that means), so question marks were raised when it was awarded the chance to host the holy grail of football. Add to that Russia performing as Russia and not the Soviet Union for the first time and a unified Germany team following West Germany’s Italia ’90 glory, and there was plenty of newness in this tournament from the jump.

The opening ceremony was absolutely mental, as is expected when it comes to the top dogs of total pageantry, the US of A. It, was, of course, a complete mess. Oprah Winfrey introduced the tournament before falling off stage, and then Diana Ross missed a penalty during her opening performance which then caused the performative goalpost to split in half despite nothing hitting it. It was the absolute perfect start to the United States’ tournament and I cannot think of any other way I’d have wanted it to be like.

From a footballing perspective, this tournament maintained the chaos of the opening ceremony. England and France failed to qualify, but we still had the other big hitters in Italy, Brazil, Germany, and Argentina involved. There were not really any massive shocks in the group stages in regards to who advanced to the knockouts, although Italy did finish as a best third-placed team after everyone in their group finished on the same points, meaning Ireland also advanced in second due to its opening 1-0 victory over the Italians. Cameroon finished bottom of their group but did have 42-year-old legend Roger Milla in their side, and 1990 finalists Argentina also advanced in third place.

However, what came during the groups for Argentina was bound to shock them, and the world, to the core. Or maybe not. After the tumultuous years that followed the country’s 1986 World Cup victory, captain and talisman Diego Maradona was back playing for Argentina at a World Cup.

Of course, you have that iconic moment of Maradona scoring and proceeding to scream furiously right at the camera. What followed after this however, added to the craziness. Going into the country’s last group game, Maradona was removed from the tournament following a failed drug test.

Argentina went on to lose their final group game and eventually got knocked out in the round of 16 at the hands of Romania. A disgraced tournament for the Argentinians, indeed.

The tournament does have an awfully dark side to it, as well. In their second group game, the U.S. faced Colombia in what was a crucial match for both teams if they wanted to make it out of their group. In front of their home fans, the USMNT defeated Colombia 2-1, but not without controversy.

The Americans’ first tally came by way of an own goal by Andres Escobar. Following Colombia’s exit, Escobar was told to lay low as the outrage at his own goal was rife. He did not believe in this and instead, headed out with friends into his hometown of Medellin where he was later murdered as a reported revenge attack for said own goal. A truly devastating moment.

The U.S. World Cup was a rollercoaster. From failed drug tests to murder, it was chaotic from start to finish. The finals would be between Brazil and Italy, who would play a goalless draw before Brazil took the title on penalties after Italy’s star player at the time, Roberto Baggio, fired his penalty way over the crossbar. This concluded a tournament that is often looked back on with fond memories.

The outcome for U.S. Soccer? Well, it is beyond question that the tournament changed the face of the game in the States forever. In 1996, MLS was announced with 10 initial teams pitched. This was the kickstart soccer in America needed, it is just crazy that they had the World Cup of all things as their catalyst.


  1. I agree with your analysis and I would add the trouble for fans to travel to the US given its visa restrictions. The result was that most games were played in front of half empty stadiums.
    One more thing, the country is called Colombia and not Columbia, that is a university in New York! 😉

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