Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Discovering Narnia: A love letter to USA 94

As I write this on Thursday morning, some four days into the 2022 World Cup, I have still only watched a single game so far- England’s clinical 6-2 dismantlement of Iran. I haven’t been consciously boycotting the tournament, even though I sometimes feel I probably should.

Simply, I haven’t had time to watch the other games. The women’s domestic season is continuing and I am very grateful for that, it’s kept me plenty busy and, for me, means I still have Arsenal during this strange winter hiatus on the men’s side.

Largely it has been a question of time and priority. I have a two-year old daughter and that has ruled out all of the 7pm kickoffs so far as I busy myself with her nightly routine. While I am telling you that I haven’t had time for this year’s World Cup thus far, it is perhaps telling that I haven’t really made time either.

And it is a pity because World Cups are such formative experiences for football fans, especially in youth. There is a trope that the World Cup that falls between your eighth and twelfth birthdays are the best World Cups and that is certainly the case for me.

I was ten years old for USA 94 and, therefore, that will always represent the gold standard of World Cups. I think there are reasons that USA 94 retains that magic (I am not naive enough to think that 1994 was some kind of age of innocence in both the FIFA sense and the broader social sense either).

From a personal perspective, the tournament happened straight after Arsenal won the Cup Winners Cup in 1994 which, to my mind, remains the club’s most underrated achievement. Following that tournament felt like a magic mystery box of players and clubs that one just couldn’t follow in 1994.

In the quarter-finals, Arsenal played Torino who had Croatian legend Robert Jarni. They also had Benito Carbone and Andrea Silenzi, who would later come to the Premier League. In the semi-finals it was PSG, who boasted the talents of George Weah, David Ginola and Brazilian pair Rai and Valdo.

Then the final, with Parma’s world renowned front three of Brolin, Zola and Asprilla (all of whom would eventually play in the Premier League with wildly varying levels of success), supported by a defence that included Antonio Benarrivo and Roberto Sensini.

That tournament represented an age of discovery for me and the World Cup in 1994 simply extended that education. By now, I owned the legendary console game Sensible Soccer, which contained all of these lofty names, albeit with the vowels scrambled so as not to violate copyright laws.

The fact that England didn’t qualify for USA 94 actually made it even more fascinating for me. I paid attention to the whole canvas rather than just a small part of the painting. I learned about players like the legendary Mexico goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who, famously, played as a striker for his club side. His incredibly loud goalkeeper shirt buttressed his legend.

It was Maradona’s last World Cup and he left his mark in the most Maradona way possible by scoring a brilliant goal, which he celebrated with such a deranged stare down the camera bowl that it drew complaints from viewers of BBC’s coverage. He was then quickly disgraced and sent home from the tournament for failing a doping test.

There was Carlos Valderrama and his famous blond Afro, a good chunk of the USA squad would eventually pitch up in the Premier League and I recall having had no real concept of the fact that they even had a soccer team in the first place. I recall the amusing vox pops when British journalists covering the tournament would ask passing Americans whether they knew the World Cup was even happening.

Roberto Baggio, the divine ponytail, lit up the tournament and then, cruelly, when it looked as though he were destined to enjoy his own ‘Maradona in ‘86’ type tournament, he blazed the decisive penalty over the cross bar in the final shootout against Brazil.

This was my first dalliance with the Brazilian national side too. I never imagined that one day I would end up covering them for a few years and fully immersing myself in Brazilian football. It’s not viewed as a vintage Brazil side in retrospect but to me they were magical.

Those bright yellow shirts set against the intense American July sun just made them stand out that little bit more. This was the tournament of Romario and Bebeto, the latter with his now iconic baby cradle celebration to mark the birth of his son.

I have read a lot about how the 1970 World Cup, the first to be broadcast in colour from the stifling Mexican sunshine, left such an indelible mark on people with Brazil’s brilliant yellow kits. USA 94 had a similar impact on me.

Though colour television was nothing new at this point the colour filters were still susceptible to a kind of eclipsed blur when bright colours were stacked against one another. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the two nations that I really took to my heart in this World Cup were Brazil and Netherlands.

It was my first glimpse of Dennis Bergkamp who, little did I know at the time, would illuminate my football experience over such a long period of time. Famously, it was the flights to and fro the States that imbued Bergkamp with his fear of flying.

Then there was the Republic of Ireland, who did of course qualify for the tournament. None of the British sides qualified so I just remember everyone in my school either exaggerating or just plain lying about the extent of their Irish heritage.

One of my best friends at that time was called Daniel McElvey, so I was able to take his Irish heritage more seriously! I remember really rooting for Ireland because it mattered so much to him. Even though England were present at France 98, I took a real shine to Nigeria and Jay Jay Okocha because one of my best friends at the time was Nigerian. My mum even bought me a PSG shirt after that World Cup, which was Okocha’s club team.

94 had its fair share of surprises too, Bulgaria and Sweden were among the semi-finalists. I recall small personal details as well, there was a game at 9pm UK time every evening during the group stage. Initially, my mum would only allow me to stay up for the first half of those games.

A few games into the tournament, she retrieved an old portable TV from the loft and installed it in my room so I could watch the second half of those games in bed. It was a very old school television, you had to turn a dial to change the channels and it didn’t have a remote control. For me, though, it was a portal into another world.

A world where it was 1pm and around 100 Celsius, where Jack Charlton looked suitably uncomfortable in a baseball cap, his sweat stains soaking through his white shirt. Where players like Brolin, Baggio, Romario, Stoichkov, Hagi and Bergkamp roamed.

Where the brilliant bright shirts of Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil and, well, Jorge Campos created an impressionable glare in my dark bedroom. Everyone is guilty of lionising the past and remembering it as a sepia toned heyday.

However, I think 1994 was a really nice vantage point for a World Cup, culturally speaking. We were on the cusp of a digital age that would make these teams and players household names and faces, yet we knew and could see just enough of them to whet appetites.

If the 1994 Cup Winners Cup was the stepping into the back of the wardrobe, USA 94 was my full induction into Narnia. I recall the explosion of transfer rumours on the back of this World Cup. Most of it abject fucking nonsense but when you are ten, it’s difficult to filter.

I vividly recall a schoolmate tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “ere, did you hear Arsenal are signing Baggio?” And believing it with all my heart. It was a charming naïveté and though not an age of innocence for the world itself, it was for this football mad ten-year-old.

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