1994: Surprises and El Diego’s suspension

Diego Maradona was caught with strains of ephedrine in a random dope test after the Nigeria game. A 15-month suspension followed, ending Argentina’s World Cup dreams and also halting Maradona’s chequered but seditious career.

Joy and despair: Brazil goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel celebrates after Roberto Baggio of Italy had missed his penalty to decide the FIFA World Cup Final in 1994.   -  Getty Images

A World Cup of surprises with two unexpected teams, Sweden and Bulgaria, reaching the semifinals for the first time in history. Bulgaria barely managed to make it to the knockout stage, winning its last group game against Argentina, which was sullied by an ephedrine fix on its skipper Diego Maradona on the eve of the game.

Helping La Albiceleste to graze through the qualifying process to USA ’94, it seemed Maradona had finally banished all the demons that had forced him to sneak away from Europe, back to his closed sanctuary in Buenos Aires. Coach Alfio Basile selected him for Cup duties despite his limited preparation and match practice, and the decorated No. 10 joined players like Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo and Diego Simeone, earning a favourite tag for Argentina irrespective of its unimpressive qualifying campaign.

By means not known to any, Maradona managed to shake off his ill-health and got on top of his battle with the bulge. The first game against Greece saw Argentina 2-0 up, Batigol scoring quickly after kickoff. At the hour mark, Maradona weaved his way through the Greek embankments and scored from 30 yards out, finding the net from the narrowest of angles.

Host: USA

Teams: 24

Matches: 52

Goals: 141

Attendance: 35,87,538

Winner: Brazil

Golden Boot: Hristo Stoichkov (BUL) & Oleg Salenko (RUS) — 6 goals each

Best Goalkeeper: Michel Preud'homme (Belgium)

Best Player: Romário (BRA)

The spontaneous celebrations that followed gave the world food for thought and also possibly the dope that sparked his expulsion from the tournament soon after. Maradona, high and happy, charged down to the touchline towards a camera and strained his vocal chords to the very extreme in wild jubilation.

A double strike from his partner-in-crime Claudio Cannagia saw Argentina go past Nigeria next and a pre-quarterfinal place was secured. The joy, however, was short-lived; the skipper was finally caught with strains of ephedrine in a random dope test after the game. A 15-month suspension followed, ending Argentina’s World Cup dreams and also halting Maradona’s chequered but seditious career. But entertaining as always, El Diego came out with many lines of defence, including a sabotage plot planned by the then FIFA president, Brazilian Joao Havalange. The Brazilians did indeed win the World Cup, Bebeto and Romario combining well and celebrating in their unique “Rock the Baby” style for every goal, but, alas, Maradona’s allegations were never to be proved.