Brazil back in the spotlight

The 1994 final is regarded as the dullest in World Cup history. However, Brazil beat Italy in the SHOOTOUT to win the Cup for the first time in 24 years and a record fourth time.

The bidders list grew bigger for the 1990 edition, but eventually it was a toss up between Italy and the USSR. The FIFA congress, held during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, allotted the World Cup to Italy since the USSR had boycotted the Olympics. Thus Italy, after Mexico, became the second country to host the World Cup twice.

Adverse economic conditions in Africa scaled down the participation to 112 teams for the preliminaries. France failed to qualify, while FIFA disqualified Mexico for fielding over-aged players in the World Youth Championship. Korea enjoyed another good run, qualifying with an all-win record.

The focus this time was on host Italy, Brazil, West Germany and defending champion Argentina. The Championship, however, was lit up by the effervescence of African talent, particularly Cameroon, which shocked Argentina 1-0, then went on to beat Romania and progress to the pre-quarterfinal phase as its Group leader. Cameroon's Roger Milla was the player to watch as he came up with some sensational goals.

Besides Cameroon, Italy and Brazil were the two other teams that impressed while topping their respective groups. They were followed by Germany, Spain and England. Joining these teams in the next stage were Czechoslovakia, Romania, Costa Rica, Yugoslavia, Belgium and Ireland, who finished second in their respective groups. In addition, the four best third-placed teams — Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Holland — too joined the fray in the second phase.

Defending champion Argentina's performance was tardy and it required another `hand' goal by Maradona to get past the USSR.

Roger Milla and his jigs at the flag post each time he scored provided a fresh dimension to the entertainment. His two goals helped Cameroon beat Colombia and become the first African nation to enter the quarterfinals of a World Cup. West Germany beat Netherlands (2-1) in what was the best match of the tournament with Juergen Klinsmann making all the difference. Argentina struggled for its 1-0 win against Brazil, but Maradona inspired the match-winner from Cannigia.

Romania succumbed to Ireland in the penalty shootout, while Yugoslavia, helped by Dragan Stojkovic's stellar show, edged out Spain. England owed its victory against Belgium to David Platt's extra-time goal.

The quarterfinals were not so exciting with Argentina continuing shakily and getting past a 10-man Yugoslavia on penalties, while Italy pipped Ireland with the help of a Schillaci goal. Lothar Matthaus saved West Germany the blushes against Czechoslovakia. The Cameroon-England match was the best of the quarterfinals. England, trailing 1-2 at one stage, recovered to win the match. Gary Lineker was England's hero on that day.

Despite poor form, Argentina went into the final at Italy's expense (4-3 via penalties) to once again face West Germany, which edged out England 4-3. The bruising encounter saw Argentina lose two players through red cards. The team failed to match up to Germany and Brehme's goal off a penalty enabled Beckenbauer's team to lift the cup.

1994 USA

It was a big surprise when the US, a country known for its support for baseball, basketball and American football, was given the chance to host the 1994 edition. The response, however, was overwhelming as over 3.5 million people witnessed the action. In all 147 countries competed for the 24 slots.

The tournament not only threw up surprises but also produced some sensational moments: Diego Maradona's expulsion after testing positive for dope and the death of Colombian Andres Escobar, who was shot dead by a fanatic back home after he had scored an own goal against the US. The US and Saudi Arabia qualifying for the second stage and Russia and Cameroon falling by the wayside were the first round surprises. Saudi's Saeed Owairan was the best scorer of the tournament. Russia's exit was unfortunate, especially after Oleg Salenko had scored five goals (a record) against Cameroon. Roger Milla, at 42 years, one month and eight days, became the oldest player to score in a World Cup. The quarterfinal field saw seven teams from Europe and just one, Brazil, from outside. In the tussle among the European nations, Italy scraped through against Spain and then sped into the final with a victory over Bulgaria.

Italy's Houdini act against Nigeria in the second round was one of the talking points of the championship. Down by a goal and with just 90 seconds remaining, Roberto Baggio got the equaliser, and in the extra-time the match-winner off a penalty. Argentina failed in the face of Maradona's fall.

Brazil's toughest hurdle was the Netherlands in the quarterfinal. The team cleared it, but only just, after leading 2-0 at one stage.

In a tortuous exercise between Brazil and Italy, which many believed was the dullest final, the contest was decided via penalties and how! With each team scoring, everything hinged on Roberto Baggio's conversion. The man who was instrumental in helping his country reach this far in the tournament, the `Divine Ponytail', as the Italians call him, failed — he sent the ball high into the California night.

Thus, after 24 years, Brazil had again won the Cup — a record fourth time — to trigger wild celebrations.

1998 France

With the game's commercialisation reaching a new high, pressures brought in more changes: the field in the final round was raised to 32 from 24. This meant more matches being spread over a greater area. Ten cities were decked up in France with upgraded infrastructure for the 1998 edition.

Traditional forces progressed barring Sweden, which was placed third in the previous edition. Even Japan and Korea (co-hosts of the next edition) qualified — Japan for the first time. Other first timers were Croatia, South Africa and Jamaica.

After the initial phase, Brazil and Norway went ahead from Group A; Italy and Chile from Group B; France and Denmark from Group C; Nigeria and Paraguay (Spain and Bulgaria were the surprise losers) from Group D; Holland and Mexico from Group E; Germany and Yugoslavia from Group F and Romania and England from Group G.

In the next round, despite Michael Owen's brilliant goal, England went down to Argentina in the penalties. Holland's late surge ousted Yugoslavia (2-1), while France's Laurent Blanc scored the World Cup's first ever golden goal to help his country beat Paraguay. Denmark upset formbook by trouncing Nigeria (4-1), and Brazil beat Chile by the same margin. Germany came from behind to defeat Mexico 2-1, while Italy and Croatia advanced edging out Norway and Romania respectively, both by 1-0 margins.

Davor Suker's versatility inspired Croatia's 3-0 defeat of Germany, which was the highlight of the quarterfinals. Brazil edged past Denmark (3-2) while Dennis Bergkamp's goal brought Holland a 1-0 win over Argentina. For Italy, Roberto Baggio and Luigi di Biagio failed in the penalties and France went ahead 3-2. Suker again came good against France in the semifinal, but Thuram's two-goal blitz ended a young team's dream. Brazil beat Holland in penalties. In the final, it was time for Zinedine Zidane to rise for France. In the state-of-the-art stadium in Paris, his two headed goals in the first session shook the Brazilians. With Ronaldo down with a mysterious illness, Brazil's wonted form was missing.

Despite being reduced to 10 men, France still managed to pump in another goal (Emmanuel Petit). And then, the Champs Elysees was awash with the sight of millions dancing in delirious delight.

S. R. Suryanarayan