The magic of Milla


SIX countries made a bid for the 1990 World Cup. Finally Greece, Yugoslavia, England and West Germany went out of the race and the toss up was between Italy and USSR. FIFA, which held its congress during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, decided in favour of Italy because the Soviets had boycotted the Olympics. Italy thus became the second country after Mexico to host the World Cup twice.

Compared to the previous edition, fewer countries (112) entered the qualifying rounds because of the adverse economic conditions in Africa. It was a surprise that France, coached by Michel Platini, failed to make it to the final round. Mexico was on FIFA's disqualified list for the country had fielded over-aged players in the World Youth Championship. Costa Rica came in for Mexico and made its debut in the World Cup finals while Korea, with an impressive all-win record in the preliminary rounds, advanced for the second time in a row.

Once again the much talked about teams which could have had a tilt at the ultimate honours were host Italy, Brazil, West Germany and defending champion Argentina. But the competition started on a sensational note, a revelation of African talent in fact, when Cameroon, despite losing two men in a bruising contest, stunned Argentina 1-0, Omam Biyik being the scorer. The African nation then went on to beat Romania and progress into the pre-quarter-final round as Group leader. Roger Milla's exploits began and his sensational goals started from there.

Besides Cameroon, Italy from Group A and Brazil from Group C were two other impressive performers in the first round, both scoring three wins each. Germany, Spain and England were the other Group winners to come through. Joining them as the second team from the six Groups were Czechoslovakia, Romania, Costa Rica, Yugoslavia, Belgium and Ireland. In addition, the four best teams in the third place - Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Holland - made it to the round of 16. Defending champion Argentina made heavy weather of its league engagements. The win against Russia came literally through a hand of Maradona and the foul was overlooked by referee Fredriksson. Romania held Argentina to a draw, an outcome that nearly pushed the Latin American giant out of contention.

The 38-year-old Roger Milla came good and Cameroon basked in the sunshine of this amazing player's prowess. Scoring two goals in extra time, one of which stemmed from the madness of Colombia's goalkeeper Higueta - who strayed to the midfield, lost the ball to the Cameroonean and paid the price - Milla helped Cameroon win 2-1 and make it the first African Nation to reach the quarter-final of a World Cup. In another match, West Germany once again ended the quest of the Netherlands 2-1 in what many considered as one of the best matches of the tournament. The hero for Germany was Jurgen Klinsmann, whose rampaging runs, neat passes and the lead goal set the tone for his team's win.

Argentina, on the other hand, struggled for a 1-0 win over Brazil, once again Maradona inspiring Cannigia to score. Brazil was frustrated by the brilliant goalkeeping of Goycoechea, who had taken over from the injured Pumpido in the league phase, and carved a niche for himself with his wonderful show in the competition. Romania's run ended with Ireland edging it through a penalty shoot-out after the teams were goalless at regular and extra time. For Yugoslavia, which prevailed over Spain 2-1, Dragan Stojkovic played a stellar role, scoring both the goals while England got past Belgium through a David Platt goal in the final minute of extra time.

The quarter-finals went on prosaic lines with Argentina, badly affected by an off-colour Maradona, edging Yugoslavia, down to 10 men after Sabanadzovic was sent out, on penalties (3-2). Italy pipped Ireland through a Schillaci goal while Lothar Matthaus' penalty saved the blushes for West Germany against Czechoslovakia. However the Cameroon-England match was a major compensation. Leading 2-1 till 10 minutes from time, Cameroon slipped to defeat. After Platt put England up, the 'Lions' came roaring to strike twice through Kunde and Ekeke. Lineker then earned two penalties, both of which he converted, one to equalise and the other to put England into the semi-final.

Despite a poor show, Argentina kept progressing and made it to the final at Italy's expense via penalties (4-3) after Schillaci had put Italy ahead and Cannigia, influenced by Maradona, had scored the equaliser. The other semi-final also went into penalties and West Germany prevailed over England (4-3) after being locked 1-1 at the end of extra time.

The final thus was a rematch of the previous title clash - West Germany v Argentina. Only this time it was a dreary affair, a bruising battle which saw Argentina lose two players - Monzon and Dezotti - to Red cards. Maradona was not fitness personified while Caniggia was absent. With the odds against it Argentina failed to shake the Beckenbauer-trained West Germany, though it was a penalty converted by Brehme which gave the Germans the Cup, its third like Brazil and Italy earlier. Beckenbauer also became the second man in history after Mario Zagalo of Brazil to win the World Cup both as a player and as a coach.

In 1994, the World Cup competition moved for the first time to the American continent and USA '94 saw not just drama and surprises but plenty of goals and also the sensational moment of a player (Diego Maradona) being expelled for testing positive for dope. There was tragedy too when Colombian Andres Escobar was shot dead on returning home, allegedly for scoring an own goal against the US, while in Africa Zambia's entire national team perished in a plane crash during the preliminary phase.

A record 147 countries entered the competition for the 24 berths. Traditional powers England, Uruguay, Denmark, Portugal, Poland, Scotland and France (knocked out by Bulgaria in the last second of the final qualifying game) failed to make it to the final round while Korea continued its great run, qualifying for the third consecutive occasion before crashing after a promising 2-2 against Spain and 0-0 against Bolivia.

From Africa, Nigeria which made its debut, advanced with wins over Greece and Bulgaria. Only Argentina with Maradona in the team then, beat it. For the host US the passage was marked by the unexpected 2-1 win over Colombia, thanks to Escobar's own goal while Italy and Mexico, with identical points, moved ahead from another Group. Norway missed the berth for scoring lesser number of goals despite matching Italy and Mexico on points. A highlight of the first round was Russia's 6-1 victory over Cameroon (both teams had lost out for second round berths). It was an amazing match for two reasons. Russia's Oleg Salenko scored five goals in only his seventh international match while the lone consolation goal for the 'Indomitable Lions' by Roger Milla gave him the honour of being the oldest player, at 42 years, one month and eight days to have scored in a World Cup.

In the pre-quarter final, Argentina, with its morale low after Maradona's expulsion, lost to Romania. Nigeria's attempt at a coup over Italy was foiled by a houdini act, a last minute equaliser and Roberto Baggio's penalty. Germany got past Belgium (3-2), Sweden defeated Saudi Arabia (3-1), Spain thumped Switzerland 3-0, the Netherlands ousted Ireland 2-0 and Brazil saw off America's challenge 1-0. Bulgaria needed a penalty shootout to edge Mexico after the 1-1 deadlock.

Then began the surprise. It was Brazil versus seven teams from Europe. But the biggest shock came when Bulgaria ended defending champion Germany's run 2-1. When Klinsmann scored, Germany seemed on course, but a disallowed goal by Rudi Voeller (off side) started the slide. Hristo Stoichkov, under tight marking by the German defence, found the chance when he gained a free kick. A curling shot brought the equaliser. Then 12 minutes from end, Letchkov headed in for the match-winner.

Elsewhere, Italy, inspired by Roberto Baggio, again scored over Spain 2-1, Sweden beat Romania through penalties after a 2-2 draw, while Brazil scotched the Netherlands' dream yet again (3-2) in one of the best matches of the tournament. Dunga and his men had led 2-0 before Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars scored to level and turn the match around. Ultimately it was not Bebeto or Romario who did it but the long forgotten Branco with a terrific 30 yarder, nine minutes from time.

The 'Divine Ponytail' as the Italians call Roberto Baggio was the star in the semi-final that sent Bulgaria out 2-1. Both goals were exquisite efforts that instantly put Baggio on a different plane and made the Italians ready for another World Cup triumph. Matching him for Brazil was Romario whose late goal helped his country to get past Sweden.

A repeat of the 1970 final but the dour match ended goalless. For the first time the title was decided on penalties and how ironic that the hero till then, Roberto Baggio, should turn a villain when he missed conversion to instantly propel Brazil to a record fourth World Cup success.

The 16th FIFA World Cup in France was the largest ever. For the first time the number of finalists was raised to 32 from 24. Most traditional football powers qualified except Sweden, which was third placed in '94. Even Japan and Korea, the co-hosts of the next edition qualified. Korea thus became the first Asian country to qualify for the World Cup final round for the fourth time in a row. Japan qualified for the first time beating Iran in a play-off for the third spot in Asia. Other first timers were newly independent Croatia, South Africa and Jamaica.

Defending champion Brazil set the ball rolling with Scotland and barely managed a 2-1 win, the Scots fighting all the way. There was talk about Korea as to whether the Asian country would taste its first win in the World Cup. The team started well with Ha Seok-Joos scoring against Mexico but soon after a rough tackle he was sent out. Mexico wrapped up 3-1. Later, the Netherlands caused further agony with a 5-0 win. Holding Belgium 1-1 was Korea's best effort but both teams went out at that stage in Group E.

Japan lost all its matches in Group H where Argentina and Croatia qualified. From Group A, Brazil and Norway went ahead, from Group B Italy and Chile, from Group C host France and Denmark while from Group D there was surprise in store with Spain losing to Nigeria in a close match and the Bulgarians getting walloped by Spain. Both these European countries made their exit allowing Nigeria and Paraguay to qualify. From Group F, Germany and Yugoslavia went through while Romania and England did so from Group G.

In the second round, in a match of drama, excitement and Michael Owen's brilliant goal, Argentina put out England via penalties after a 2-2 draw. Holland had a last minute winner to oust Yugoslavia (2-1) while France's Laurent Blanc scored the first ever World Cup golden goal to help the host get past Paraguay. Brazil did it in style against Chile (4-1) while Denmark upset the formbook by trouncing Nigeria 4-1. Germany had a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Mexico while Italy and Croatia edged Norway and Romania by 1-0 margins.

In the quarter-final, Italy, for the third time in a row, went out on penalties (3-2) against host France after a goalless scoreline at the end of extra time. Both Roberto Baggio and Luigi di Biagio had their penalty tries deflected by the post and crosspiece. Brazil edged past Denmark 3-2 in an absorbing clash while a last minute goal by Dennis Bergkamp gave Holland a 1-0 win over Argentina. But what took everyone by surprise was Croatia's humbling of Germany 3-0, Jarni, Goran Vlaovic and the irresistible Davor Suker (Golden Boot winner) scoring in that order.

Host France had a taste of Suker's versatility in the semi-final when he helped Croatia take early lead. But France had the man for the hour in Lilian Thuram, who scored two goals to stop the newcomer's run. Brazil, on the other hand, needed the penalties phase to oust Holland after the teams were locked 1-1.

If it was Thuram in the semi-final then it was playmaker Zinedine Zidane who sent shock waves through the Brazilian ranks with two headed first half goals. Brazil, under turmoil already, thanks to Ronaldo's mysterious illness fought on bravely but France, despite being reduced to 10 men (Marcel Desailly expelled), could still conjure up another goal through Emmanuel Petit. The Champs Elysees was awash with over a million revellers dancing in rapturous delight.