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Baggio pays the penalty and Brazil grabs the title at USA ’94

The following is an excerpt from the new book, “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event” published by Rowman & Littlefield. 

Group E was by far the toughest one of the opening round. In fact, Italy, Ireland, Norway, and Mexico were the tournament’s “Group of Death.” Meanwhile, the United States was attempting to avoid becoming the first host nation not to get past the first round. They were pitted against Romania, Switzerland, and Colombia, a team many had predicted could win the tournament. Brazil, Germany, and Argentina, the other three teams favored to capture the World Cup, all had been placed in manageable groups. 

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Italy was coached by former AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi, who triggered loads of controversy despite his success at the club level. The controversy centered on his tactics and commitment to a zonal marking 4–4–2 formation. Zonal play is a type of style where the players are assigned a position on the field rather than a player. While this plays to the strengths of some players, it can be constraining to others who are more creative and want to freely roam the field.

At the same time, Sacchi never fully abandoned the catenaccio style that had become such a staple of the national team’s identity and added a midfield press to it all. Critics argued that Sacchi’s tactics amounted to a basketball-style deployment of players, where the long ball reigned supreme and individual flair was squashed.

New York, home to many Italian and Irish immigrants, hosted the group’s opening match between the Azzurri and Ireland. Giants Stadium played host to the Group E encounter on June 18, and 73,000, mostly Irish fans, packed the venue. Ray Houghton’s chip shot got over goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca after 11 minutes, ensuring that Irish eyes were smiling. Ireland’s 1–0 win was revenge for the previous World Cup, when the Italians had eliminated them in the quarterfinals. The following day at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, Norway played its first World Cup game since 1938, and Kjetil Rekdal’s goal five minutes from time defeated Mexico.

Italy needed a win in their second game against Norway to keep their hopes of advancing alive. Sacchi remained under pressure, but optimists pointed out that the Italians were no strangers to slow starts. What they needed was one player to become the breakout star and lead the team to victory. That star was likely to be Baggio, winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1993 as Europe’s best player. Baggio, it was widely believed, would channel Paolo Rossi and the 1982 team that got off to a slow start and later won the World Cup.

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The Azzurri took the field on June 23 at Giants Stadium, and Italian fans made their voices heard in support. Italy had three clear chances at goal early on, but optimism turned to gloom when Pagliuca was red- carded after 21 minutes. Sacchi subbed in backup goalie Luca Marchegiani and took off Baggio, sacrificing his best player as part of a tactical tweak. The move was controversial. Baggio did not take kindly to the substitution and as he walked off the field could be heard saying, “Who, me? This guy is crazy.”

“I did it to save him and to save the team,” Sacchi told reporters. “He has some injuries. We needed ten players on the field who could run all the time.”

Baggio had been hampered by a sore Achilles’ tendon, but the move was seen as reckless by Sacchi critics and gutsy by those few who sup- ported him. Italy’s problems were compounded as the tense game wore on. Franco Baresi had to leave the match with an injury a few minutes into the second half, while Paolo Maldini, the left fullback who took over the captain’s role after Baggio’s exit, was kicked hard by Jostein Flo midway through the second half. Italy was forced to play two men short for four minutes while Maldini got the ankle taped. Maldini did return, but Baresi would have to undergo knee surgery after the game. His World Cup appeared to be over.

Norway resorted to fouling and long balls to try and break up Italy’s attack. In the 69th minute, it was Dino Baggio, a lanky midfielder and no relation to Roberto, who produced a moment of individual brilliance following a free kick from Giuseppe Signori along the left flank. Baggio’s diving header pierced the net, a reward for the Azzurri’s commitment to attack, after he outjumped three Norwegian defenders around him. Sacchi looked at his watch while his players rejoiced on the sidelines. The goal salvaged a 1–0 win, and the Italians were still in this thing. “Playing 70 minutes with only 10 men is very hard,” Sacchi said. “We left our hearts on the field.”

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Ireland closed the group with a scoreless draw against Norway. Meanwhile, Italy and Mexico could only muster a 1–1 draw in Washington, DC. All four teams finished tied at four points. The results meant that Mexico would finish first by virtue of having scored three goals. Ireland qualified as the second-place team as a result of their win against the Italians, who placed third.

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The following day, Italy, no room for error following a mediocre group stage, faced Nigeria in Boston. In attack, Baggio, Signori, and Daniele Massaro were tasked with spearheading what had been a poor attack. Italy stayed true to tradition, making their fans suffer while getting a goal in that decisive moment.

Before the Azzurri could do that, they went down after 27 minutes when Emmanuel Amunike scored. It looked as if that goal would get the Nigerians to the quarterfinals. Instead, Baggio spoiled it all for Nigeria. Channeling Rossi from 12 years earlier, the player nicknamed “the divine ponytail” found the back of the net two minutes from time. That last-gasp effort pushed the game into extra time, and the Nigerians were left deflated.

The Italians, down a player after second-half sub Gianfranco Zola was inexplicably sent off for what looked like a mundane foul, had spent much of the second half feverishly trying to tie the score. Baggio’s talent and class—finally, some would have said—came through at the right time. He added a second goal, on a penalty kick in the 102nd minute, and the draining afternoon came to a glorious end for the Italians. “The World Cup begins now,” Baggio told reporters after the game, “not just for me, but for Italy.”

Italy and Spain opened the quarterfinal round on July 9 at Foxboro Stadium, two of seven European teams left in the tournament. The lone representative from outside Europe was Brazil, who would play the Netherlands in Dallas.

Italy got Pagliuca back after serving his two-game suspension, while Sacchi sat out Signori in favor of Antonio Conte, an extra midfielder. Six of Sacchi’s starters were AC Milan players he had coached a few years earlier. The game marked the first time in 60 years that Italy and Spain would meet at a World Cup.

Spain fielded Jose Luis Caminero in the midfield and Luis Enrique up front. The mostly Italian crowd in Boston cheered as Dino Baggio opened the scoring, unleashing a shot from 25 yards out that found the back of the net. But the crowd awaited greatness from the other Baggio. A controversial figure among some Italians because of his lukewarm start to this tournament and for being a practicing Buddhist, love for Baggio had grown following his heroics against Nigeria.

The Italians used the wings to move the ball upfield for much of the first half, but Spain’s well-organized defense and gritty midfield play broke up the Italian counterattack. In fact, it was Spain, not Baggio, who scored when Caminero tied it for Spain in the 59th minute. His shot from 15 yards away beat Pagliuca. The Italians, exhausted following the marathon match against Nigeria, closed themselves in defense as La Roja were on the front foot and continued to dominate possession.

The game was reminiscent of that 1934 encounter. Referee Sándor Puhl of Hungary, one of the most talented match officials at the time, missed one of the biggest plays when Italy defender Mauro Tassotti elbowed Luis Enrique in the face during the game’s waning minutes. The foul busted the Spanish player’s nose open, and blood was all over his white jersey. Mauro Tassotti was not punished for the foul during the game, but FIFA later handed him an eight-match suspension and he would miss the remainder of the tournament. Tassotti would never again play for Italy. “It’s now been many years since that incident,” the Spanish forward-turned-coach recalled. “I think my nose looks better as a result. I have spoken with Mauro Tassotti three or four times over the years. He is a good and honest person.”

Spain could have won the game seven minutes from time after threatening the Italian goal several times when Julio Salinas found him- self face-to-face with Pagliuca, but the Italian goalie blocked the shot with his legs. Baggio, often marked by as many as three defenders, struggled to get enough touches on the ball. With two minutes left to play, Signori got the ball on the left flank and put through a pass to Baggio. The Italian latched onto the ball, beat goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, and unleashed a shot from the right side that went into the goal from an unbelievably tight angle.

Baggio blew kisses at the crowd, and the Italians advanced in dramatic fashion. “We were all exhausted physically. We had come off the Nigeria game and the temperature was unbearable,” Baggio recalled in a 2021 interview with Netflix Italia. “Few can imagine how brutal it was.”

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Baggio, at the top of his game, came through again against Bulgaria in the first semifinal, played on July 13 at Giants Stadium. It turned out to be Italy’s easiest game as Baggio effortlessly tore apart the Bulgarian defense with a pace not seen before at this tournament. The Italians were on the front foot from the start. Baggio powered Italy into the lead after 20 minutes, then added a second goal five minutes later. Hristo Stoichkov was able to pull one back on a penalty kick just at the stroke of halftime for his sixth goal of the competition. The Bulgarian and Russia’s Oleg Salenko would finish tied for the honor of tournament top scorer.

The Italians clung on for the 2–1 win. Baggio hobbled off the field a hero.

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The World Cup’s finale was a dream matchup between soccer royalty. Brazil versus Italy, two nations that at that point in time had each won three World Cups apiece, was a rematch of the 1970 final. The winner of the July 17 contest at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena would make history and win the title for a fourth time.

The game also pitted Baggio against Romário in an all-out duel over who was the world’s best player. The Azzurri, however, had an issue. Baggio had pulled a hamstring in his left leg in the Bulgaria match and was at risk of missing the game. “There is no status as to the certainty of whether I will play the final,” a resigned Baggio told reporters at a news conference following the semifinal. “I am very happy for Italy. I hope I gave people plenty of joy.”

Zola, who was coming off a red-card suspension, was set to replace Baggio after team doctors would only say that his chances of appearing in the final were 50 percent. In the end, Baggio would start and play the entire game. Sacchi had fielded six different lineups during the course of six games, forced to deal with injuries and red cards on a scale never before endured by a World Cup finalist. Injuries were not an issue for Brazil, but they did face in Italy their toughest opponent at this tournament.

The Rose Bowl was abuzz with 94,000 spectators. What they witnessed was a stalemate. The rhythm was bland for long stretches, and one had to wonder whether the fatigue of the month-long competition had gotten to the players. The Brazilians came closest to scoring in the 76th minute when Pagliuca nearly committed a blunder, bobbling a shot by Mauro Silva that bounced toward the goal. Instead, the ball softly rolled off the post. Pagliuca grabbed the rebound, kissed his hand, and then thanked the post by patting it.

17 JUL 1994: ROBERTO BAGGIO OF ITALY WALKS FROM THE FIELD WITH A TEAM OFFICIAL AFTER HE MISSED THE DECISIVE PENALTY IN THE PENALTY SHOOT-OUT ALLOWING BRAZIL TO WIN THE 1994 WORLD CUP FINAL AT THE ROSE BOWL IN PASADENA, CALIFORNIA. AT RIGHT, IS NICOLA BERTI #14. Mandatory Credit: Ben Radford/ALLSPORT

Baresi had miraculously returned to the lineup, making a recovery three weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. The AC Milan sweeper was everywhere on the field, foiling several Brazilian attempts. The game ended scoreless, and 30 minutes of extra time failed to produce a winner. Baggio had come close, rifling a shot that Taffarel tipped up and over the crossbar. Romário had a clear chance of his own, but his attempt just a few yards away from the goal barely missed finding its way into the net.

For the first time in World Cup history, a final would be decided via a shootout. Baresi went first, but his shot went high over the crossbar. Pagliuca made up for the missed kick with a diving save on Brazil’s Márcio Santos. Demetrio Albertini and Romário connected on their kicks, as did Alberico Evani and Branco. Then came the mistakes that allowed Brazil to win the cup. Massaro’s kick was saved by Brazil’s Taffarel. Dunga gave Brazil a 3–2 lead, meaning Baggio’s attempt would be decisive. Score and take the shootout to sudden death. A miss would crown Brazil champions.

Baggio ran to the ball with the dreams of an entire nation resting on his shoulders. But his kick sailed high over the bar and into the bright blue sky. Taffarel dropped to the ground, pointing to the heavens in celebration. Baggio’s late-game heroics had come to an end. Brazil claimed its fourth title to the delight of Brazilians everywhere. 

The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event” is available for sale at Amazon and wherever books are sold. 

Clemente Lisi

Clemente Lisi teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. He has worked as a journalist and editor for over two decades. In that time, he has been an editor at the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He also has experience in the digital space, serving as a senior editor at ABC News. He grew up in New York and is the son of Italian immigrants from Naples. 

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