Highly criticised beforehand, USA ‘94 transpired to be one of the most colourful World Cups on record. Once again penalties proved fatal for the Azzurri as Peter Bourne recalls how Italy stuttered to the Final.
The Norway match petered out into one of the worst games ever seen. Fortunately, Dino Baggio rose to head a Signori free-kick which would eventually prove enough for Italy to progress. A 1-1 draw against Mexico thanks to a Massaro goal put the Norwegians out.
Italy moved on to Boston to face a Nigeria side which had topped a group containing Argentina and Bulgaria. The Azzurri had already struggled against physical opponents like Ireland and Norway with the Nigerians not only offering strength but both pace and individual flair. With Pagliuca suspended, Marchegiani continued in goal with inexperienced internationals like Roberto Mussi and Antonio Benarrivo coming in at full back. Again Sacchi persisted with a three-pronged attack and again it backfired. Italy though proved they are capable of grinding out results in moments of extreme adversity.
Nigeria took a deserved first half lead thanks to Emmanuel Amunike’s close range effort. Sacchi threw everything forward but fate seemed to have dealt him a rough hand when substitute Gianfranco Zola was dismissed for an invisible foul. The little Sardinian couldn’t believe it. Paolo Maldini should have gone for a blatant tug on Rasheed Yekini’s shirt before Mussi crossed in the final minute for Baggio to hammer home an unlikely equaliser. The Azzurri improved in extra time although were thankful for Dino Baggio’s goalline clearance when Yekini really should have scored. Benarrivo was later tripped by Egueven in the box, Baggio slotted home the penalty and Italy were through. It proved to be the turning point.
Italy stayed in Boston for the clash with Spain who had comfortably beaten Switzerland in the second round. Pagliuca and Tassotti returned and Antonio Conte given his first start. Italy reverted back to a more traditional 4-4-2 system. Spain played some of the better football before a scorching Dino Baggio drive from 25 yards gave the Azzurri the lead. Jose Caminero’s deflected shot from Benarrivo drew Spain back into the game before Julio Salinas missed an incredible opportunity when clean through. The game then hinged on an incident which was not spotted by the officials. Tassotti’s ruthless elbow on Luis Enrique would have given Spain a late penalty and reduced Italy to 10 men. The Italian was later banned for eight games but Baggio’s fine winner with two minutes to go took Italy to the semi-finals.
Back at the Giants stadium, surprise packages Bulgaria stood between Italy and a fifth World Cup Final. It was billed as Baggio vs. Stoichkov and neither No 10 disappointed. Roby, who was beginning to carry the team with some majestical displays, scored twice in the space of four first half minutes. A penalty awarded to Bulgaria on the stroke of half time, converted by Stoichkov, put Bulgaria back in the game but Italy hung on for a Final against favourites Brazil.
Baggio picked up a knock in the Bulgaria win and a hamstring injury probably should have ruled him out for the Final. The colossus Baresi was back although far from fit with Mussi selected due to Tassotti’s ban and Benarrivo switched to left back. Billy Costacurta’s yellow card in the semi-final ruled him out - he also missed the European Cup Final that year because of a ban. Maldini replaced his Milan teammate at centre back while Massaro and Baggio began in attack.
It was a horrible Final. The Pasadena heat drained the players, especially with so many carrying aches and sprains. Brazil, short of genuine class in midfield, struggled to make any headway and the offensive limitations of Sacchi’s Italy were also exposed. In one of the few noteworthy incidents Pagliuca was left kissing the post after spilling Mauro Silva’s tame drive. Only the introduction of Brazil substitute Viola livened up the game but penalties were inevitable.
It was a cruel way for Gladiators Baresi and Baggio to end the tournament, both missing kicks along with Massaro. An excellent tournament had an unjust end. Brazil took the trophy for the fourth time, probably the poorest team to do so. Selecao Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira admitted that: “Penalty kicks are not the most adequate way of deciding a tournament of this quality. But after so much football it would have been unfair to play another match.” Brazil dedicated their success to the recent death of Ayrton Senna and remained the only country to win the tournament outside their own continent.