Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in January 2022
Scooting over to MacCumhaill Park for Donegal games – be it in the National League or the Ulster Championship – is something I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember.Intercounty games are great for generating a sense of pride in one’s county, but how does it work on a more national, and indeed an international, level?
There’s an old proverb which states that the ‘closer you are to something, the harder it is to see it.’ When it comes to national pride, that may bore some truth when we attend GAA matches. The Irish tricolour gets raised aloft, Amhran na bhFiann gets performed and sprinklings of the gaelige language are to be seen and heard over the tannoy and in the match programmes.
And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. The GAA have never been shy in portraying themselves as being anything other than a sporting organisation who openly carry a strong political and cultural undertone. To their immense credit, they are one of the last bastions in Irish society who continue to develop a wide variety of traditional events and spectacles.
But what about other countries? Are we alone in this quest for patriotism through sport?
Having spent two summers in the United States in my twenties, I enjoyed conversing with their citizens about why they followed the sports they did and how they felt about certain aspects of political undertones in their games. People tend to brand Americans as brash ignorant, but speak to them about what they know and love, and that stereotype becomes redundant.
During those summers in the States, I learned that sometimes you don’t need to learn everything from a textbook. As we guzzled cold bottles of Bud amid the wailing sound of traffic and shining neon New York City lights – never forgetting to tip – conversations often cropped with our fellow high-stoolers along the bar about sports.
With it being ever constant on the big screens, it was hard not to get chatting about it.
The general consensus that came from the locals was that baseball was the quintessential and truly American game. It was a cornerstone of social activity where kids ‘stickball’ on the corners of neighbourhood streets in the likes of Brooklyn. Some elders recounted the day of deviation when their beloved Dodgers packed up and moved their franchise to Los Angeles in 1957.
It also led me to research an interesting development in the late 1970s when the Cosmos soccer team signed Pelé for an extortionate amount of money.
Even though Major League Soccer league wasn’t born for a further twenty years, soccer became big business and Pelé’s move was widely jeered by baseball fans who felt that soccer was an opponent of a true American game. “Nothing but an aul foreign sport,” as you might hear some devout GAA heads utter along the stands of matches here.
In terms of politics becoming linked to American sports, it’s clear to anyone watching how the powers-that-be promote patriotism in the pre-game build-up. It’s not uncommon to see a military fanfare and marching band take to the field on the day of an American Football match; stars and stripes are unfurled and the Star-Spangled Banner anthem rings out with high decibels.
Although the US National Anthem didn’t officially become the song of the nation until 1931, it already had a long-presence at sporting venues long beforehand. It had been purposely utilised to keep morale high during the World War years and resurfaced greatly again in the wake of the 9/11 attacks at the beginning of this century.
While soccer has steadily risen in popularity in America since the country hosted the 1994 World Cup, it’s still not expected to ever surpass the devotion most American citizens have towards the likes of baseball, basketball, football and hockey. One might think that this is because soccer is considered to be too low-scoring and pedestrian for American tastes but there’s more to it.
The United States of America is built on the foundations of capitalism and free-enterprise. Their games have an unimaginable amount of stoppages and timeouts throughout a given match and this leads to commercial breaks and a chance for those in attendance to divulge their sweet-tooth with hot-dogs and nachos. After all, sports are branded as family events.
I witnessed this firsthand in 2007. When David Beckham togged out for his first game with LA Galaxy, the TV broadcasters curiously cut to adverts and interviews with spectators – including Jim Carey – during the game itself. On a visit to Shea Stadium to see the New York Mets, there were players standing around idle for what felt like ages. Why was this? Ad breaks, of course.
There’s no denying that Americans are truly a fanatical sports nation. Even though there’s definitely been a growing interest in the playoff series and showpiece events like the Superbowl on these shores in recent times, if you do see their games as slow and too stop-start, there is an underlying reason for patriotism behind that.
And a one and a two and a “Glooooray Land. In Glooorrraaay Laaand! It’s in your Heaaart! It’s innnn your Haaands! Gloooray Land! Innn Gllooorrry Land! You’re Here (You’re Here!!!) in Glooooraay Laaaannnd!”
It’s over a quarter of a century now but, Gosh darn it, there’s still just something about World Cup USA 94 that I just love rewatching all these years later.
Maybe it’s because it was played in the United States and all those montages with intercuts of eye-catching skyscrapers, ones roller-blading down sunny boulevards and packed out rodeo shows captured the imagination of my then 9 (and a half) year old self.
Perhaps it was because this was the first time I really started to learn about different cultures and customs of nations from all around the world. Something I see as an early catalyst for inspiring me to go traveling later on in my life.
Even if it was only through the magic of television, I’m not sure I’d ever seen real-life South Koreans, Africans or Latino Americans share the same emotions over football, just like I did. It made the world feel somehow smaller to me.
One of the perks about reading up on the wee World Cup sticker album I had was that it had a little bio on each participating nation.
That meant that for the next few years in school, I was a dab hand in Geography tests when the teacher would ask us to identify the flags or name the capital cities of such exotic locations.
As alluded to earlier, montages are something that I’ve always loved watching, particularly during a major tournament.
For me, USA 94 was arguably the first competition where the tv companies – because of the advancements in technology and wider array of camera angles filming the action on the pitch – they became much more visually attractive.
Looking back now, they were fast cut, they were colourful and many of them were mixed with a cool nineties dance music vibe that still holds up really well when you see them on YouTube today.
Even if football isn’t your thing, they’re still worth a look for the feel good nostalgia factor that often goes with popular music of that era.
“Welcome to the start of an All American Show!” was how Barry Davies put in his commentary for the BBC on the evening of Friday, 17th June.
As you could somewhat expect from the Americans being the host nation, the opening ceremony at Soldier Field in Chicago was awash with razmataz and spectacle.
Red, white and blue balloons to raise the sense of patriotism with Diana Ross fluffing a ‘penalty shot’ that would oddly foreshadow how the actual Final would be decided four weeks later.
The initial match between Germany and Bolivia was a pretty dour one. A single Jurgen Klinsmann goal was enough to decide it, but I’ve read since that very few US-based viewers saw that goal live.
Millions had switched channels on their TV sets. Not entirely because they were bored of the ‘soccer’ and its low scoring attribute.
Nope! It was because a police helicopter was following a chase down the highway of one OJ Simpson. It was all go in America that night!
Well not really! Local interest in the tournament wasn’t all that high. And truth be told, because the MLS didn’t exist at the time, I foolishly thought the US players were all just College boys who happened to play the game and they just threw a team together. Whoops!
Being an Irishman, it’s only right that I pay homage to some of our exploits in that tournament. It was a short stay but something of a roller coaster experience.
Now it must be remembered that the Irish have always felt some sort of ownership of some parts of the United States. Arguably with New York at the top of that bill.
Then again, so have the Italians. In a way, it was somewhat fitting that the two would be drawn to face another in a game played at the Giants Stadium in East Rutherford.
In a game where our fans had a near monopoly of the tickets, Ray Houghton’s 12-minute ‘swinger’ with the left boot was enough to seal a famous victory for our boys.
This was back in the days when the neighborhood kids would assemble for a match on the green between all our houses and his roly-poly became a firm favourite to imitate for the rest of that summer.
As the tournament progressed, there were other talking points that cropped up. Conversations that were taking place for the first time amongst an intrigued and curious youngster like myself watching the World Cup.
Mind you, there was room for some misguided and ill-judged premonitions too.
-‘Did ya see that Mexican goalie who designs his own jerseys? Mad!!!’
– ‘Them Nigerian lads are cool dudes the way they dance when they score, aren’t they? But how do they all have English first names and African second names?’
– ‘Greece are pure dung! They’ll hardly win a match, let alone a tournament, in the next ten years!’
– ‘Oleg Salenko scored five goals in one game. He’ll be a quality signing for whoever gets him!’
– ‘Fair play to him but what age d’ya think yer man, Roger Milla, really is? They say 42, but he looks at least sixty!’
With the greatest of respect to Italia 90 four years earlier, it wasn’t really a tournament for the purists.
Half-empty stadiums, a lot of matches in damp conditions and something of a goal drought meant much of the games that summer became largely forgettable. USA 94 was different.
Every match seemed to reach close to full attendance and the warm and sunny conditions made you want to run outside and kick a ball about yourself between almost every game. Goals came in a flurry and in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
There were diving headers, solo-runs and neat finishes, volleys, daisy-cutters, direct free kicks all busting the nets from all angles.
Granted, the dropping standard of goalkeeping did become a major talking point amongst Matthew Lorenzo and the ITV pundits one night.
Back in the days when the late night ad breaks either read ‘Back Soon’ with some elevator music or sometimes they were for 0891-Chat Lines which, I’m guessing, cost a fortune.
They had good cause to discuss this poor goalkeeping to be fair but, as an almost 10 year old boy, goals and more goals were what you wanted to see.
Gheorgi Hagi’s rasper in the group stage for Romania against Colombia was another I regularly tried to replicate out in the back garden after. Rather unfortunately, the off-target shots meant the garage door got its fair share of muddied splotches.
The tournament produced its fairytale stories too of course.
Nigeria caused a stir with progression to the knockout stage as group winners and could’ve gone further had the Italians not snatched an 89th-minute leveler – who went on to win in extra time – in the second round.
Both Bulgaria and Sweden upset the odds to reach the semifinals.
The former pulled off a shock victory against holders Germany, when Jordan Letchkov’s flying header sailed into the German net.
Hristo Stoichkov became a household name after the tournament. A feeling not lost on most people who later renamed his hometown after him, in his honour. Not a bad wee tribute to have bestowed.
Whereas the Swedes had a wonderful array of attacking talent with the likes of Martin Dahlin, Kenned Anderson and the youthful talents of young dreadlocked lad by the name of Henrik Larsson.
The legacy of the Dutch team’s travel arrangements would leave a permanent mark on the mind of Denis Bergkamp. After an unusually rough landing, the then Ajax forward swore he’d never fly again. A promise he stuck to.
It might be insensitive to man’s phobia, but it was used to raise the question of whether or not Arsene Wenger should employ the tactic the A-Team used to similarly deploy with BA Barachas.
Bang his head off the door and throw him on the plane once he’s passed out. Just a thought.
At that time, I’d never heard of Saudi Arabia before, but there’s one name I’ll always remember and that is Saaed Al-Owiran. And yes, I’m pretty sure I can pronounce it right too.
A minute skinny lad who ran the full length of the field to rattle one in past Belgium.
And no World Cup would be complete without its soap-opera like moments and by God, they came by the bucket load.
The Republic of Ireland’s own John Aldridge losing the rag on the sideline with a FIFA official caused a very boisterous Scouse-twanged “Ya f*****g d******d!” to be heard over the airwaves.
Not forgetting how the heat of Florida affected the Irish team so much that the team management, and Jack Charlton in particular, was cautioned for throwing on too many water bags. Then poor Steve Staunton looked as though he was going to melt faster than the witch from the Wizard of Oz.
Germany – who incidentally arrived at the tournament on the back of an official song they recorded with none other The Village People – cut their ties with midfielder Stefan Effenberg.
After he was substituted in a group match, he gave ‘sign language’ to the crowd. His appalled manager, Berti Vogts, declared he’d “not play again until the year 2006!” Now how’s that for efficient German organization and planning?
And to top it all off, the irrepressible Diego Armando Maradonna. Argentina’s finest.
Celebrates a goal by running at the camera looking like he was at a rave and, maybe unsurprisingly, gets ushered off the pitch in the next game to undergo a (failed) drug test.
I mean ya just couldn’t write it, could ya?
Sadly, it wasn’t all fun.
The Irish team’s exit came on probably the day of the one cloudy and grey-skied afternoon in the whole tournament. While the Netherlands were much the better side and well worthy of their 2-0 win. It was heartbreaking to see my fellow Donegal man in the Ireland goal, Packie Bonner, make such a costly and avoidable error from Wim Jonk’s strike.
Then, of course, there was a moment that made the trials and tribulations of football seem somewhat irrelevant.
When the news broke that Andrés Escobar was tragically gunned down on the command of Colombian drug lords for his own goal against the USA, it was shocking news for everyone. Revelations have since unearthed about how much threat and pressure that Colombia team lived under, during the reign of Pablo Escobar; it was another lesson in the harsh reality of life.
On a lighter note, the best thing about the 1994 World Cup was the Brazil team.
Romario, Bebeto, Dunga, Taffarel, Branco et all. Names that just rolled off the tongue and they played football like guys who were having fun to the beat of Samba music.
The partnership of Romario and Bebeto was a dream to watch. And they too had fun in the team camp when the latter scored against the Netherlands during the quarterfinal meeting in Dallas.
Bebeto ran off pretending to cradle a baby. He even had some unknowing teammates join in.
It was only after the game that he informed his teammates that his wife had given birth to their baby boy just a few days earlier. They’d later progress to the Final after beating Sweden.
One team who had a much rockier path through the competition were Italy.
There could be a movie with an unhappy ending written about their conquests that year. There had been a media backlash after their opening game defeat to Ireland and when goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off against Norway, their manager, Arirgo Saachi, took a monumental gamble when he withdrew their starman, Roberto Baggio.
That gamble just about paid off as Italy still managed to progress. They needed and they got all the luck going when they scraped past Nigeria – with Gianfranco Zola also being sent off in that one – and just about got past Spain in the quarters. A bad-tempered and tempestuous affair where Luis Enrique sported a bloodied nose for his troubles.
That incident came about when the officials failed to spot Mauro Tassotti swinging an elbow into his opponent’s face. As the blood ran down the face and into the now heavily-stained white Spanish jersey, the millions watching knew the Azzurri were riding their luck.
Nevertheless though, thanks to a dramatic 2-1 win where Roberto Baggio again provided a last-gasp goal, they were through.
The ‘Ponytailed Assassin’ was digging his side out of holes when it mattered most and as they made their way to the Final, it seemed as if they were doing so in a kicking-and-screaming fashion. Two goals again for Baggio in the semifinal ended Bulgaria’s noble crusade but it came at a cost, as the talismanic striker’s injury and fatigue were starting to show more and more.
The Final itself in Pasadena was a bit of an anti-climatic way to conclude what had been a tournament full of fast-paced and high-octane matches. A 0-0 stalemate where the game resembled more of a chess game than a football match and, thus, a penalty shootout ensued with Roberto Baggio skying the decisive spot-kick miles over the bar for Brazil to win.
Like a figure who was utterly lost to the world in disbelief at that moment, the man who had done so much to get his team to the Final was unable to save them in the end. Brazil were rightful winners in the end, but seeing Baggio standing alone on the penalty-spot while the green and gold celebrations erupted around him; it was a life-lesson for us all, in itself.
Brazil manager, Carlos Alberto Panieri, had ended Brazil’s drought of 24 years without a World Cup success. While his side would never really get the acclaim that their predecessors from 1970 had with Pelé and the likes, this Brazil side would set a new trend in motion and would go on to reach the next two World Cup Finals; winning the competition again in 2002.
All in all, while so many of the matches that summer started (because of the time-difference) after my bedtime, there’s still something so very special and memorable about what was the fifteenth installment of the World Cup finals tournament.
Using football to inadvertently study up on so many different countries and cultures from across the world was an early factor in what I feel inspired my enjoyment of travel ever since. American TV shows and movies of the mid-1990s had always captivated my imagination and now I had football to throw into that mix.