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World Cup Flashback: Brazil 1994
Romário, Romário, Romário, and the other players were also pretty good
This is the second World Cup Flashback, looking at how Brazil won the tournament in 1994. You can read the first edition, on West Germany, in 1990 here. This edition is free to read, but future entries will be for paid subscribers only. Join now to receive 20% off for a year.
When the World Cup went to the United States in 1994, they wanted to create a spectacle.
The other two contenders to host the tournament were Morocco and Brazil. Morocco’s bid relied on the construction of a set of wholly new stadiums, obviously costing a pretty penny, while not offering a huge economic upside. Sepp Blatter was general secretary of FIFA by this point, so the organisation was not exactly transparent. The contest was really between two frontrunners.
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You couldn’t pick a more obvious contrast. Brazil, the tournament’s three-time winners, had a footballing culture and history as good as anything on the planet. For those of us who primarily watch the European game, there’s something romantic about seeing that yellow shirt every four years. Brazil are the World Cup, and hosting the tournament for the first time since 1950 could be a real celebration of the history of the sport. There was a slight problem, though. The stadiums in Brazil, though large and historic, needed money spent on renovation. It wouldn’t be the most cost-effective option.
Enter America. The USA had without doubt the best sporting facilities in the world, perfectly suited to the modern TV-driven commercialised world. They could host the tournament tomorrow. The sport was not popular in the US. They didn’t even have their own domestic league at the time. But that was an opportunity as much as a crisis. The United States had the largest GDP in the world, by a lot. If that huge market of potential consumers could finally get into soccer, the financial rewards could be endless.
This was 1994, after all. The West had won the Cold War. Capitalism and liberal democracy had defeated all other ideologies. No, America might not have had the footing in the sport that other countries offered, but they had the cold, hard cash. This was the ‘90s. Ride the free market wave and take the World Cup to the US of A.
To make up for their lack of history, they had to put on a show. That was most obvious in the opening ceremony at Los Angeles’ Rose Bowl stadium, in which Diana Ross failed to kick the ball into an exploding goal as part of her elaborate music performance. It was obvious in the closing ceremony, in which Whitney Houston performed to 94,000 people in that same stadium and a surely delighted eight-year-old Wayne Rooney watching at home in Liverpool. But more importantly, the football had to deliver. The 1990 tournament four years earlier produced a record-low number of goals per game. If FIFA wanted to sell soccer to a sceptical American public, that would not do at all. They needed the stars to shine. They needed Brazil to turn up.
Brazil hadn’t turned up for a while. The incredible run from 1958-70 – in which the Seleção won three out of four World Cups – was 24 years ago. While they had remained competitive in the ‘70s, Brazil hadn’t come anywhere near lifting the trophy in ‘82, ‘86 or ‘90. Their 1989 Copa America win had been the only thing to celebrate, an unacceptably poor run for a country that goes into every World Cup expecting to win the whole thing. It had to change.
They had experience in the dugout. Carlos Alberto Parreira had one of the strangest coaching careers out there. Despite never playing professionally, Parreira had managed Ghana, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia by this point. This was even his second spell in charge of Brazil. He was an experienced and organised coach who, to the disappointment of the tournament organisers, would prioritise defensive solidity over joga bonito.
Fortunately, Brazil had the firepower upfront. Romário was at his absolute peak, 28 years old and coming off a season at Barcelona where he scored 30 goals in 33 La Liga games. Next to him was Bebeto, top scorer in the 1989 Copa America win. Zinho could offer something from the side, but this was otherwise a largely functional team, built around a combative central midfield of Dunga and Mauro Silva. Don’t tell anyone, but it was a little reminiscent of Argentina’s 1986 team, in which the aim was to defend and keep it tight before allowing Diego Maradona to just do his thing.
The rules had changed in the four years since West Germany won the trophy in Rome. The backpass rule was outlawed, arguably creating the game we know today (seriously, it feels so wrong watching goalkeepers just pick it up whenever they felt like it in old games). A win in the group stages was now worth three points, not two. The referees were told to be stricter on fouls, starting a trend that continues to this day.
The world had changed off the pitch even more. The Seleção were facing Russia, now an independent democracy away from the dissolved Soviet Union, in the newly formed nation-state’s first-ever World Cup game. The symbolism of Boris Yeltsin’s new capitalist Russia competing at the World Cup for the first time in the United States was obvious. The weather in a hot North American summer would obviously suit the Brazilians better than the Russians but, on that day, it was a perfect 23 degrees Celsius in Stanford, California.
Taffarel, then at Italian side Reggiana, started in goal. Vasco da Gama’s Ricardo Rocha and Bordeaux’s Márcio Santos were the centre backs, while right back Jorginho (not that one, this one played for Bayern) and left back Leonardo (the future PSG sporting director, not the painter or the actor, then of São Paulo) had licence to get forward as the midfield were so narrow. The aforementioned double pivot of Mauro Silva (Deportivo La Coruña) and Dunga (Stuttgart) was the bedrock allowing narrow “wingers” Raí (Paris Saint-Germain) and Zinho (Palmeiras) to link up with the front two of Romário (Barcelona) and Bebeto (Deportivo La Coruña). It really stands out that eight of the starting eleven were playing in Europe at this point. Of the whole squad, just under half were playing their club football in Brazil. That’s to be expected now, but it was a shock to the system at the time. As recently as 1986, Brazil had all but two members of their squad playing in the Brasileirão. The times, they are a-changin’.
Brazil easily dominated the early phases. Raí and Zinho came inside to form nice little passing triangles with the two strikers as the full backs overlapped. It was enjoyable and intricate football, of the sort you’d expect from the Seleção. But it took a scrappy goal for the breakthrough. Bebeto’s corner landed at Romário’s feet as Russia struggled to mark the striker, but he still needed an excellent first touch and cute finish to put Brazil ahead after 25 minutes.
Russia changed approach at half-time. Manager Pavel Sadyrin clearly instructed his players to try and get on the front foot much more often, and it initially worked. Russia dominated the opening period of the second half. It didn’t matter. Brazil launched a straight ball forward, which Romário controlled and then danced through the Russian defence before getting brought down in the box to win a penalty. The team wasn’t at it in that moment, but Romário delivered a moment of quality to put them back in control. Raí put the penalty in the bottom right corner and Brazil were cruising.
After that, we saw a sign of what’s to come. Disappointing any romantic (and often incorrect) notions of samba football, the Seleção sat in a deeper block to try and see things out. They did hit the strikers on the counter, but the second half was about sitting in and using defensive organisation. It worked, but it wasn’t sparkling to watch.
Next up was Cameroon, again in Stanford four days later. With their training camp just 17 miles away in Santa Clara, this schedule suited Brazil perfectly. Though, with Cameroon’s training camp about 50 miles away in Moraga, this wasn’t a huge advantage. It was the Indomitable Lions’ second consecutive World Cup, having made the quarter-finals in 1990. 24th in the FIFA rankings, they were clearly underdogs but capable of causing problems. Parreira made just one change, with Aldair of Roma replacing the injured Ricardo Rocha at centre back.
The system was exactly the same, for better or worse. Brazil stuck with their two industrious central midfielders who weren’t offering a lot in terms of progressing the ball. That meant they found it hard at times to break down a deeper block, until the front four were able to really link up. The problem is narrowness. All four attacking players are crammed towards the centre of the pitch, whereas the space against a low block is out wide. The full backs could’ve probably been more aggressive than they were to achieve this. Brazil were trying to move the ball quickly from back to front, but ended up with a lot of possession and few chances in the first half.
It’s always interesting watching these games before modern tactical innovations. Brazil were trying to play a transition game, but didn’t have the modern pressing structure to force transitions to happen. And when they had possession, they didn’t have a modern structure with the ball to exploit space. Still, it’s always fun to see those attackers link up.
The space they were waiting for eventually came. Cameroon’s defence got caught too high, allowing Dunga to play a through ball straight down the middle aimed at Romário running in behind. Romário was composed and clinical to put his team ahead. Again, Brazil weren’t perfect, but no one could cope with Romário. The Seleção went in 1-0 at half time without really having to be at their best.
Cameroon had to attack in the second half, which opened up space and created more transition opportunities for Brazil. The game effectively ended as a contest when Rigobert Song (yes, that one) got himself sent off for a cynical challenge. Straight after, Jorginho (this time exploiting the space out wide) put in a perfect cross for Márcio Santos to make it two. Brazil were now creating chances for fun. Bebeto scored from a tight angle and that was it, they had decimated Cameroon without really having to work for it.
Brazil were now certain to make the knockout stages. Winning the group was still up for grabs though, looking at the bracket, I don’t think it would’ve made a huge difference if they finished first or second. The third game against Sweden was over 2000 miles away in Michigan. Were I the Brazil manager, I would have definitely rotated heavily. Parreira, on the other hand, picked the exact same side that won against Cameroon.
Maybe it was the travel, or maybe it was just Sweden’s good organisation stopping them from getting into dangerous areas, but Brazil started sluggishly. They couldn’t work the ball into the final third, and could have no complaints when Kennet Andersson scored a brilliant goal on the half-volley 23 minutes in. Brazil just hadn’t turned up. Sweden were happy to just sit in and hold their lead for the rest of the first half, but Brazil never really broke them down. The Seleção went into half time without any real chances to score.
Once again, Romário decided to change things. At the beginning of the second half, he picked up the ball and just drove straight through Sweden’s defence to score. Once again, Brazil hadn’t even been very good, but Romário changed the game for them anyway. The team never really picked up after that, maybe because a draw suited both teams just fine. It wasn’t great, but it was enough.
The knockout stage awaited and Brazil, to their delight, were back in northern California within reasonable driving distance of the training camp. The lack of travel meant it would be like a home game for them at Stanford. Except for one small thing: they were playing the United States, the actual “home” team. The US had stumbled their way through Group A, so Brazil were clear favourites. Still, it was a different kind of test against a more partisan crowd.
Parreira made his big tactical tweak at this point: Mazinho for Raí. Mazinho, father of Thiago Alcântara, did not have his son’s technical skills. He was a more industrious option to offer discipline and solidity to the team. This was supposed to make the Seleção more suited to knockout football, even if they might become less fun to watch.
Brazil started very poorly. They were dominating possession comfortably, but the US seemed happy to sit deep and wait to counter. The Americans did break through and nearly scuffed it in after an attack down Brazil’s left flank. This was not composed or organised at all. After that, Brazil exerted much better control, and their best football of the first half came from the full backs pushing up and providing width. The US denied the transition moments where Romário would shine, frequently catching the Seleção offside, but Brazil adapted well and moved the ball out wide. With the midfield so narrow, Brazil really depended on those full backs. This would be entirely usual a decade on, but in 1994 it was relatively unusual. I criticised Brazil for being too narrow before this game, and Parreira made an intelligent change to push the full backs higher.
Then Brazil almost throw it all away. Frustrated that US midfielder Tab Ramos was trying to pull him back, Leonardo lashes out and smashes Ramos in the face with his elbow. It was a very dangerous challenge that saw Ramos hospitalised and Leonardo receiving a straight red. He could have absolutely no complaints. But Brazil hadn’t made their good period of football count, and now they were down to ten right before half time.
Parreira didn’t initially make any changes, instead moving Mazinho over to left back and giving the entire right flank to Jorginho. This actually worked really well for a time, with Jorginho’s crossing causing all sorts of problems for the US. Romário missed two huge chances created by Jorginho, once from a cross into the box and then from a floated ball in behind. Brazil were playing excellently considering the red card.
They finally did change things after 69 (nice) minutes, with Cafu (yes, that one) replacing Zinho. Cafu played on his unnatural side at left back, with Mazinho at left midfield. We all know Cafu is a great attacking threat, but using two right-footers on the left wasn’t going to be thrilling.
The goal came straight down the middle. Romário picked up the ball around the halfway line and, as he did so brilliantly, he drove through the whole US defence before picking out Bebeto to score from a tight angle. Once again, Brazil needed a saviour, and Romário provided all the quality. He had truly been carrying this Brazil side.
(I would post the goal straight into the newsletter here, but the brain geniuses at FIFA blocked me from doing that, so you’ll have to go to YouTube itself.)
From there, Brazil just had to not do anything stupid. There were actually a couple of risky moments but, for the most part, this was a controlled last 20 minutes. Quarter-finals, here they come.
Dick Advocaat’s Netherlands were the opponents. Well, it wasn’t supposed to be Advocaat’s team. Johan Cruyff had been widely expected to manage the Oranje for the 1994 World Cup, bringing all his total football ideas with him. But talks collapsed, and suddenly Advocaat was still in charge. Advocaat had been an assistant to Rinus Michels, the manager of that famous total football Netherlands side. To a modern audience, the most famous names in that team were Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp. The Netherlands were one place above Brazil in the FIFA rankings. This was a proper test.
Parreira, predictably, did not want to change his side too much. Leonardo was suspended thanks to that red card, so the experienced Branco replaced him. Otherwise, it was the same side, now more defensively solid with the addition of Mazinho in midfield.
The Netherlands pressed Brazil, which was a first in this tournament. They didn’t really have an answer to that problem and found it really hard to play through the press in the early stages. What they needed was a deep-lying playmaker who could pick out a pass and exploit the space higher up, but Brazil have lacked that profile for a long time. There weren’t many chances at either end in the first half, but it made for an interesting tactical conundrum.
It took them 52 minutes, but Brazil finally found the space the Netherlands left in behind. Aldair, deep in his own half, launched a long ball towards Bebeto, wide on the left on the shoulder of the last man. Bebeto then put in a low cross for Romário to apply a cute finish. It was a really well-worked move that totally opened up the Dutch high press.
As the Dutch pushed for an equaliser, they left more space in behind for Brazil to exploit. After a few decent chances, Bebeto exploited a total defensive brain fart to go straight through on goal against the ‘keeper. He didn’t miss. The Dutch defenders assumed the flag would go up as Romário was in an offside position, but forgot about the new rule that you’re only offside if you interfere with play. Bebeto and Romário showed everyone exactly why the game is so much better for ditching yer da’s beloved “what’s he doing standing there if he’s not interfering with play” interpretation.
It was worth the famous celebration. Just over an hour gone and Brazil were 2-0 up, playing excellently, and straight on their way to the final. But the euphoria didn’t last. Brazil’s defenders hadn’t switched on after the goal, so Bergkamp was able to float in behind them after a quick throw-in and apply a delightful finish from a tight angle. That Bergkamp lad might have a career in this game. Brazil just needed to concentrate and avoid doing anything stupid. They failed at that aim, but 2-1 was hardly a problem.
What came next wasn’t exactly controlled. Brazil failed to pick up Aron Winter at a corner, who then exploits that Taffarel is so far from his line and easily heads it home. They had thrown away a 2-0 lead in less than ten minutes. They got it back in five. Branco just smashed a free kick low and hard, in that sort of way nobody does anymore. It went straight in and, once again, Brazil just had to see it out. They did.
After heading across to Texas for that match, Brazil were in California for the semi-final against Sweden. The Seleção didn’t look like they had a clear idea of what to do against Sweden in the group stages, so this needed to be a better performance. Parreira named an unchanged team.
Sweden tried to keep it tight with two compact banks of four, but strangely found themselves too high up the pitch. Brazil were excellent in the first half, creating lots of good chances in transition where they should have scored. Again, Bebeto and Romário had an excellent understanding. I think something we’ve lost a bit in the modern game is the joy of a true strike partnership linking up. This was an excellent version of that.
Parreira was uncharacteristically bold, bringing on Raí for Mazinho. I don’t know if Mazinho was injured but, either way, it made the balance of the side more attacking. They kept playing every bit as well in the second half. This was a really dominant and mature performance from Brazil, looking better in just about every department. They got a huge advantage after 62 minutes when Jonas Thern made a stupid challenge and Sweden were down to ten, but finishing had evaded them so far.
No prizes for guessing who actually scored the winner. Jorginho, once again, was decisive in putting in a perfect cross for Romário’s head. Brazil had chance after chance, and fully deserved their lead, but it came late enough in the game that ten-man Sweden couldn’t really pose any problem. Brazil were into the World Cup final. It might not have been the perfect ideal of joga bonito, but it was very dominant and often entertaining. I’d argue with anyone who says this Brazil side were just boring and negative, even if it wasn’t always delightful.
Italy were the opponents. Italian club football was without question the best in the world at this time, and Italy’s starting lineup had 22 Serie A winners’ medals between them. The manager was Arrigo Sacchi, the visionary coach who oversaw a dramatic revolution of compact pressing systems in Italy. Six of the starting 11 had previously played for Sacchi at club level. This was a serious, serious football team.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Parreira picked an unchanged team. FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, decided to play this match at 12.30 PM local time to cater for European TV audiences. This meant the game would have kicked off at 9.30 PM in Italy, which was perfect for those supporting at home but less so for the players. The game would be played in the midday Los Angeles sun, causing the kind of heat much more suited to those who grew up in Brazil.
Brazil dominated possession early on, but Italy were very disciplined. In their 4-4-2 shape, the Italians pressed in a mid-block, which ended up being just right to both disrupt Brazil’s build-up play and stop the attackers from finding space in behind. Their best chance in the early stages came from Jorginho finally getting into a position to cross the ball to Romário’s head, and the striker could have easily scored. Jorginho had really become the playmaker of this team, so of course he had to go off injured after 21 minutes. Cafu replaced him. To modern eyes, one might think that’s an upgrade but, as I keep saying, Jorginho had been exceptional throughout the tournament. If I’m ranking the most important players in this team, he comes in second behind Romário.
Still, Brazil were definitely on the front foot as Italy seemed to be happy to concede the ball. Italy had a few good moments in transition, but it was really Brazil who were trying to force the game and create chances. The pattern held in the second half. Brazil were really trying to do their thing and work those transition situations, but Italy weren’t giving them much to work with. I don’t know if the Azzurri had a plan for how they were actually going to score a goal, but they were doing an impressive job of shutting Brazil out without resorting to a catenaccio-style low block. It went to extra time with very little excitement in 90 minutes.
When a World Cup final, after a month of intense games in hot weather, goes to extra time, the players aren’t exactly going to be fresh. Brazil were leaving more gaps and nearly threw the whole final away after being so dominant. Fortunately, Italy looked just as shattered, and there were almost as many good chances in this half-hour as the entire 90 minutes of normal time. Neither side could quite put it together, though, and penalties beckoned.
Italy won the toss and took the first penalty. Captain Baresi stepped up and blasted it over the bar with a worse attempt than Diana Ross at the start of the tournament. Márcio Santos was up for Brazil. He went low and to his left, but the ‘keeper went the right way, and it wasn’t far enough in the corner to make it difficult. Straightforward save. Demetrio Albertini was next for the Italians. He went high and to the left. It wasn’t a great placement, but Taffarel guessed the wrong way so he scored regardless. Romário needed to equalise, and did, hitting it perfectly on the inside of the post. Unsaveable. Alberico Evani struck his very well, hitting almost the dead centre of the goal nicely to score for Italy. Branco went for one of those worryingly long run-ups and didn’t get much power on it, but the ball snuck in the bottom corner opposite to where the ‘keeper guessed anyway. Then came the turn. Daniele Massaro was nowhere near the corner, letting Taffarel make a comfortable save once he guessed the right way. Dunga then stepped up to hit it hard and low and put Brazil ahead. If Roberto Baggio missed, the Seleção had won the World Cup. He put it over the bar. Brazil had made it four World Cup titles.
The final was a dreadful, dreadful game of football. But that match aside, I do think Brazil played better football than people remember in 1994. No, it was not the ideal form of joga bonito. They were often pretty conservative in their midfield balance, but the flair was as important as the grit. Romário was sensational and had a great understanding with Bebeto, while Jorginho was a constant menace from right back. This was just a really good and balanced team.
24 years after that golden run of three World Cup wins in four tournaments, this return to the top arguably set the template for Brazil going forward. They would be physical and disciplined in midfield, rely on flair only in the final third, and have the solidity to compete with anyone. It was elements of good football built to win. Sometimes that would work tremendously well. Other times it would be a disaster. But right there in California in 1994, it had rebooted the Seleção. Brazil were back and certainly deserved their title.
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