World Cup Moments: A tale of two spot kicks
The hopes of a nation rest upon the owner of one divine ponytail
Roberto Baggio, saviour of Italian football, very gently places the ball on the spot, taking his time to find the perfect position on the grass, before retreating eleven full yards.
The Azzurri trail 3-2 to Brazil in the penalty shoot-out that will decide the winner of USA ’94 and the crowd of 94,194 inside the cavernous Rose Bowl Stadium in north east Los Angeles are almost breathless with anticipation.
He looks nervously over at the Hungarian referee Sandor Puhl not once but twice as he steps backwards. The Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel stands at the very back of his net, before walking forward, flicking his legs up at the back three, maybe four times then standing stock still on his line, hands on knees. Waiting.
As the world waits with him.
Up steps Baggio, an urgency to his stride now. He dips his right shoulder slightly in the final step as if to confuse the Brazilian keeper. Taffarel takes one giant leap forwards and falls to his left as the Italian calmly side-foots the ball to his right, up, up and………away.
In the aftermath, Baggio stands rooted to the spot, hands on hips. He bows his head to his chest, the strange ponytail with its braids and its little coloured bangles can help him no more. Its divinity vanished. The Brazilian bench explodes with joy. One of Carlos Alberto Parreira’s assistants does an impromptu roly-poly as he runs onto the pitch.
Brazil are the champions of the world for the fourth time. And this World Cup has ended much like it started.
With a terrible penalty.
You see, exactly a month earlier at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the opening ceremony had taken place amidst fears that the casual American - just beginning to catch the wave of their third soccer revolution - would struggle to retain interest in a sport that lagged, at that point, well behind the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, not to mention both college football and basketball.
In the end they need not have worried: the average attendance of almost 69,000 remains a World Cup record, an almost unforeseen triumph for FIFA and for the US Soccer Federation.
What was also certain to be a triumph was that aforementioned opening ceremony. Oprah Winfey, Daryl Hall, Jon Secada and soul legend Diana Ross, who would surely combine for one of the greatest spectacles this magical game of ours had ever seen, culminating in Ross literally splitting the uprights with an unstoppable shot all but three yards away from the goal, a wonderful denouement from the supreme Supreme.
And all was going as planned. Until it started.
It was standard fare, albeit cheesy standard fare, but it waddled along gently, and the patrons seemed happy enough. Oprah danced – although at one point it looked like she was having some sort of mechanical issue: her legs were stuck to the platform and only the upper part of her body was moving, which, given what was to come would probably have been a good idea.
President Clinton didn’t dance. At all. And when John Mellencamp’s 'R.O.C.K. in the USA' finished, the look on his face said, ‘My impeachment will be more enjoyable than this’.
Still, the best was yet to come: time for some Diana Ross everyone. Bedecked in a red suit, she strode from one penalty area to the other, mic in hand, taking the occasional hop, every bit the superstar she was – and is.
She lip-synced a bit of ‘I’m Coming Out’ but her focus wasn’t so much on the song, more on the simple job of putting a three-yard penalty past some buffoon tasked with diving the wrong way. When ball hit net, the goal would split in two. Simple, right.
Ross reached the ball, teased the buffoon with three or four fake run ups, then proceeded to drag it miles past the left upright. It wasn’t even close. There was a collective gasp from the Chicagoans in the stadium, small children by the goal looked confused, I’d imagine one or two even cried, whilst Ross stared after it like she couldn’t quite believe the calamity that had just left her right foot.
Worse still, lost in the desperation of the moment was the fact that if it’d been on target then the buffoon would have saved it anyway because he actually went the right way. Regaining herself, Ross ran on through the middle of the now broken-in-two-goal before the director cut to an aerial shot of the stadium to save everyone’s embarrassment.
Then Oprah fell off the stage.
Talk about a Chain Reaction.
So, for all that happened in USA ’94 – Letchkov’s header, Hagi and Romania, Baggio’s late goals, Nigeria, Salenko, South Korea v Spain, Maradona off his face against Greece, Bebeto’s baby celebration, no English hooligans, the tournament was defined by two lousy penalties *and a billionaire falling off the dais*, which in themselves are truly, truly great World Cup moments.