Every boy remembers when the FIFA World Cup™ bug bit for the first time. In my case it was USA 94. The performances of players like Romario, Bebeto, Roberto Baggio, Hristo Stoichkov, Tomas Brolin, Gheorge Hagi, Rashidi Yekini and Oleg Salenko remains etched in my memory as if it was yesterday. The Brazilian star striker Romario became my first favourite footballer.
On the night of the opening match my parents were out and, since I was just eleven and my sister six, Granny was staying the night and she sat up and watched the opening match with me: Defending champions Germany versus Bolivia. Armed with very little knowledge of the game and players, Granny decided we would call German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner “Hans” and the Bolivians were going to be “The little green men.” A Jurgen Klinsmann goal handed the Germans a 1-0 win and the rollercoaster had started.
Because of school commitments and a harsh time zone difference I was unable to catch all the matches but I enjoyed staying up late over weekends to watch. I fondly recall Sweden’s 3-1 victory over Russia and the incredible eight added minutes. Then there was Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos’ choice of shirt. Colourful to say the least. (See picture below).
As the group stages were winding down our family was off to visit my grandparents in Zimbabwe but that did not mean missing out on any action as ZBC were showing all the games too. I remember the excitement at Nigeria’s achievements in the States. The Super Eagles topped their group but then faltered against Italy in the Second Round.
We missed the quarter-final between the powerful Germany and Bulgaria as we were flying back at the time. I recall the pilot announcing that the Germans, as expected, were leading 1-0. However by the time we landed we heard news of a 2-1 result in favour of the Bulgarians. My uncle, who is of German descent and was unable to see the match on account of collecting us at the airport, refused to accept the result.
Both Bulgaria and Sweden were punching marvellously above their weight except, owing to my fresh innocence; I did not even know it. Imagine my surprise two years later when the Bulgarians were group stage casualties and Sweden did not even qualify for Euro 96. The only negative of USA 94 was that it engendered in my mind the perceived strength of the Swedes and Bulgarians, as well as the supposed weakness of countries like England and France, who failed to even qualify.
Sunday 17 July 1994 was the day of the World Cup final and I was backing Brazil against Italy, mainly because of my new hero Romario. The next day was school but my mom displayed superb parental judgement by allowing me to stay up and watch even though the match ended in the wee hours of the morning. Romario scored in a penalty shootout victory as the Brazilians won their fourth World Cup and I was hooked for life.