Attraction of ‘beautiful game’ still a mystery to most Americans
Ray Houghton scores against Italy during the unforgettable World Cup victory at Giants Stadium in 1990. Photograph: Claudio Onorati/AFP/Getty
“There might be more Spanish here than us,” remarked a man exiting the B train at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx just as a promised summer gust of wind and rain began to materialise on Babe Ruth Plaza. The Irish fan was middle-aged and had an accent that could give Joe Pesci a run for his money for undiluted Gotham and he wore a vintage football shirt reminiscent of the era of the late, great Tony Grealish.
And it was likely the local was among the legion of Irish fans now laying claim to having been in Giants Stadium 19 summers ago when the Republic of Ireland sent the first great tremor through USA ’94, that distant tournament when America tried and didn’t quite manage to fall in love with the beautiful game.
The 1994 World Cup was strange and fascinating. It will always be associated with the death of Andres Escobar, assassinated upon his return to Columbia for his own goal which effectively eliminated the national team from the finals and for Diego Maradona’s inglorious exit from the world stage. It was unspeakably hot and forced the teams to cover vast distances – giving Europeans some idea of the logistical scale and planning that goes into running leagues like the NFL and NBA.
Still, the Americans took to heart European assurances that it was an honour to host this month-long extravaganza to celebrate a game which many of their citizens didn’t understand. They revamped the domestic game with the Major League Soccer, the commentators gave crash courses on intricacies such as the ‘head-shot’ and the crowds turned out in record numbers: over 3.5 million and an average of 69,000 per match.
The host team were organised and combative and got to play against the world aristocrats when the second round paired them against Brazil. This might have been a chance to illustrate to the hosts what the game was all about; had the Brazilians dazzled, maybe the penny would have dropped. Instead, they struggled to a 1-0 victory which must have made most casual American observers wonder what the fuss was.
For the substantial body of Irish fans at the World Cup, it was the zenith of the Charlton era. Eamon Dunphy wrote a piece shortly after Ireland had secured memorable (friendly) results away to Holland and Germany which contained the headline: “We Are Talking About Medals Now Jack.”