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The World Cup is coming, and memories from ’94 flood back

The 1994 World Cup in the United States changed the game in this country forever.

Brazil won a record fourth title (it has since won one more) at the Rose Bowl in July of 1994, the first time the World Cup had been hosted by the United States. Bringing the world's game to America helped pave the way for the sport in this country.
Brazil won a record fourth title (it has since won one more) at the Rose Bowl in July of 1994, the first time the World Cup had been hosted by the United States. Bringing the world's game to America helped pave the way for the sport in this country.Read moreAP FILE

The most distinct memory from covering the 1994 World Cup in the United States? Was it the great Baggio sending his fateful penalty kick far over the bar in the final at the Rose Bowl, opening the door for Brazil to beat Italy? The opening game in Chicago, with the president in attendance? (And Oprah falling off the stage before the game?) The United States making its own mark, showing this country the possibilities?

Was it the Bulgarian players lounging poolside in Princeton? No, but we'll get to them.

It was Maradona.

It was being in Massachusetts the day Diego Maradona scored his last-ever World Cup goal. A teammate, the estimable Batistuta, scored three goals that June afternoon against Greece, and nobody cared. At the news conference afterward, Batistuta was there, but nobody asked him a question. Maradona was there, too. That was it. After Batistuta's first goal, the crowd dressed in mostly Maradona jerseys sang "Ole, Ole, Ole … Diego." When Maradona put one past overmatched Greece himself, a grown man held up a sign. Diego Sos Mi Dios. You are my God.

Name a current great American athlete. LeBron, Trout, Tiger back in his prime. Wrap them all together. They still don't mean to this country what Maradona once meant to Argentina. What do all the current Eagles mean to this city right now? Now you're getting it. Just expand it to a country.

In 2026, that realization of the enormity of the whole thing will return, this time to the United States, Canada and Mexico. Two thirds of the games will be in this country, and maybe even in Philadelphia, the cities still to be determined. The vote was Wednesday, the winners in a runaway over Morocco, which is missing basics such as stadiums, not that such matters has stopped FIFA before.

Yes, the Super Bowl will always be bigger in this country, on merit. But once the expanded 48-team tournament hits the knockout stage, it will be a Super Bowl every day. It's hard to grasp the impact of holding it here. Just understand that if we didn't host the '94 World Cup, there likely would be no Major League Soccer in this country. Yes, failing to qualify this year was unacceptable. But it was an epic embarrassment because we've become a soccer country in so many ways. It isn't first in importance. Nobody is our Maradona. But we care enough for major networks to telecast the great leagues of the world here, in addition to so much domestic action. We don't have to wait for a World Cup to see the greats of the sport.

>>READ MORE: A World Cup without the U.S. is still worth watching

Don't minimize how 2026 could take us to a higher level. In 1994, it took eventual champion Brazil to take us out, and even that game was scoreless until the 74th minute. You'll also see how it isn't just about us. The world will be here. In 1994, it was unforgettable. The Irish, for instance. Televisions at Eamonn Doran's on Second Avenue in Manhattan offered continuous World Cup action. The day I stopped in, customers could watch Ireland triumphing over Italy, or Ireland's scoreless tie with Norway, an endless loop. Irish fans had taken out credit-union loans or second mortgages just to get here. A Dubliner sitting at the bar the day after the Norway game said he had spoken with a friend at home who, now that Ireland had qualified for the second round, was placing a newspaper ad to sell his car to come over.

"There are probably people at this World Cup still paying off the last one," mentioned Michael O'Donoghue of Dundalk, overhearing this. "It's a vicious circle of credit. "

I saw Mexico beat Ireland in the heat of Orlando, Germany take out Belgium, the brilliance of Roberto Baggio put Spain out of the tournament. I also wrote about the Colombian player shot to death back home after his own goal cost his country against the U.S. I had been in Bogota for a week before the World Cup writing about the great love affair the country had with the sport, but also how drug money had infiltrated the sport, how drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, recently gunned down, had loved soccer to the point he put seeds imported from England on the soccer field in his own prison.

>>READ MORE: What you need to know about this year's World Cup

Within days of his goal in New England, Maradona also fell, failing a drug test. As a member of the FIFA medical team put it: "We did not find any product on the market that contained all five substances. It must be a cocktail. " Argentina lost its spirit and listlessly fell to Bulgaria.

The show went on. Bulgaria shocked defending champion Germany at the Meadowlands. The Bulgarians were poolside at a Princeton hotel the next day.Some players were in the pool playing nerf basketball. "It's not a party every day," said their goalkeeper. "But we like to stay relaxed."

If you catch the drift that the whole thing tends toward the epic, you've got it. The United States, Canada and Mexico should automatically qualify as hosts — the region gets to decide how to allocate its slots — and hosts often outplay their own abilities. Not being in the World Cup starting this week in Russia is a generational failure for the USA, after reaching seven straight World Cups. Just remember that in 2026, Christian Pulisic, already the greatest field player the United States has produced, will be in his prime, 27 years old. Imagine this man who grew up in Hershey taking the field in Philadelphia against England, on the 250th anniversary of our independence. The world would be watching. So would you.