Discovering Narnia: A Love Letter to the US 94 | Arseblog… an Arsenal blog

As I write this on a Thursday morning, some four days after the 2022 World Cup, I have only seen one game so far: England’s clinical 6-2 dismantling of Iran. I did not deliberately boycott the tournament, even though I sometimes feel I should.

I just haven’t had time to look at the other games. The women’s home season continues and I’m very grateful for that, it’s kept me busy a lot and for me it means I still have Arsenal during this strange winter break on the men’s side.

It has largely been a matter of time and priority. I have a two year old daughter and that has ruled out all the 7pm kickoff as far as keeping myself busy with her nightly routine. While I tell you I haven’t had time for this year’s World Cup so far, it might be telling that I haven’t really made time either.

And it’s a shame because World Cups are such formative experiences for football fans, especially in the youth. There is a trope that the World Cups that fall between your eighth and twelfth birthdays are the best World Cups and that certainly applies to me.

I was ten years old before USA 94 and so that will always represent the gold standard of World Cups. I think there are reasons why USA 94 retains that magic (I’m not naive enough to think that 1994 was some sort of era of innocence, both in a FIFA sense and in a broader social sense).

On a personal note, the tournament took place right after Arsenal won the Cup Winners Cup in 1994, which remains the club’s most underrated achievement in my opinion. Following that tournament felt like a magical mystery box of players and clubs that you just couldn’t follow in 1994.

In the quarter-finals, Arsenal played Torino who had Croatian legend Robert Jarni. They also had Benito Carbone and Andrea Silenzi, who would later join the Premier League. In the semi-finals, it was PSG who boasted the talents of George Weah, David Ginola and Brazilian duo Rai and Valdo.

Then the final, with Parma’s world famous front three of Brolin, Zola and Asprilla (all of whom would eventually play in the Premier League with wildly varying levels of success), supported by a defense that included Antonio Benarrivo and Roberto Sensini.

That tournament marked an era of discovery for me and the World Cup in 1994 just expanded that education. By now I owned the legendary console game Sensible Soccer, which featured all these lofty names, albeit with the vowels jumbled to avoid violating copyright laws.

The fact that England failed to qualify for USA 94 actually made it even more exciting for me. I paid attention to the whole canvas instead of just a small part of the painting. I learned about players like legendary Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who was famous as a striker for his club. His incredibly loud goalkeeper shirt supported his legend.

It was Maradona’s last World Cup and he made his mark in the most Maradona way, scoring a superb goal, which he celebrated with such a deranged look into the camera bowl that it drew complaints from viewers of the BBC’s coverage. He was then quickly disgraced and sent home from the tournament for failing a doping test.

There was Carlos Valderrama and his famous blonde Afro, a good chunk of the US squad would eventually play in the Premier League and I remember having no real idea they even had a football team in the first place. I remember the funny box-pops when British journalists covering the tournament asked passing Americans if they knew the World Cup was going on at all.

Roberto Baggio, the divine ponytail, lit up the tournament and then, viciously, when it seemed he was destined to enjoy his own ‘Maradona in ’86’ type tournament, he shot the decisive penalty over the crossbar in the final shootout against Brazil.

This was also my first meeting with the Brazilian national team. I never thought that one day I would beat them for a few years and fully immerse myself in Brazilian football. In retrospect it is not seen as a vintage Brazilian lace, but to me they were magical.

Those bright yellow shirts against the intense American July sun made them stand out just that little bit more. This was Romario and Bebeto’s tournament, the latter with his now-iconic baby crib celebration to mark the birth of his son.

I’ve read a lot about how the 1970 World Cup, the first to be broadcast in color under the stifling Mexican sun, left such an indelible impression on people wearing Brazil’s brilliant yellow kits. USA 94 had a similar impact on me.

While color television was nothing new at the time, the color filters were still prone to a sort of obscured haze when bright colors were stacked together. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the two countries I really loved during this World Cup were Brazil and the Netherlands.

It was my first glimpse of Dennis Bergkamp who, little did I know then, would illuminate my football experience over such a long period of time. It is known that it was the flights back and forth to the United States that gave Bergkamp his fear of flying.

Then there was the Republic of Ireland, which of course did qualify for the tournament. None of the British sides qualified, so I just remember everyone at my school exaggerating or just lying about the extent of their Irish heritage.

One of my best friends at the time was named Daniel McElvey so I could take his Irish heritage more seriously! I remember really standing for Ireland because it was so important to him. Even though England was present on France 98, I really shined in Nigeria and Jay Jay Okocha because one of my best friends at the time was a Nigerian. My mom even bought me a PSG shirt after that World Cup, which was Okocha’s club team.

94 also had quite a few surprises, Bulgaria and Sweden were among the semi-finalists. I also remember little personal details, there was a group stage match every night at 9pm UK time. At first, my mom would only allow me to stay up for the first half of those games.

After a few games in the tournament, she took an old portable TV from the attic and installed it in my room so I could watch the second half of those games in bed. It was a very old fashioned television, you had to turn a dial to change channels and it had no remote control. For me, however, it was a gateway to another world.

A world where it was 1pm and around 100 degrees Celsius, where Jack Charlton looked quite uncomfortable in a baseball cap and his sweat stains seeped through his white shirt. Where players like Brolin, Baggio, Romario, Stoichkov, Hagi and Bergkamp roamed.

Where the beautiful bright shirts from the Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil and, well, Jorge Campos provided an impressive sparkle in my dark bedroom. Everyone is guilty of cherishing the past and remembering it as a sepia-toned heyday.

However, I think 1994 was a very nice vantage point culturally for a World Cup. We were on the brink of a digital era that would make these teams and players familiar names and faces, but we knew and could see just enough of them to whet the appetite.

If the 1994 Cup Winners Cup was the step in the closet, then USA 94 was my full introduction to Narnia. I remember the explosion of transfer rumors around this World Cup. Most of it is fucking bullshit, but when you’re ten it’s hard to filter.

I vividly remember a classmate tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Honor, have you heard that Arsenal sign Baggio?” And I believe it with all my heart. It was a charming naivete, and while it wasn’t an age of innocence for the world itself, it was for this football-mad ten-year-old.

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