Remembering USA – Colombia in the 1994 World Cup
By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (May 21, 2013) US Soccer Players – The United States entered the 1994 World Cup in an unusual position. The Americans were hosting the tournament for the first time, but were in no way contenders for the Cup. Though any grouping would seem difficult at the time, the US got a tricky draw with Colombia, Romania and Switzerland in Group A. The biggest game in the group, the second, was against Colombia in Pasadena.
After the Americans had tied Switzerland 1-1 in Detroit, the US players entered the Colombia game needing at least a draw to keep their hopes of advancing to the second round alive. The rest of the planet was banking on a Colombia rout.
“We were nervous,” recalled defender Marcelo Balboa. “The fact that we had never beaten Columbia leading up to the World Cup. They were also one of the favorites to win the World Cup that year.”
The Americans upgraded the program following the 1990 World Cup. New coach Bora Milutinovic, used his experience to build a strong team through a residency camp and a series of friendlies. In the lead-up to the ’94 World Cup, the Americans had posted a string of positive results – including a 1-1 draw against Italy to win the inaugural US Cup. In 1993, the Americans shocked England 2-0 at the US Cup. Slowly, Milutinovic’s work was paying off just in time for the start of the World Cup.
Colombia, meanwhile, was one of the pre-tournament favorites. Pele had picked them to win the World Cup on the eve of the tournament. Colombian soccer had been very successful in the late 1980s and early ’90s on the club and National Team levels. The infusion of money that went into developing players had gone a long way. Colombia had returned to the World Cup in 1990 (the first time since 1962), the same year the country’s drug cartels had reached the apex of their power. Colombia’s 5-0 win over Argentina in World Cup Qualifying – part of a 28-game unbeaten streak – was a message to the world that the country was a soccer power.
On June 23 at a sun-kissed Rose Bowl, the Americans and Colombians squared off. Colombia was in a must-win situation after losing to Romania 3-1 in the opener. To this day, American soccer fans can recount – and picture – the sequence of events that led to the US victory.
The first goal for the US was an own goal, mistakenly diverted into the Colombian net by defender Andres Escobar. The goal came when a sliding Escobar intercepted a cross by John Harkes. The defender right-footed the ball past his own goalkeeper, Oscar Cordoba. All Cordoba could do was fall backward in agony.
The second US goal came in the 52nd minute when striker Ernie Stewart scored off an assist by Tab Ramos. Down 2-0, the Colombians appeared lost. More and more, an upset appeared to be in the works.
“I remember their faces as time passed by (and) the desperate look they got on their faces,” said Balboa, who nearly scored a goal of his own when his perfect bicycle kick sailed wide of the post by a few inches.
The Colombians eventually pulled one back in the 90th minute with Adolfo Valencia, but it was too little, too late. The Americans had won, recording its biggest win at a World Cup since the 1-0 win over England.
“Even though Columbia scored late in the game, you could see it on their faces that they couldn’t beat us on that day,” Balboa said.
The Colombian coaching staff admitted afterwards that a death threat against midfielder Gabriel Gomez sent via fax on the eve of the game to the team’s hotel shook up his squad. Colombia coach Francisco Maturana said at the time that the people who sent the fax threatened to blow up Gomez’s home. Maturana, who said he had considered resigning before the game, replaced Gomez with Herman Gaviria in the starting lineup.
“Unfortunately, I have still not been able to find the explanation as to why we played this badly,” Maturana told reporters after the loss. “The team wasn’t up to the task when the time came.”
Colombia failed to advance out of the first round. The Americans would reach the Round of 16 only to lose 1-0 to eventual champion Brazil.
As detailed in the documentary The Two Escobars, the game against the United States became a transitional moment for Colombia. Andres Escobar was murdered outside a Medellin nightclub on July 2nd, reportedly killed because he’d scored the infamous own goal, angering gambling syndicates who had wagered heavily on a Colombia win. To this day, the actual cause remains a mystery.
“We were shocked and saddened to see that somebody took it beyond just a game,” Balboa said of Escobar’s murder.
Despite the tragedy, Balboa said what happened on the field that day served as a major moment for the US National Team.
“You know all the games in the World Cup are important, but this one was more important as a team,” he said. “We knew that if we happen to beat Columbia that we would be in the second round. In soccer, you need a little bit of luck and on that day the ball bounced our way.”