A quarter of a century ago -- on July 17, 1994 -- the first World Cup to be staged in the United States came to a conclusion with Brazil beating Italy on a penalties after a goalless draw.
The cheap drama of the shootout aside, it is not a game to live long in the memory. Nevertheless, it remains a hugely important occasion, both for the winners and for the sport as a whole.
The poverty of the spectacle should be a concern to the organisers of the 2026 World Cup, to be held in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Back in 1994, the 85-degree Fahrenheit heat of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena during that 12:30 p.m. local kickoff had a negative effect on the quality of play. Players are already tired after the rigours of the club season, followed by the route to the final.
The presence on the field that day of Franco Baresi, the great Italian centre-back, was truly extraordinary. He had injured himself in his country's opening match of the tournament, and had undergone surgery on his knee. Even so, he was rushed back to play the final. Surely there was no way he could cope with the rampant Romario, Brazil's electric centre-forward. Baresi put Romario in his pocket. He delivered a magnificent performance, and it was cruel indeed when he became one of those to miss in the shootout.
Several years later, both coaches -- Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira and Italy's Arrigo Sacchi -- were remembering the final. Recalling Baresi's display, they agreed: in the conditions of the 1994 World Cup final, it was better to be injured than tired.
Sacchi revealed that midfielder Roberto Donadoni had commented at half-time that if the team attacked, there was no way they could get back to defend. The heat dictated that the game would be played cautiously.
Clearly this is not ideal for such a showpiece occasion. Those organising the 2026 tournament must give serious thought to aiding a quality spectacle. Kickoff times and locations should be chosen to avoid a repeat of the Rose Bowl cauldron.
The 1994 win, then, was nowhere near as glamorous as previous Brazilian conquests -- especially the glorious first, in 1958, and the magnificent third in 1970, the first time the country could watch the event live on TV. Even so, 1994 has great importance.
First, there is the question of demographics. The population of Brazil had doubled in the dry period between 1970 and 1994. Tens of millions had never had the experience of watching their team be crowned world champions. For those born too late for 1970, it seemed almost as if they were being cheated of a birthright.
Then there is the mathematics. Going into the 1994 World Cup, Brazil had lost their proud boast of being the country with the most tournament wins. Both Italy and Germany had pulled level, with three apiece. Claiming that fourth crown, then, was a giant boost to Brazilian self-esteem -- especially as it followed soon after the death of Formula One legend Ayrton Senna, who had become almost a lone symbol of global supremacy at a time when Brazil had little to celebrate.
There is also the backstory of the Brazilian success. They did it the hard way, struggling as never before during qualification. Away to Bolivia, Brazil suffered their first ever defeat in a World Cup qualifier, and for a while their presence in the U.S. was in doubt. For the last decisive game, at home to Uruguay, the wayward genius Romario was recalled, and he was magnificent as Brazil booked their World Cup place. And, until he ran into Baresi, he was magnificent for most of the World Cup, forming a splendid strike duo with the sleek Bebeto.
The front pair had to be on top form. They received limited help from a midfield that was organised rather than inspired. The trauma of the 1982 World Cup elimination ran deep in Brazil, when a side with a superb, ball-playing midfield fell short of the semifinals, cut down by a ruthlessly efficient Italian team.
In 1994 coach Parreira found his formula, holding down the centre of midfield with both Mauro Silva and Dunga -- both fine players, but neither of them likely to come up with anything extraordinary in the final third of the field. Aside from a wobbly few minutes in the quarterfinal against the Netherlands, Brazil defended superbly, despite losing their three first-choice centre-backs just before and during the competition. The midfield protection was crucial, and as winners are always imitated, this then became the template for all Brazilian football.
It set Brazil up for a golden age. They reached three World Cup finals in a row, and celebrated title number five in 2002. At that time there were a few months when Brazil were reigning world champions at senior, under-20 and under-17 levels.
But as is so often the case, a period of success planted the seeds of future failure. Brazil went overboard on the quest for defensive balance. The midfield became separated into those who just defended and those who just attacked, and the play lost fluidity as a consequence, becoming overdependent on the counterattack.
The revolution led by Pep Guardiola caught Brazilian football off balance. The Brazilians had convinced themselves that there was no space in the modern game for little midfielders orchestrating a possession-based game. Xavi, Andres Iniesta & Co. proved the opposite, and Brazilian football started to look antiquated.
There are clearly emotional factors behind that astonishing 7-1 defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal. Nevertheless, it is striking to observe that the team that moves the ball fluidly between the lines is not Brazil. In the past three years, coach Tite has been trying to play catch-up, taking Brazil out of its post-USA '94 mentality and incorporating more-modern concepts.
The effects of history ripple through the subsequent years. Twenty-five years on, there is much to be learned from USA '94, both by those in Brazilian football and the organisers of 2026.