To understand how the 1994 World Cup changed soccer in America, you must consider what soccer was like in America.
Most young American soccer players had never seen a professional match -- on TV or in person. Virtually the only soccer programming came on Spanish-language channels, and often only with the help of rabbit-ear antennas draped with tin foil.
There was no true outdoor soccer league in the country in 1994. The mercenaries who tried to make a living at the game in the United States played indoor soccer, on turf-covered ice rinks. The indoor league was more stable than the top outdoor circuit, the American Professional Soccer League, which lived up the adage that if you need to have “professional” in your name, you probably aren’t.
The APSL averaged “crowds” of barely more than 2,000 and hardly was the launching pad the American game required to increase its popularity and stature. At the time, American players were not really accepted in Europe, and the best players had barely any club options at all. Instead, they gathered together as a national team and, for more than a year, competed in international friendlies.
Much of the mainstream media only begrudgingly embraced soccer, and only because they understood that the World Cup was a big deal. Soccer, however, was not, at least in their eyes. Most newspaper sports editors did not grow up with the sport, were unfamiliar with it, and were eager to belittle it.
But the 1994 World Cup, which included six matches at Stanford, changed all that. And Stanford’s role in that transformation was a great one. Nowhere was that juxtaposition of soccer tradition and emerging passion greater than when three-time champion Brazil played the United States at Stanford Stadium on the Fourth of July.
Brazil would win the Round of 16 match, but it marked the U.S. team’s first venture beyond the first round in the modern era of the tournament and the success of the event, in attendance and interest, sparked the creation of Major League Soccer, America’s current Division I league, just two years later.
WHEN THE U.S. was awarded the World Cup by FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, in 1988, the U.S. hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1950. The concern internationally was whether the tournament would be a source of embarrassment for the U.S. on the field and in the stands, and for FIFA, for taking the chance on the U.S. in the first place.
Stanford played a role in earning the trust of FIFA because of its success in hosting matches during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Nine were played at Stanford, drawing crowds of 83,642 for an Italy-Brazil semifinal, 78,000 for a first-round match between the U.S. and Costa Rica, and 75,000 for West Germany-Brazil.
In the years that followed, Stanford became a regular stop for the U.S. national team, playing five exhibitions from 1990-93, against the USSR and Russia, Argentina, China, and Germany. The 1998 World Cup cycle included two qualifying matches at Stanford, against Costa Rica and Canada.
The South Bay’s rich soccer history, featuring the original San Jose Earthquakes of the old North American Soccer League, and the massive size of Stanford Stadium, made Stanford an ideal choice as one of the 1994 Cup’s nine host venues.
It got even better – the Stanford venue would become the home base for Brazil, the three-time world champion and the masters of “the beautiful game,” in which style is just as important as results in the soccer-mad nation.
The Brazilan fans descended upon the team’s tournament headquarters at the now-closed Villa Felice lodge in Los Gatos and the team’s training grounds at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium. Training would be joined by chanting and singing fans, who at night would shift to Los Gatos’ Town Plaza Park for samba, soccer, and one big continuous party.
The Brazilians taught Americans how to be soccer fans and their influence remains in evidence today with the singing, chanting, and drum-beating supporter groups that now proliferate the American soccer scene.
In contrast was Russia, Brazil’s dour first-match opponent. Unlike a year earlier when the Russians trained in the South Bay without security and with levity in advance of their 1993 friendly against the U.S. at Stanford, this group hid behind lock and key.
Russia was based in the hills above Santa Cruz and bused to Cabrillo College in Aptos, where players loaded and unloaded behind closed doors. All but one training session was off-limits to the public, in contrast to the openness expressed by the Brazilians just over the hill. Safe to say there were no Russian parties by the Boardwalk.
AS THE CUP drew closer, Stanford braced for the onslaught of media and fans. At the time, hooliganism was a major concern, and there were sighs of relief when England, a nation enveloped in hooliganism, did not qualify. About 2,500 media representatives descended upon Stanford, as well as a security force of 700, including officers, private security and trained volunteers.
Stanford, however, was prepared. The Department of Defense sold security systems to the university that included a new perimeter fence and a video surveillance network.
The university spent $700,000 to replace the wood benches at Stanford Stadium with gold-colored aluminum. Total expenses in hosting the event, with some of the tab picked up by FIFA, was $2.5 million, including $2.2 million in capital improvements. Revenue totaled $1.8 million, including $500,000 in the rent of the stadium and $800,000 in parking.
The area that is now the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, across from Stanford along El Camino Real, was largely a series of empty lots turned into a World Cup souvenir center.
A 30,000-square foot media operations center was built on the current hammer and discus throwing field next to Angell Field, with a pedestrian bridge built to span Nelson Road and allow credentialed media direct access into the stadium.
The international contingents certainly did things differently. While American reporters are trained to be unbiased, many of the foreign journalists clearly were not, wearing their team’s jersey, snapping pictures with and getting autographs from their favorite players, and even cheering answers during press conferences and goals during games.
Some of the questions were a bit bizarre. One often repeated in the buildup to the Brazil-Russia opener referred to Russian coach Pavel Sadyrin supposedly saying that the Brazilian team was a “myth.”
“How could you say such a thing?” members of the Brazilian press wondered.
Something must have gotten lost in the translation. The subject didn’t make sense in any language, and Sadyrin continually denied making the remark, but that didn’t satisfy the Brazilians.
Despite the years of planning and preparation, it was inevitable that something would go wrong, and it did on the day of the first match when a garbage truck knocked down the pedestrian bridge and knocked out power to the 22 television sets inside the press center.
Because of a lack of space in the stadium press box, many reporters depended on the TVs to cover the games. The Internet still was in its infancy and information was not readily available except off traditional media such as television, radio, and newspapers.
Fortunately, a volunteer named Silvestre Espinoza brought his battery-operated portable TV set to the media center and dozens of reporters crowded around him to catch a glimpse of the tiny screen.
NOT ONLY DID Brazil show American fans how to watch a game, the Brazilians showed how to play it – with flair and creativity. Brazil was led by South American Player of the Year Bebeto, a skinny speedster who pulled his shorts just a bit too high, and Romario, a physical forward with great touch. On the bench was 17-year-old Ronaldo, the first of the greats sharing that name.
Brazil rolled over Russia, 2-0, and Cameroon, 3-0, on the way to winning its group, but it was the two other Stanford first-round matches that would have the more lasting impact.
Colombia was perhaps the tournament’s biggest disappointment. The team of Carlos Valderrama and Adolfo Valencia was among the favorites, but lost to Romania 3-1 in its first match and infamously to the U.S., 2-1 at the Rose Bowl. The Americans' first goal was an own goal off the foot of Colombian defender Andres Escobar, as he lunged to intercept a cross, deflecting the ball into his own net.
As revealed in the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary entitled “The Two Escobars,” the Colombians were under intense pressure from the drug cartels back home – players, coaches and even their families received death threats. When Colombia played Switzerland before 83,401 on a scorching June 26 at Stanford, there was nothing to gain by its 2-0 victory, except for a somber and brief respite.
It would be the final match in Escobar’s life. Six days later, upon his return to Medellin, Colombia, Escobar was gunned down by a bodyguard working for members of a drug cartel.
On June 28, Russia and Cameroon played in a meaningless match to end the tournament for both teams. For the first time at Stanford, tickets were being given away or sold for cut-rate prices by scalpers outside the stadium because of a lack of interest. But the crowd of 74,914 – the lowest attendance in the six Cup games at Stanford -- witnessed history.
Oleg Salenko, a 24-year-old striker from Leningrad, set a World Cup record by scoring five goals in Russia’s 6-1 victory. His six goals overall earned him the Golden Boot, for the most goals in the tournament. Salenko, however, never played in another international match in what would be an injury-riddled career.
As the match concluded, an announcement was broadcast to the crowd. The second-round matches were set and the U.S. would play Brazil at Stanford on Independence Day. The crowd roared its approval.
“THE ATMOSPHERE GOING into that game was incomparable,” said U.S. Soccer president and World Cup organizer Alan Rothenberg to Seth Vertelney of SBnation.com.
“I've never seen American soccer fans before — almost any kind of fans — get into it the way they did,” Rothenberg said. “The streets were just mobbed with everybody with painted red, white and blue faces, singing. And the Brazilians, as colorful as they are, were singing. I remember being driven to the game and I made the driver stop about a mile out. I said, ‘I've got to be a part of this. I want to march with them all, it's just too exciting.’”
Said U.S. midfielder John Harkes to Vertelney: “The atmosphere was tremendous. Those are the moments you live for whether you're on the field playing or you're in the stadium experiencing that. It was absolutely fantastic and that's the No. 1 thing that I remember.”
The U.S. was undermanned in any setting against Brazil, but especially because one of its core players, Harkes, was suspended for the match because of a red card he received against Romania in the final group match.
The Americans also suffered a blow when Tab Ramos, the team’s most creative player, was elbowed viciously in the head by Brazil’s Leonardo late in the first half. Ramos suffered a fractured skull, and the U.S. had little chance with its thin bench.
Still, the U.S. fought the Brazilians off until Bebeto slipped in a shot between the legs of sliding defender Alexi Lalas in the 72nd minute, scoring the only goal in Brazil’s 1-0 victory.
After the match, the American fans were disappointed, but not defeated. The Cup had been a victory for U.S. soccer and a crowd that numbered 84,147 proved it.
The average attendance for the six matches at Stanford, including Sweden’s quarterfinal penalty-kick victory over Romania, was 81,736. The overall average attendance of nearly 69,000 was the highest in World Cup history.
But, even more important was the respect the U.S. gained as a soccer nation. Not only did America prove to the world that it could appreciate and support the game at its highest levels, but the quality of play by the U.S. was proof of inclusion into the realm of soccer's elite.
The match at Stanford, on July 4, proved that.
As the thousands of American fans left Stanford Stadium with flags draped around their shoulders and stars and stripes painted on their faces, Brazilian fans did something unique – they congratulated the defeated fans for America’s performance, for the World Cup, for everything.
Rick LaPlante, the Stanford venue press officer, recalled a scene that played out earlier in the Cup, as the United States earned the seminal victory over Colombia.
“About 30 reporters and some of my volunteers gathered around a TV in the Stanford media center to watch,” he recalled. “At another TV about 20 feet away, a group of about the same size, mostly Brazilian reporters, watched the Portuguese feed. When the U.S. won, the Brazilians, pretty much to a man, walked over and congratulated us.
“’Welcome, Rick, to the world of football,’ one of them told me.”
Thanks to a Fourth of July at Stanford Stadium 20 years ago, the United States entered that world.