Top Five 1994 World Cup Surprising Teams

Celebrating some of the most iconic teams in World Cup history

The 1994 World Cup was a somewhat revelatory event, exposing us to a wide range of less-familiar football nations. This phenomenon could be attributed to a few factors, whether it’s the fall of the iron curtain allowing Eastern European sides to break through, a non-traditional football nation as a host in the form of the USA, and the fact that powerhouses such as England, Uruguay, France, Portugal, and Denmark couldn’t secure their tickets to the world’s biggest event, leaving the stage for others. In this article, we will look at the top five refreshing teams who took us all by surprise in the summer of ‘94:

5. USA –

The 1994 homecoming tournament was a window for the world to get acquainted with football in the world’s wealthiest nation and vice versa; it was a leap in the local’s interest in “soccer.” The USA did everything right; the tournament was hosted and produced to the highest standards of sporting and entertainment events, the stadiums were packed, and the football was great. A considerable portion of the squad, or roster as they call it in the states, didn’t know where they would play during the next season as the MLS was only in the preparation stages and would launch two years later. 

But soon, players like Coby Jones, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos, and Tony Meola, wearing some of the most memorable World Cup kits, were the American heroes on the worldwide stage, with a sort of Holywood-ish swagger that made them stand out compared to their European, South American, and African counterparts. When it came down to the bottom line, their win over Colombia sent a candidate to lift the trophy home and got them the ticket for a first appearance in the round of 16 since the inaugural 1930 tournament. They looked Brazil straight in the eye losing narrowly 0-1. Evident of how they perceived themselves, the players were disappointed about going out rather than satisfied with their achievement.  Still, their hosting experience and everything around it skyrocketed interest and investment in the sports in the USA, making them World Cup regulars with a league that attracts world-class players. 

4. Nigeria – 

In the nineties, African football began to pick up the pace. Cameroon set the foundations with a 1990 World Cup quarter-finals run, and players like George Weah, Abedi Pele, and Roger Milla were household names. The stage was ready for the continent’s most populated country to debut in a World Cup. And they did it remarkably. Coming in as contintental champions, they finished first in a group with Argentina and Bulgaria, beating the latter 3-0 in their first game. The Super Eagles came minutes close to the quarter finals, leading 1-0 over Italy in the round of 16 only to be denied by a Roberto Baggio equalizer in the 88th minute. The Italian ace overturned the score in extra-time, sending Clemens Westerhof and his players home with pride. Nigeria showcased a memorable tournament, including a standout kit, great goals, and a wide range of stars with Yekini, Amukachi, Amunike, OIiseh, Okocha, and Rufai all becoming household names. 

3. Romania – 

Romania provided a preview to their performance in the USA with a round-of-16 finish in the 1990 World Cup. But missing out on Euro 1992 and a general lack of history of success to show for, no one expected what came to be in the summer of ‘94. The eastern European side took the air out of the high Colombian hopes in the first game, including a spectacular goal from Gheorge Hagi. Another win against the hosts secured a second consecutive knockout stage performance. Anghel Iordănescu’s side stunned Argentina with a 2-3 defeat in what some claim to be the best match in World Cup history. In the quarter-finals, Romania took part in another classic, holding off a strong Swedish side to a dramatic 2-2 finish before going out in penalties. Hagi was naturally the main man for his team in this competition, but Romania wouldn’t have gotten that far without memorable performances from Dimitrescu, Petrescu, Răducioiu, Popescu, and more. 

2. Bulgaria

From Romania, we move on to their neighbors. Bulgaria was looking for a first win in history after four World Cups and 16 games played in the tournament. The team, now known as Bulgaria’s “Golden Generation,” displayed strength and character, indicating what’s to come already in the qualifiers. Dimitar Penev and his players secured their ticket to the USA in the 90th minute of the final game of the qualifiers in Paris, at the expense of France. The World Cup itself began with a 0-3 humbling against Nigeria, but from there on, it was a green, white, and red show, with a 4-0 follow-up bashing of Greece and a 2-0 shocker over Argentina. They struggled with Mexico in a round of 16 match that went to penalties and then came the moment that cemented this special side in history. Few favored Bulgaria to get past Germany in the quarter-finals. When Lothar Matthäus scored the opening goal for the defending champions, it seemed like the Balkan nation’s cinderella story would come to its honorable end. In three minutes (75’ and 78’), Stoichkov and Letchkov turned around the score in what would become one of the biggest surprises in World Cup history. Bulgaria didn’t drop out without a fight, losing only 1-2 to Italy in the semi-finals, and seemed like they were out of energy in the third place match against Sweden, which ended 0-4. Stoichkov finished as the top goalscorer with six. Alongside him, Letchkov, Balakov, Kostadinov, and many other talented players became renowned. This team’s success is still cherished in Bulgaria, maybe because it was short-lived. The country qualified for only three big tournaments ever since, never making it past the group stage.

1. Sweden

Those not old enough to remember this tournament might find this shocking, but the country currently known for solid tactics and strong defense was the most attractive team in the 1994 World Cup. With a bunch of world-class players at their hiatus, like Dahlin, Brolin, Ravelli, Andersson, and a young Henrik Larsson, the Scandinavians finished the tournament with the most goals scored. They held off eventual champions Brazil until the 80th minute of the semi-final. Despite having superior infrastructure than the rest of the nations on this list, the Swedes, too, didn’t provide a performance that even came close to their run during that summer in the USA. 

ns on this list, the Swedes, too, didn’t provide a performance that even came close to their run during that summer in the USA. 

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