To the casual observer, there is not the slightest connection between Olympic Stadium in Rome and Soldier Field in Chicago.
But, to the soccer fan, the two stadiums are inextricably linked. Olympic Stadium was the scene of the last World Cup match, on July 8, 1990, and Soldier Field will be the scene of the next one, on June 17, 1994.
Four years have passed since West Germany defeated Argentina, 1-0, on a hotly disputed penalty kick to become world champion for the third time.
And, because the Germans won, they, and not the Argentines, have the honor of kicking off the 1994 World Cup against Bolivia in Chicago 50 days from today.
But there is not one Argentine who will tell you Germany deserves to be there.
“We were robbed!” was the cry heard from the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to the loneliest Gaucho camp on the pampas four years ago.
Difficult to believe? Well, consider this remark made after the match in reference to the game’s Mexican referee, Edgardo Codesal Mendez, a gynecologist:
“He should go back to concentrating on medicine and not carry on causing damage to soccer.”
The speaker was Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, an avid soccer fan.
Menem’s good friend, Diego Maradona, a player whom he had presented with an ambassadorial passport, went even further in expressing his outrage.
“There is a mafia even in the soccer world,” Maradona screamed once his post-match tears had dried. “The penalty didn’t exist. It was given just to let the Germans win.”
For their part, the Germans took it all in stride. While the Argentines were whining, they were winning. Defender Andreas Brehme’s 86th-minute penalty kick had made certain of that, slipping inside the left post, just beyond the dive of goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea.
But did the Argentines have a legitimate gripe? Was Codesal wrong in awarding a penalty kick? Was he merely trying to put an end to the worst Cup final in history, an atrocious match that sent the crowd of 73,603 wandering off into the Rome night wondering about the future of the sport?
Four years later, those questions still are being debated. But no one argues the fact that--no matter how bad--the 1990 match succeeded in bringing change to the game.
FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, is notoriously slow to accept change, but the worldwide outcry after the Italia ’90 tournament, and particularly the final, forced it to act.
As a result, the 1994 World Cup promises to provide a more wide-open, free-flowing, adventurous brand of soccer. Rules have been modified to favor attacking players over defenders; the points system has been changed to reward victories more than before.
And, thanks to an abundance of top-flight strikers and the fact that most of the big-name defenders are past their prime, goals should, in theory, be plentiful this summer.
But the nagging thought that a team could advance to the final by playing the same negative brand of soccer practiced by Argentina in 1990 persists.
The first World Cup to be played in the United States is supposed to put a smile back on the face of the sport. The image left after 1990 was a pronounced scowl.
The final was “a totally unsatisfactory match, which was an affront to the game and an appalling advertisement for the world championship,” wrote British author Jack Rollin. “It epitomized much of what had been an undistinguished tournament.”
Viewing the match today, it is difficult to find fault with Rollin’s viewpoint.
The final was not five minutes old when Codesal reached into his pocket for the first yellow card, cautioning Argentine striker Gustavo Dezotti for dissent. That’s the polite way of saying Dezotti, obviously wound tighter than a spring, was yelling who knows what at the referee.
Before the final whistle, Dezotti made a little more World Cup history.
Germany attacked relentlessly throughout the first half but was unable to finish its moves with any precision. Time and again chances were created, but each time the last, decisive pass was intercepted or the shot flew wide or high of its target or was smothered by Goycochea.
Argentina, playing without four starters who had been suspended for infractions in earlier matches, defended resolutely and, as the game wore on, increasingly crudely.
At the start of the second half, Argentine Coach Carlos Salvador Bilardo, who had led his country to its 1986 World Cup triumph--a 3-2 victory over West Germany in a splendid final played before 114,000 fans at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City--made a fateful substitution.
He sent on defender Pedro Monzon in place of veteran Oscar Ruggeri, who was nursing an injury.
Within 20 minutes, Monzon became the first player in World Cup history to be tossed out of a championship match.
It occurred in the 64th minute after Monzon fouled German striker Jurgen Klinsmann, who was breaking free down the right flank.
The foul was bad--Monzon driving his spikes into Klinsmann’s shin in a crude tackle--but it is debatable whether it was a red card offense. A warning seemed called for instead. Klinsmann’s spectacular fall had a touch of the theatrical about it.
Reduced to 10 men, the Argentines were trying desperately to survive the final half hour in the hope of sending the game to penalty kicks, where they might have a chance to steal the victory.
In the 84th minute, however, an excellent pass by German captain Lothar Matthaus found striker Rudi Voller in the penalty area with only defender Roberto Sensini and Goycochea to beat.
Sensini stuck out his leg, ostensibly to rob Voller of the ball. Voller tumbled. Codesal blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty kick spot.
With a mere half-dozen minutes remaining, Germany had been awarded an almost certain goal.
The Argentines were dumbfounded and protested long and loud. Codesal was not about to change the call.
Argentina’s only hope lay in Goycochea, whose brilliant penalty-saving exploits had carried the South Americans to victory over Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals and Italy in the semifinals.
“Saving penalties has very little to do with luck, more to do with intuition,” he later told London’s World Soccer magazine. “A goalkeeper can do one of three things: dive left, dive right or stay in place. Often, you look into the eyes of the penalty taker to try to find a clue. That’s what I do.”
Brehme stepped up to take the vital kick. The fans held their breath.
Goycochea guessed correctly, flinging himself to his right and reached as far as he could, but Brehme’s shot was perfectly placed and snuck in just inside the left post.
Germany 1, Argentina 0.
“I should have taken the kick,” Matthaus said later, “but I had problems with an ankle. You cannot gamble on something as vitally important to the nation as the World Cup final . . . and I knew Andy would not let us down.”
There was time for more drama.
With the seconds ticking away, German defender Jurgen Kohler was engaging in a bit of time-wasting down at his end of the field when Dezotti interceded.
Trying to get the ball away from Kohler, Dezotti resorted to a stranglehold on the German’s neck.
Codesal’s reaction was immediate: red card.
Now, two Argentines had been tossed out and, on top of the penalty kick, it was all too much to bear. The Argentines surrounded the referee, pushing and shoving and shouting. Maradona, who had been ineffective throughout the game, led the way.
Codesal could have ejected even more players, but he resisted, content to give a yellow card to Maradona, bringing Argentina’s total for the tournament to 22 yellows and three reds.
Finally, it was over. The final whistle brought the Argentine bench to its feet and onto the field. Codesal had to be protected. By the next afternoon, he was on his way home and, before long, he announced that he would never referee again.
Up in the VIP section of the stands, Argentine dignitaries fumed. Down on the field, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl cavorted with his victorious countrymen. It was left to German Coach Franz Beckenbauer to summarize the match.
“There were no doubts whatsoever who was going to win,” he said. “For 90 minutes we attacked Argentina and there was no feeling of any danger that a goal would be scored against us. As I saw it, we outplayed them from beginning to end.”
Beckenbauer, who won the World Cup as a player in 1974 and became only the second man in history to also win it as a coach--Brazil’s Marion Zagalo was the first--said the penalty “was not the key to the game because in any case we would have scored, even if it had taken overtime.. . . 1-0 by a penalty doesn’t give a fair idea of this game.
“We could have won, 3-0. I don’t remember a single chance Argentina had to score a goal.
“It’s too bad Argentina didn’t participate in the game. They tried to destroy the game. They played a non-game. They were too weak to stand up to us. Still, it’s not up to us to choose our opponents.”
Bilardo declined to comment about the penalty or the referee, saying only: “Of course we are very disappointed, but we also have to be realistic. Going into a match such as this, against a team such as West Germany, with four players suspended and others not really fit, was too big a burden for us.”
It was left to others to write what might have been.
“This was the first World Cup final to be resolved by a single goal and it was also the worst final in memory,” Ian Morrison wrote in his history of the World Cup.
“The game did little for football but there was one consolation: Had the Argentines lifted the World Cup--with two wins and five goals in their seven matches--it would have been a catastrophe for the game. At least their awful approach to Italia ’90 had gone unrewarded.”
Now, the World Cup is back. What ended in the Olympic Stadium in Rome four years ago begins anew at Soldier Field in Chicago 50 days from now.