Italia ’90 didn’t get the football it deserved. It created iconic sights and sounds – Gazza’s tears, Milla’s hips, Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma – but the action was dismal. It produced the lowest goals per game (2.21) of any World Cup, rewarded miserly tactics, and was capped by an abominable final described by sports writer Brian Glanville as “probably the worst, most tedious, bad-tempered final in the history of the World Cup”.
All of which made USA ’94 seem like a hedonistic festival of football. The back-pass rule had freed the game from its shackles and modern formulaic patterns weren’t yet figured out, making for a riotous American summer. Goals per game rocketed to a heady 2.71 and it all played out in vast open-air amphitheatres, like the Giants Stadium in New York and the monstrous 92,000-seater Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. More than 3.5m people saw a match and the average attendance of 69,000 remains the biggest ever World Cup show.
On the pitch, collective stoicism gave way to individualistic flair; solo artists like Dennis Bergkamp, Gheorghe Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov took centre stage and one of the great World Cup duos, Romario and Bebeto, became the headline act. But no team epitomised USA 94 more than Sweden, a carefree rock and roll group fronted by Tomas Brolin who finished third and were the tournament’s top goalscorers – and with a little more luck might just have become world champions.
Sweden’s popularity grew through the group stage as they produced an entertaining 2-2 draw with Cameroon in LA, an impressive 3-1 comeback win over Russia in Detroit, and a far more disciplined 1-1 draw with the favourites, Brazil. Thomas Ravelli was enjoyably erratic in goal, Roland Nilsson led from defence, the rangy Kennet Andersson sniffed out several brilliant goals in the box, Martin Dahlin’s vast forehead proved a potent goal threat, and the raw pace of the coolest man at the tournament, the dreadlocked Henrik Larsson, threatened from the bench.
In the centre of it all, Brolin made Sweden tick to an unpredictable rhythm. He had a magnetic touch and an inventive streak best illustrated by his goal in the quarter-final against Romania; he lurked behind the defensive wall at a free-kick, then darted to receive a blindside pass before smashing the ball into the roof of the net. He demanded to be front and centre and started the opening game in attack alongside Dahlin, but the team shape changed in the second game – much to Brolin’s annoyance, as Andersson recalls.
“For the second game our manager said Brolin was playing on the right wing and me and Dahlin were up front,” Andersson tells The Independent. “Brolin was not that happy in the beginning! I didn’t know at the time but later I found out our right-back Roland Nilson had told him: ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to take care of the defence, you do what you have to do’. So it was kind of new for Brolin, but really it was a very good move because after that he just played fantastic football, together with the whole team.”
Brolin and Andersson combined to give Sweden the lead in their final group game against Brazil only for Romario to wriggle away from the attentions of Larsson and midfielder Stefan Schwarz to toe-poke a brilliant equaliser. It was a well-earned point against the eventual champions, but Larsson doesn’t remember it that way. “I played as a right midfield player against Brazil which wasn’t really my best position, and I just ended up chasing the game,” Larsson recalls of his first World Cup start. “I never really came into it. I was excited to play Brazil but I wasn’t too pleased about my performance that day.”
Even so, Sweden finished second in the group and progressed to the round of 16 where they met the tournament’s surprise package, Saudi Arabia, in the oppressive Dallas heat. Nilsson recalls fearing the sun more than the Saudis, but they got through 3-1 after two well-taken strikes by Andersson and one throb of Dahlin’s forehead.
The quarter-final is the game that stands out in both Larsson and Andersson’s mind: a trip to Stanford to face Hagi’s talented Romania side. Sweden went in front thanks to Brolin’s cleverly disguised set-piece with 12 minutes remaining, but Florin Raducioiu snatched a scrappy late equaliser to send the match to extra-time.
Then in a seemingly damning 101st minute, English referee Philip Don sent off Schwarz moments before Raducioiu added a second to leave Romania a goal and a man ahead. Sweden were out on their feet and heading out of the tournament, but in the final throes Andersson leapt to head home his favourite goal and send the game to penalties. “They were all fantastic feelings but my most important goal was against Romania in the quarter-final,” he says. “We were really down because they were coming back from 1-0 down, playing really hard. Not only was it a crazy game but also in that very peculiar moment in the quarter-final of the World Cup, so it was really special.”
Sweden had prepared meticulously for penalties and although Hakan Mild missed their first, Andersson and Brolin both converted in a run of four goals before Larsson – facing “the most pressure of my life” – scored in sudden death to give Ravelli the stage. Sweden’s goalkeeper teetered on his line like a drunk before lurching to his left to make an brilliant acrobatic save with one hand to setup a semi-final against Brazil.
It came only three days later, and for Sweden it was a match too far. The small core of their squad had clocked up hundreds of minutes on the pitch and thousands of miles across America. They were without the suspended Schwarz, they had just played 120 draining minutes in San Francisco, with 24 hours less rest than Brazil, and so they set about chasing Romario and company across the cavernous Rose Bowl in hope, not expectation.
Brazil missed several sitters in the first half including a near-open goal for Romario which Patrik Andersson cleared off the line. Sweden clung on in the blazing sun for an hour until the most efficient and polite sending off you are ever likely to see: the wonderfully handsome midfielder Jonas Thern clattered into Dunga, the Colombian referee standing five yards away immediately arched his back and flourished red, and Thern calmly shook Dunga by the hand, clasped a few more Brazilian palms and departed.
As the pressure mounted Ravelli made several spectacular saves, but finally, in the 80th minute, Romario found a pocket of space to head Brazil into the World Cup final.
Sweden rallied themselves for a third place play-off, producing a brilliant show to thrash Stoichkov’s Bulgaria side 4-0 with goals from the brilliant Brolin (as well as two assists via typically measured through-balls), Mild, Larsson and Andersson – his fifth goal of the tournament and Sweden’s 15th. Larsson admits luck played its part along the way, particularly at the end of their dramatic quarter-final with Romania, but Andersson puts both their success and their popularity down to a spirit fostered for more than a decade.
“I had been playing with Martin Dahlin since we were 15 years old in the national team, so we knew each other and everybody knew each other,” says Andersson. “When you’re in a tournament you’re in a bubble. You don’t hear anything, you don’t feel anything, but afterwards I got this sensation because I had so many letters from all over the world, not only Sweden. Me and Dahlin scored more than Bebeto and Romario together, it was fantastic. And of course – everybody loves a team who scores a lot.”