94: Ireland shock the Italians, before Hagi's magic sends Argentina home
Italy 0 Republic of Ireland 1, Group E
Neither the Irish nor the Italian camps were particularly harmonious going into their first World Cup fixture in New York.
Arrigo Sacchi might have conquered all before him at Milan but he had rubbed the national team up the wrong way with his constant tinkering: he'd used 53 players in 77 games as coach and had annoyed many of his key men – including Roberto Baggio – by fielding them out of position and rigorously imposing his tactical systems.
The Irish party, meanwhile, were at loggerheads. There were headlines about a training camp bust-up, forcing the key protagonists, Roy Keane and coach Maurice Setters, to call a press conference and insist that everything was just dandy, honest.
Behind the scenes, though, it was tense. Keane revealed in his autobiography that the players constantly despaired about the FAI's disorganisation, the quality of flights, hotel rooms, and preparation. "Training was crap," he recalls. "They ran the b*ll*cks off us. The theory was we'd get used to being knackered. The climate didn't favour kick and run. But we had a large supply of water, so 'drink and run' was our game plan."
Despite these gripes, the underdogs did enjoy one advantage as they stepped into the Giants Stadium's cauldron of heat: the crowd. With New York's Italian community outnumbering its Irish one, a 50-50 fan split was expected. On the day, however, it was estimated that two-thirds of the 75,000 crowd wore green: wall-to-wall tricolors made it virtually a home game for Ireland.
The match started cautiously. Italy boasted Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini at the back, Dino Baggio and Roberto Donadoni in midfield and Roberto Baggio up front, but seemed sluggish.
Then suddenly the Irish produced a goal from nowhere. A long punt into the penalty area was headed weakly by Baresi. It dropped to Ray Houghton on the edge of the area, who controlled neatly on his chest, strode forward and swung a foot. Italian keeper Pagliuca was caught off his line; the slightly miscued shot arced over his head into net. Houghton celebrated with a barmy somersault as the Celt-packed terraces went ballistic.
Shell-shocked Italy played poorly for the rest of the half, but finally took control after the break. The Irish resisted the pressure well, however; Packie Bonner pulled off a couple of crucial saves, Paul McGrath was a defensive colossus and the Irish out-battled their opponents across the pitch. With 15 minutes to go, Italy had run out of ideas and energy. John Sheridan almost added a second, hitting the bar.
The crowd celebrated as if they'd won the World Cup itself. Big Jack – who'd got them to the quarters in Italy four years earlier – had worked a miracle again.
"For a country the size of Ireland to beat Italy, well it doesn't happen very often, does it?" he said afterwards, comparing the moment with winning the trophy in 1966. "It was very special and probably surpasses all my playing achievements in terms of emotion."
But while Italy were bound for the final, it was as good as it would get for the Irish. The in-camp bickering – and Charlton's arguments with the Irish press – continued unabated. The 'drink and run' tactics wilted against Mexico in 110-degree heat (they lost 2-1) and the game against Norway was a 0-0 shocker. Ireland qualified on goal difference, but were dismantled by a classy Holland side in the second round.
"We were outplayed and outpassed," grumbled Roy Keane. "Charlton's plans were exposed. The tournament I'd dreamed of since I was a kid was a bloody nightmare." But while moody Keano may not have enjoyed himself, at least Ireland's fans made the most of their day out in the Big Apple.
Romania 3 Argentina 2, Second round
The build-up to the game centred around one man: Diego Maradona.
Shorn of their totemic leader following his positive drug test for ephedrine, Argentina were being questioned – specifically their ability to mount a meaningful challenge.
Romania, conversely, were building momentum after topping a group that included the heavily fancied Colombians and the hosts, USA. One team looking back regretfully, the other optimistic: the recipe, it would turn out, for a thrilling exhibition of free-flowing attacking football. All this while Maradona watched on from the stands, his role in the drama reduced from star turn to jittery extra.
And it only took 11 minutes for Argentine nerves to be set jangling as Romanian striker Ilie Dumitrescu swung in a free-kick from the far side which sailed over the hapless Albicelestes keeper Luis Islas and straight into the net.
Argentina were going to need some luck if they were to get back into the match without their talisman.
Luck was exactly what they got five minutes later when they were awarded a dubious penalty after Gabriel Batistuta ran into Daniel Prodan in the box. Batigol placed the ball on the spot and smashed it low and hard to bring the score level.
Argentine celebrations and Romanian indignation didn't last long, though. Two minutes later, some neat interplay at the back released Gheorghe Hagi down the left and he exchanged passes with Dumitrescu, before the soon-to-be-Tottenham player slid in a delicate shot inside Islas' near post. The goal epitomised the team: a combination of pace and grace, orchestrated by Hagi's magical left foot.
Argentina were clinging on. A series of fine saves from Islas kept it at 2-1 until the 58th minute, when Basualdo lost the ball to Dumitrescu, who ran the length of the pitch before playing in Hagi to make it 3-1.
While a late Abel Balbo strike gave the South Americans hope, it wasn't enough. Argentina were out, and their disgraced star had been upstaged by his Eastern European understudy Gheorghe Hagi – 'The Maradona of the Carpathians'.