Contemporary soccer is a disappointing mixture of safety measures and opportunities for redemption: top teams are shielded through seeding, play-offs, expanded tournaments, and consolation prizes such as the Europa League (although it is often met with excitement akin to that of contestants on Bullseye who only win enough money for their return trip). The thrilling and ruthless aspect of football has nearly disappeared. For the prominent national teams, securing a spot in major tournaments has become a mere routine.
The situation was not like this in the past. An excellent example is the campaign to qualify for the 1994 USA World Cup, which was the last one before Uefa introduced play-offs. The final evening of qualification games on November 17, 1993, was an overwhelming experience of true drama that featured death, “murder”, theft, illegal immigrants – and Jack Charlton almost punching Tony Cascarino. It was a night that shaped the lives of Paul Bodin, Davide Gualtieri, Alan McLoughlin, David Ginola, Emil Kostadinov, and Santiago Cañizares. It also sparked one of football’s most long-lasting conflicts.
The football calendar had a remarkable lineup of events. Many teams were in a fight for survival in their last game, knowing that one mistake could cost them a spot in the World Cup. Only four European teams, Greece, Russia, Sweden, and Norway, had already qualified, along with the reigning champions Germany. The remaining eight spots would be decided in nine matches, making it a memorable night that even Sky’s red button couldn’t handle. In this region, it is known as the night when no British team made it to the World Cup for the first time since 1938, but it is just a small part of a sensational story. Holland, Spain, England, Italy, France, and the European champions Denmark were all at risk of missing out on the tournament.
Italy’s night on the precipice
We have the option to begin from any point, but for the sake of order, let’s begin with Group One where Italy, Portugal, and Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland were competing for two spots. Switzerland was in third place at the start of the night, but a 2-0 victory against Estonia, the weakest team in the group, would secure their qualification. Meanwhile, Italy and Portugal were facing each other in Milan. Both teams had equal points and goal difference, but Italy had an advantage due to scoring more goals. With Switzerland almost guaranteed to win, Portugal needed a victory while Italy only needed a draw. The margins were narrow, as a 4-0 win for Portugal against Estonia in their previous match would have allowed them to settle for a draw in Milan.
In Zurich, Switzerland easily secured a 4-0 victory as predicted. Hodgson expressed his elation, stating it was the greatest day of his life and a highlight of his coaching career. The real excitement took place in Milan where Italy, who had not needed to qualify for a World Cup in 12 years (having won in 1986 and hosted in 1990), faced the possibility of not qualifying for the first time since 1958. Portugal, led by Carlos Queiroz, was a polished team with talented players such as Paulo Sousa, a young Rui Costa, and the skillful Paulo Futre. They employed a possession-based style of play, also known as tiki-taka at the time.
In the first half, Portugal had control of the ball, but Italy’s defense, mainly consisting of players from Milan, played exceptionally well. Goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was never truly challenged. In the second half, Italy had an equal share of possession after bringing in Demetrio Albertini and Roberto Mancini. However, with only seven minutes left, they were still at risk of losing by one goal. Then, Dino Baggio scored a goal that was clearly offside, giving Italy the lead and effectively ending Portugal’s chances. Their defeat was finalized in the last minute when Fernando Couto received a red card for striking Pierluigi Casiraghi in the face, causing him to fall dramatically.
“Oh, Pearce made a mistake…”
There was another World Cup qualifier in Italy on that night. In Bologna, San Marino held a match against England, who had been described by David Lacey in this publication as facing the “inevitable consequences of their own shortcomings”. In order to qualify, England needed to win by seven goals against San Marino and hope that Poland would win at home against Holland. Although England did score seven goals, the most memorable goal of the night was scored by San Marino. Before this game, San Marino had only scored twice in international football and averaged a goal every 48,600 seconds. However, they managed to score after just 8.3 seconds when their small right-winger, Davide Gualtieri, took advantage of a careless backpass from Stuart Pearce. This was a surprising turn of events, as it was usually Pearce who would let his opponent know he was there. It also set the record for the fastest goal in World Cup history.
For those who did not witness England’s unsuccessful and unlucky journey towards qualifying for the World Cup with Graham Taylor as coach, it is difficult to fully convey the hilariously tragic nature of that moment. Any future replays should be accompanied by the theme song from Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Perhaps it would be more beneficial to focus on the positive aspects of this experience, as it had a significant impact on Gualtieri’s life. The video of the game serves as an immediate source of happiness. Gualtieri shared with the Evening Standard ten years later that he sometimes replays the game when feeling low in order to lift his spirits. In 1995, when Scotland visited, Gualtieri was approached by enthusiastic fans wearing shirts with his name and an infamous statistic, and was encouraged to reminisce until the early morning hours.
While a win for San Marino was never a likely outcome, it took a restless England over 20 minutes to tie the score. Gualtieri remarked, “You should have heard the way they spoke to each other.” In the end, England scored seven goals, with four coming from Ian Wright, which greatly increased his total for the national team. The entire match occurred in a strange atmosphere, with only 2,000 fans in a stadium with a capacity of 45,000.
Gualtieri’s objective could have gained even greater recognition if it had prevented England from qualifying for the World Cup. However, Holland, supported by a large crowd of 15,000 fans who outnumbered the home team 10 to 1, easily won 3-1 against Poland. The score was tied 1-1 at halftime, giving England a glimmer of false hope. Dennis Bergkamp, who found solace in international football from his struggles in Milan, shattered that hope with his second precise goal just before the hour mark.
England experienced a particularly bleak night, as it was the first time since the 1970s that they were unable to qualify for the World Cup. However, there was a glimmer of hope later that evening when Des Lynam on Sportsnight interrupted the usual banter between Terry Venables and Jimmy Hill to inquire if Venables would potentially be interested in the England job if it became available. Venables, who is typically talkative, suddenly became reserved. At the time, he was not a top contender for the job due to his issues with Alan Sugar. When Graham Taylor resigned a week later, Venables was considered a long shot at 25-1 odds, behind other names such as Steve Coppell, Mike Walker, Trevor and Gerry Francis, Joe Royle, Ray Wilkins, and the favored Howard Wilkinson. However, it was soon evident that Venables was the most suitable candidate, with no competition in sight. A new era was on the horizon, where Venables’ England team would play a more mature and sophisticated style of football. It truly was the darkest before the dawn.
Exploring the circle of anger
We are uncertain of where to begin in Group Three, which was the center of attention on this monumental night. Spain was set to host Denmark in Seville, while Northern Ireland (who had already been eliminated) was playing at home against the Republic in Belfast. The three teams were closely matched: Denmark was in first place with 18 points (with a goal difference of +14 and 15 goals scored), followed by Spain with 17 points (goal difference +22, goals scored 26), and the Republic also with 17 points (goal difference +13, goals scored 18). A tie would be enough for Denmark to qualify, while Spain and the Republic knew they needed a win to secure their spot, but a tie could also potentially get them through (in Spain’s case, if the Republic did not win; and in the Republic’s case, if Spain and Denmark did not tie). The Republic would be eliminated if they lost, and Spain would be eliminated unless the Republic also lost. Confused? Great.
The intensity of the Ireland game was intensified by the political situation of that period. The Troubles were at a peak, and just a month prior, 23 individuals lost their lives in a string of shootings and bombings. There was significant discussion about relocating the game to Old Trafford, Wembley, or possibly Italy. Eventually, the game proceeded as scheduled, but the Republic, much to Jack Charlton’s dismay, had to fly instead of drive due to safety concerns.
The atmosphere was not uplifted the day before the match, as Billy Bingham, who was retiring after 17 years as manager of Northern Ireland, criticized the Republic’s “mercenaries”. Bingham stated that these players, such as Andy Townsend, Ray Houghton, and John Aldridge, were unable to succeed in England or Scotland. He expressed a cynical view of the situation and did not shy away from stating his intention to defeat the Republic. Ireland received a preview of what was to come when they were met by a group of 10- and 11-year-olds making obscene gestures during their final training session. On the day of the game, they were met with barbed wire and armed police.
If a steel barrier was placed outside the stadium, then there was a strong sense of anger and resentment inside. It was a chaotic display of animosity, the type of evening where even the most hardened criminals were on edge. Officially, the Republic had no supporters in attendance. Jack Charlton remarked, “I have never experienced such a hostile environment, not even in Turkey.” Terry Phelan and Paul McGrath were subjected to racist taunts, while Alan Kernaghan, who had previously played for Northern Ireland as a youth, was loudly insulted. The incessant barking of countless dogs added to the tense atmosphere, as if they were aware that doomsday was approaching. “The safest place to be,” McLoughlin noted, “was on the field.”
Being on the field had an added bonus: you had the power to determine your team’s fate. Andoni Zubizaretta, a revered goalkeeper for Spain, lost that privilege when he was ejected in the 10th minute against Denmark. Zubizaretta weakly passed the ball to his teammate Michael Laudrup and then fouled him on the edge of the penalty area. The substitute goalkeeper was Cañizares, a 23-year-old making his first international appearance in a high-pressure situation. However, as he stepped onto the field, Cañizares entered a state of concentration that he arguably never experienced again in his career.
Denmark only needed a tie to secure their spot in America, giving them a strong advantage. However, there was a major obstacle: they were facing Spain, a team that had previously eliminated the talented Danish Dynamite squad in Euro 84 and Mexico 86, and also defeated them in Euro 88. Against any other opponent, Denmark would have celebrated the red card given to Spain’s goalkeeper as a stroke of luck. But with it being Spain, they were on the lookout for potential traps, wondering if the red card was part of a sneaky plan. Furthermore, Denmark’s preferred style of play, the counter-attack, was not as effective against Spain, making the situation even more complicated.
Due to having an additional player, Denmark was able to dominate the first half and generate a few excellent opportunities. However, their dominance lacked excitement and was the product of a blend of aggressive and passive tactics. As Cañizares continued to make saves, there was a growing sense of destiny and fatalism that had a distinctly Spanish taste.
In Belfast, the first half of the match was uninspired with no goals scored. The Republic team was comfortable but lacked precision. According to Ken Jones of the Independent, the match was filled with “perspiring mediocrity.” However, things changed when Spain scored in the 63rd minute. A corner kick from the right resulted in José Maria Bakero fouling Peter Schmeichel and Fernando Hierro scoring into an open net. Schmeichel was understandably upset and Bakero later admitted that it was a foul. This was only the second goal conceded by Denmark in 10 qualifying matches. Schmeichel believed that the referee showed favoritism towards Spain after sending off Zubizaretta earlier in the match.
During the game between Denmark and Spain, Denmark put pressure on Spain, but Spain found strength in the loud and intense atmosphere of the venue, which they had used for all their qualifying matches between 1983 and 1995. At one point, it seemed like Denmark would be eliminated, but the standings were altered once again when Northern Ireland’s Jimmy Quinn unexpectedly scored a remarkable volley in the 71st minute. The Northern Ireland assistant coach, Jimmy Nicholl, celebrated by making a rude gesture towards his counterpart from the Republic of Ireland, Maurice Setters.
The Republic needed a goal and Jack Charlton decided to bring in Tony Cascarino. However, Cascarino had forgotten to put on his kit, which was a first for his career. When he unzipped his tracksuit, he realized he was only wearing a plain T-shirt. Charlton asked why he was taking so long, and Cascarino explained the issue. Cascarino recalled that Charlton’s face turned red and he thought he might have a heart attack. Charlton exclaimed, “You idiot!” This was yet another comical moment, similar to Gualtieri’s goal.
Unfortunately, there was not enough time for the full story to unfold, as in the 76th minute, substitute McLoughlin scored an impressive goal for the Republic by chesting down a partially cleared free-kick and shooting it into the corner. Later, Charlton, who was exhausted, expressed that McLoughlin had proven his worth and justified his spot on the team. From then on, McLoughlin had a special place in Cascarino’s esteem. According to Cascarino, “I have always believed that if Alan McLoughlin had not scored the equalizer…there was a good chance that Jack would have punched me.”
The Republic sought to secure victory in a unique way, recognizing their potential elimination if Denmark scored in Seville. Cañizares pulled off an incredible save from Bent Christensen (although footage suggests that a foul was called for a push by Christensen), and Michael Laudrup narrowly missed a long-distance half-volley.
At the end of the match in Belfast, the Republic celebrated, mistakenly believing that their qualification was secured in Seville. Charlton, walking through the tunnel, also thought the same until he saw a TV showing the final moments of the Spain vs Denmark game. When asked if he wanted to watch it, Charlton refused, but was eventually convinced to look and saw that the score was 1-0. The Republic and Denmark had the same number of points and goal difference, but the Republic had scored more goals throughout the World Cup under Charlton, securing their spot in the tournament.
After the intense events, Charlton made a move to make a statement. In his autobiography, he explained, “I noticed Billy Bingham conversing with his players and approached him to offer my congratulations on his retirement and praise for a well-played game.” He intended to do so, but instead, he was taken aback by his own actions as he pointed a finger at Bingham and exclaimed, “Up yours too, Billy.”
Charlton immediately felt remorse for his words, especially since it wasn’t Bingham who had initially pointed out Setters. He quickly apologized afterwards. The bizarre evening concluded with Charlton giving Bingham an award for his retirement. “Some of the individuals who had been insulting me all night were now standing and cheering. I believe that summed up the chaotic and loud night perfectly.”
The conclusion in Seville was not a happy one. Flemming Povlsen, the Danish striker, shared, “As the game ended, I wept with a similar intensity of anger that I felt the year prior when we won the European Championship.” The headline, “ROBBERY,” accurately captured Denmark’s emotions. It marked the end of their 16-year streak of qualifying for the World Cup.
Putting the ‘Bodin’ in ‘foreboding’
In a 1984-85 episode of Match of the 80s, Andy Gray reflects on Everton’s significant 3-1 victory against Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Reminiscing on his extensive career with 600-700 professional games, he expresses a longing to keep just one memory with him forever.
Some members of the Wales team still hold onto the memories of their heartbreaking loss to Romania in 1993. Despite playing nearly 850 professional matches, Dean Saunders still vividly remembers the game. Gary Speed also reflects on it as the most painful moment of his career, admitting that it affected him for a long time.
Those were happy times for Wales. They were ranked 28th in the Fifa world rankings, a position they haven’t reached since, and they were met with uncommon support before the game. They received numerous telegrams, including ones from John Major, Princess Diana, George Best, and the Welsh Rugby Union. Many people in England were more concerned about their outcome than England’s. The BBC even changed their coverage from the England match to Wales during the second half.
Terry Yorath’s contract was set to end after the match, but he had done an exceptional job with a diverse group of players, as described by the Independent as a “mixture of various talents”. It is uncommon to see such a combination of skilled athletes and experienced players. Due to Mark Hughes’ suspension, the starting lineup for the game against Romania included Neville Southall, David Phillips, Eric Young, Andy Melville, Kit Symons, Paul Bodin, Barry Horne, Gary Speed, Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, and Dean Saunders.
In another complicated situation, Wales had to secure a victory by a margin of two in order to guarantee their spot in the next round. However, any type of win would suffice as long as the Republic of Czechs and Slovaks (RCS) did not defeat Belgium on their away match. The RCS also needed a victory to qualify, while Belgium and Romania only needed a draw. Despite Philippe Albert being sent off early in the second half, Belgium managed to hold the RCS to a 0-0 draw in Brussels. At that time, Wales was unaware that they only needed a win to advance. It was still a challenging task to defeat the talented Romania team who had previously beaten them 5-1.
The difference in styles between the two teams was significant. It would have been considered inappropriate to not rely on stereotypes in this instance. It was a situation where determination and hard work were pitted against natural skill and flair. While Wales had talented players, the intensity of the game and the intense atmosphere, filled with fear, pride, and determination, caused them to adopt a more traditional British approach. After the game, a Romanian journalist asked Yorath, seemingly out of compassion, if he would ever stray from the “kick and rush” style of play. Florin Raducioiu, the Romanian center forward, suggested that Giggs needed to leave English football in order to fully showcase his talent.
Despite a valiant effort, Wales fell just short of achieving a remarkable victory against Romania, who proved to be the superior team. In the first half, Dan Petrescu struck the post from close range and Ilie Dumitrescu missed over the bar from 12 yards in a thrilling counter-attack. Gheorghe Hagi, as expected, was a dominant force, making dangerous runs from the right wing and taking several long-range shots that were either high or wide. The esteemed BBC commentator Barry Davies expressed concern after one of Hagi’s attempts, stating, “He may not have found the target yet, but I’m worried about his ability to take on defenders and create space for himself.”
In hindsight, it may seem absurd, but Hagi was playing for Brescia in Serie B at the time, in between his stints at Real Madrid and Barcelona. Despite this, his exceptional skill was evident and he scored against Wales in the 32nd minute. Hagi made his way towards the center from the right and then took a low shot from 25 yards out that slipped past Neville Southall. Before the game, Southall, who was 35 years old, had been boasting to anyone who would listen that he was still as good as he was 10 years ago. Unfortunately, he made a crucial mistake during the game, which was perhaps the biggest error of his illustrious international career.
Wales had a remarkable response and applied intense pressure on Romania before and after half-time with several set pieces. Young’s headed shot was skillfully saved, followed by Melville’s header being stopped on the goal line just before the end of the first half. An equalizer was scored after an hour when Saunders flicked the ball in from close range during another set piece. Immediately after the restart, Wales was awarded a penalty when Speed fell easily after being tugged by Petrescu, as Speed later admitted in 2003. He questioned what would have happened if he had stayed on his feet, whether he would have scored and if that would have been the deciding factor in taking them to the World Cup finals.
At the moment Bodin was about to take the penalty, the BBC switched over to the Wales game. This caused 32,000 people to call and complain, and one can only imagine the fake outrage on Twitter if this were to happen now. Bodin was known for being a skilled penalty taker and had previously scored at Wembley to secure a win for Swindon and advance them to the Premiership. He had also successfully scored three penalties for Wales. However, this particular penalty carried a whole new level of pressure, one that he probably didn’t anticipate when he agreed to be the designated penalty taker for his team. For many in the stadium, Bodin’s name brought forth feelings of foreboding. Unfortunately, he ended up hitting the bar with his shot. In 2007, Observer Sport Monthly ranked this moment as the 46th most heartbreaking in sports history.
Wales continued to push forward, but something died in them in that moment, and Romania stealthily took control of the game once more. After a couple of near misses, Raducioiu slipped an 83rd-minute winner through Southall, who was arguably culpable again. Wales had lost at Cardiff Arms Park for the first time since 1910. A miserable evening became evening darker when, just after the final whistle, an elderly fan was struck in the neck and killed by a flare launched from the other side of the ground.
Yorath expressed his initial disbelief and numbness after not being able to manage Wales again. Within a year, the team’s performance had significantly declined, losing in Moldova and suffering a severe defeat of 5-0 in Georgia. Reflecting on the situation in his hotel room at four in the morning, Yorath cried as he realized that all of his efforts had been in vain.
Bodin was unfairly and severely blamed as the scapegoat. Instead of receiving recognition, he faced intense criticism. Unlike the English team’s missed penalties in the 1990s, Bodin did not have the support of his fellow players or any endorsements. Instead, he was subjected to insults from ignorant individuals.
“I recall a moment after the game where I was confronted by a group of students in the streets of Cardiff who were constantly berating me,” stated Bodin. “Fortunately, that was the extent of the negative behavior.” Bodin may not have been aware of an interview where Nicky Wire from the Manic Street Preachers referred to him as a derogatory term. “The experience made me a better person,” Bodin reflected, “and I have learned to control my temper if the subject is ever brought up because it did occur.” He is a level-headed and respectable individual who has come to terms with the events that transpired.
“France was the only one left.”
Reworded: Bodin can find humor in the situation now, as evidenced by this video. However, David Ginola is unable to do the same. It has been 6,664 days since he was a part of the French team that did not qualify for the USA 94 World Cup, but the effects of that loss are still being felt. The 2-1 defeat against Bulgaria sparked a bitter feud between manager Gérard Houllier and David Ginola, which resurfaced late last year when Houllier referred to Ginola as “a bastard” in the book Coaches’ Secrets. In response, Ginola took legal action.
France’s path to qualification appeared to be simple. They only needed to secure a victory against Israel or a draw against Bulgaria on home turf. Israel, the weakest team in the group, had not won a single game. Furthermore, France had previously defeated them 4-0 in Tel Aviv and had a 25-year streak of not losing a World Cup qualifier at home. The outcome was seen as a sure thing, as evidenced by the lack of concern over the fat lady’s voice. The magazine Le Sport even printed a run with the headline “QUALIFIED” to distribute to newsstands.
In the 82nd minute of play in Paris, France was leading 2-1, with Ginola scoring a spectacular long-range curler for the second goal. However, Israel managed to secure a stunning comeback victory with goals from the young duo of Eyal Berkovic and Reuven Atar, both assisted by the aggressive Ronnie Rosenthal.
Despite this, it appeared that the inevitable had only been delayed. One month later, France only needed a tie at their home game against a unpredictable Bulgaria. Eric Cantona scored a goal in the 31st minute, but Emil Kostadinov quickly equalized with a clever header from a corner.
The latter part of the game went by quickly and nervously, and suddenly the clock showed 89:42. Ginola, who had come in as a substitute, chose not to waste time by keeping possession near the corner and instead sent a long pass to Cantona. Just 16 seconds later, Bulgaria scored a goal. Penev made a risky pass over the opposing team’s defense, which Kostadinov controlled and then shot into the goal from a difficult angle, bouncing off the underside of the crossbar. It was such an unexpected turn of events that even the TV caption showed France winning 2-1 against Bulgaria. The entire country of France was in disbelief. Even tough player Didier Deschamps was almost overcome with sorrow.
Kostadinov’s winning goal was remarkable, considering the difficult angle he scored from and the fact that he was not even supposed to be in the country. Penev, who assisted the goal, was also in a similar situation. Bulgaria had neglected to obtain visas for both players prior to the match. Realizing this mistake too late, they were unable to bring them in on time. Fortunately, Borislav Mihailov and Georgi Georgiev, who were teammates at Mulhouse in France, knew of a less secure border crossing. They managed to enter the country and stayed at Georgiev’s house before making their way to Paris.
It can be assumed that Ginola and Houllier have not been on good terms since the incident. After the game, Houllier expressed his anger by stating that Ginola’s actions were like a missile that hit the heart of the team, and he committed a crime against them. While Houllier has denied calling Ginola an “assassin” or “murderer,” he did call him a “bastard” in a book last year and stated that he will never say anything positive about him. Ginola’s offense was not just trying to score a goal, but also his complaints to the press about preferential treatment given to Cantona and Papin, who were Marseille alumni, while he was the beloved player of PSG. This led to Papin and Cantona being booed during the Bulgaria match, which took place in Paris.
David Ginola expressed his frustration regarding the impact of a certain event on his personal life and his children’s lives. He found it unbearable and stated that he had had enough. He also mentioned that this event would continue to be brought up until his death. This was a shared experience among other men whose careers were greatly influenced on 17 November 1993.