The Soccer Diaries: When The World Cup Semifinal Came to New York

The following is adapted from The Soccer Diaries: An American’s Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game by Michael Agovino, now available in paperback. Agovino recently wrote for the Washington Post about the US hosting another World Cup in 2026.

 

July 13, 1994

Italy vs. Bulgaria

Giants Stadium

East Rutherford, New Jersey

 

The day before the Germany–Bulgaria World Cup quarterfinal, I watched the Italy–Spain match in SoHo at a large Italian restaurant on West Broadway called I Tre Merli. At the half, when Italy led 1–0, I figured the game was over, and went downstairs to the men’s room, where there was a pay phone. I called Ticketmaster to see if there were any seats for the semifinal at Giants Stadium on the thirteenth. To my surprise, there were, and I pulled out my credit card and bought one on the spot: two hundred bucks for the upper deck, section 327, row 12, seat 23.

I went back upstairs. The restaurant was packed on this Saturday, even if Italian fans didn’t usually cram the bars the way the Brits and Irish did. They appeared, like me, confident that the game would finish 1–0. Italy had been without Franco Baresi since the Norway match, but still had his three Milan teammates in defense: Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, and Mauro Tassotti—the former two, along with Baresi, first-ballot hall-of-famers, if there was such a thing in this sport. Joining them on the backline after the Baresi injury was the impossibly tiny—not even 5–6, 150-pound—Antonio Benarrivo. No way would they blow the lead. Wrong again. After José Luis Caminero tied it in the fifty-eighth minute, I began to sweat. I’d just spent two hundred dollars, a lot for me, to see Italy, my team, most likely play Germany, in what might be a classic. Now it could be Spain playing Germany. Not a bad thing, but given Spain’s ongoing underachievement at World Cups, that would almost certainly mean a German win and another trip to the finals and possibly a second consecutive World Cup.

But just as he did on the same Foxboro turf against Nigeria, Roberto Baggio saved the day for Italy. Against Spain, his winning goal came two minutes from time—the same as the tying goal against Nigeria—on a vintage Italian counterattack that began virtually at their own touchline and traveled nearly the full length of the pitch. The finish, from a delicate man, at an impossible angle, was exquisite.

Italy, like everyone else, was light and dark, sun and shadow, paradiso and inferno. Inferno appeared in the form of a Tassotti elbow to the face of Luis Enrique. It was ugly and should have been a red card and penalty for Spain. The Hungarian referee missed it, one of several that escaped him this match. He could’ve sent off Spain’s Abelardo in the third minute for a reckless foul—even World Soccer said so—but he didn’t; he only showed yellow. Italy were unlucky when Gianfranco Zola, gentleman and genius, was sent off for nothing—for kicking the turf—against Nigeria; on this day Tassotti wasn’t sent off.

When the whistle blew and Italy won, the restaurant erupted and they played the Gipsy Kings’ “Bamboleo” as loud as possible, either sarcastically or because they genuinely liked the song.

So Italy was in the semifinal against, not Germany, as nearly everyone expected, but Bulgaria. One thing was certain: the final would be Italy against Brazil. For me, it felt like a minor victory. After the New York magazine World Cup preview package I wrote for came out, ABC’s World News Now, a program that aired from 2:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m., invited me on a few days into the tournament, after Italy had already lost to Ireland. The host knew nothing about soccer and had me identify some players in highlights. Then she asked me who would be in the final. I said Italy and Brazil. This seemed to antagonize her, for some reason. Italy lost already, she said. This isn’t unprecedented, I assured her. The segment was never broadcast, but the producer sent me the tape.

No one at ABC’s World News Now, I was certain, remembered my prediction, but Italy would play Brazil in the final; not a spectacular Brazil but an efficient one, with two great goal scorers—Romario and Bebeto.

Of course, the semifinals still needed to be played, and so I was off with my $200 upper deck ticket. I went alone this time, by my old route from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I hadn’t been to the Port Authority in years, probably since 1988 for that trip to Giants Stadium to see the doubleheader between Benfica–Atlético Nacional and Sporting Cristal–Barcelona (of Ecuador). The Port Authority was a place I only went to for two reasons: to get the bus to Giants Stadium for soccer games or to accompany my sister, where she would get a bus to Massachusetts and head back to her university. She graduated in 1987 and the Cosmos were no more, so, thankfully, there had been few occasions to go there.

But 1994 was not only a new year, it was the beginning of a new era. Rudy Giuliani had only been mayor since January, but if you were in the city for any substantial period of time before that, you could feel a difference. Less of the things New York was known for would be tolerated: disorder, crime, and the illicit. It would all be a windfall for big business and real estate—and those who could afford real estate—not so much for the rest of us. But the Port Authority appeared purged. Even the area around it felt less frenetic, less rancid, less scary. It was Travis Bickle’s dream come true. So it was back on the bus, almost twelve years to the day after my Dad took me to my first match. That game (an international friendly) meant nothing, but changed everything; this game (a World Cup semifinal) meant everything, or nearly everything, but changed nothing, as I was hooked on soccer for life by now.

Italy wouldn’t lose this game, I was certain. Where the blue oval rings of Giants Stadium had been covered in the Irish tricolor for Italy-Eire, today they were red, white, and green—and not because Bulgaria had the same tricolor as Italy, only in horizontal. No, it was because the tifosi turned out this time.

Baggio scored two goals within the first half hour. They were not of his 1990-versus-Czechoslovakia vintage—a top-ten World Cup goal of all time—but were of impeccable technique that required balance, touch, and placement.

That would be the game. Italy may blow one-goal leads but not two-goal leads. Arrigo Sacchi, who had been hired at AC Milan from Serie B’s Parma by Silvio Berlusconi in 1987, led a revolution for the Rossoneri. For Italy, it was never quite the same, even with a Milan-centric lineup. His dress sense was appalling: powder-blue polo shirt with lime-green pants that looked more like hospital scrubs, pulled high up to his midsection. As an Italian, and one who spent a significant amount of time in Milan, he should’ve been ashamed of himself. But he got them to the Final.

In the second half, when Baggio limped off the field injured, you knew immediately that Italy would have no chance against Brazil—technically, since the other semifinal wasn’t played, it could’ve been Brazil or Sweden, but at these stages, soccer got very predictable. Baggio would provide a puncher’s chance; without him, or with him at less than 100 percent, there would be no chance.

So enjoy the moment now, I thought. And I tried, really I did. But there was no one to hug or celebrate with. Weren’t you supposed to hug strangers? Even Bill Buford, from Louisiana, hugged strangers at a Cambridge United game, and his was a book about violence. There were tifosi, not in jerseys but blue T-shirts with Italy’s FIGC crest and Baggio written across the back, and they were all happy but they were not huggable strangers. I’m not sure why. I asked one group where they bought these blue Diadora shirts. I don’t remember what they said. They were Italians from Boston and came down for the game. They were nice, but then what? Sing? Neither they nor I spoke Italian. Dance? To what? Chant? Even at I Tre Merli, no one uttered the slogan Forza Italia, which was adopted for political purposes by Silvio Berlusconi, the new prime minister, but instead said Forza Ragazzi. So what did we do? We high-fived maybe, and wished each other luck for the Final. Then I got back on the bus to the Port Authority. It was rush hour back in midtown, and no one seemed to care, or was aware, that a World Cup semifinal had just been completed. It felt hollow. I realized there, amid the burnished bustle of Eighth Avenue, that it wasn’t other fans that I wanted to be around nor was it “atmosphere” that I craved. I wished my father could be with me.

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