Ask a thousand football fans about the greatest football match of their lifetimes and be ready for a thousand different responses – none of them the right one. There’s really only one sensible and rational answer: that accolade should belong, unequivocally, to the Second Round game played at the 1994 World Cup between Romania and Argentina. Here’s why you should think so too.
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts behind a remarkable game played at an unremarkable stage of the competition. Romania had qualified for the knockout stages topping their group and catching the eye with dazzling counter-attacking play. By contrast Argentina had just squeezed through by the skin of their teeth as a third place qualifier, yet still approached this tie as favourites thanks to their historical pedigree and heavyweight reputation.
The billing of the game as Maradona v the Maradona of the Carpathians (as Gheorghe Hagi was known) lost one of its headline acts three days before the fixture in Pasadena when Diego was expelled from the tournament for testing positive for banned stimulants. Claudio Caniggia was also unavailable, but Argentina could still name an enviable makeshift attack that featured the brilliant Serie A-based pairing of Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo.
Romanian coach Anghel Iordanescu had selection headaches too and chose to replace the suspended forward Florin Raducioiu with the deeper-lying Ilie Dumitrescu, scorer of nine goals in his previous eight internationals. It would prove an inspired move. After 11 minutes his curling free-kick from a wide position deceived Argentinian keeper Islas and flew in to the goal, replicating a Hagi free-kick goal against Colombia from the group stages.
Batistuta equalised with a penalty five minutes later but Romania regained the lead within two minutes when Dumitrescu cut through the middle, released Hagi on the right and carried on his run to meet the perceptive return pass and side-foot home at the near post. Only a desperate goal line clearance by Caceres stopped Dumitrescu completing a first-half hat-trick after another brilliant counter-attack.
Romania did extend their lead in the second-half around the hour mark when Selymes broke down the left and squared the ball to Dumitrescu who flicked it into the path of Hagi. The talismanic forward scored with a glorious rising shot to make it 3-1. Argentina attacked desperately and pulled a goal back on 75 minutes when Prunea couldn’t hold a Simeone drive and Abel Balbo fired home the rebound. Romania survived a frantic ending to hold out for a famous win and take them further in the World Cup than the nation had ever been before.
Five goals, world-class footballers at the peak of their form and a match in the balance right until the final whistle are factors in combination that suggest a thriller, but don’t necessarily scream out classic of our times. So what marks out this particular fixture as one that transcends all others? Well, how about the incredible pace and intensity of the game despite the blisteringly hot conditions, the exceptional technical quality on display by both sides and the fascinating tactical battle between two canny managers playing radically different styles.
Argentina adopted a tight and compact 4-4-2 system with the ball moved quickly and accurately by Redondo, Simeone and Ortega into positions for the strikers Batistuta and Balbo to explode into life. Romania adopted a formation akin to a 4-6-0, outnumbering Argentina in midfield and swarming forward on the counter-attack when the ball was won back with bewildering movement and positional interchanging. This was a perfect storm of two teams coming together to create 90 minutes of utterly sublime and mesmerising football – a compelling nexus of pace, intelligence and exemplary technical and tactical ability.
These were the best two team performances during the entire 1994 World Cup and sadly it meant that one team had to return home at an unduly early stage. The Romanian coach was clear what the performance and result meant for Romania:
“This is the greatest event celebrated by our people since the revolution. It’s also the greatest moment in our soccer history.”
In the immediate aftermath of this breathless fixture Diego Maradona, by now working as a commentator for Argentinian television, was unable to see past the pain of early elimination and his own paranoia.
“Romania didn’t beat us on the pitch. We were beaten off the pitch and that’s what hurts.”
Let’s hope that in his quieter, more reflective moments he now realises that there was no disgrace in narrowly losing out in this most epic of football matches.