Rose Bowl, Pasadena
July 3, 1994
Argentina – 2 (Batistuta, Balbo)
Romania – 3 (Dumitrescu-2, Hagi)
After a somewhat dour tournament in 1990, 1994 edition brought back the flair and excitement in the World Cup. The frenetic encounter between Romania and Argentina in second round was one of classic matches from 1994 World Cup. Few expected the Eastern Europeans to stun the South Americans who had reached the final in the previous two editions.
South American champions Argentina came to USA as one of the favourites, carrying a 33 match unbeaten streak. They began their tournament with a bang thanks to a Batistuta hattrick and a Maradona goal best remembered for this wild eyed celebration. A win over Nigeria soon followed. Then disaster struck. Diego Maradona was thrown out for usage of banned substances as the team suffered a psychological blow. An upset defeat against Bulgaria followed though Argentina eventually qualified as the best placed third placed team from group stages.
Romanian “golden generation” boasted of a squad which contained players from Bundesliga and Serie A. The Eastern Europeans were eager to improve their performance from Italia ’90 which saw them reach the pre-quarter final. Romania started strongly by defeating pre-tournament dark horses Colombia but slumped to an embarrassing loss against Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland. A narrow 1-0 win over the hosts ensured that they qualified as group champions. The Romanians were well versed with the venue for this match as they played 2 games in the Rose Bowl, winning both.
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Romania (4-4-1-1): Florin Prunea; Dan Petrescu, Daniel Prodan, Miodrag Belodedici, Tibor Selymes, Gheorghe Mihali; Ioan Lupescu, Gheorghe Popescu, Dorinel Munteanu; Gheorghe Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu
Argentina (4-3-1-2): Luis Islas; Jose Chamot, Roberto Sensini, Oscar Ruggeri, Fernando Caceres; Fernando Redondo, Jose Basualdo, Diego Simeone; Gabriel Batistuta; Ariel Ortega, Abel Balbo
Argentina started in a 4-3-1-2 formation with Ortega playing in the hole behind Batistuta and Balbo. Romania, without their main striker Răducioiu brought in an extra defender instead, with Hagi playing just behind Dumitrescu upfront.
The first goal mouth action came just 45 seconds into the match with Balbo testing Prunea with a shot from right edge of the box. Seven minutes later Argentina again tested Prunea, this time through Batistuta. Two minutes later Abel Balbo would miss one of the best chances of the match. Simeone dribbled past four Romanian players to release a perfect pass for Balbo. With only Prunea to beat from point blank range, the Argentine striker somehow managed to make a hash of that chance. The South Americans were left to rue that missed chance as Romania took the lead on 10th minute.
Left winger Munteanu earned a freekick near the left touchline. Dumitrescu stepped up to take it and his right footed shot floated past a hapless Islas into the net. The Romanian #11 was trying to curve his shot towards the far post but it dipped more lethally than he intended while the positioning of Argentine ‘keeper was also suspect.
Argentina took just four minutes to recover. Aerial Ortega, who had begun to cause all sorts of problems to Romanian defenders, released Batistuta inside the penalty box. The Fiorentina striker took on both Mihali and Prodan before expertly turning past them near left edge of the penalty box. Prodan tried to block him and Batistuta made most of that challenge by earning a spot kick. Prunea guessed the wrong way as Argentina were back level.
Romania’s second goal which came three minutes after the equalizer was one of the best goals of 1994 World Cup. “Subtle” was the word used by BBC commentary team. The move started with Redondo losing possession in Romanian half. Without him there was a gap in central midfield where Dumitrescu moved in. Hagi received the ball near right touchline, with two Argentines closing on him he split Argentine line with a pass to Dumitrescu which took out four players. He ran across the touchline to receive the return pass from Dumitrescu. When he moved towards edge of the penalty box the Argentine defence was expecting a cross. Instead, Hagi let loose another genius pass across three defenders to reach Dumitrescu who applied the softest finish. It was a delightfully worked goal, so perfectly executed that it seemed like Romania was playing a practice match.
The period between 18th and 20th minute saw the best spell of football of 1994 World Cup. Dumitrescu skipped past Chamot and cut back into penalty box to set up Popescu, who made a late run to see his shot being saved by Islas’ legs. The crowd had barely calmed down before Balbo broke along the left-wing in a 3 v 4 situation. His cross fell to Ortega, who ideally should have taken the shot himself but tried to pass to onrushing Batistuta at far post, losing possession. Seconds later Dumitrescu once again wriggled past Caceres as Popescu unleashed yet another shot, only to see it being saved again.
Chances were flowing thick and fast now as Batistuta pulled his right footed shot just wide off the post on 25th minute. Two minutes later, Ortega twisted and turned past two defenders to cross towards an unmarked Balbo, whose header missed the mark by inches. Argentina dominated the possession for a spell after the half-hour mark with Simeone and Redondo pushing forward.
Just when it looked as if Romania would fold under pressure they broke out with an incisive counter attack on 43rd minute. Munteanu’s beautiful pass beat two defenders and fell for Dumitrescu but the latter’s shot was cleared off the line by Caceres. The first half ended with a deserved lead for Romania.
Second half didn’t show signs of slowing down as Prunea pulled off a sharp save to deny Batitstuta within 45 seconds of the kick off. A minute later Simeone’s shot whistled past the post. In the initial few minutes of second half Romanian defenders relied on putting bodies in the box as Argentina threw nine players in attack. Selymes was in exceptional form as he made a number of important blocks and interceptions, one of them on 51st minute to deny Batistuta a tap-in.
Romania was being played off the park so they tried to slow the game down by increasing the foul count as Popescu, Redondo and Chamot picked up bookings in quick succession.
With Argentina throwing more players upfront they were always likely to be open to counter attacks and it finally happened on 56th minute. Basualdo lost possession in Romanian half as Dumitrescu started a sprint along half the length of the pitch. It was a 3 on 3 attack as he held the ball just long enough to release Hagi who rushed into the penalty box to beat Islas with a right-footer.
The third goal seemed to have deflated Argentina as the match entered a relatively calmer phase. Basile brought on Medina Bello and switched to a 4-2-1-3 formation. Bello’s substitution injected new life in Argentine attack as he created problems for the rapidly tiring Romanian defence with his movement. Argentina finally pulled back a goal fifteen minutes before the full time whistle. Prunea spilled Caceres’ long ranger only to see Balbo score on follow up. This match refused to slow down.
The last quarter hour had more entertainment as both teams tried to score goals and players began making mistakes. One of the best moments in the match came on 81st minute as Hagi played a 70 yard long cross field ball to create a chance for Dumitrescu but Islas pulled off a good save. Two minutes later the two men combined once again to make it look like they were in a training session. Hagi took a short corner, passing to Dumitrescu, who held off two defenders to backheel the ball back to Hagi. With two markers closing in on him Hagi calmly looped the ball towards Dumitrescu, who was now unmarked. Dumitrescu’s low cross just needed a touch from Popescu but Caceres made another good interception.
Weeks after this match, the final would be played in the same stadium. But it couldn’t stand up to the excitement of this match. The 90,469 strong crowd had witnessed one of the classic matches of World Cup as Romania began celebrating their first ever quarter-final berth when the final whistle went off.
Key Differentiating Factors
On paper Romania started with a 4-4-1-1 formation but it often turned to a 4-4-2-0 formation. Hagi and Dumitrescu drifted towards the right and left wings respectively. This had two impacts.
Firstly, Argentina’s full-backs, their only source of width in a 4-3-1-2, had to stay back to tackle them, leaving their formation too narrow. The duo had no pattern in movement as they took turns to cut back from the wings, further confusing Argentine defenders who failed to mark either player. The central defenders, on the other hand, couldn’t afford to go up due to Romanian precision in counter attack. For most of the match Argentine back-4 was in a dilemma of who to mark and when to go on attack. Not surprisingly, the phase of the match, where they looked most threatening was in start of second half when both Chamot and Caceres became more adventurous.
Redondo had an off-day, which made the job of Argentine midfield, which had a man disadvantage to start with, all the more difficult. The Real Madrid star often tried to go on solo runs, losing possession and leaving gaps in midfield, one of which resulted in second Romanian goal. Ioan Lupescu, Gheorghe Popescu on the other hand, had solid games in central midfield with the latter causing problems with his late forays into penalty box. Both of them eventually managed to shut down Simeone as well as Argentine supply line lost direction. Munteanu also had an excellent game and his performance created a freeway for Romania on Argentine right wing.
Balbo was simply not good enough. The striker played a more centralized role as Batistuta and Ortega moved around the box more, using him as a pivot. Balbo was guilty of missing two of the best chances in the game though he did score a poacher’s goal. Unlike Batistuta, he didn’t look comfortable with his back towards the goal and was eventually marked out of the game by Romanian defence.
Man of the Match
Two Billion Hearts, the official FIFA film for that World Cup noted that Hagi was allowed freedom to play which very few other players were allowed in 1994 World Cup. And boy, did he enjoy that freedom!
“Maradona of Carpathians” filled up the void left by El Diego by scoring three goals and assisting four while his selection to team of the tournament was a mere formality. The trio of Dumitrescu, Hagi and Răducioiu played a part in every goal Romania scored in USA ’94, often combining among themselves.
With the third wheel missing against Argentina, Hagi took extra responsibilities and delivered. Romania’s formation in the match suited him as he was able to freely roam in the ample space between Dumitrescu and Romanian midfield. His passing reached genius levels with his two passes for Romanian second goal and the 70 yard cross field one on 81st minute standing out. Hagi also showed brilliant leadership skills when the team needed it and scored the goal which dealt a killer punch to Argentina.
Romania came within 5 minutes of qualifying for the World Cup semi-final. However, a Kennet Anderson goal deep into extra-time took their quarter-final against Sweden to penalty kicks where they lost to Thomas Ravelli’s brilliance. Ilie Dumitrescu would go through a series of disastrous transfer moves after hanging up his boots prematurely at the age of 29.
The loss to Romania signaled the end of a golden era for Argentina. After reaching three out of previous four World Cup finals La Albiceleste would enter a long era of underachievement. Since 1994 Argentina has not managed to reach last-4 of a single World Cup, despite Diego Maradona making a return as coach. Alfio Basile, the man who led Argentina to Copa triumphs in 1991 and 1993 would also resign after this loss.
Next Edition: Lisbon Lions break the shackles of Catenaccio.