Ask a thousand football fans what has been the greatest football match of their lifetime and be prepared for a thousand different answers – and none of them the right one.
In a more sensible and rational world than the chaotic one in which we presently reside, that unofficial accolade should, unequivocally, belong to an international game played during the 1994 World Cup between Romania and Argentina – and here’s why you should think so too.
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts of this remarkable game played at an unremarkable stage of the competition – the Second Round. Romania qualified for the knockout stages having topped their group and catching the eye with some dazzling counter-attacking play. Argentina only squeezed through by the skin of their teeth as a third place team but were still favourites to advance to the quarter-finals.
The billing of the game as Maradona v the Maradona of the Carpathians (as Gheorghe Hagi was known) lost one of its headline acts just 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 his suspended striker Florin Raducioiu with the deeper-lying Ilie Dumitrescu, scorer of nine goals in his past eight internationals. It proved to be an inspired move. After 11 minutes his curling free-kick from a wide position deceived Argentinian keeper Islas and flew in, 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 two minutes after that when Dumitrescu cut through the middle, released Hagi on the right and carried on to side foot home at the near post after meeting the perceptive return pass. Another brilliant counter-attack nearly led to Dumitrescu completing a first-half hat-trick, only for Caceres to clear off the line.
Romania extended 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 mercurial 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.
Now: five goals, some great players on display and a game in the balance right until the final whistle doesn’t necessarily mark out a game as any sort of classic of our times. So what sets this particular fixture above so many others? Well, there was the incredible pace and intensity of the game despite the blisteringly hot conditions; there was the exceptional technique on display by both sides and there was a fascinating tactical battle between two managers playing radically different styles.
Argentina adopted a tight and compact 4-4-2 system with the ball moved rapidly and accurately by Redondo, Simeone and Ortega into positions for Batistuta and Balbo to explode into life. Romania adopted a formation akin to a 4-6-0, outnumbering Argentina in midfield and swarming forward when the ball was won back with devastating counter-attacks featuring bewildering movement and positional interchanging. This was a perfect storm of two teams and 22 players coming together to create 90 minutes of sublime football – a compelling nexus of pace, intelligence and exceptional footballing technique.
These were the best two team performances in the entire 1994 World Cup and sadly it meant that one team had to return home at an unfortunately early stage. Anghel Iordanescu 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, 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 time and in his quieter, more reflective moments he came to realise that there was no disgrace in narrowly losing out in this most epic of football matches.