World Cup film series: 1994

Two Billion Hearts: Official film of the 1994 World Cup

 

The 1990 World Cup had so played to script, four heavyweights grinding out results in what was at the time the center of the European game, that change afterward felt impossible and yet inevitable. Change would come in the form of the 1994 World Cup. It was FIFA’s great blank canvas: a large, diverse country with a healthy economy and hardly any soccer tradition to speak of; it would become, to hark back to Simonides, the painting that speaks.

You could all but hear the heads of FIFA scream “It’s alive!” when the first whistle blew to commence the opening game of the tournament. The crowds — in no small part due to the absence of England — were positive, festive, integrated, and integrative. The sun spangled the faces in the crowd. And Americans charmed the world with the two sides of their fandom: all-in enthusiasm and flaunted indifference.

Most of the games were downright dour, but not in the way they had been at Italia ’90: the defending was often naive; by the time the elimination rounds began, many of the players were shells of themselves from afternoon play under the summer sun and travel across a vast country; the refereeing often crossed the border of incompetence and headed full-on into suspicious farce; and the sport itself, the Beautiful Game, seemed to grope around for its soul. The playmaker in the hole, strike partnerships, the libero were all still on display, but they had a faded quality to them, like old stamps behind glass. Brazil had gone 24 years without winning the World Cup; the reigning European champion, Denmark, had been eliminated in the qualifiers; goalkeepers now needed to play with their feet; passive offside had just been introduced; Maradona’s swan song lasted but a few beautiful notes; mullets triumphed; the seemingly unbeatable defending champion, now a unified Germany, was ousted in the quarterfinals by Bulgaria; Argentina was handled tidily by Romania in the previous round; Nigeria dragged Italy to the brink. The East was coming, Africa was coming — it was a transformative event — but it strained under the pull and torque of its transformation. Over the luscious green fields, sequined with celebrating faces, cracks in the game began to show.

It was a tough World Cup to love but a great World Cup to film. The camera loved it. I can watch FIFA’s commemorative film, Two Billion Hearts, again and again. And the novel decision to have an American narrator for an American World Cup was an inspired one, as a flawless Liev Schreiber, not yet the huge star he would become, put to the sword that old dependence on an English accent to authenticate a proper soccer experience. Yet I’ve seen it in Swedish… and it still holds up.

Perhaps a bit overwhelmed by American diversity and awed by the ease with which segments of the population knew nothing about soccer, the film falls glib in a few of its local portraits, and its dependence on shredding-rock-guitar background music reminds how much the mid-’90s were victims of taste from the ’80s. But as the film approaches its denouement, that disappointment of a final, we glimpse a sublime 27 seconds of inaction in the lead-up to the two teams taking the field, that sacred space of time for players, miles and away the best moment of the film, great enough to change my sense of that final.

The two stars: Romario — a forward suffused with the type of swagger usually reserved for a well-fed jaguar — staring off into his future, while his counterpart Roberto Baggio, born with the face of a boy who looks as if he’s always thinking about poetry, stands in the background, out of focus, seemingly staring intently at the Brazilian. It’s as though he knows what will happen. And then the camera shifts, and Baggio comes into focus, and — as though he feels resigned to pretend he doesn’t know what will occur — he halfheartedly begins to stretch.

This essay was originally published in Howler Issue 05 under the headline “The Blank Canvas, Unfurled.”

Photo by Pyro Spectaculars