The series ends with the nineteen-nineties, the decade when Baggio, Gascoigne, Ronaldo and Zidane all took centre stage.
The three tournaments held during this decade saw two World Cup stalwarts reclaim the title and the trophy finally head to the home of the tournament’s founder, Jules Rimet. More than perhaps any other decade, the nineties was the showcase for an array of individual talent from a number of teams.
In 1990 Italy was the venue for a pulsating tournament packed with drama but low on goals. Although Argentina were on the wane, and would memorably lose their first game as defending champions, talisman Maradona still dragged them through to a third final in 12 years.
But the legendary No.10 would be eclipsed by the tears of Paul Gascoigne, the magic of Roberto Baggio, the predatory instincts of Toto Schillaci, and a German side determined to avenge their final defeats in 1982 and 1986.
It was Schillaci and Baggio who ignited the host’s challenge only to fall to Argentina on penalties at the semi-final stage. In the other half of the group Germany once again beat the Dutch on the way to a dramatic semi-final encounter with England. This too was resolved by penalties after a tense struggle and Gascoigne’s sorrow at realising that a booking would mean he could play no part in the final if England won.
The clash between Argentina and West Germany was a disappointing affair, the defending champions losing two players to red cards before Brehme’s late penalty settled matters. Schillaci took the Golden Shoe home for his six-goal contribution.
Four years later and most of the teams reconvened for USA 1994. This tournament is probably best remembered for the large crowds, a high number of goals, Maradona’s expulsion on drug-taking charges, the shooting of Colombian defender Andres Escobar, and a final which made history by becoming the first to be settled by penalties.
There were some excellent games too, most notably the five-goal thriller between Argentina and Rumania, the Bulgarian victory over holders Germany, and Brazil’s 3 – 2 quarter final win against the Netherlands.
One player stood out throughout the tournament. Italy’s Roberto Baggio had shone in 1990 and now drove his countrymen towards the final with goals against Nigeria, Spain and Bulgaria. But not even the Divine Ponytail could prevent Brazil from securing the title for a fourth time, his penalty sailing over the bar to hand victory to Carlos Alberto Parreira's side. The consolation prize of the Golden Shoe also eluded Baggio. His five goals were not enough to pip Stoichkov and Salenko.
By 1998 the Brazilian squad which gathered in France to defend the title included a young Ronaldo. The story of his illness would become one of the main talking points, but there was much to see and admire before the final itself.
32 teams took part in an expanded tournament, the new format giving teams from around the world the opportunity to take on the more established sides.
Spain left early, followed by England, who could not be rescued by a dazzling Michael Owen, Germany, who were easily beaten by the surprise team of the tournament, Croatia, and Argentina, who fell to a superb late Bergkamp strike. The beaten finalists from 1994 also lost again on penalties, although this time Baggio converted his against France.
The stage was set for two dramatic semi-finals. In the first, the Dutch lost on penalties to Brazil. Hosts France won the second tie, recovering from the shock of a Suker goal to win 2 – 1.
Then came the final and the strange case of Ronaldo’s “illness”. Amid rumours of a fit, the youngster wasn’t even on Brazil’s team sheet until a change of heart saw him replace Edmundo. Ronaldo made no impact on the final and France romped to an easy win thanks to goals from Zidane and Petit.
Croatia’s Davor Suker took the Golden Shoe for scoring six goals.
Given the talent on display, choosing the Best World Cup Player Of The 1990s is very difficult. In the end I decided to give the award to a player who left a considerable mark on the three tournaments and was a beaten finalist in 1994: Roberto Baggio
Looking ahead, who do you think are the candidates for the title of Best World Cup Player Of The Noughties?
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