The United States gets the most credit in World Cups for what it did in the 1994 World Cup, when it hosted and didn’t even have a professional league at home. That squad was essential for what was later experienced on American soil in relation to the growth of soccer.
That group allowed many to dream immediately thanks to the brave way they faced Gheorghe Hagi’s Romans in their first game of the tournament, but ended up succumbing due to a goal against. In addition, the surprising victory achieved against the favorite Colombian National Team, which was led by Carlos ‘Pibe’ Valderrama, put them on the world soccer map. The draw against Switzerland greatly allowed them to reach the group stage and they ended up earning real respect after the narrow defeat by the minimum difference against the powerful Brazil in the round of 16.
Less than a month before the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, analysis, forecasts, memories, anecdotes and much more are the order of the day. So the memory of Marcelo Balboa, who was one of the pillars of that team that allowed the real birth of soccer in the United States, does not fit only in his Chilean against the coffee growers – perhaps the best goal that could ever be – and in that his mane creating defensive havoc in the opposing forwards.
Balboa, who will live another World Cup in his career in Qatar 2022, but this time as an analyst for TUDN in Mexico, remembers a person who, apart from being his partner on the pitch, helped him win one of the most important parts of his life off the pitch.
The Argentine-American was very close to not playing in that 94′ World Cup.
In a friendly match against Iceland in 1993, at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Balboa had to leave the game quickly. In a lateral movement with the ball, he caused his foot to catch on the field causing an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee just three minutes into the game.
“Fernando Clavijo… I didn’t get to the World Cup without him. The first three or four weeks, I didn’t want to get out of bed. It was a depression that had me there every day. After two weeks, Fernando came to my room and said a few words to me that I cannot repeat. He gave me everything and says ‘I’m not going to the World Cup without you’”.
— Marcelo Balboa, former player and TUDN analyst
“Fernando Clavijo… I didn’t get to the World Cup without him,” Balboa recalled to the LA Times en Español. “The first three or four weeks, I didn’t want to get out of bed. It was a depression that had me there every day. After two weeks, Fernando came to my room and said a few words to me that I cannot repeat. He gave me everything and says ‘I’m not going to the World Cup without you’”.
Balboa’s memories around the World Cups will always be related to Clavijo, who died in 2019 from multiple myeloma, and became one of his greatest friends that soccer left him.
Apart from dealing with the recovery of his injury after a forced surgery, which would leave him out of the court for many months, the depression sank him even more when he learned that some coaches considered him ruled out to play the 94′ World Cup.
“He got me out of bed and after that, every day… every day, I trained in the morning on the bike, almost two hours, while the boys were training, I was on the grass with the bike, but riding the bicycle around the fields”, said the TUDN analyst with a little difficulty because of what the memory provoked. “He came back in the afternoon and did the same thing. I did my weights. The doctor said that it was going to take me a year and I tell you I did not arrive without him, without Fernando and you will surely see that I did not arrive, because that every day, every day, I had good days, bad days and they were there for me.
The effort, the help of the doctors and the unconditional support of Clavijo, allowed Balboa to return to the courts much sooner than expected. In the forecast, it was expected that he would return to the courts in a year, which would make him lose the World Cup, but he managed to return to training just six months after the injury and wear the American jersey again for the World Cup.
The confidence that the then coach of the US team gave him was fundamental for him. After 10 months of recovery, preparation and many prayers, Bora Milutinovic approached him the day before the team’s debut against Romania and told him that he would start.
“He hugged me and said, ‘Are you ready? Tomorrow you’re going to start,’” Balboa recalled. “I started to cry because they had been training for 10 months, thinking that the dream of playing the World Cup at home was gone. After that I gave him everything. I came out of the World Cup as the best player on the US team. I went to play in Greece, in Mexico. What happened was physically and mentally difficult.”
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The history of the United States in the World Cups is not recent. Between 1930 and 1950, the national team qualified for the four tournaments that were played in that period, but chose not to participate in 1938 because FIFA did not fulfill its promise to alternate the events between Europe and America. It should be remembered that after the 1938 World Cup in France, a World Cup was not played again due to the outbreak of World War II between 1939 and 1945.
In the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, he had his best result at that time, reaching the semifinal instance in a tournament that was played with very few teams. Since 1950, the year that they had their last appearance at that time, a drought began that lasted until 1990, when they were finally able to classify again.
For Balboa, the United States that won the last editions of the Gold Cup and the League of Nations went from calm to panic because the recent results of their friendlies for the World Cup left a sea of doubts among the fans and the experts.
“I am concerned that the team will not be together for 40 days, but only a week because all the leagues end almost 10 days before the World Cup,” Balboa stressed. “That is going to be a bigger problem for us… There are many things that are going to happen in the next 40 days, that are going to be interesting, but what worries me is that tactically the style has to be changed, how are you going to play? And that’s because you don’t have the players you want right now.”
From the Concacaf area, Balboa hopes that the United States and Mexico advance in their groups, although it will not be easy.
“Complicated groups, both are going through a time that is not very good, but there is always a way,” said Balboa. “Mexico always finds a way to get out of the group. He doesn’t make it to the fifth game, but he leaves the group”.