'94 USA FIFA World Cup: Remembering Romania's golden generation
As the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is approaching, we look back at Romania's 'golden generation' and their historic performance at the FIFA World Cup 1994 in the United States, where they reached the quarter-finals.
Romania was once home to some of the brightest footballing talents in the world: Gheorghe Hagi, a technically gifted playmaker nicknamed 'Maradona of the Carpathians', Ilie Dumitrescu, a UEFA Champions League runner-up with Steaua București, and Dan Petrescu, Chelsea's first full-back option in the late '90s, are some of the most recognizable names.
The team eventually reached third place, their all-time high, in the FIFA ranking in September 1997, an ironic juxtaposition to their current whereabouts today, 50 places below.
In 1994, however, Tricolorii (the Tricolours) peaked with a historic performance at the FIFA World Cup in the United States. Helmed by Anghel Iordănescu (aka Tata Puiu), Hagi and co managed to finish atop Group G - which consisted of the United States, Switzerland, and Colombia - with a young team, below the age of 30 (except for Valencia's defender Miodrag Belodedici), that was mostly inherited from Divizia A domestic league.
Fueled by Tata Puiu's masterclass of dazzling counter-attack display, Romania dismantled Diego Maradona-less Argentine squad in a five-goal thriller showdown later in the Round of 16 after the controversial player was sent home earlier for failing his drugs test. In a solid and unorthodox 3-4-2-1 formation, putting Dumitrescu as the sole poacher while swarming the Argentines in the midfield, Romania led by 3-2 thanks to his powerful tight-range free kick and his deadly partnership with Hagi. “Romania didn’t beat us on the pitch,” Maradona said on a live Argentinian TV, via The Guardian. “We were beaten off the pitch and that’s what hurts."
Romania was on cloud nine after that match, but they fell short against the hard-working Swedes in the quarter-finals. They were thrilled by one goal until Florin Răducioiu saved the day in the dying minute and put them all the way through the penalty, in which they lost in a breathtaking 4-5 shootout.
In total, they scored a striking record of 10 goals, scored by Florin Răducioiu (4), Gheorghe Hagi (3), Ilie Dumitrescu (2), and Dan Petrescu (1).
The Tricolours returned four years later to France, topping Group G against England, Colombia, and Tunisia, but the players had started to show their ages. A faulty display in the Round of 16 let Croatia's Davor Šuker execute a sweet penalty at the end of the first half, and that was the last time Romania had ever set their feet on the world stage.
At the European stages, Romania has never qualified from the Group Stage except for the 2000 edition in Belgium and Netherlands, after a controversial last-minute penalty by Ioan Ganea against England in their last group stage match. Then, on a fateful evening in Brussels, 10 men of Romania saw Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi putting two into Bogdan Lobonţ's net.
Two decades later, Romania is still looking to put the World Cup curse to an end. A few abysmal performances at the 2022 World Cup qualifiers made them fall short by one point for a play-offs spot against the underdog North Macedonia - a total embarrassment.
But if anything, a return to Uncle Sam, the land that witnessed the nation's greatest run on the world stage, for the 2026 World Cup co-hosted by the US, Canada, and Mexico, would be a prophetic comeback story after a long, chaotic period of shambles.
(Photo: Romania's Golden Generation team at a match with Barça Legends in Cluj in 2018 by Salajean/ Dreamstime)