“A Palpable Sense of Nostalgia” – Press Coverage of Post-Cold War Legacies at the 1994 FIFA World Cup

By Sam Schelfhout

The collapse of the Soviet Union was predictable. Mikhail Gorbachev’s dual policies of glasnost and perestroika had introduced a sense of economic freedom and personal choice to citizens of the communist nation that inevitably hungered for more. After 1988, the Soviet Union was well along a path toward complete collapse, spurred on by momentous occasions such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 72-hour coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. On December 8, 1991, through the Belavezha Accords – an agreement between the nations of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus – the Soviet Union was effectively dissolved, and the Commonwealth of Independent States was established in its place. The threat that had influenced American foreign policy for four and a half decades had disappeared. One American writer compared this situation to “…the position of a man who has gone to work every day for 45 years only to discover one morning that his job has suddenly disappeared and he has been forcibly retired – albeit with a generous pension.”[i]

Consequently, a big question for the United States began to arise: What would happen now? The Soviet Union posed a mortal threat to the United States and its allies across several generations, and the conflict between the two hegemonic powers had not only defined their views on international affairs but extended to personal lives as well. Between 1945 and 1991, a generation of Americans were born into a Cold War culture that featured McCarthyist witch-hunts, a missile crisis in Cuba, and “duck and cover” drills conducted as early as elementary school. There was a belief among political scientists that the collapse of the Soviet Union led to problem depletion, which is a decrease in the number and severity of foreign policy problems facing the United States. Americans were only interested in foreign affairs if they perceived the national interest to be involved, and the Cold War propagandists could turn anything into an issue of national interest if communism was somehow implicated. This was, in part, fueled by the U.S. media, which elevated the impact of issues or events in order to improve newspaper circulation. Although journalists often criticized this tactic as facile, as they still do today, they “usually followed it willy-nilly.”[ii] This strategy would not only be employed by journalists writing about international affairs and geopolitics but would stretch to those writing about cultural activities and sporting events between the United States and Soviet Union.

Significant events such as the “Blood in the Water” water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1956 and the “Miracle on Ice” medal-round game between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1980 are prime examples of how politics and sport intertwined during the Cold War era. The cultural Cold War, however, continued to persist through the realm of international sporting events in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Cold War sporting politics was especially present in the organization and implementation of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, the first to be hosted by the United States, and the first global competition to take place between the Cold War superpowers since the end of the conflict. Press coverage was national, from sources such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, as well as Sports Illustrated. Media coverage of the 1994 FIFA World Cup sought to frame the event through a nationalist lens, by depicting an inexperienced, underdog United States squad as a team desperately needing to perform well, and (to level the playing field) by depicting the Russians as a team performing at an equally floundering level.

Public attention to the 1994 FIFA World Cup was sparse in the months leading up to the June 17th opening match between Germany and Bolivia in Chicago. Soccer coverage in the American media was not significantly expanded until a few days prior, with notable exceptions being newspapers that had, “previously established soccer as a regular staple in their sports sections, specifically the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, the Boston Globe, and USA Today.”[iii] While magazines such as Sports Illustrated provided adequate coverage of the event, others, including the Sporting News, had completely ignored the spectacle, reinforcing the notion that to many sports fans the tournament remained a “marginal event.”[iv]

Many newspapers presented headlines from soccer columnists explaining that the game was the “number-one sport” in the world and that Americans were fortunate to have the opportunity to experience “the foremost event of the world’s foremost sport here at home.”[v] The coverage ventured into innocent attempts to seduce viewers into viewing a single match, insinuating that “if you try it, you’ll like it.” Coverage of the sport primarily focused on on-field action, as newspapers “devoted a considerable amount of editorial space to World Cup coverage,” describing the sometimes “carnival-like atmosphere in the nine host cities, and exploring various aspects of soccer and its culture both internationally and domestically.”[vi] Although all media outlets were not as enraptured with the event as others, efforts were made in order to attract potential fans.

Beyond the “feel-good” stories and dramatic performances on the field, some American media outlets framed the event in the context of the Cold War. Silk et al. explain that, “…the prism of the Cold War formed an important framing device through which both American and Soviet sport (media) coverage readily reflected and reproduced patterns of inequality, polarization and serve to clearly ‘mark off’ the ‘other.’”[vii] The “palpable sense of nostalgia” for the Cold War was a driving force for American media sources during the World Cup, given the frequency of the highs and lows of international sporting competition during the conflict, giving the tournament the image of an “articulated and experienced … pyrrhic event.”[viii] Along with the automatically-qualified U.S. side, the new Russian national team also qualified to participate, although its side would not face the U.S. head-to-head at any point in the tournament. The absence of direct competition, both on and off the field, did not halt the Cold War fantasies projected by the American media. Coverage achieved three objectives to complement this behavior: (1) It framed the event within the context of American exceptionalism and nationalism; (2) it depicted an inexperienced, underdog United States squad as a team desperately needing to perform well to firmly establish itself as a major sport in the country; and (3) it depicted the Russian squad as a “fading enemy” that drew similarities to actors involved in greater American foreign policy objectives.

A movement to portray the 1994 World Cup as a characteristically American event was embraced by organizers and media outlets alike in order to appeal to local audiences. The Washington Post branded the global event as a “honeymoon” across the U.S., promoting the tournament as “a glorious time spent at nine representative American venues and their surrounding areas, from coast to coast, a great moving feast that will conclude July 17 at a quintessentially American site, the Rose Bowl.”[ix] The event also attempted to separate itself from past World Cups by giving it the “inevitable little bit of the American touch,” garnishing stadia with sumptuous accessories, including in-stadium instant replay, names affixed to the backs of players’ jerseys, and operational in-game clocks on the sidelines; all World Cup firsts. The desire to separate itself from past tournaments through various bells and whistles characterized a post-Cold War America, championing capitalism by pursuing free market practices started at home and propagandized abroad. The Boston Globe confirmed this sentiment, stating that “money … is greasing the entire process, as companies use sports to reach far-flung customers, many in new capitalist hubs that have opened up since the end of the Cold War.”[x]

In the United States’ first major international sporting event on home soil since the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, appeals to nationalism were one of the most popular tactics for media outlets to employ in order to entice readers.[xi] Following the first week of, a desire to return to the days of intense Soviet-American sporting rivalry was identified as a possible missing component of the tournament. Sports agent Leigh Steinberg recognized this during his interview with The New York Times, attempting to appeal to this nostalgia by asserting that “it doesn’t yet have the Lake Placid hockey team impact, but it’s like that.”[xii] This less-than-convincing comparison is recognized by the Times’ interviewer, Jere Longman, recognizing the missing political intrigue that amplified Cold War contests between the two superpowers.

Steinberg continued with his comparison, however, believing there are legitimate similarities between the two events: “Some [Americans] are feeling an economic pinch, self-doubt, that we are being passed in international affairs by other countries … When you have unexpected success in an international forum, it can have the same kind of impact.”[xiii] In other words, the problems exacerbated by the American economy and political climate at the time could momentarily be replaced by the patriotic feelings inspired by U.S. national team success. Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman concur that this strategy is a global phenomenon not solely restricted to the situation of American fans. They argue that there is, “no substitute for the ingredient of nationalism and localism in the world of hegemonic sports cultures … it was not appreciation for world-class soccer, but patriotic rooting for an underdog with a reasonable chance for some success that attracted the American audience.”[xiv] This attraction for the underdog has characterized American sporting passions for generations and, luckily for Americans who were experiencing the tournament for the first time, they had the biggest underdog representing their home nation.

Subtle references to war and politics also peppered American news articles in relation to the World Cup, drawing allusions to Cold War imagery that would attempt to strike nostalgic chords with readers. References to multiple Cold War activities, ranging from the covert United States Strategic Air Command bombing campaign conducted in eastern Cambodia in 1970 to the Soviet-American “space race,” were inserted into articles discussing the actions of World Cup organizers and athletes.[xv] Journalists also lashed out at preventative measures taken to limit the display of fireworks and why “no more Old Glories than usual” would surround Stanford Stadium during the U.S. squad’s Round of 16 match against Brazil.[xvi] The pro-America angle these sources pushed forward would define coverage for the event as long as the United States stayed alive in the competition.

Despite the blatant skepticism the national team received about advancing past the group stage of the tournament, the American press painted the United States squad as a team desperately needing to win matches if it wanted to elevate the popularity of soccer domestically. This belief carried over from the United States’ appearance in the 1990 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Italy, with journalists opining that the team needed victories to make up for the 40 years that it was not in the tournament. In a friendly with the Soviet Union before the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. team’s 3-1 loss was interpreted as, “a vivid example … of how much ground the American squad must make up in the international race.”[xvii] For a nation that showed little interest in the sport and did not have the proper infrastructure to compete with the Brazils and Germanys of the world, the American media continually referenced what the United States should be instead of what it was at the time. George Vecsey of The New York Times went as far as cataloguing the United States as a member of “the third world” when it came to soccer, meaning that once it was eliminated following the group stage, the “real” action that characterized the tournament could take place without having to worry about the non-contenders.[xviii] Grand expectations complemented impatience, and these sentiments highlighted media perceptions of a fledgling U.S. team elated in simply qualifying for the 1990 edition of the tournament.

These narratives remained when the 1994 World Cup began, only exacerbated by the fact that the tournament was held on home soil, setting standards even higher for the underdog American squad. Head coach Velibor “Bora” Milutinović quickly became a favorite amongst sportswriters due to his unique approach to reinforcing the “growing skepticism about his team’s chances but also for his players’ anxieties,” which allowed for the development of, “a self-confidence out of all proportion to their international reputation and, probably, their ability.”[xix] Before its opening match against Switzerland, The Washington Post reported that “at stake for the United States – apart from the team’s obvious need to win, for a change – is dignity.”[xx] The result was a 1-1 draw against a formidable Swiss squad that would eventually advance to the Round of 16 but, naturally, all eyes scrutinized the performance of the U.S. team. “This was supposed to be the spark that started a soccer brush fire, the United States opening the World Cup with a victory and opening the eyes of an indifferent public. Well, neither did the United States win… nor convert many nonbelievers.”[xxi] Earning its first point in a World Cup match since 1950, a pause for celebration would have been welcome for a squad that was intimidated by global soccer powers converging on its home turf. But the American people wanted more. Fortunately, during the next game, held at the Rose Bowl in front of a sellout crowd of 93,194, the U.S. stunned group-favorite Colombia with a 2-1 victory, earning praise from fans and critics alike: “American soccer desperately needed a moment this exalted and galvanizing, something that would urgently lift the game from the back burner to the front of the country’s sporting consciousness.”[xxii] However, pressure would continue to mount until the U.S. was a sure bet in qualifying for the next round, with Sports Illustrated pointing out that “no host nation in the Cup’s 64-year history has failed to reach the second round.”[xxiii] Despite a 1-0 loss to Romania in the final match of the group stage, the United States’ four points was good enough to advance to the knockout stage.[xxiv]

The U.S. team raised its profile immensely during its World Cup run, advancing past the group stage with a 1-1-1 record before ultimately falling to Brazil in the first round of single elimination. As Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated concluded, “…the U.S. was the perfect host – delivering the not-too-long, just-witty-enough toast before letting the guests be the lives of the party.”[xxv]  After 52 matches, which saw attendances reaching nearly 69,000 on average, the World Cup ended with Brazil defeating Italy in a scoreless draw (3-2 on penalty kicks) for its fourth world title, the only scoreless final in World Cup history. Despite the lack of scoring, the U.S. experiment was considered a success for developing American interest in the sport of soccer and by “good television ratings and the substantial amount of coverage provided by the American press.”[xxvi]

Although never in direct competition, the success of the U.S. squad was continuously framed against the success of its ex-Cold War rival, which made its debut as the Russian Federation. Besides the performance of Moscow Dinamo in its four-match unbeaten tour of Britain in 1945 and a modicum of top eight finishes at the FIFA World Cup from 1958 to 1982, Soviet soccer never established a permanent standing among the world’s top nations or clubs. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the free trade union sport societies, as well as the Dinamo and armed forces sport societies, “mostly gave way to private sports, health and recreation clubs,” once lack of state support became apparent in the post-Soviet sphere.[xxvii] Whereas media attention paid toward the Russian squad would have been obsolete without the intertwining of Cold War narratives, this nostalgia for the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union fueled comparisons between the equally lackluster American and Soviet teams. Journalists were banking on the fact that this narrative would improve readership more than simply reporting match scores and puff pieces would for a disinterested American audience.

Major League Soccer was founded shortly after the closing ceremonies of the World Cup and began operating in 1996. The combination of record attendance figures, a strong performance in the World Cup, and the establishment of a top-flight domestic league were all factors contributing to the United States’ budding soccer legacy. As Markovits and Hellerman point out, “…there can be no doubt that the 1998 World Cup held in France attracted substantially more attention from the American sports public than it otherwise would have had the preceding tournament not been played in the United States in 1994.”[xxviii]

The attraction of major tournaments captured the attention of U.S. soccer fans, but the nation’s crowded sportscape would not allow for soccer to advance in the American sporting consciousness so easily. Interest in soccer remained marginal throughout the 1990s, as “the attention [the World Cup] provided for the sport was very short-lived for most of the American public,” failing to “provide the desired impetus for the advancement of soccer into the American sport space.”[xxix] In the end, Major League Soccer would tread water for the next decade, and the 1998 FIFA World Cup would result in the U.S. squad leaving France winless. Victories, large and small, were hard to come by for American soccer officials and players, leaving an ambiguous legacy from the 1994 edition of the tournament.

The role of sport during this new post-Cold War era easily fit within the “soft-core” realm of culture, and nostalgic attitudes for Cold War competition drove fan interest when traditional storylines were ineffective for a clear majority of readers who were unaware of the global game. These perspectives would be habituated in coverage of other sporting events in the post-Cold War era between the two nations, including the 1992 America’s Cup yacht racing championship and the men’s volleyball tournament at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games. This narrative would sporadically find its way to the front pages of sport sections in newspapers in both countries. With the reemergence of former Cold War rivals Russia and China as global powers, however, this may not be the last time that media comparisons between these nations draw on a palpable sense of nostalgia.

Sam Schelfhout is a Ph.D. student in physical culture & sport studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His research interests focus on sport and its role in U.S. diplomacy. 


[i] Michael Mandelbaum, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 52-53.

[ii] Henry A. Grunwald, “The Post-Cold War Press: A New World Needs a New Journalism,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1993-06-01/post-cold-war-press-new-world-needs-new-journalism.

[iii] Andrei S. Markovits & Steven L. Hellerman, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton University Press, 2014), 207.

[iv] Ibid., 206.

[v] Ibid., 213.

[vi] Ibid., 205.

[vii] Michael Silk, Bryan Bracey & Mark Falcous, “Performing America’s Past: Cold War Fantasies in a Perpetual State of War,” in East Plays West: Sport and the Cold War, eds. Stephen Wagg & David L. Andrews (New York: Routledge, 2007), 293.

[viii] David L. Andrews & Stephen Wagg, “Introduction: War Minus the Shooting?” in East Plays West: Sport and the Cold War, eds. Stephen Wagg & David L. Andrews (New York: Routledge, 2007), 7.

[ix] William Gildea & Santiago O’Donnell, “Soccer’s Final Frontier,” The Washington Post, Jun 17, 1994, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/750837848.

[x] Steve Fainaru, “Games Enhance Value; What Happens to Values? As the Olympic Rewards Increase, so do the Moral Dilemmas,” Boston Globe, Sept. 26, 1993.

[xi] The “Miracle on Ice” was a medal-round game during the men’s ice hockey tournament at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The United States squad defeated the heavily-favored Soviet Union, 4-3.  Considered an enormous upset, the victory became one of the most iconic moments of the Games and in U.S. sports.

[xii] Jere Longman, “Think positive! It’s the Motto for U.S. Team,” New York Times, Jun 24, 1994. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/109392054.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Markovits & Hellerman, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, 226.

[xv] Filip Bondy, “Kissinger hit by press on ’94 U.S. Cup,” NY Daily News, July 7, 1990. Henry A. Kissinger Papers, MS 1981, Box 864, Folder 15. Yale University Library, New Haven, CT. http://hdl.handle.net/10079/digcoll/ 1223041; Michael Janofsky, “Hungary Dominates United States, 2-0,” New York Times, Mar 21, 1990, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/108598293.

[xvi] Alexander Wolff, “Out of Reach,” Sports Illustrated, July 11, 1994, https://www.si.com/vault/1994/07/11/131614/out-of-reach-brazil-was-too-much-for-a-gutty-but-overmatched-us-team.

[xvii] New York Times, “Soviet Team Tops U.S. Easily,” Feb 25, 1990. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/108446196.

[xviii] George Vecsey, “Here Comes The Other World Cup,” New York Times, Jun 22, 1990, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/108538123.

[xix] Alexander Wolff, “A Net Gain for the U.S.,” Sports Illustrated, July 4, 1994, https://www.si.com/vault/1994/07/04/131581/a-net-gain-for-the-us-the-host-teams-unexpected-world-cup-success-boosted-the-sport-in-america.


[xxi] Jere Longman, “U.S. Ties for First Cup Point Since 1950,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1994, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/109406332.

[xxii] Jere Longman, “U.S. Wins in Soccer,” New York Times, Jun 23, 1994, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/109341034.

[xxiii] Hank Hersch, “One Point Worth Making,” Sports Illustrated, June 27, 1994, https://www.si.com/vault/1994/06/27/131400/one-point-worth-making.

[xxiv] Six groups of four teams comprised the structure of the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Teams finishing in the top two advanced to the knockout round, while the top four of six third-place teams advanced based on points earned in the group stage. The United States finished third place in group A, but qualified for the knockout stage by having more points than two third-place teams in other groups (Russia and South Korea).

[xxv] Wolff, “Out of Reach.”

[xxvi] Markovits & Hellerman. Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, 203.

[xxvii] The Dinamo was (and still is) a fitness-sports society encompassing multiple clubs across multiple sports. For more, see James Riordan, “Sport After the Cold War: Implications for Russia and Eastern Europe,” in East Plays West: Sport and the Cold War, eds. Stephen Wagg & David L. Andrews (New York: Routledge, 2007), 280.

[xxviii] Markovits & Hellerman. Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, 202.

[xxix] Ibid.

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