Despite the USA's lack of football pedigree, massive crowds greeted the 1994 finals and it was Brazil who deservedly claimed their record fourth World Cup title.
Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira married discipline with the abundant flair for which his players were known, and in Romario had the deadliest striker in the tournament.
Diego Maradona and Andres Escobar grabbed the early headlines. Maradona scored an outstanding goal against Greece before failing a dope test and being slung out of the tournament. Escobar scored an own goal for Colombia against the USA and was later shot dead in his homeland.
Roberto Baggio proved Italy's hero as they marched to the final, saving their skin against impressive Nigeria in the second round and grabbing the winner in the quarter-finals against Spain. Two more goals saw off Bulgaria, who had earlier stunned Germany, in the semis, but the cruellest of twists awaited him in the final.
Brazil's progress was serene. A thrilling 3-2 quarter-final win over Holland put them into a semi-final clash with surprise package Sweden, where Romario's expert finish nicked victory.
The final was a major letdown. No goals meant the first ever shootout to decide a World Cup final, and it was Baggio's skied miss that proved decisive.
1994 WORLD CUP LEGENDS
ROMARIO Faria de Souza
Brazil: b. 1966
Controversial forward who mixed raw opportunism and exceptional cool in front of goal with a fiery temperament on and off the pitch -- "the night is my friend," he was fond of saying.
Starred in Brazil's 1988 Olympic team and with PSV Eindhoven in Holland before a move to Barcelona in 1993 saw his international career take off.
Provided a razor-sharp cutting edge to a largely pragmatic Brazil team at USA 94, scoring the winner against Sweden in the semi-finals. He also scored against them in the group stages, with further strikes against Cameroon, Russia and Holland taking his tally to five.
He missed out on the 1998 World Cup through injury and was overlooked by coach Luis Felipe Scolari for the 2002 finals despite being the top-scorer in the Brazilian first division for the previous two seasons.
In May 2007 he scored what he claimed was his 1,000th career goal in a game between Vasco da Gama and Sport Recife.
Bulgaria: b. 1966
The single most important factor behind Bulgaria's emergence as a world football power.
Dynamic forward with a vicious left-foot and searing pace. Ran straight at the heart of defences, but was equally adept from dead-ball situations, a skill that helped him acquire his 'El Pistolero' nickname while at Barcelona.
Expert at drawing fouls, though his temperament often let him down.
Bulgaria hadn't won a game in six World Cup tournaments but Stoichkov soon changed that with two penalties in a 4-0 thrashing of Greece. Was outstanding in a 2-0 defeat of Argentina, scoring again, as he did against Mexico in the second round.
Stoichkov and Bulgaria's finest hour came in the quarter-finals, however, when world champions Germany were beaten. Stoichkov curled in a majestic free-kick in the 2-1 win. He was also on target in the semi-final defeat by Italy to finish the tournament's joint top scorer with six goals.
Italy: b. 1967
Pony-tailed playmaker whose skill level and invention have not always been appreciated by his country.
As the world's most expensive player at Italia 90 he flattered only to deceive, scoring a quite brilliant individual goal against Czechoslovakia but failing where it counted in the later knockout stages.
Three years later he was voted European and World Footballer of the Year and at USA 94 was a sensation, almost single-handedly dragging Italy to the final.
Saved the Azzurri against Nigeria with two late strikes, grabbed the winner against Spain in a violent quarter-final and then both goals in the semi-final win over Bulgaria.
Ironically, it was his skied penalty in the final shootout against Brazil that condemned Italy to an unlucky defeat.
Buried his penalty hoodoo by converting his spotkick in the 1998 shoot-out with France but it was not enough to stop the Azzurri from exiting to the eventual winners.
Was overlooked for the 2002 finals despite a clamour for him to go, before retiring in 2004.
1994 WORLD CUP TRIVIA
- Despite reputedly being a non-soccer country, USA 94 saw the highest total and average attendances in World Cup history. Some 3.5 million watched the matches at an average of 69,000, compared with 2.5 million and 48,000 at Italia 90.
- Several of Russia's leading players stayed at home in protest at the appointment of Pavel Sadyrin as coach.
- Bulgaria's 4-0 win over Greece was their first victory in six World Cup finals. Inspired by striker Hristo Stoichkov and balding playmaker Iordan Lechkov, they went on to knock out mighty Germany and reach the semi-finals.
- Andres Escobar scored an own goal in Colombia's disastrous 2-1 defeat by the USA. On his return home, Escobar was shot dead, allegedly because the result cost the country's drugs and betting syndicates a fortune.
- Roger Milla, Cameroon's star of 1990, became the oldest player at 42 to appear in the World Cup finals. He then became the oldest player to score when he netted in the 6-1 defeat by Russia.
- Cameroon's 17-year-old Rigobert Song became the youngest player to be sent off when he received his marching orders against Brazil.
- The USA's hopes looked bleak right from the start when singer Diana Ross missed a penalty from two yards during the opening ceremony.
- Germany's Stefan Effenberg was sent home after making a rude gesture to fans while being subsitutued against South Korea. The Bayern Munich midfielder never played for the national side again.
- Mexico and Bulgaria's second round match was held up for 15 minutes after the crossbar broke and had to be replaced.
- Brazil dedicated their win to Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who was killed at Imola, Italy earlier in 1994.
1994 World Cup winning squad
Goalkeepers: Claudio Taffarel, Zetti, Gilmar
Defenders: Jorginho, Ricardo Gomes, Ricardo Rocha, Branco, Aldair, Cafu, Marcio Santos
Midfielders: Leonardo, Mauro Silva, Dunga, Zinho, Rai, Mazinho, Paulo Sergio
Forwards: Ronaldo, Bebeto, Romario, Muller, Viola
Coach: Carlos Alberto Parreira