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Orlando's Soccer Legacy: The 1994 World Cup

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Long before Orlando City SC sought to bring the best players in the world to play at the Citrus Bowl, the some of the best of their generation played there in the 1994 World Cup.

I was in a heated debate once with a friend. It was her contention that soccer, despite the strides of MLS and U.S. Soccer, would never be a big thing in the United States. This was a relatively common debate until she suggested the U.S. could never host a World Cup. She was in her early 20s when she and I had this conversation -- much too young to have remembered when the world's biggest sporting event was played in America.

The disbelief was visible on her face when I mentioned these facts. Not only was the World Cup played in the U.S. in 1994, but there were games in Orlando at the Citrus Bowl. At this point she challenged me. Surely I meant that I'd see a World Cup qualifier or maybe one of the youth tournaments was played here. No, I insisted, and then informed this lifelong Arsenal fan that I'd seen Dennis Bergkamp score. That seemed to be enough to convince her. This is the story of Orlando's World Cup exprience.

The World's Biggest Sporting Event Heads to Central Florida

A jubilant Orlando Mayor Bill Fredrick and 1,000 Central Florida soccer fans celebrated in Church Street Station's Cheyenne Saloon, when Orlando was announced as one of the nine U.S. host cities for the 1994 World Cup. Orlando's bid was in direct competition with Miami and Tampa. U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg stated, "The decision among the Florida cities was the toughest we had to make."

Stadium conflicts in Miami with the Florida Marlins baseball team seemed to bring the decision down to Tampa and Orlando. Rothenberg said, "On an international basis, and we viewed this as an international event, Disney World is the No. 1 entertainment in the United States and that has to be the deciding factor."[1]

The city was awarded five matches -- four opening round games and one game from the round of 16. Teams playing in Orlando included Belgium, Ireland, Morocco, Mexico, and the Netherlands. This was a favorable draw for tourist-hungry Central Florida, with three European countries that boast massive traveling fan support.

The 1992 estimates saw the games creating a total economic impact of $82 million, bringing 80,000 visitors to the area.[2] Beyond the economic impact, local officials saw the intangibles of the games broadcasting across the globe. Celebrations didn't last long, as the hard work was just beginning for the city and World Cup planners.

City leaders, police, tourism officials, U.S. Soccer, and FIFA officials all met constantly to work on the logistics. Orange County Sheriff's Department and the Orlando Police requested a total of $729,000 worth of funding for security. This included a request to purchase riot gear and bomb disposal equipment, out of concern for football hooliganism and terrorism.[3]

The Citrus Bowl received a facelift before the games, including the removal of 500 seats to make room for corner kicks, the replacement of the turf (still grass at this point), and some cosmetic changes around the stadium.[4]

Finally, an army of 1,100 volunteers, including nurses, translators, physical therapists, tour guides, and information liaisons helped with every level of logistics.[5] Even City Hall was dressed for the occasion, with Adidas crafting a 40-foot-tall soccer ball to cap the building.

City Hall

Orlando's City Hall dressed for the occasion.

Hot, Hot, Hot

With the games being played in June and July, heat became a major factor for both players and fans. Florida summers have two major elements. The first is our famous sunshine. The second, the cyclical afternoon thunderstorms that drench everything in a torrential tropical downpour for 20 minutes, often accompanied with dangerous lightning.

In an effort to accommodate prime time viewing audiences in Europe and avoid putting 60,000 soccer fans in the path of a lighting storm, all of the games played in Orlando began at 12:30 in the afternoon..[6] The city added hydration stations, fast response medic teams wandering the stands, and crowd misters outside the Citrus Bowl.

While the fans roasted, teams from Ireland, Belgium, and the Netherlands suffered in the exceptional elements. While it lacked the hydration breaks of the most recent World Cup in Brazil, players found water bottles flying onto the field at every break in the action.

Four teams trained in Central Florida in an effort to acclimate better to the heat. Belgium's home base was in Ormond Beach at the Ormond Beach Soccer Complex, while Morocco used the Austin Tindall Recreational Facility in Osceola County for their camp. The Irish used Seminole County Sports Training Center in Sanford, with the Dutch holding their training at the University of Central Florida.[7]

Game On

After years of preparation, Orlando was treated to an enticing lineup of matches. The first game at the Citrus Bowl saw Belgium beat Morocco by one goal in front of 61,219 spectators. All the games hosted in Orlando were extremely competitive, with most being decided by only one goal. The shock of the round was Belgium upsetting the Netherlands, 1-0 on June 25.

The Irish and Dutch fans dominated the visiting supporters, with both the Citrus Bowl and downtown Orlando flooded with orange- and green-clad armies of supporters.

Concerns about the Northern European teams in the heat were not underestimated, as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland all seemed to suffer in the conditions. Unheralded Morocco and underrated Mexico excelled in Orlando, with Morocco keeping games with Belgium and the Netherlands close. Mexico upset Ireland as well.

The final game played in Orlando was a July 4 matchup between the Netherlands and Ireland in the round of 16. The Dutch seemingly found a new gear and never let the Irish into the game, dominating for long stretches of the game. The Irish supporters, covering an entire side of the Citrus Bowl, broke into a memorable chorus of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from Monty Python's Life of Brian, as the team and supporters prepared to head back to Ireland.

The Games Move On

The July 4 match was the last in Orlando, as the games continued, culminating with Brazil beating Italy in penalty kicks at the Rose Bowl on July 17. The Netherlands made it to the quarterfinals, where the Orange lost to the eventual champions, 2-3.

After two weeks of games and non-stop parties on Church Street, Orlando took a deep breath and assessed the event. None of the security fears of hooliganism ever emerged, and most police said that the event was festive and fans enjoyed themselves.[8] The city represented well worldwide, with both visiting fans and those watching from around the world seeing Orlando at its best.[9] Overall, the games were seen as a total success.

For the residents of Orlando it was a lesson in soccer, cultural engagement, and how to party long into the night. Locals soon knew the chants and enjoyed the games and downtown parties as much as the traveling support.

Symbolic of the games' long term effects on the community, the specially made benches for the games were later used by the Rollins College soccer teams at Sandspur Field in Winter Park, FL.


[1] Bill Buchalter, "Orlando Scores World Cup Goal Citrus Bowl Gets Soccer's Top Tourney," Orlando Sentinel, March 24, 1992, A1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dan Tracy and Lawrence J. Lebowitz, "Soccer Security Won't Be Cheap Orlando Police and the Orange County Sheriff's Office Seek A Combined $729,000 for Security Needs at World Cup Games," Orlando Sentinel, March 28, 1994. A1.

[4] Mike Zizzo, "New Turf Puts Citrus Bowl on Solid Ground," Orlando Sentinel, February 27, 1994. C20 and Mike Zizzo, "Citrus Bowl Gets Facelift Before World TV Exposure," Orlando Sentinel, May 22, 1994. C14.

[5] Annie Tin, "Game Plan for 1,100 Members of the Supporting Cast Will Try to Keep Things Rolling Smoothly at Soccer Games," Orlando Sentinel, May 22, 1994. B1.

[6] Jeff Kunerth, "Heat Protection for Soccer Fans on the Front Burner," Orlando Sentinel, May 29, 1994, A1.

[7] Javier Solano, "4 Cup Teams to Florida," Orlando Sentinel, March 2, 1994.

[8] Linda W. Chapin,"Editorial: World Cup a Success," Orlando Sentinel, July 6, 1994. A14.

[9] Ibid.