Perhaps this summer’s World Cup is the spiritual successor to its 1994 counterpart. The United States and Russia, enemy turned Donald Trump ally, represent two of Fifa’s final frontiers, the 1994 competition the first of a trend of taking the game’s flagship tournament to new territories: the USA, then Japan and South Korea, then Africa, next Russia, followed by the Middle East, in the shape of Qatar.

No doubt Fifa will proclaim the 2018 World Cup as the best ever. The 1994 version was if not the best, then certainly my favourite. Over the nine decades of World Cups, 1970 and 1982 may compete for the title of the finest; for one with no memories of either, 1994 stands out. Those three tournaments have certain common denominators: blue skies on colour televisions, fine Brazil sides – even if it is undeniable the class of 1994 were not as cavalier as their predecessors from 12 and 24 years previously – and finals involving Italy; the 1994 variant both helped define the competition and, as the only goalless World Cup final, probably costs the tournament its rightful place in the pantheon.

It is not the only exceptional element about the US World Cup. It is the only time since 1978 that England failed to qualify and, if 1990 was the catalytic World Cup for the renaissance of the English game, kickstarting the formation of the Premier League and the creation of a commercial behemoth, 1994 seems an anomaly; the fledgling division’s top four clubs had only five representatives and one of them was Eddie McGoldrick. It meant the tournament had the benefit of the exotic, offering first glimpses of many a footballer before the days of saturation television coverage.

But if many may select their favourite World Cup on nationalistic grounds, in a way, so have I. The only major reason to rue England’s absence disappeared when Paul Gascoigne broke his leg in a training-ground tackle with his Lazio teammate and future World Cup winner Alessandro Nesta in April 1994. Before then, Ronald Koeman, Graham Taylor and a linesman in Rotterdam spared us many of the irritations that might have followed: lumpen football and, for the viewer at home, tedious ‘updates’ from the England camp instead of actual analysis of other teams. At least this time, the merciful release of elimination came before the World Cup even began.

Instead, others filled the void England left. It is rare, if not unknown, for a World Cup to offer so many watchable games and teams. It helped that, before the dilution of expanding to admit 32 teams in the name of inclusivity, there were a mere 24. Perhaps the only boring side were Norway, who qualified at England’s expense with a more efficient brand of long-ball football, but even then their situation offered drama: Egil Olsen’s side exited on goals scored or, in their case, a lack of them. Greece later developed a tendency to strip tournaments of enjoyment, but they had the good grace to be useless and to concede to many a spectacular strike.

And it feels as though 1994 had a surfeit of special goals, even if none that have become as iconic as Carlos Alberto in 1970, Archie Gemmill in 1978 or Diego Maradona in 1986. The hapless penalty taking, whether from Diana Ross or Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio, that bookended the month should not camouflage the quality and quantity of goals in between.

There were only two 0-0 draws: one between Norway and the Republic of Ireland, the other the final. Every quarter-final had at least three goals; so did five of the last-16 meetings. One of those quarter-finals, Brazil’s 3-2 win over the Netherlands, was the tournament’s best game, highlighting the excellence of much of the knockout stages. Much as 1990 generates fond feelings in England, the reality is that it was a defensive tournament with an average of 2.21 goals per game. In 1994, it was 2.71, half a goal higher.

And many of those goals were special. They came courtesy both of some of their generation’s greats and those struck by inspiration on a global stage. Fahad Al-Ghesheyan’s rasping, rising effort against Sweden was not even the best Saudi Arabia scored; that mantle belonged to Saeed Al-Owairan’s stunning solo run against Belgium.

The Saudis were on the receiving end when Wim Jonk fired in from long range for Holland. It is worth revisiting Alain Sutter’s goal against Romania for Switzerland, proof not all Roy Hodgson sides make underwhelming early exits from World Cups, and Philippe Albert’s effort for Belgium against Germany. If the defending champions seemed penalised by those producing the unlikely – Yordan Letchkov’s diving header for Bulgaria also came at their expense – they could respond in kind: Jürgen Klinsmann’s flick and volley against South Korea also belonged among the best.

Some teams were staging private competitions for the best goals; indeed, the greatest players were taking on their own earlier efforts.  Claudio Caniggia and Gabriel Batistuta’s memorable strikes were bettered by Maradona, showing force and precision in a finish against Greece after a flurry of one-twos. Nigeria could boast terrific strikes by Samson Siasia and Daniel Amokachi; the latter, inevitably, against Greece.  There was Gheorghe Hagi against Switzerland and Hagi against Colombia, Hristo Stoichkov against Mexico and Stoichkov against Argentina, Baggio against Bulgaria, Baggio against Spain and, for good measure, Dino Baggio against Spain.

World Cups require a blend of excitement and excellence. They benefit from a surprise factor but require many of the game’s greats to deliver. So 2002, for instance, had the shocks, but partly because elite sides and players failed, stripping some of the latter stages of quality, while 2006 suffered from a lack of surprises. In contrast, 1994 was well served. It had breakout stars and big names alike.

Romário was named the tournament’s best player. He was an understandable choice. A personal view, however, is that the podium places should have been filled by Baggio, Stoichkov and Hagi. The sheer number of progressive players who shone – and their numbers also included Klinsmann, never better, Dennis Bergkamp, in the last time this particular Dutchman flew, Batistuta, Bebeto and Tomas Brolin – was both a boon and an illustration of the equitable distribution of talent. It was no coincidence that this was a time when nicknames like ‘the Maradona of the Carpathians’ and ‘the Baggio of the Balkans’ proliferated - many a country sported a designated flair player. More so than in other World Cups, historically lesser nations boasted what American audiences would regard as franchise player, a superstar.

They were often well supported: Stoichkov by Letchkov and Krasimir Balakov, Hagi by Florin Răducioiu and Ilie Dumitrescu, Brolin by Martin Dahlin and Kennet Andersson. They were emblematic upstarts. Bulgaria, Romania and Sweden upset the established order. Bulgaria had never previously won a game at a World Cup. Romania had only three victories. Sweden had none since 1974.

But they rebutted the notion that smaller nations’ only way to advance is to defend. They were responsible for many of the upsets in a tournament in which Romania eliminated Argentina, Bulgaria beat Argentina and Germany, Belgium defeated the Netherlands and Ireland overcame Italy. Mexico, Nigeria and Romania topped groups. So, less surprisingly, did Brazil and Germany. Only the eventual winners remained immune to shocks.

There was something symbolic about Bulgaria toppling Germany, finalists in the three previous tournaments; Stoichkov and co were not to know it, but the balance of power was shifting to Brazil, who reached the first of three successive finals. The notion of German invincibility had gained strength with the influx of talent from the east following reunification; theirs was an astonishingly accomplished group, if perhaps slightly past their prime, in 1994. Perhaps obscured by the superb Klinsmann, Thomas Häßler got five assists; sadly for him, very few people knew what an assist was so he could not bask in the glory of being the tournament’s most creative player.

Geopolitics may have formed an undercurrent, and not just in Germany. The Eastern European challenge, taken on by the Czech Republic in Euro 96 and Croatia in the 1998 World Cup, felt a product of its time; players reared in Communist countries were allowed to express themselves in an age of greater individualism once the Iron Curtain had been dismantled. Their gaze, which had been directed east, shifted west. Russia, losing some of its former prominence, contrived to be both underachievers and supply the joint top scorer: Oleg Salenko’s six goals included five against Cameroon, whose strike in a 6-1 defeat came from a 42-year-old Roger Milla: it was further proof the 1994 World Cup overflowed with compelling subplots. It had a deep cast of complex, and sometimes improbable, characters.

Salenko shared the Golden Shoe with Stoichkov, the iconoclast in an inimitable side. Teams do not resemble Bulgaria anymore; Trifon Ivanov looked like a footballing werewolf, a mulleted cult hero who would shoot from ludicrous distances.  Letchkov was the sort of balding everyman turned superhero who, were he two decades younger, would probably be advertising hair transplants now. So, perhaps, would goalkeeper Borislav Mihaylov, instead of sporting an ill-fitting wig. They were a bunch of misfit desperadoes with the worst disciplinary record in the World Cup. Stoichkov’s goals almost propelled them to the final. God, he had proclaimed, was a Bulgarian. The semi-final referee, he lamented, was a Frenchman, and Bulgaria had qualified at France’s expense.

Instead, Italy progressed to the final after a showdown between arguably the most and least stylish groups of players at that World Cup. There is a case for saying 1994 was the last tournament when the planet’s best player was actually the finest in the World Cup (Lionel Messi won the Golden Shoe four years ago in Brazil when he wasn’t even Argentina’s best, Javier Mascherano was). But in 1994, Baggio was at the peak of his powers, a pure technical talent in the tradition of Italian No 10s; even then, he was perhaps slightly out of time, a man ill-suited to the primacy of the system over individuals and ill-equipped to perform his defensive duties. He was more fragile than successors such as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, nor was he afforded the same support. He was the Galáctico for outsiders, a reason millions warmed to him. He was a maestro who was destined to be misunderstood and mistrusted by many of his managers.

Arrigo Sacchi substituted his luxury player in the 22nd minute against Norway, sacrificing him when the goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off. Baggio did not score in the group stage. He then delivered five goals in the knockout stages, the fantasista allowing Italy to dream. But he injured his hamstring in the semi-final against Bulgaria, was patched up for the final and famously sent the decisive spot kick over the bar.

Italy’s first penalty went even higher. Their twin triumphs and tragedies – in a sporting sense, anyway; the fate of the Colombian defender Andres Escobar, assassinated after scoring an own goal, suggested how hollow much footballing vocabulary is – showed the bittersweet nature of the 1994 World Cup. Franco Baresi was majestic in the final. He had not played for 25 days after suffering a knee injury . Like Baggio, he was given an illustration of the indiscriminate cruelty of shootouts; two greats failed from 12 yards.

Nor did football’s mercilessness end there. Baresi’s usual sidekick Alessandro Costacurta was suspended for the final, as the luckless centre-back seemed to be for every showpiece occasion. Sacchi had fashioned the outstanding club side of the decade and perhaps the most distinguished defence ever, but of his back four only Paolo Maldini was eligible throughout. Mauro Tassotti ended up serving an eight-match ban for elbowing Luis Enrique. It went unpunished at the time, contributing to another hard-luck story for one of Spain’s more stylish unsuccessful sides, and was one of the tournament’s acts of wanton violence: Leonardo’s assault on Tab Ramos somehow did not stop Brazil from winning the Fair Play award.

Maldini, however, had been immaculate throughout. Nevertheless, the most imperious defensive display of the tournament may have come at Italy’s expense: it was a reason why Baggio later nominated Paul McGrath for a place in his all-time XI. Ireland beat Italy because of Ray Houghton, offering yet another of the tournament’s superb strikes, and in (or, more accurately, across the Hudson River from) a city with resonance for both: New York, populated by generations of Irish and Italian immigrants.  

Besides the subsequent emergence of Major League Soccer and the United States’ transformation into a team who, until failing to qualify this time, tended to take the largest fan base to a World Cup, it is another reason to recognise the merits of 1994. World Cups should be staged in scenic countries of historical, cultural, political and sporting significance and in cities worth visiting.

Sadly for Ireland, it was also staged in Orlando. If it was tempting to wonder if Steve Staunton would die of sunstroke in 100-degree midday heat in the defeat to Mexico, John Aldridge and Jack Charlton provided some of the tournament’s abiding images as they raged at the fourth official and a Fifa delegate. Ireland, in their own way, illustrate why 1994 should be ranked above 1990: they reached the quarter-finals in Italy and their maiden World Cup was undeniably, understandably special, but they did so by drawing. They had to wait until 1994 to win and that victory came against Italy.

Perhaps it is Eurocentric to select a tournament in which seven of the eight quarter-finalists came from the same continent. Brazil apart, the South Americans underachieved, but they still entertained. Colombia had beaten Argentina 5-0 a few months earlier. Pelé, providing proof his ability as a footballer was only matched by his fallibility as a pundit, made them his favourites. They tumbled out in the group stages. Argentina may have gone further had Maradona not tested positive for ephedrine, completing his metamorphosis from hero to anti-hero. His celebration against Greece had been a clue: they were the eyes of a man who had overdosed on something stronger than Horlicks.

His premature, while deserved, departure may nonetheless rank as one of the tournament’s disappointments. If only, too, Brazil had not dropped Rai in the knockout stages in a pragmatic quest for glory. If only Ruud Gullit had not fallen out with Dick Advocaat before the World Cup. If only Denmark had qualified and fielded both Laudrups. If only Yugoslavia had survived intact for a few more years; that was the year when the Montenegrin Dejan Savićević and the Croatian Zvonimir Boban enabled AC Milan to rout Barcelona’s Dream Team 4-0 in the Champions League final, but Fifa had suspended Yugoslavia from qualifying. If only, perhaps, Italy had won the World Cup final, which may have been more fitting, given Sacchi’s influence on the era. And, yes, the final was poor, but there hasn’t, with the possible exception of the drama in 1998, been a particularly good one since 1986.

Yet 1994 brought the promise of a better tomorrow, a promise which may not have been really fulfilled. Certainly not for African football – and an enterprising, entertaining Nigeria team built on Cameroon’s achievements four years earlier – or, though Croatia came third in 1998, for the Eastern European game or for the Middle Eastern teams: contrast Saudi Arabia’s admirable efforts in 1994 with their wretchedness in 2002.

Perhaps it is nineties nostalgia speaking, which may be a growth industry among those of us who dislike some elements of 21st-century life. Yet there is another reason to treasure 1994. It was perhaps the penultimate World Cup before the Champions League surpassed it – in standard, and perhaps stature too – and when, in every respect, it was the ultimate.