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World Cup '94 was American sweatbath

AP - Sports

German and South Korean players felt the Cotton Bowl turf scorching their feet through their shoes. Ireland manager Jack Charlton, sweating through his white shirt and cap, splashed water on his players from the touchline.

After two hours of play in the final, an exhausted Roberto Baggio hung his head after sailing Italy's final penalty kick over the bar to hand Brazil the championship.

Those are some of the lasting images of the heat that gripped the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

And then there was me, one of thousands baking in the exposed upper deck of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando to watch Belgium and Morocco wither on a typical Central Florida summer afternoon. It took about five minutes to realize that my stiff nylon U.S. soccer jersey - the kind that doesn't absorb any kind of moisture or allow any breeze through the fabric - was a regrettable choice of clothing.

At least I wore a hat. The Belgian players slathered their heads in hair gel with the idea it would help them keep cool.

The weather in Brazil - specifically the heat and humidity of some northern venues - has become a big issue for the upcoming World Cup that kicks off June 12.

Brazil's players' union has sued FIFA over worries that early afternoon kickoff times will put some players at risk because of intense heat and humidity. The union wants FIFA to at least introduce two-minute water breaks in each half during those matches. And concerns over the heat in Qatar have dominated discussions about the World Cup in 2022.

Back in the U.S. in 1994, everyone knew heat problems were coming. Games were played under the mid-afternoon sun to accommodate European prime-time television broadcasts.

Everyone expected scorchers in Dallas and Orlando. But a relentless heat wave also blistered Chicago and even wilted the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

As a Florida native, I didn't give the heat a second thought before that first-round match. It's always hot in Central Florida in summer. You can count on an afternoon rain to cool things down, even if it just steams them up again 20 minutes later.

Yet sitting in the rafters of the Citrus Bowl, rubbing sweaty elbows and dripping inside that infernal jersey was about as uncomfortable of a sports experience I can remember. Like the Belgian players, the goal was to survive and advance: them to the second round, me to the exit.

Belgium scored 11 minutes in on a glancing header off a cross from the right wing. Then the heat seemed to suck the life out of the Red Devils and the game. We had another 79 minutes to suffer through watching the players suffer more.

Historical weather records say the temperature at 2 p.m. was about 90 degrees. News accounts, however, pushed the on-field temps over 100. According to The New York Times, 160 fans were treated for heat-related stress and 12 were hospitalized.

The Belgium players, used to the cool, rainy weather and breezes off the English Channel back home, slowed the game, packed in the defense and kept putting on the hair gel.

The fans used halftime to seek out the new-fangled ''misters,'' a new-at-the-time invention that drew crowds to stand under a beautifully cool spray of water. The problem was, no one wanted to leave. If you weren't among the first there, you weren't getting your splash of paradise.

Once again, that nylon team jersey did little to help. That thing wouldn't soak up any water.

Then it was back up to the upper deck. A few clouds rolled in for relief but they were only a teaser and quickly rolled out again.

Mercifully, the match ended as Belgium staggered to the finish of a 1-0 victory. After the whistle, a player collapsed on the field while 60,709 fans filed out of the stadium, all heading for the misters before slithering into crowded, sweaty busses in search of blasting air conditioners.

Five days later in Orlando, Mexico beat Ireland 2-1 as temperatures again approached 100 degrees, making poor Jack Charlton long for the overcast conditions in the British Isles.

I got to follow that one from home, that nylon jersey hung safely in my closet where it has remained, washed but never worn again.

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