Diana Ross missed the first penalty of the 1994 World Cup, and she's never been allowed to forget it. Soldier Field, Chicago, June 17. She was wearing sneakers more suited to a morning jog, lip-syncing to "I'm Coming Out," and trying to keep her focus while a gaggle of white-cladded kids knelt down at her side. After one run-up stutter too many, she pulled her choreographed shot five yards wide to the left—an impressive feat considering she was only about six yards from the oversized goal in the first place.
The crossbar split in two to emphasize the power with which Ross was supposed to have struck the ball. Commentators giggled, viewers at home cringed, and the brashest, glitziest opening ceremony in history continued.
In 2010, BBC Three named this the ninth-most shocking moment at any World Cup; last Thursday the Daily Express, a British tabloid, asked whether or not it was "the greatest moment in history." And while that's all hyperbole, the moment's gone down in football folklore for a reason. The rest of the world seethed because America—a country with no professional league, no apparent interest in the game, and no desire to call it "football" like everyone else—was hosting the sport's most prestigious event. Nothing summed up every other nation's suspicions more perfectly than a US pop star approaching the ball as though it had been sent from an alien planet. "America is entertaining at so many things," VICE's own Liam Daniel Pierce wrote of the miss last week. "America is bad at football. It must have been entertaining for the rest of the world to watch us pass out at our own house party."
But Ross's botched shot only distracted from a more harrowing moment. It came half an hour later, after emcee Oprah Winfrey fell off the stage and President Bill Clinton pretended that soccer had already "captured the imagination of our country." It didn't involve a shanked shot or a faceplant or even a single note out of tune. But it starred Daryl Hall—his unkempt, shoulder-length hair unmoved in the afternoon breeze. It was a performance of the worst World Cup song in history. It was "Gloryland."
The video has been preserved in sub-VHS-quality, and it's worth watching over and over again, scanning it for clues like the Zapruder film. A globe, seemingly made from papier-mâché, rises as the gospel choir starts up. Hall wears a jacket so beige that it sucks the color from everything in his vicinity. Around 90 seconds into the performance, the planet appears to be ablaze; smoke billows beneath Antarctica. Franz Beckenbauer—Der Kaiser, the captain of the victorious West Germany team in 1974—walks across the center circle holding the World Cup Trophy at shoulder-height, as though it's a pissing puppy. And then, as the song reaches its crescendo, a few dozen dancers in lemon yellow gimp suits climb towards the South Pole; they tear away a covering to reveal that it is, in fact, a golden globe. They have become the trophy, and the trophy has become them, and America is hosting the World Cup. "Believe in what you do / And you've the strength to see it through / On the road to Gloryland," Hall sings, contorting his face in ecstasy.
How could this have been allowed to happen? A Billboard story from May 28, 1994—run under the entirely inaccurate headline "Polygram Soccer Set Bound for 'Glory'"—had label execs extolling the song's commercial potential, saying that they could have a "huge hit single" on their hands. David Munns, Senior VP at the label, had done his research, calling in Rick Blaskey and Charlie Skarbek to compose and produce the song, and they were pros. Just three years before, Skarbek—with Blaskey producing—had written over Gustav Holst's "Jupiter" to create "World In Union" for the second-ever Rugby World Cup. They were pioneers of the made-for-TV pop-classical crossover. Few people could take familiar tunes and overlay them with soft, ambassadorial lines about unity and global fraternity like these two.
But they were British, outsiders looking in. Rather than turning to Holst or Beethoven or Debussy for a melodic base, they leaned on "Battle Hymn of the Republic," a backup National Anthem, doing away with subtlety completely. They enlisted the whitebread Hall to carry it through, then paired him with a gospel choir called Sounds of Blackness to add exactly what their name promised. "The number one thing we wanted to do was capture the spirit of the host country," Blaskey told Billboard before adding with a weird reluctance: "We also had an obligation to bring out the sound of America."
It bombed. "Gloryland" didn't make the charts in the US. It hit #36 in the UK and #37 in Switzerland—more damning evidence of its distance from the American imagination. The US team performed above expectations that year, advancing from their group and only losing narrowly to eventual champions Brazil. They inspired a country that had been mostly ambivalent towards their sport in the past; USA '94 was a resounding success; it remains the best-attended World Cup in history. And still nobody bought "Gloryland" as a memento.
It's tempting to consign the thing to history's dustbin as a result and, having listened to it a couple of dozen times already, I'm tempted as well. But sometimes these ersatz displays of unity and overcoming say more than they mean. At 1 PM Central Time on June 17—at almost precisely the same moment that Hall took the stage and Ross regretted her decision not to practice penalty kicks in training—police in Los Angeles waited for OJ Simpson to surrender. It was the day of the infamous "white Bronco" chase, and just about every American who wasn't at Soldier Field was watching the Simpson saga unfold on live TV. "Gloryland, in Gloryland / It's in your heart, it's in your hand / In Gloryland, in Gloryland / You're here in Gloryland / This is Gloryland," Hall sang as a celebrity charged with double-murder pondered his escape from the cops in front of tens of millions of viewers at home. "When you start to believe / It's in your heart / It's in your hand / You know, this is Gloryland."
The Los Angeles Times ran a piece about that strangeness. Elliott Almond and Sonia Nazario asked the sportswriters who'd flown to the US from across the globe about the Simpson saga, and they ended up with baffled responses every time. Nobody knew who Simpson was or why Americans cared about his fate. "Not only are most international journalists ignoring the Simpson saga," they wrote, "but they are grasping to understand what it is all about, and thus what America is all about."
And if I weren't London-born writer who'd quite like to keep his job writing about America for an American publication, I'd probably leave things there. I'd probably say that Blaskey and Skarbek ended up in the same place with their song, missing the moment, looking in from afar, bound by their "obligation to bring out the sound of America" without knowing what that meant. And I wouldn't be wrong. Not entirely.
But "Gloryland" ended up as the second song on Gloryland World Cup USA 94, the official, FIFA-sanctioned album for the tournament. On the record, it was followed by a song called "Goal, Goal, Goal" by Mancunian indie icons James. Here it is, presented alongside a video of cheering, joyful crowds:
It starts out as a first-person account of a football obsession: "I'm in love with the football club / At the age of seven my father took me / He got me hooked into this game." Lead singer Tim Booth sounds like a drunk Brit at a New York bar, desperately trying to explain his sport to a bunch of despondent locals in Giants jerseys. The chorus goes: "Goal, Goal, Goal, Goal / Goal, Goal, Goal, Goal."
There's a line leftover though. "I'm a member of an ape-like race in the final days of the 20th century / When we don't win I go insane," he sings. "Goal, Goal, Goal" was supposed to be the English national team's official song for USA '94, but the Three Lions didn't qualify, and the song now languishes on YouTube instead. It was originally "Low, Low, Low" on the band's Brian Eno-produced 1993 record Laid. They switched the lyrics for the football. Here's the original first verse:
I'm a member of an ape-like race
At the arsehole end of the 20th century
This film's a thriller of the mind
Will we destroy our homes, release ourselves from the
Weights of gravity?
I'll be amazed if we survive
That James left the "ape-like race at the arsehole-end of the 20th century" moment in "Goal, Goal, Goal" is oddly reassuring. They allowed a morsel of the apocalypse into their song, and the CD copies of Gloryland World Cup USA '94 will forever keep it as the chaser to "Gloryland"'s sickly-sweet shot. It's warped by it's new lyrics, but not entirely—what's leftover articulates the tension of the mid-90s better than any schmaltz or pageantry every could.
Which doesn't really leave us anywhere but here: Diana Ross missed her penalty, and she's never been allowed to forget it; Daryl Hall, Rick Blaskey, and Charlie Skarbek missed the mark, and nobody seems to remember it; James left the apocalypse in a World Cup single as America started to tear apart, and their song's been left at the arsehole end of the 20th Century. We hang onto the strangest things. To relive the strangeness of that day, that World Cup, and that era, you'll have to watch all three on repeat. Even "Gloryland."
Alex Robert Ross thinks that Ryan Sessegnon should be in the England squad. Follow him on Twitter.