Diego Maradona owned 1986. Never before, never after, has an individual influenced the outcome of a single edition of the world cup in quite the same fashion. With the passing of the football legend today, we republish a story from our archives on his greatest moment in history, and the most memorable World Cup the world has ever seen.
For football fans in India, unless you were born in the satellite era, the 1986 World Cup was the first real taste of the sport at the highest level. Prior to that, only bits of the 1982 World Cup were televised in India, and we had the occasional Serie A and Champions League (then called the European Cup) match come our way. Somehow, all of it was very late at night — or maybe it wasn’t, but that’s what the old memory box says. A lot of the moments from the 1986 World Cup have become blurred since then, but not Manuel Negrete’s side-volley, called a scissor kick in those days, from the top of the box against Bulgaria. Or, Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland. And, above all, Diego Maradona. First, those two bits against England that still elicit shock and awe, then taking the stuffing out of Belgium, and then the final. Oh, the final. Does it qualify as the last great World Cup final? Indeed, if any player has completely dominated a World Cup in the modern era, it was Maradona in Mexico 1986.
Argentina had won before, in 1978, at home, when Mario Kempes was their standout player, scoring six goals, including two in the final. But, while Kempes was a striker, Maradona wasn’t. He was an attacking midfielder playing behind the strikers — usually Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga. That didn’t stop him from scoring five goals in 1986, three among which still feature in most lists of most memorable World Cup goals.
The story of the ‘half-angel, half-devil’, as French newspaper L’Équipe described Maradona, had started before the tournament. The charismatic manager César Luis Menotti was gone by then, and the win-at-all-costs Carlos Bilardo was in charge of Argentina. Who knows what madness prompted Bilardo to sack Daniel Passarella as captain and appoint Maradona in his place – the same Maradona who, with impetuosity of youth as an excuse, kicked an opponent in the midriff to be red carded against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup. It seemed too big a risk, but Maradona responded with five goals and five assists.
Three of those assists came in a group game against South Korea. Then came the England game. First, there was the ‘hand of god’ goal. Cheat? Sure, but why couldn’t Peter Shilton out-jump his 5-foot-5-inch opponent? Four minutes later, the goal of the century: 11 taps in a run that started with a swivel in his own half, chest pushed forward, thigh muscles pumping, five defenders bigger and more powerful than him rendered impotent, and finally a step around Shilton and a slot-in.
That performance was followed by two goals in the semi-final against Belgium, one a volley with the outside of his left foot, one a left-footed finish after a weaving run past three players.
If all that wasn’t enough, there was the moment of magic in the final. No one blocks a key player like the Germans do; double marking, they called it. Two-all, till the fag end of the game, when Maradona found enough space to play the perfect through ball for Burruchaga, who scored and won the game for Argentina. Four years later, Maradona outdid that pass with the one to find Claudio Caniggia against Brazil, but that is another story. Diego Maradona owned 1986. Never before, and never after, has an individual influenced the outcome of a single edition of the World Cup in quite the same fashion.