“To me, you are the highest point of love,
The earth, fire itself, the sun,
The rain and the wheat fields,
Thanks to that sweet way you have of loving me.”
Mexico overcome the tragedy
Mexico 86 should have been Columbia 86. A raging civil war, endemic violence, and the obligatory drug problems meant that a FIFA delegation pressured the Columbian government to withdraw its mandate to host the World Cup. In January 1983, the South American country duly obliged. After alleged internal FIFA politicking, Mexico was selected as the replacement host.
A massive earthquake struck Mexico City on September 19, 1985. Over 25,000 died, another 150,000 were left homeless and up to 4 billion USD in damage was caused in less than three minutes.
Just eight months before the opening match in the famous Azteca Stadium, the tournament was in jeopardy as Mexico’s ability to recover and properly organize the event was in doubt. Luckily, the stadiums suffered no damage and the country quickly picked up the pieces and overcame many obstacles to stage the World Cup.
Another World Cup, another new format!
The field was still made up of 24 teams, again divided into six groups of four. This time, however, the top two teams in each group, along with the four best third-place finishers, qualified for the round of 16, which was now a straight knockout.
In the aftermath of the Austria-West Germany debacle from 1982, FIFA wised up and mandated the final two games in each group of the opening round be played simultaneously, thus eliminating any chance of chicanery.
Finally, after a grand opening ceremony in Azteca on May 31, 1986, the thirteenth FIFA World Cup took off. FIFA knows how to maintain the rhythm of the mega-events and surely, they are not like the spineless institution – International Cricket Council.
Brazil and France were the hot favourites for the event in Mexico and many were predicting a final between the best in Europe and South America. Then there was the Soviet Union, who brought with them an outstanding team, while Denmark took the tournament by storm with their attacking and fluid football.
Argentina were in a transition phase
After the ignominious exit in Espana 82, Argentina had a different manager at a World Cup for the first time since 1974, and his name was Carlos Bilardo. In 1983 he had visited Maradona in Spain, who was recovering from his bout of hepatitis; while there, the man Diego calls El Narigon asked him to be his captain. At the time, Maradona was only 22-years-old, but Bilardo was determined to build Albiceleste around Maradona.
In the build-up to the tournament, the Argentine squad was in disarray.
Qualification was not up to the mark and the pre-tournament friendlies were pale as well. The final disruption witnessed Daniel Passarella, walk out of the squad just prior to the opening group game against South Korea. Passarella never really came to terms with the captaincy being taken from him and handed to Maradona.
The confidence of the whole nation was already down after losing the war against the British a few years back and then the state of the national team was in such a poor state that neither the football fans back home nor the experts counted Argentina as one of the potential contenders.
A chance for redemtion
Following the shameful dismissal against Brazil in Barcelona in Espana 82, Diego Maradona found himself struggling to adapt to life at a top European club, where success was not only demanded but also expected.
A bout of hepatitis, a broken ankle following a challenge by Andoni Goikoetxea, and a mass brawl between players and officials of Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at the end of the 1984 Copa del Rey final made the stay of Maradona in Barca chaotic.
The escape route was another world record transfer fee of £6.9 million to Napoli of Serie A, at the end of the 1983-84 season; the birthplace of Catenaccio, Gaetano Scirea, and home to his nemesis, Claudio Gentile.
In the south of Italy, Maradona was adored by the citizens of Naples.
Feeling loved and appreciated, El Diego honed his skills and learned to moderate his temperament. Maradona was growing up.
Argentina start with a victory
Diego Maradona and his team were placed in Group A pitted against the World Champions Italy, giant-killers Bulgaria and the new bees, South Korea. Bulgaria already shocked Italy in the opening match at Azteca by sharing points and thus, the first-ever match in the World Cup would always be tricky for a team whose morale is heavily down.
South Korea knew about their limitations very well and thus, decided to neutralize Maradona – At the Estadio Olympico Universitario, the game looked like a replica of any of Argentina’s 1982 fixtures. The South Koreans opted for the tried and tested tactic of kicking Maradona, either before he got the ball, while he had it, or after he’d released it.
But it was not the Maradona of Barcelona, who reacted with hostility but decided to ignore and keep going.
The boy had matured into a man!
Maradona’s refusal to react and have more and more of an influence on the game saw the Asian side resort to an early global introduction to their national sport, Taekwondo. The challenges were coming in higher and higher up Maradona’s five-foot six-inch frame.
The referee witnessed the Taekwondo show and came to rescue Maradona. A free-kick was awarded outside the Korean box, which Maradona took. Jorge Valdano scored the first goal and it seemed to relieve Maradona from the horrible memories of Spain. Two more goals came in a 3-1 victory and all three goals were assisted by Maradona.
The World Champions were next
At the Estadio Cuauhtemoc, Puebla, Maradona met the World Champions Italy against whom he had a nightmarish memory four years ago. Italy engaged Claudio Gentile to stop Maradona and they successfully did that in a 2-1 victory. There was no Gentile around in Puebla, but Collovatti, Sciera, and Pietro Vierchowod were around.
But this Maradona was different and after his brief stint with Napoli in the Italian Serie A, he has learned how to outweigh the challenges and tough man-marking of Italian football.
Despite going 1-0 down to an Italian penalty after six minutes, Maradona rallied his troops and took it upon himself to drag Argentina out of the mud.
This time the Azzurri couldn’t get near him as he was too quick and too clever for the Italians, drifting in and out of central positions so that the center-backs didn’t know whether to go with him or hold their position.
In the 36th-minute a clipped pass over the Italian back four from Jorge Valdano had Maradona racing through in the inside left position, and with an instinctive side-foot volley; he guided the ball into the far corner.
It was a goal of exquisite technique and ability.
The change of stride and the height, at which he struck the ball, would have been impossible for most players. Maradona wheeled away and jumped the hoardings at the side of the pitch.
Another impressive physical feat based on their size and for Maradona!
That jump and a stroke of genius from the left-foot vanquished the memories of Spain.
Back-to-back draws for the World Champions – a scenario similar to Espana 82, and many thought, Italy would pick themselves up again, but the expert eyes started to notice the magic of Maradona and he could pose a threat for others in the coming days.
The final group game saw a straightforward 2-0 victory against Bulgaria. Maradona created the second goal with a cross whipped in from the left, where Jorge Burruchaga couldn’t fail to score. Argentina finished top of the group and would face Uruguay in the second round.
Argentina break the Uruguay jinx
Argentina versus Uruguay is the South American equivalent of England versus Scotland. Separated only by the River Plate, the two countries contested the first World Cup final, which Uruguay won 4-2 in Montevideo. Since that game, football has been the tool of choice for both nations with which to demonstrate their superiority over each other.
Argentina had not beaten Uruguay in a World Cup fixture since 1930. Even though Uruguay were done and dusted by Denmark in the Group Stages, but their physical football became the talk of the town, which not only hampered the rhythm of the oppositions but at the same time mentally irritated them as well.
Stuart Horsfield wrote, “The game was a typically tense and scratchy affair, the occasion outweighing the performance. The football was only being played in fitful bursts before an intentional misdemeanor once again halted the game. Argentina took a 1-0 lead in the closing minutes of the first half.”
“As the game wore on, Maradona was becoming more and more influential. It was the poise and balance with which he received the ball and then, in one or two touches, was away from his marker that had me a gasp.”
Deep into the second half, Maradona broke through by split-opening the Uruguayan defence. He scored a goal but it was disallowed.
Argentina advance into the quarterfinals where England were waiting for them at Azteca
England – the conquest at Azteca
England and Argentina fought for the Falkland Islands four years ago.
The Falklands War was a 10-week undeclared war between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982 over two British dependent territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and its territorial dependency, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The result of the war was a British victory.
The conflict began on April 2, 1982, when Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, followed by the invasion of South Georgia the next day. On April 5, the British government dispatched a naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force before making an amphibious assault on the islands.
The conflict lasted 74 days and ended with an Argentine surrender on June 14, 1982, returning the Islands to British control.
In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders died during the hostilities.
That war left a bad relationship between the two nations and Maradona found the contest at Azteca a great opportunity to revenge.
Despite losing the opening game against Portugal, England were rejuvenated by Gary Lineker and the late Sir Bobby Robson decided to keep the 4-4-2 formation intact with Steve Hodge and Trevor Steven furthest wide in the midfield against Argentina’s 3-5-1-1, which Bilardo built to give Maradona the free role.
The first half passed without any goals, but through Peter Beardsley had a good chance for England it was Argentina who enjoyed more of the ball and were asking more questions in the attacking third. Their superiority would tell early in the second half in two of the most famous moments, for very different reasons, in the history of the World Cup.
Hand of God
In the second half, Maradona skipped past Glenn Hoddle and then squeezed in between two more England players before sliding a pass out to Valdano and making his way into the box. The ball skipped up on Valdano’s foot and Hodge wildly hooked it into his own penalty area, where Maradona rose and punched the ball past the onrushing Peter Shilton.
In an interview with FIFA, Hodge said, “Maradona does a diagonal run towards the edge of our D-area, pops a little pass off to Jorge Valdano, and he takes a strange run into the box, looking for the one-two. He then diverts, takes a left turn towards the goalkeeper. As that ball was popped off towards Valdano it went by him on to my left-hand side.”
Unaware of Maradona’s run, Hodge attempted a back-pass to goalkeeper Peter Shilton which, before the alteration of Law 12 to outlaw back-passes in 1992, was routine.
“I was being leaned on a little bit by Valdano, but the ball bounced nice, it was on my left foot – my strong foot – and I caught it absolutely spot on. It was the contact I wanted, looping it back with a bit of dip. When I caught it I didn’t have a moment’s thought that it could be a problem, because I didn’t know where Maradona was. To a modern eye, [that kind of pass] looks crazy, but you’d see it in every game those days.”
From Hodge’s back-pass, the ball had somehow ended up in the back of the net.
“As it went in I thought to myself, ‘Oh god, what have you done?’ Hodge remembered. “From my kick, a second later, it’s in the back of our net. I saw a mop of black hair, a collision, and the ball’s bobbled in. People were putting their hands in the air. It looked wrong. Within five seconds, he’s by the corner flag celebrating. You just knew it was going to stand. Within ten seconds you’ve got to move on.”
Shilton and England appealed for the handball, but the referee from Tunisia Ali Bin Nasser did not pay heed and allowed the goal to stay.
As the Goal stated, “None of the officials spotted it – and so did no one else, for a while, except the England players in the vicinity who began their desperate appeals to referee Ali Bin Nasser. The English commentator, Barry Davies, wondered why they were claiming an offside when the ball had clearly been played by Hodge, not an Argentina player. Davies spotted that Maradona’s arm was raised on a replay, but there was still some doubt at that point as to what had actually happened.”
“Maradona did a good job of selling it by wheeling away in celebration, though his quick glances at the officials were telling. Bin Nasser, standing outside the box closer to England’s left touchline, probably had his sightline partially blocked by Shilton and the crowd of bodies but the linesman on the opposite side, Bogdan Dotchev, should have had an unobstructed view.”
After the match, when TV replays and photographs had clearly established that Maradona had handled the ball, the scorer gave his first goal its famous name by commenting that it had gone in “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”.
He added later: “I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me, and no one came… I told them, ‘Come hug me, or the referee isn’t going to allow it.’
Bin Nasser and Dotchev blamed each other. “I was waiting for Dotchev to give me a hint of what exactly happened but he didn’t signal for a handball,” Bin Nasser said years later. “And the instructions FIFA gave us before the game was clear – if a colleague was in a better position than mine, I should respect his view.”
“Although I felt immediately there was something irregular, back in that time FIFA didn’t allow the assistants to discuss the decisions with the referee,” said Dotchev, whose account was marked with xenophobia on more than one occasion. “If FIFA had put a referee from Europe in charge of such an important game, Maradona’s first goal would have been disallowed.”
The Goal of the Century
A few minutes later Maradona received the ball from the deep, look towards his own goal, and then turned back to start the most famous run in the history of World Cup football.
Yes, the rest is history!
According to Goal, “Maradona received the ball just inside the Argentina half. Taking a first touch towards his own goal to evade one opponent, he then found himself in the face of another and rolled the ball back to spin away towards the right touchline. With some space to run into, he then sped away from Peter Reid in pursuit as he crossed the halfway line.”
“Gradually cutting inside towards the England box, Terry Butcher came out to meet him but could only swing a desperate leg in Maradona’s vague direction as he checked further into the middle of the pitch. Now approaching the edge of the area, a stationary Terry Fenwick never had a chance of stopping the 5′ 5″ ball of speed hurtling towards him and simply tried to foul Maradona before he could advance on Shilton. No luck.”
“Maradona had one more player to beat; Shilton himself. Anticipating a shot into the far corner, the goalkeeper went to ground and Maradona dragged the ball past him with his left foot exactly as he had done with Fenwick before dispatching into the empty net despite Kenny Sansom clattering him from behind.”
The sheer genius of the goal was best captured by Uruguayan commentator Victor Hugo Morales. The veteran journalist’s memorable description of the goal in Spanish has become synonymous with the goal itself.
“Maradona on the ball now. Two closing him down. Maradona rolls his foot over the ball and breaks away down the right, the genius of world football. He goes past a third, looks for Burruchaga. Maradona forever! Genius! Genius! Genius! He’s still going… Gooooal! Sorry, I want to cry! Good God! Long live football! What a goal! A memorable run from Maradona. The greatest solo goal of all time. Cosmic Kite, which planet did you come from leaving so many English players behind, and in this process turning the country into a clenched fist shouting for Argentina! Argentina 2 England 0. Diego Diego! Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears and for this scoreline: Argentina 2 England 0.”
“You have to say that’s magnificent,” Davies exclaimed. Gary Lineker would pull a goal back late on for England, but they could not find a second.
Sir Bobby Robson said, “A brilliant goal. I didn’t like it but I had to admire it.”
Thirty years later, Gary Lineker, who scored in that match, heaped praise on that goal by saying, “His solo effort against us was the one and only time in my whole career I felt like applauding the opposition scoring a goal.”
While Hodge said, “I remember looking and thinking: we’ve got [Terry] Butcher, [Terry] Fenwick and Gary Stevens on the cover, we’ve got the best keeper in the world [Shilton] on a bobbly pitch. He’s got 60 yards to go. We should be alright.”
“When it went in I remember thinking, ‘Wow, unbelievable’. As a football player, you have to look at a skill like that and think, ‘He’s from another planet.’”
“I thought, I won’t be here again. I’ll try and get a shirt. I shook Maradona’s hand. He was being mobbed by his team-mates. So I thought, ‘There’s no point, just leave it.’”
“After the interview (with the on-field reporters), I went down, behind the goal, to the changing rooms. As I went down, Maradona was walking with two of his team-mates. I looked him in the eye, tugged on my shirt as if to say ‘any chance of swapping?’, and he came straight across, motioned a prayer, and we exchanged shirts. And that was it. It was just as simple as that.”
“Nothing grand about it. It was just a meeting underneath the pitch. The changing rooms were about ten yards away. I went off, so did he, and I just put mine in my bag and that was it.”
“If I’d have known what had happened, I wouldn’t have swapped my shirt with him,” Hodge said. “I think I would’ve felt angry about it if that had been the case, definite cheating had gone on. He was wrong in what he did. He should have admitted it after the game. I can’t really blame anybody. Nobody could’ve changed what happened. That was my mindset: we’re out, let’s get home. You can moan until the cows come home, it doesn’t matter.”
Argentina finish the fairytale of Belgium
Belgium were the surprise package of Mexico 86.
In the knockout stages, they stunned the Soviet Union and Spain to advance to the quarterfinals. Maradona got another opportunity for revenge- four years ago, in the opening match of the Espana 82, it was Belgium who brought Maradona to his feet and scripted a famous 1-0 victory.
But the time has changed, this Maradona is different and the Belgians found it tough at Azteca.
Every time Maradona touched the ball, it seemed to find a teammate even from the most impossible of positions and whenever he made those magical runs, the Belgian defence was left clueless.
Still, Belgium managed to weather the Maradona storm in the first half, but in the second, he was just another magician who came from a parallel universe to unleash his genius.
Jorge Burruchagga collected the ball in the 51st minute outside the half of Belgium and scripted a chicky pass to a running Maradona, who outfoxed the Belgian defenders and kicked the ball smartly from an angle to beat Jean-Marie Pfaff – the ball curled back and hit the net by the crowded red shirts and then the yellow one!
The second goal came 12 minutes later and it was a masterpiece –the goal is less-talked about because the Hand of God and Goal of the Century created so much hype that a piece of the spectacular moment became extremely underrated.
These Football Times described, “Defender Jose Luis Cuciuffo controls the ball on his chest and drives infield, eyes fixed on only one man. Maradona, back to goal, awaits the inevitable pass, his starting position a textbook definition of an enganche.”
“It’s the domain of many a gifted Argentine playmaker before and since, from Ricardo Bochini, through Maradona, to Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar and, of course, Lionel Messi. The 115,000 spectators inside the Estadio Azteca, and millions around the world, hold their breath.”
“In one movement, Maradona controls the ball with his right foot – the only time he would touch it with his significantly weaker foot – and already has his eyes raised toward goal. He then shifts the ball to his left foot, to which it will remain almost magnetically attracted for the rest of the move.”
“Three defenders – Stephane Demol, George Grun, and Patrick Vervoot – in unison, but clearly with little to no confidence, take tentative steps towards Maradona, like a herd of buffalos approaching a crocodile-infested lake. Maradona sensing blood, accepts the challenge head-on, literally. The herd instantly begins to retreat.”
“Suddenly the wall of red shirts begins to crumble – or so it seemed. In reality, unlike the more accommodating and stretched English defence, Belgium’s more cohesive – though not necessarily more proactive – backline was simply undone by Maradona’s sublime elusiveness. Where there had looked no way through a split second earlier, a chink of light appears. Maradona, as he had done against England, was about to bend space and time to his own will.”
“In the Belgian defence, there is a paralysis of decision-making. Demol and Grun are dismissed with a tap of the ball to the right. In hindsight, one or the other should have committed a foul on Maradona. A free-kick and booking would have been a small price to pay compared to the ensuing mayhem.”
“The next two touches, with the outside of his left foot, are the most devastating of the run. They account for Vervoort, the third victim of the move, who is now helpless to stop a Maradona suddenly gaining momentum away from him. As he steps into the penalty area, Maradona is at the centroid of a triangle of the three Belgian defenders. None are further than two meters away; none with any hope of stopping him.”
“Another touch and Maradona was now running towards his next victim, the panic-struck Eric Gerets. The Belgian captain, caught flatfooted by Maradona’s sudden change of direction and speed, is off balance and disoriented to such an extent that he has to execute a 270-degree turn to once again face his tormentor, now running parallel to, and away from, him.”
“For a split second, Gerets, a vastly experienced defender, had been twisted and turned into facing away from Maradona; a footballing equivalent of being on the dark side of the moon. Having regained his bearings, Gerets, quickly realizing the gig was almost up, launches into a desperate last-ditch lunge, as Terry Butcher had done in the quarter-final. It is too late. Even giving away a penalty is no longer an option.”
“Maradona has given himself that crucial, decisive yard. Six seconds; six touches. One with the right foot, five with the left. Maradona has only the goalkeeper to beat. Fatefully for Belgium, and their World Cup dreams, he prepares to deliver the seventh – the mercy bullet.”
In his autobiography, El Diego, Maradona said, “For the second, the credit was Cucciuffo’s and Valdano’s, who made it for me. This time, when I scored the goals, I thought of La Tota, of how happy she must be feeling about it because each game brought more joy.”
In his superlative book on the history of Argentine football, Angels With Dirty Faces, Jonathan Wilson describes it as a goal of “dazzling brilliance”.
Enzo Scifo said, “He made the difference because Argentina weren’t having a good day. Nor were we because we’d just played two games that went to extra time, and physically we were really feeling the effects. But he destroyed us.”
“I came up against a few great players in my career, but Maradona is among the ones who impressed me the most, and not simply because of his style of play. He had his own unique moves, but he also had an ability to always be clinical and change games single-handedly. I wondered how he did it. That’s why everyone admired him. He had a game intelligence that allowed him to be decisive at any moment.”
Germany featured in the finals for the second consecutive time. Under Franz Beckenbauer, the Germans were undergoing a rebuilding phase. Their display had not been satisfactory throughout the tournament because Beckenbauer’s team had injury problems and lacked the players who would give him the x-factor. Beckenbauer relied on maintaining defensive tactics and catch the opposition during transitions.
Beckenbauer noticed the Maradona revolution in Mexico and decided to engage the tough nut Lothar Matthaus to mark him as Beckenbauer and Berti Vogts did to Joan Cryuff in 1974 at Munich.
Matthaus probably did a great job while marking Maradona than anyone else had done in the entire tournament, but by now, the rest of the Argentine team were filled with so much confidence that they seemed to collectively acknowledge it was their turn to show up.
Argentina scored in the 23rd minute through the late Jose Brown, who would play with an injured shoulder throughout the final reminiscence of Beckenbauer against Italy in 1970 at the same venue.
The tie looked to be over after Valdano produced a composed finish after 55 minutes, which was actually started off by Maradona, and then Hector Enrique produced the final touch.
But never, ever dare to underestimate the Germans!
The Argentine defence became reluctant and it resulted in two corners. Karl Heinz Rummenigge and substitute Rudi Voller equalized in 74 and 81 minutes.
All of a sudden, the Miracle of Barns seemed to have revisited at Azteca.
Bilardo and Maradona knew very well about the nature of the Germans and particularly Maradona, paralyzed by the strict man-marking of Matthaus decided to produce a moment of genius again.
With nine minutes remaining, at the center of the park, Maradona, surrounded by three Germans, received a header from his teammate, which he passed, telepathically towards a space in front of him. He did not know, who would receive the ball, but used his instincts to drag the ball out of himself and put it in the space.
Burruchagga received the ball and made the run of his left. He was chased by Hans-Peter Briegel. Burruchagga was followed by Valdano so that if Burruchagga decided to cross the ball at the center, there had to be someone to receive, but the Argentine number 7, slid the ball past an advancing Harald Schumacher.
Argentina took the lead and in the dying moments of the most eventful finals in the history of the World Cup, the Maradona magic was still evident when he took on all the German defence to script yet another solo goal until Schumacher and German defenders stopped him with a tackle, which left Maradona flying.
Romualdo Arpi Filho, the Brazilian referee blew the final whistle.
Argentina, the no-hoppers and their flawed genius captain, Maradona had finally made it and shut the mouth of the critics, who never trusted him and the abilities of his team.
After Mexico 86, Maradona would create a long-lasting impact on world football.
He is still the best footballer ever to be born in Argentina.
He is our very own Hero Maradona!
You give me more and more each day…
Hallelujah for that special way
You have of loving me!”