Every World Cup has its stars. Every World Cup also has a Golden Ball winner (tournament’s best player). However, the impact that Diego Maradona made in Argentina’s victory at the 1986 World Cup is unparalleled. No single player contributed as much as he did for his team in the tournament’s history.
Maradona’s precocious talent was evident from a very young age. Not even 10 years old, he was picked up by the junior team of Buenos Aires’ Argentinos Juniors. As a 12-year-old ball boy, he amused spectators by showing his wizardry with the ball during the half-time intervals of first division games. In 1976, 10 days before his 16th birthday, he made his professional debut for the Argentinos Juniors. A few months later he was awarded his first international cap. Maradona was one of the last three players dropped from the 1978 World Cup when manager Mennotti finalised his 22 player squad. Argentina lifted the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 1979, with the 18-year-old Maradona winning the Golden Ball.
He was expected to make his mark at the global stage during the 1982 World Cup. Argentina, the defending champions, bowed out in the second round. Maradona played all five matches scoring two goals. He was tightly marked throughout. After being fouled repeatedly in all matches and especially in the last game against Brazil, Maradona’s temper eventually got the better of him and he was sent off with five minutes remaining for a serious retaliatory foul against Batista da Silva.
In 1984, Maradona had been sold by Barcelona to Napoli, in Italy’s Serie A, for a world record fee of $10.48 million. Barcelona had earlier bought him from Argentina in 1982 for then world record fee of $7.6 million. Maradona was the only player to have earned the honour of being the world’s most expensive transfer, twice.
By the time the 1986 World Cup arrived, the 25-year-old Maradona was a battle hardened professional. At Mexico, the Argentine captain literally ran the show. Maradona made his mark straight away. Argentina started the campaign by beating South Korea 3-1; with Maradona bagging a hat-trick of assists. Next was the toughest group tie, against Italy, the defending Champions. Argentina fell behind as early as the sixth minute. It was the 5 foot 5 inch pocket dynamo Diego Maradona who netted the equaliser and forced the match into a 1-1 draw. In the last group game, Bulgaria were defeated 2-0 but Argentina only breathed easily when the second goal arrived in the 77th minute via a Maradona assist.
Argentina defeated Uruguay in the round of 16 by a lone goal to progress into the quarter-final to set up an encounter against England. The two nations had fought a bitter war over the Falkland Islands just four years back. Argentina had lost that war and many Argentines saw it as a prospect for revenge.
The much awaited tie is now a part of the football folklore; not for one but two incidents both involving Maradona. The opening goal, in the 51st minute, was ‘made’ by Maradona as the replays showed the ball was punched by him into the goal. He himself was evasive, describing the goal scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
Within four minutes, ‘the hand of God goal’ was completely overshadowed by the greatest of all the goals. Starting in his own half, Maradona sprinted 60 metres, neatly eliminating four defenders one by one through delightful dribbles before rounding the goal keeper to score, and stun hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. It has been officially voted as the ‘goal of the century’ by FIFA. England could only manage a late consolatory goal to reduce the margin.
Argentina came across Belgium in the semi-final. After the baffling goal against England, the eyes of the whole football world were on one man; who provided yet another effervescent show. Maradona ran the Belgian defence ragged scoring the only two goals of the match. The second of which was again the culmination of a breath taking run.
The mighty West Germany ‘the ultimate tournament team’ awaited Maradona and Argentina in the final. Majestic Azteca, the biggest football stadium in the world jam packed with 115,000 spectators, witnessed a classic duel.
The methodical Germans, as expected, had tightly marked Maradona. But the legends can never be subdued; they always find a way. A free kick, resulting from a foul on Maradona, brought the first goal through a header by Brown in the 22nd minute. 10 minutes into the second half, the lead was doubled, the magician was involved again. A fluent move between Maradona and Enrique caught out the German defence, and Valdano had only the goal keeper to beat with sufficient space; which he easily did.
Germans’ never die spirit meant it was all level by the 80th minute through two opportunistic goals. Mere mortals might have been depressed by the sudden turn of events but not the Argentine captain. The man who later jointly won the FIFA Player of the Century award, along with Pele, provided the match winner. Burruchaga scored the clincher in the 83rd minute after being put into the clear by Maradona’s defence splitting pass; one of the finest assists ever seen.
Maradona went on to win the Golden Ball along with the World Cup trophy. A statue of him scoring the ‘Goal of the Century’ was built and placed at the entrance of the Azteca Stadium. Many regard that he won the World Cup virtually single handedly.
Statistics: During the tournament, Maradona attempted or created more than half of Argentina’s shots at goal, embarked on 90 dribbles some three times more than any other player and was fouled 53 times winning his team twice as many free kicks as any player. Of Argentina’s 14 goals, Maradona scored five and assisted another five. His country’s victorious campaign was rightly summed up, ‘For Argentina, it was Maradona and 10 men’.
His exploits at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico set a new bar for individual performances that may not be reached again.