By Rajan Philips –
The 1986 World Cup in Mexico was the first and the only World Cup tournament that I have watched in full and live – every match from the early rounds to the end. Argentina won the tournament, beating Germany 3-2 in the finals. Diego Maradona was the Argentinian captain. He was 26. It was not just Maradona led his team to victory, he carried the whole team throughout the tournament. He owned the tournament. Argentina was a strong team, but not a cup favourite when the tournament started. France and Brazil were. But they met in the quarterfinals, and France edged past Brazil in penalty shootout. Then the Germans upset the favoured French in the semis and unexpectedly found a spot in the finals.
Argentina’s route to the final was more dramatic and convincing, beating England in the quarterfinals, and then besting Belgium in the semis, both high quality matches. It is the quarterfinal encounter between Argentina and England and Maradona’s two goals in it that became the stuff of legend and made him a permanent national icon in his country. It was the first encounter between the two countries in any forum after the Falklands war four years earlier. There was much riding on it for both teams, if not the two countries. The world was watching.
England was not a bad team. In fact, it was a good team, perhaps the best English team that was assembled after the World Cup-winning-famous-home team of 1966, and the unfortunately losing team four years later, also in Mexico. Captained by the impressive Bryan Robson, the 1986 team had in its ranks among others, the tournament’s best goal keeper in Peter Shilton; the winner of the Golden boot for scoring the highest number of tournament goals, Gary Lineker; and a formidable left-winger in John Barnes, the only Black Player in a European team at that time. Unfortunately, skipper Robson was injured during the second round and was ruled out for the quarterfinal against Argentina.
As for Argentina, it had won the World Cup at home in 1978, two years after the country came under military dictatorship. Maradona should have played then but was left out of the team because he was considered too young at 18. He made his debut in 1982, in Spain, but the tournament was a disaster for Maradona and his team. It was also the year of the Falkland war and Argentina had just been ‘defeated’ by Britain then under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, more imperious than her self-possessed Queen.
A deflated Argentinian team was eliminated in the second round, and Maradona was the target of pre-meditated foul play by every team that he faced. The Italians who went on to win the cup had one designated player commit over thirty fouls on Maradona with no yellow or red card. In his last match against Brazil, Maradona returned the foul favour and was thrown out of the field. One year later, in 1983, the military dictatorship was overthrown, and democracy was restored. And national football no longer had to be the political football of military juntas.
The Argentina-England match started tight and balanced and the first half ended goalless. Then Maradona took over and cast his magical spell in a span for four minutes. At the 51st minute, Maradona cut in from the left, made a pass and kept moving, looking for the return pass, but the return came from a defending miscue of an English midfielder. The ball looped into the penalty box between Maradona and the English goalie. The much shorter Maradona leapt for the header with his left hand raised. The ball went off his hand and the officials missed it. There was no replay then and the goal stood. England felt cheated, but the Argentinians did not care. It became the ‘hand of God goal’, after Maradona famously described it as the goal scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Any misgiving about it was erased with what Maradona did four minutes later.
He got a pass inside his own half and started a 60-yard, 10-second sprint smothering four English players along the way, some of them twice. Inside the penalty box, he fooled the experienced Shilton with a feint and as Shilton stumbled and fell on his backside, Maradona tapped in the “goal of the century.” The Scottish commentator on my TV channel went ecstatic: “Maradona took the ball midfield and ran through the entire English side to score the goal of the century.” England came back thirty minutes later with a great finish by Lineker off a typical English long aerial pass from the left extreme by Barnes. It was too little, too late. Maradona was gracious in victory. He complimented the English defenders for playing fair. He called them the noblest of footballers. Any other team, he said, would have cut him down halfway through.
Short at 5’5’’ but mightily sturdy, Maradona was unique as a complete football player. He could and would do anything in any position on the field. At the tensest moment in a World Cup match he would grab the ball and make a throw himself from the sideline. He wanted to direct the play all the time, and seemingly had a 360 degree field view. He scored another memorable goal in the semi final against Belgium, and made the perfect pass for the winning goal against Germany in the final. As an international professional player, after a short stint in Barcelona, he took his football to Napoli in Italy and became the raucous idol of that raucous City – taking them to Italian championship victories twice in a row.
Off the field, he became the organic embodiment of the frustrations and aspirations of a mass of followers within Argentina and across Latin America. In 2000, FIFA declared Maradona and Pele as the sport’s two greatest players. Brazil’s Pele, who won three World Cups is the poster boy of decorum. Maradona became football’s prodigal son. He did not hurt anybody except himself ever since he became addicted to cocaine. It ruined his football and now has caused his early death at the age of sixty. Born to poverty and raised in the slums of Buenos Ares as a resourceful street urchin, Maradona reached fame and glory in a continent and beyond where throngs of people find their collective opium in football. He was loved by his fans and has left a nation in mourning, officially for three days and otherwise forever.