Diego Armando Maradona: 25 years since 1986
The name Diego Armando Maradona is considered by many to be synonymous with the phrase ‘The Greatest of All Time’ as far as football is concerned. Widely considered to be the only player to have won the World Cup single-handedly, Maradona scaled heights that very few footballers can even dream of touching. Even as a little boy, he would openly tell everyone about his ambition of playing in the World Cup and winning it for Argentina. He was left out of the Argentina’s World Cup winning squad in 1978 and in 1982, a red card against arch-rivals Brazil in the final second round match ended his participation in the tourney as Argentina failed to progress to the next stage. But it was in 1986 that Maradona reached the pinnacle as he led his team to victory. On the 29th of June 1986, Diego finally laid his hands on the Cup.
Maradona’s first big achievement at the international stage came in 1979 when he took Argentina to victory in the 1979 World Youth Championship, winning the Golden Ball award for the best overall player of the tournament in the process. El Diego didn’t have a memorable first World Cup as a member of the senior side. He did play all the five matches without being substituted though, until the red card against Brazil with five minutes remaining. Argentina were knocked out after the second round following defeats at the hands of Italy and Brazil and Maradona scored only two goals in the competition, both against Hungary in the first round. After the disappointment of the World Cup, Maradona joined Spanish club FC Barcelona after the 1982 tournament. But disputes with the administrators led to a transfer to Italian club, Napoli in 1984. It was in Naples that he reached the peak of his career and established himself as one of the greatest to have ever kicked a football.
Maradona was in top form leading up to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The stage was set and the 1986 World Cup would redefine the way the world looked at the Argentine maestro. Argentina were drawn in group A along with defending champions Italy, Bulgaria and South Korea. They started the campaign with a comfortable 3-1 win against South Korea in which El Diego played an instrumental role. A crucial equalizing goal from a highly unlikely angle, Maradona’s first goal of the tournament, helped Argentina secure a 1-1 draw against Italy. Another easy 2-0 victory over Bulgaria, in which Maradona provided assists for both the goals, took the Argentines into the knock-out stage as group champions. A narrow 1-0 win against fellow South Americans, Uruguay in the pre-quarter finals, in which Maradona had a goal disallowed, helped Argentina set up a quarter final clash against fierce rivals England.
The match was played on June 22 1986 with the background of the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom. Over 100,000 fans were present in the Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium to witness one of the most controversial matches in football history. Diego Maradona created a number of opportunities in the first half, but England’s goal-keeper, Peter Shilton, kept them all out and England in the match as the half ended goalless. The second half saw Maradona score two of the most famous goals in the history of the game. Six minutes into the second half, a cross from the right flank scooped up after a deflection from the defender. Maradona, who was waiting in the box, outjumped Shilton despite his shorter stature and punched the ball into the net. The referee didn’t notice it and the goal stood, much to the dismay of the Englishmen. He claimed in the post-match conference that the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”, coining the phrase “Hand of God” to describe the goal. If the Hand of God goal was controversial, the next one put the question of his talent beyond doubt, for minutes after the controversy came a goal which is considered to be the greatest individual goal of all-time. Maradona received the ball a good 10 metres inside his own half. He turned around and dashed for the goal, running for more than half the length of the pitch and skipping past five English players into the box. He dribbled round Shilton and put the ball in the back of the net to make it 2-0 in favour of Argentina. This goal was voted the “Goal of the Century” in an online poll conducted in 2002 by FIFA. Gary Linekar managed to pull a goal back but Argentina held on and secured a spot in the semis. The majesty of one of Maradona’s strikes and the notoriety of the other led to France’s L’Equipe newspaper describing him as “half-angel, half-devil”.
In the semi-final against Belgium, Maradona struck twice again in the second half, including another extraordinary dribbling display for the second goal, to take Argentina to the final where they were up against West Germany. Maradona had a relatively quiet game in the final as the opponents tried to contain him by double marking. Argentina led 1-0 at half-time and soon after the break it became 2-0. However, West Germany fought back and drew level with goals in the 74th and 80th minute. It was then that Maradona played his most significant part in the game as he managed to find enough space to slip through a pass to Jorge Burruchaga who scored the winning goal seven minutes from time. Maradona’s childhood dream had been realised. Tears rolled down the cheeks as he lifted the World Cup and his team-mates lifted him on their shoulders. Maradona was also the obvious choice for player of the tournament with five goals and five assists.
Maradona touched several heights with his club Napoli after the 1986 triumph. He captained Argentina to the final again in the 1990 World Cup But this time they stumbled at the final frontier as West Germany avenged their loss four years ago with a 1-0 victory in the final. He played a couple more games in 1994 too, even scoring a goal in one of them, but he was sent home mid-way into the tournament after failing a drugs test. Cocaine addiction and health issues kept him in the headlines even after retirement. But problems in his personal life have not been able to overshadow his deeds on the football pitch. In a fan poll conducted by FIFA in 2000 to elect the FIFA Player of the century, Maradona secured top position with a whooping 53.6% of the total votes. Jorge Valdano, a member of the 1986 World Cup winning squad, summarizes Maradona perfectly:
“He is someone many people want to emulate, a controversial figure, loved, hated, who stirs great upheaval, especially in Argentina… Stressing his personal life is a mistake. Maradona has no peers inside the pitch, but he has turned his life into a show, and is now living a personal ordeal that should not be imitated.”
Whatever happens and whatever people say, one thing can be rest assured – there never was and and in all probability there never will another figure like Diego Maradona.