Football in its very essence is a team game, eleven men working together to achieve one result. Having said that, occasionally there are exceptions to the rule. Every now and then a player puts in a performance where they seem to be playing on their own, tying up a whole defence almost single-handedly. Most of these games are one-offs, some are just a reflection of their team mates poor form. In the case of Argentina’s Diego Maradona at the Mexican World Cup in 1986 however, it was simply because he was better than anyone else at the tournament.
Born in 1960 in Buenos Aires, the young Maradona takes to football immediately. At age ten he entertains the half-time crowd at the Argentinos Juniors Stadium with his already unbelievable ball-juggling skills. Five years later he makes his debut for their first team ten days before his sixteenth birthday. As talented as he clearly is, he doesn’t look like the average footballer with his squat 5ft 5in frame. It becomes clear though that Maradona is deceptively strong, quick and importantly can run with the ball just as fast as without. Over the next four years Maradona’s reputation grows and in 1978 he becomes the Metropolitano Championship’s youngest ever top-scorer. He repeats this feat in 1979 and 1980, the latter also being the year when Maradona drives Argentinos Juniors into a second place finish just behind River Plate, their best ever league position to date.
By the time that Boca Juniors purchase Maradona for £1m in 1980, he has already had his first brush with controversy. The £1m fee was a world record at the time for a teenager but he’s already an established international footballer. Maradona made his debut for the Albiceleste in 1977 just four months into his professional football career. Playing in a friendly against Hungary as a 16 year-old, the crowd immediately recognise the potential he represents. Coach César Luis Menotti faces a choice for the 1978 World Cup - Maradona or Mario Kempes, potential or experience? When he opts for Kempes and cuts Maradona from his 25-man squad when announcing his final 22, there’s huge national debate. Maradona himself falls out with Menotti at his exclusion and becomes a polarising figure for the Argentine football public.
As Argentina win the World Cup and Kempes himself takes the Golden Boot, Menotti’s choice has been vindicated. Maradona, smarting from missing the chance to play for his beloved Argentina in a World Cup on home soil, takes his frustrations out on the pitch. The following year he travels to Japan for the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championship and is exceptional. Voted unanimously as Player of the Tournament, Maradona scores in all but one of Argentina’s six games. The young Argentines leave with the trophy and an outstanding record – played six, won six, scored twenty, and conceded two. Captain Maradona has been the star, pulling the strings when dropping deep and deadly up front. He saves his best performance for the final against the Soviet Union, a 3-1 win where he bags the third goal with a wonderful free kick.
When Boca Juniors sign Maradona it seems to be a marriage made in heaven. Maradona loves Boca and Boca loves him, the local boy who was a childhood fan now being compared to Pelé in terms of his potential. He leads them to a title and is consistently brilliant. The biggest clubs in Europe are now circling eager to pick him up before the World Cup in Spain where it’s felt Maradona is destined to be the star of the tournament. Internationally Diego is now established in the full side and all acrimony with Menotti has been forgotten as in attacking terms, the game plan very much revolves around him. After scoring his first goal against Scotland in 1979 and then his World Youth Championship heroics, he has become the main source of the national team’s inspiration.
Spain ’82 doesn’t go to plan for Argentina or Maradona. Playing every minute of their first group games, he can’t prevent the holders losing to Belgium in their opener. Picking their form up Argentina thrash Hungary 4-1 in the second game, Maradona plays well and scores twice. A final win over El Salvador secures qualification into a second group stage where Argentina face Italy and Brazil. Despite his best efforts in the face of some overly physical attention, Italy beat them 2-1 and then old rivals Brazil offer a final ignominy. 3-0 down and with Argentina facing elimination from the tournament, the 85th minute sees Maradona lunge at Brazilian substitute Joao Batista clumsily. Despite protests from his team mates, Maradona receives a red card and leaves the tournament in controversy. The holders are out and Maradona has never really sparkled consistently like many were predicting.
Despite the World Cups trials and tribulations Maradona’s mind is immediately elsewhere - he has a new challenge ahead. Boca Juniors have reluctantly agreed to sell their star player while his price is at a premium and that premium is a world record £3,000,000. Spanish giants Barcelona, now managed by Menotti, win the race for the little man’s signature. Club president Jose Luis Nunez has been instrumental in bringing the best prospect in the world to his club.
Maradona struggles at first but finds his feet in a strong Barca side. In 1983 however he suffers a huge blow when the ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ – Athletics’ defender Andoni Goikoetxea Olaskoaga – shatters his left ankle in a horror challenge. Out for four months, on his return he continues to suffer from rough treatment and injury throughout the rest of his time at Barcelona. By 1984 a move away suits both club and Maradona, his form has been patchy and he’s unhappy in the city and with the club’s directors. Juventus are interested but their president rejects the idea of buying Maradona on the grounds he’s too short to cope with the physical Italian league.
Napoli have no such fears. Barcelona are happy to sell to a club who they don’t class as European trophy rivals. Maradona holds talks with the club and is immediately keen on the move and agrees to sign. Another world record fee is brokered, Napoli pay £5,000,000 for el Diego’s services and sell thousands of season tickets on the back of the transfer. Happier domestically and adored by his Italian public, Maradona starts a revolution and Napoli rise to third in Serie A.
1986 brings a happier Maradona another chance to play at a World Cup. Expectation is at record levels and coach Carlos Bilardo has made Maradona captain and fulcrum of the national side. Qualification has seen Argentina top their group and average two goals a game, they are placed amongst the favourites for the cup from the outset. Like Brazil in 1970, Argentina are naturally acclimatised and ready for the tournament. Originally given to Columbia, the finals were awarded to Mexico after fears about security and resources came to light in 1982. Once again some games will be played at midday and the heat is ferocious. Argentina are drawn into Group A with the holders Italy, Bulgaria and South Korea. With two teams guaranteed to qualify from each group, a third if they are one of the best third placed finishers, Argentina are expected to progress relatively easily.
The Argentinean plan for Mexico ‘86 is all about Diego Maradona. Coach Bilardo has got him relishing in both the responsibility of being captain and his role in the system. Argentina are playing with a loose 3-5-2 that allows Maradona the freedom to play how he likes to play. The freer role lets him come deep and control the game or burst forward to score when the opportunity arises. Their first game approaches and Argentina face South Korea. Italy and Bulgaria have already played out a 1-1 draw so the chance is there for Argentina to take the early initiative.
Maradona is immediately singled out for rough treatment but he has grown stronger than 1982. Argentina now play in a new fashion and predominantly through Maradona - old captain and former talisman Daniel Passarella is not involved due to illness leaving no spectre of ’78 over the team. Six minutes in Maradona is fouled by midfielder Huh Jung-Moo, he collapses clutching his left knee but recovers to take the free kick. As his effort fails to beat the wall, he cleverly heads it forward towards Real Madrid striker Jorge Valdano. Valdano cushions the ball and strikes the opener; Maradona is already having a decisive influence.
Twenty minutes in and Argentina are well on top, Jorge Burruchaga has hit the post from distance and Argentina have another free kick with Maradona over the ball. His cross is headed in by defender Oscar Ruggeri and Argentina have a two goal cushion. It stays that way until the 46th minute when Maradona explodes onto a loose header out wide on the right. Taking on two men he barrels past them and crosses to the far post. Missed by defender and goalkeeper alike, Valdano lurks and taps in his second. Argentina eventually run out 3-1 winners, Maradona has had a hand in all three and it’s clear he's trying to stamp his authority on the tournament already.
Argentina now face the holders and Maradona’s new adopted country Italy. The Italians are well organised and passionately supported, Maradona is man marked and picked up every time he finds a little space. Behind to a sixth minute penalty, he begins to move more expansively to find room desperate not to lose to a side that beat them in ‘82. With his influence on the game growing by the minute, in the 34th minute he slips his marker and breaks into the box. Valdano has flighted a ball his way and having to take it high with both feet off the ground, Maradona conjures a finish that leaves Italian keeper Giovanni Galli rooted to the spot. With the scores now level Argentina continue to knock on the door, Italy remain dangerous and tempers flare. A series of bad challenges from both sides mar the rest of the game. Italy hit the post in the second half but neither side score again. With a 1-1 draw Argentina have three points, Maradona one goal and three assists.
All but assured of qualification barring a goal difference catastrophe in their last game, Argentina face Bulgaria relatively pressure free. Valdano heads them into an early lead and Maradona lights up the first half with a breathtaking run past the entire Bulgarian defence. His shot flashes just wide but it’s a sign of things to come. With ten minutes to go Maradona breaks down the left wing, collects the ball and crosses for Burruchaga to nod in a second. Argentina have walked through their group and qualify top, Maradona is now beginning to hit peak form...