World Cup Greats: Recalling Diego Maradona's Argentina in 1986
The 1986 World Cup, held in Mexico, featured 12 venues, 24 teams, 52 games and 132 goals, but to this day it is best remembered for the deeds of one diminutive man.
Argentina defeated West Germany 3-2 in the final on June 29 in the Azteca Stadium to lift the World Cup trophy, having been inspired by the miraculous feats of their 25-year-old captain, Diego Armando Maradona.
Aside from Maradona, Argentina's squad contained a smattering of top-class players, such as Real Madrid forward Jorge Valdano and the talented attacking midfielder Jorge Burruchaga. However, the team was criticized in the lead up to the tournament for being too defensive.
The Albicelestes' only World Cup triumph to that point had come eight years earlier on home soil.
That team was coached by the charismatic Cesar Luis Menotti, who valued beautiful football above all else and encouraged fluid, attacking play.
The 1986 edition of Argentina, however, was managed by Carlos Bilardo, a much more pragmatic, defense-minded tactician.
Many Argentines were highly critical of his style and pessimistic about the team's chances in Mexico, especially after Bilardo axed talismanic captain Daniel Passarella and put Maradona in charge.
In an interview with Carlos Jurado for Marca in 2006, Bilardo said there were plenty of naysayers in Argentina before the tournament:
I remember that there were many articles criticizing Diego before the World Cup. Because I made him captain in place of Passarella and that he shouldn't even be in the squad after what happened in Spain in '82, let alone the starting side. That Maradona was a failure for the national team.
They said to me, 'Bochini is better than Maradona', and I didn't respond.
Diego himself said to me, 'we're on our own.' And look what happened then.
Maradona and Bilardo would soon silence the critics with extreme prejudice.
Bilardo introduced a novel tactical setup for the Seleccion in 1986, a 3-5-2 formation which was revolutionary at the time, but so successful that it would become commonplace by the time the 1990 World Cup rolled around.
The counter-attacking system was built from the midfield backwards, with up to seven players given largely defensive roles.
In front of Nery Pumpido in goal were three defenders: stoppers Jose Luis Brown and Jose Luis Cuciuffo, and libero Oscar Ruggeri.
Sergio Batista was the most defensive of the midfield five, though Hector Enrique and the more advanced Jorge Burruchaga were expected to contribute to marker defense, as were Ricardo Giusti on the right and Julio Olarticoechea, who would often drop back to join the defensive line, on the left.
The whole machine would have failed to spark, of course, without its most crucial component.
Maradona was the dynamo who turned movement into electricity, linking the play and igniting the attacks.
Jorge Valdano was generally the most advanced player, cutting in from the right to benefit from Maradona's creativity, while Burruchaga also made forward runs in from the left side.
The 4-4-2 formation that the vast majority of teams were using in Mexico was ill-suited to countering Bilardo's tactics, as they found themselves faced with a wall of defenders when in possession, and reinforced in the wrong areas of the pitch when Argentina, who played without the traditional pair of target men up front, had the ball.
The Group Stage
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The teams were organized into six groups containing four teams apiece, with the top two sides in each group going through along with the four best third-placed sides.
The Seleccion's biggest threat in Group A was Italy, who had won the previous World Cup in Spain in 1982, having defeated Argentina 2-1 along the way.
Argentina 3 - 1 South Korea
Maradona showed in Argentina's first game of the tournament that he was well and truly at the peak of his powers and ready to take a stranglehold on the competition by orchestrating a comfortable win over the South Koreans.
Valdano curled in the first goal from a tight angle after a Maradona free kick rebounded into his path, before Ruggeri headed home another free kick from the No. 10 to make it 2-0 inside 20 minutes.
The third Argentina goal was contrived by "El Diego" as well, as he scooted past South Korean defenders down the right and sent a cross in for Valdano to tap in.
The South Americans dropped their intensity from that point on, and conceded thanks to a long-range Park Chang-Sun effort 17 minutes before the end.
Argentina 1 - 1 Italy
In the only game that Argentina failed to win in Mexico, Alessandro Altobelli put the reigning world champions in front from the penalty spot on six minutes after Burruchaga had handled in the box.
Maradona exorcised the demons of the 1982 World Cup, where he was brutally marked out of the game by Claudio Gentile, to score an exquisite equalizing goal.
Valdano scooped the ball diagonally over the Italian defense to Maradona, whose delicate shot rolled across the face of goal and found the far corner.
Argentina 2 - 0 Bulgaria
The Albicelestes cruised comfortably into the knock-out stages by defeating Bulgaria in their final group game.
The ruthless Valdano continued his fine form in front of goal, heading home a cross from the right after three minutes.
Maradona skipped past his marker down the left and hooked in a perfect cross for Burruchaga to head in Argentina's second goal.
Final Standings (points)
1. Argentina (5)
2. Italy (4)
3. Bulgaria (2)
4. S. Korea (1)
The Round of 16 Against Uruguay
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Argentina 1 - 0 Uruguay
The scoreline gives little indication of the extent to which Argentina, and in particular Maradona, dominated this South American grudge match.
The Uruguayans were so intent on containing their opponent's shaggy haired captain that they offered virtually no attacking threat themselves.
Ultimately, Maradona proved uncontainable, wriggling through the midfield at will and consistently laying on passes for his teammates, who should have finished more chances.
Argentina's winner was scored by Pedro Pasculli just before half time following a slick passing movement down the right.
The Quarter-Final Against England
Argentina 2 - 1 England
The quarter-final between Argentina and England was the most memorable encounter of the 1986 World Cup, and the defining match of Diego Maradona's career.
The No. 10 had an early free kick tipped over the bar by Peter Shilton after the shot had taken a huge deflection off the England wall.
Argentine goalkeeper Nery Pumpido nearly gifted England a goal when he chased a ball outside his box, but Peter Beardsley could not take advantage as he failed to find the open net with his curling shot from a tough angle.
Maradona won a free kick just outside the England box when his scything run was halted illegally by Kenny Sansom, but his shot flew just wide, and the sides went into the break tied at nil-all.
In the 51st minute, Maradona once again weaved his way through the English midfield before pushing the ball to Valdano on the edge of the box. Steve Hodge attempted to clear the ball but only managed to flick it dangerously towards his own keeper.
The Argentine captain raced through and, reaching the ball just before Shilton did, escorted it into the net with his palm. Neither the referee or the linesman noticed the subtle use of the hand, and the goal was awarded.
Four minutes later, Maradona scored a goal which is now etched into the mind of every football fan on the planet, picking the ball up inside his own half and sashaying effortlessly past every English defender who tried to halt his exquisite passage, never once touching the ball with his right foot and never once looking like he wouldn't score.
England showed incredible pluck to maintain their composure after that double blow, and managed to get a goal back courtesy of a Gary Lineker header with nine minutes remaining.
Argentine substitute Carlos Tapia hit the post after more astonishing lead up play from "El Diego," then Lineker almost scored an equalizer but somehow headed wide from close range.
The match finished 2-1, however, and Argentina progressed to the semi-finals.
The Semi-Final Against Belgium
Argentina 2 - 0 Belgium
Just in case anybody thought Diego Maradona's stunning performance against England in the quarter-final had been a fluke, the little maestro repeated the dose against Belgium in the semis.
He timed a diagonal run to the right perfectly to latch on to a beautiful Burruchaga through ball and spoon it with the outside of his left foot over Belgian custodian Jean Marie Pfaff for the opening goal.
For his second trick, Maradona shimmied through a cluster of Belgian defenders then finished past Pfaff to register a sublime individual goal to put on the mantelpiece alongside his effort against England.
Argentina had qualified for their third World Cup final, and Maradona had increased his goal tally to five for the tournament.
The Final Against West Germany
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Argentina 3 - 2 West Germany
Jose Luis Brown soared high to head home the first goal for Argentina in front of 114,600 fans at the Azteca Stadium.
Though Maradona was kept relatively quiet by the tenacious man-marking of Lothar Matthaeus, Argentina's collective effort saw them dominate the majority of the contest.
The Albicelestes appeared to have the trophy in the bag when Valdano overlapped down the left and finished coolly past Harald Schumacher to make the score 2-0 after 56 minutes.
The introduction of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Dieter Hoeness helped swing the momentum in West Germany's favor, and the former halved the deficit 16 minutes before the end of regular time, before goal-machine Rudi Voeller equalized.
Maradona had one final moment of genius to contribute to the tournament, however, as he played a visionary pass through to Burruchaga who raced through on goal and slid the ball under Schumacher with six minutes left on the clock.
The goal clinched the match and a second world title for Argentina.
It was almost an understatement to award Diego Maradona the Golden Ball for player of the tournament.
Though it is unfair to say Argentina was a one-man team, as they could count on a handful of world-class talents and the brilliant mind of Bilardo to guide them, there is little doubt that without their influential No. 10, their chances of winning the whole competition would have taken a significant nosedive.
Never before or since has any one player loomed so large over a World Cup.