1986: The year of Diego Maradona
The 1986 World Cup in Mexico must be the only World Cup in the history of the tournament to be won by a single player. Not a team - in this game that defines teamwork - but one man. The 1986 World Cup begins and ends with Maradona.
It comes alive with Argentina’s first match, where the diminutive man feeds all three goals that his country scores past South Korea; for his third assist, he bursts into the box and brushes off two defenders - a sign of things to come - before squaring the ball across the goal. In their second match, he outmuscles his dogged Italian marker and reaches a lobbed pass inside the box and unleashes a powerful left footed drive from a tough angle. The match is drawn 1-1.
Against Bulgaria, which Argentina win 2-0, he provides the assist for the first goal. He scores both goals against Belgium in the semis for a 2-0 win - the first, a flick with the outside of the foot while two defenders and the goalkeeper clatter into him; the second, a marvel of speed and control, scything through four defenders and twisting into a shot that flies into the goal at an acute angle even as he loses balance at that speed. But wait. By then, that was not magic. It was just Maradona doing his thing.
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It was just an unstoppable force doing the inevitable. The ball gets glued to his left feet. No defender can keep up. He is everywhere. A bundle of muscle, a burst of pure energy, the Cosmic Kite, the ball goes where he wants it to go, he dictates matches, he owns the pitch.
It has all already happened before the hapless Belgians face him - him, not Argentina - in the semis.
It has happened in the match that will forever define Maradona, the two sides of the man, the devil and the angel, genius and rogue. It happens in the quarterfinal against England, where, in the space of a few minutes, Maradona provides the most divine and the most divisive memories of the World Cup. The first is a brazen, reckless, desperate move, him rising above the towering England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to meet a high ball with his fist. The world calls him a cheat; he says it’s the “Hand of God”.
His second simply becomes known as the “goal of the century” - never to be outshone in the collective memory of football for its sheer audacity and its improbable skill. The visual impact is indelible - Maradona, collecting the ball in his own half, spinning away from two defenders, and zooming off in a blinding, mazy run, chest out, tongue out, thighs pumping like the pistons from some steampunk monster engine and one by one, leaving seven English players flailing in his wake.
He had tried it before, six years earlier, at the Wembley - England vs Argentina again, May 1980 - but that time he had unleashed an angled shot that had whizzed just wide of the far post. Somehow, in the middle of this mesmeric run, Maradona remembers that moment. This time, he rounds the goalkeeper so nothing is left to chance. He travels 60 yards in 11 otherworldly seconds for that goal.
By the time he sends in a laser-guided through pass for Jorge Burruchaga to score Argentina’s World Cup winning goal in the final against West Germany, there is a whiff of the imminent in the air. Of course, the winning goal is set up by him.
There is statistical proof that this was a one-man World Cup, the only one-man World Cup. 71 percent of Argentina’s goals were either scored or assisted by Maradona in Mexico. In comparison, Pele scored or assisted 53 percent of Brazil’s goals in 1970.
1986 will always be the year of Maradona.
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