When Mexico hosted the 13th
FIFA changed the format of the competition to increase the pack to 24 teams – six groups of four – with the top two plus the three best third place teams qualifying for a last 16 knockout. Three teams made their World Cup bows, Denmark, Canada and Iraq – qualifying despite Saddam Hussein’s nation being embroiled in the Iran-Iraq war.
The early influence of commercial television networks was evident, with many games kicking off in the searing midday heat to ensure maximum viewing figures. As a result, some of the matches dropped in pace and excitement, yet two sides who acclimatised impressively during the group stages came from the balmier climes of northern Europe.
Denmark, led by the mercurial Michael Laudrup, and the Soviet Union with a strong Dynamo Kiev contingent both topped their respective groups and banged in nine goals in the process. The stylish Danes won all three matches and sliced apart a talented Uruguay side in a 6-1 demolition with Preben Elkjaer scoring three. Unfortunately their open and expansive brand proved their downfall in the last 16 as Spain hit them for five and sent them packing.
Similarly short and sweet were the Soviets. Valeriy Lobanonskyi’s team smashed six past Hungary, comfortably beat Canada and drew with the French – a game noted for a spectacular Vassili Rats goal – but then came off on the wrong end of a seven goal thriller with Belgium in the next phase.
As usual the Germans and Italians made heavy weather of their groups but inched through. Spain and Brazil qualified together whilst France’s ageing 1982 side also made it to the knockouts. With the big guns all progressing, the plot was just unravelling, yet the biggest story of Mexico 86 was already well under way.
Diego Armando Maradona was the world’s most expensive – and arguably best – footballer. A billing he matched from the very beginning of Argentina’s campaign. At the peak of his form and fitness, the little maestro seemed hell-bent on rectifying the indignity of his last World Cup appearance, against Brazil in 1982 when he was sent-off and reduced to tears as his country were eliminated. In the first group game Maradona tortured South Korea setting up all the goals in a 3-0 win, he scored in the draw with Italy and tee’d up another goal in the win over Bulgaria. On the whole, this was no great Argentinian side, but Maradona’s exploits elevated their threat.
In the second round El Diego was hacked to within an inch of his life by the ruthless Uruguayans, but his men marched on to a tantalising quarter-final with England, whom, up until this point had arrived with high expectations. They did however make a mess of the group before producing a few stirring performances to re-ignite national hysteria. Sound familiar? In the first two group matches England failed to score in a defeat to Portugal and a draw with Morocco. To make things worse for Bobby Robson, skipper Bryan Robson had gone home injured and Ray Wilkins was suspended. England had to beat Poland in Monterrey to go through, so Gary Lineker’s hat-trick was very welcome indeed. Lineker hit another two in a 3-0 win over Paraguay to set up the quarter-final with the Argies. The gun-smoke had only just settled in the Falklands and there was still on-field bitterness since Antonio Rattin and co. disgraced Wembley in 1966. This meeting did little to appease hostilities.
We all know what happened next…the bitter-sweet assassination by a man dubbed ‘half devil, half angel’ by French newspaper L’equipe the following day. By now, Maradona was writing his own scripts and immortalised himself into football legend with those two goals, four minutes apart at the start of the second half. Lineker reduced the deficit and the Three Lions pressed with John Barnes missing late on, but it was another case of nearly for England. Maradona was not to be upstaged. The rest of the quarters proved to be a let-down. In stifling heat, high tension and low intensity meant the games were drab affairs, all settled by penalties. Only four goals were scored in a combined total of over six hours of morose football, as Brazil, West Germany and Belgium advanced after shoot-out’s against France, Mexico and Spain respectively.
The semi’s pitted Maradona’s Argentina against the previously un-fancied Belgians, and France against West Germany – appearing in an incredible seventh semi-final in the last nine tournaments. The machine like Germans were too strong for France, and goals from Andreas Brehme and Rudi Voeller put them into yet another final. Belgium, with a young Enzo Scifo pulling the strings had only progressed courtesy of the third place ruling, yet gathered momentum in the knock-out stages, beating the Soviet Union and Spain. However, their soiree was abruptly cut short by Argentina, or more to the point, that man Diego. It’s a measure of the man’s brilliance during this tournament that he replicated a ‘once in a lifetime goal’, in his very next match, just three days later. Having already put his side 1-0 up, Maradona scored another quite incredible solo goal. The man was unstoppable.
This was not a fact that Franz Beckenbauer overlooked when preparing his side to face Argentina in the final. The Germans had been typically unspectacular in getting this far, but remained the masters at Vorsprung durch technik-ing results. Beckenbauer decided to use his best player – Lothar Mattheus – to shadow Maradona and nullify his potency, but the move backfired. The Germans struggled to get into the match and as a result Argentina took control. Jose Luis Brown nodded in a first half free-kick to put them one up and Jorge Valdano made it two shortly after half-time. West Germany released the shackles to try to salvage the game and scrambled home two late set-pieces through Rummenigge and Voeller.
In the jubilation of the comeback the Germans lost their composure and shape, forgetting to revert back to plan A and shackle Maradona. Just three minutes after the equaliser he found himself with time and space in the middle of the park to thread a killer through ball for Jorge Burruchaga to run free and score the winner.
Never before, since or ever again will one World Cup be dominated by one player. Maradona turned a global showpiece into a personal stage, offering a unique, live insight into a chapter of the turbulent life of one of the most intriguing individuals ever to play the game. Other tournaments may boast more memorable matches and moments, but Mexico 86 was the finest hour of a true genius and should be remembered, embraced and cherished as such.