Diego Maradona first came to my consciousness way back in 1977. The UK magazine World Soccer was the source which generally quenched my thirst for football news across the globe. The internet of course was a long way off, and in those days you were fortunate to see foreign league results in small print in Monday editions of the quality UK broadsheets.
But in WSM it carried monthly references to the pibe (kid) who was causing more than a stir in Argentina, hosts of the next World Cup in 1978.
I recall thinking what a strange name for a league club, Argentinos Juniors. An English equivalent would have been English Juniors. I could never imagine a Football League club carrying such a moniker.
But this was Diego’s team, and he was was starring. How else would you make an international debut before turning 17, for the country about to host, and as it turned out win the World Cup.
He was in Cesar-Luis Menotti’s original selection of 40, but the chain-smoking coach opted to exclude the diminutive but stocky, raven-haired youngster when it came to settling on his final 22.
The rest of the globe was put on hold. It was Maradona’s first big disappointment in football.
But it wouldn’t be too long before the mercurial talent was unleashed to the world. Just under a year after Argentina controversially triumphed on home soil, a four-match European tour was organized. If successful, with matches against Holland (World Cup Runners-up), Italy (4th place) the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, it would go a long way to add credibility to the South Americans’ World Cup win.
Maradona was included and played in all four games, although coverage across the continent wasn’t widespread. The UK’s footballing insularity prevented many from knowing the games against Holland and Italy were even taking place, but by the time of the Scotland game, I was certainly keeping an eye out.
Unlike what would happen today, the game wasn’t broadcast live, but anyone listening to commentary on BBC Radio Two, that excellent provider of live wireless football in those days, would be left impatiently waiting for some game highlights on TV.
Superlatives rained down on the little Argentinian’s breath-taking display, which included his first-ever international goal, Argentina’s third, as he teased goal-keeper George Wood and a defender before clipping the ball past Wood’s near side and into the centre of the goal.
Maradona celebrated with a great leap in the air with the spring a certain England goalkeeper didn’t appreciate seven years later, and was mobbed by admiring team-mates.
It was a decent Scotland side: Dalglish, Hansen, each European Cup Winners with Liverpool, John Wark and Asa Hartford too.
Argentina still had the spine of their World Cup winners; Fillol, Tarantini, Passarella, Gallego, Houseman and Luque all played, but despite all these great talents on the pitch, one stood tall above all others.... the 18-year-old, the smallest man on the park.
Hansen was in no doubt.
“He was just magnificent. Unbelievable, and just a kid as well. The ball was almost stuck to his feet. He was so tough. He just had everything. We all knew that day that this was a player who was going to be the best in the world and he proved us all right.”
Maradona was back in the UK a year later, this time to grace the Wembley turf.
Where Argentina had defeated Scotland 3-1 in Glasgow, the scoreline in London was reversed, England played above themselves, but it didn’t stop Maradona, now at the ripe old age of 19, stealing the show.
The outstanding play of the game was when accepting a pass Barbas deftly placed through the legs of Ray Kennedy, Maradona held off and turned Liverpool’s Phil Thompson before accelerating between Neal and Sansom, the English full-backs. The beauty, power and final deft touch of it all deserved to give Argentina the lead as Clemence advanced from his goal. Maradona rolled the ball past the England goalkeeper, but agonizingly, shaved the wrong side of the post.
He made England look laden-footed at times, none more so than centre-back Dave Watson, who simply kicked him crudely to the ground in one instance, and Kenny Sansom, who ultimately conceded a penalty after being left in Maradona’s wake, upending him in the box.
Going to work the next morning, it wasn't all about how England had defeated the World Champions. It was all about, “Did you see Maradona?”
He bore the appearance far less of a footballer than a middleweight pugilist, a muscular little power-pack, with dark complexion, raven-black curly hair, full of brilliance and youthful exuberance.
Frankly, he was brilliant. England had won the game, deservedly so, but it had the feeling of them being just a hand-picked opponent for the main attraction, Diego Maradona.
We all awaited the beginning of the ‘82 World Cup with great anticipation. The name on everyone’s lips, including mine, was Maradona, but I was on my way over to Spain to support Northern Ireland, qualified for the first time in 24 long years.
Sat in a TV-less Belfast ferry terminal at the beginning of my journey and forced to miss the opening match on TV, we were amazed when news filtered from somewhere (I think someone phoned home) that the Belgians had upset the Argentine applecart, winning 1-0.
Maradona’s first World Cup managed to get only a little better, before becoming worse again. It was a World Cup too soon for the star 21-year-old and proved he still had plenty to learn.
He did score twice in the group against Hungary, but was smothered by Claudio Gentile in the second round, group of death game when Argentina lost to Italy, and cut a frustrated figure when red-carded after lashing out at Batista as Brazil’s best side since 1970 played Argentina off the park.
The World Champions had been well and truly dethroned.
Four years on, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. South Korea in their first World Cup for 34 years weren’t expected to trouble Argentina in their opening game, one to miss perhaps, except it was a first glimpse of Maradona in the tournament.
The Koreans were better than anticipated but didn’t seriously trouble Argentina. They were tougher than expected too. Chopping Maradona down was the only method to reduce his explosiveness. At least five card-worthy fouls on the number 10 went unpunished before finally the Spanish referee brandished yellow to Huh Jung-Moo a minute before the break.
Maradona had nutmegged his opponent, who thrust out an arm to prevent his progress. Ironically it was the most innocuous of all the fouls he’d suffered.
Argentina’s star man was all over the game. It was ‘only’ South Korea, but it was another, “Did you see Maradona?” scenario amongst my circle in the bar afterwards. His display was more than compelling, convincing me not to miss a minute of the diminutive #10 for the rest of the tournament.
His goal against Italy in the second game added to the hype. Chasing Valdano’s lofted return pass, Maradona was much too fleet of foot for Scirea, and accelerated past the Italian in the box. But it was the way despite the searing burst of pace, that he was able to apply the brakes and composure to produce the most delicate of finishes across Galli, who must have been expecting a thunderbolt volley.
Another top drawer display against Uruguay in a ferocious round of 16 clash helped in no small way to carry Argentina through. The Maradona highlight was a run early in the second-half, beginning with the dexterity of an Olympic hurdler, continuing with a couple more Uruguayans in his wake and which ended with Pasculli just failing to convert from two yards at the far post.
When two days later Lineker and Beardsley of England saw off the Paraguayan challenge it set up the match that was to become one of the most defining of Maradona’s career.
Azteca Stadium, June 22. A 250 seconds microcosm in the second-half of an even game probably summed up Maradona’s life. Fluctuating between impish, nefarious craftiness and superlative brilliance bordering on perfection, that’s how long it took between his two goals, the undoing of England.
The Falklands war was still fresh in the memory, Argentina then unable to repel Britain’s comparative military might. Four years on in Mexico City Maradona was saying you may have greater resources, you may be stronger in many other ways, but you are not better.
His illegal first goal could never be condoned, but even at that it was a moment of glorious technique and guile. Watching it, I didn’t detect an offence, it happened so quickly and cutely. Simply I thought, ‘Wow! He’s just out-jumped Shilton. Incredible!” But the English players’ reactions told the tale.
Perhaps this was Maradona’s revenge for the war, he got away with the offence undetected, his way of saying, ‘You might be stronger, but we’re smarter’.
A few minutes later the oft-dubbed ‘Goal of the Century’ saw a centre-line pirouette precede a powerful, exhilarating run past almost the entire England defence. They simply couldn’t get close. It was perpetual motion on an awfully bumpy surface. Again he was one-on-one with Shilton. The result even more inevitable this time, was the same. 2-0 Argentina.
It was a thing of beauty and of brilliance. You just couldn’t help but admire. Gary Lineker playing for England that day, said it was the only time on a pitch he ever felt like applauding a goal scored by an opponent.
If Maradona was telling England from his first goal that the Argentinians were smarter, this goal proclaimed, ‘You might be stronger, but we are better’.
Reaction in the UK was all over the place. The English, feeling a grave sense of injustice, hated it, the Scots on the other hand, were loving it!
It’s probably not too incredulous to suggest this was the moment Maradona was elevated to God-like status in his homeland. Referring afterwards to his first goal as ‘a little bit Diego’s head and a little bit the hand of God’, of course fuelled the narrative.
Maradona repeated his heroics in the semi-final victory over Belgium, scoring a goal similar to his superb second against the English, and in the final, he found a subliminal through ball for Burrachaga to win the match for an Argentina badly flagging, after two late German goals had plundered their belief.
Much has been written of the little man. The debates will rage on amongst fans until the end of time. I never subscribe to the ‘Greatest of All Time’ discussion. How can such a futile argument ever produce a conclusive result, or even an unsatisfactory one? Of course he’s in the mix, of that there can be no doubt whatsoever.
But I will say this...
Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup is the greatest individual display I have ever witnessed in elite tournament football. And I’ve been watching intently since 1970.
It is unequalled. He took his national team on a ride the same collection of players could never have expected, without his sheer brilliance. Without him they would not have reached such heights, of that I am totally convinced.
It really does sound ridiculous, I admit that, but I’ll take any criticism on the chin over this... if ever a one-man-team won a World Cup, then 1986 was it!