A genius to many, a cheat to a select few, Diego Maradona enjoyed a rollercoaster of emotions during his international career with Argentina. No more did the little maverick entertain such divisive qualities than on the 22nd June 1986. For on that sweltering day at the Azteca in Mexico City, Maradona would provide a glimpse of the best and the worst of his unique talent.
Argentina and England were joint-favourites when they met at the quarter-final stage of the FIFA World Cup. Bobby Robson’s side had coughed and spluttered along the way. Maradona’s Argentina were growing in the ascendency. It was the perfect match for La Albiceleste, with the revenge of the Falklands War from four years ago weighing heavily on their minds.
An unbeaten Argentina in the World Cup saw Maradona line up behind Jorge Valdano. It was goalless after an uneventful first half. But it came to life in the second with Maradona, the star man. As he stormed past Glenn Hoddle, his pass to Valdano was wildly intercepted by Steve Hodge who hooked the ball towards the area where now the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Maradona were chasing.
As both lept up to touch the ball, Maradona beat Shilton’s hand with his very own, and it rolled into the net. “Come hug me, or the referee won’t allow it,” exclaimed Maradona to his teammates. The goal stood, while England was bemused and Maradona had just scored the Hand of God.
Moments later, Maradona received the ball just inside the Argentine half. Spinning, turning and slaloming his way towards the England penalty area, Maradona’s run had everyone off their seats. England could not touch him.
Maradona expertly rounded Shilton to double Argentina’s advantage with one of the best goals in FIFA World Cup history. It was sensational.
Argentina won 2-1 and would now play Belgium in the semi-finals.
It would become Maradona’s day again. Two goals, one a little dink and the second, another piece of genius. Maradona took on four players before sliding his shot past the Belgian goalkeeper. The two goals were enough to send Argentina through to the final and a place against West Germany.
The German coach Franz Beckenbauer had done his homework. The young and vibrant Lothar Matthaus was given one job – to stop Maradona shooting. When both teams walked onto the Azteca for the final, memories of Argentina’s first title in 1978 came flooding back.
He was too young to be named in the squad on home soil – that tournament was for Mario Kempes. Four years later, Maradona remembered the excruciating pain he faced as opposition players throughout the tournament booted him. 1986 was to be his year.
Maradona turned from goalscorer to provider in the final. Even when West Germany had come from 2-0 down to level at 2-2, Maradona was still pulling strings in midfield.
Matthaus stopped his man from scoring, but he could not stop Maradona lob the ball through to Jorge Burruchaga to score the winner. It cemented Maradona’s place as one of the world’s greats. He was a World Cup winner and Argentina’s captain too.
When the 1990 FIFA World Cup arrived, Argentina were favourites once again. They, however, struggled throughout, beginning with a shock opening day defeat to debutants Cameroon. Penalty shoot-out wins over the ten men of Yugoslavia, and the host’s Italy, Argentina had somehow rolled into the final unannounced.
It was a repeat of the showdown four years ago in Mexico. Instead of enormous support in the Azteca, the Argentines and Maradona were jeered in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Maradona mouthed profanities to the crowd when the Argentine national anthem was booed. It was not going to be the easiest of 90 minutes for a player now plying his trade in Italy for Serie A side Napoli. Maradona was riding the crest of a wave four years, the final in 1990 would be the start of his international downfall.
Argentina finished the final with nine players and lost to an Andy Brehme penalty with bearly minutes to go. For his protestations towards the end, Maradona was booked. As one famous commentator said, “his world really is in tatters now.”
With the sounding of the final whistle, a crying Maradona was booed every time his face appeared on the stadium screen. His refusal to shake the hand of the then FIFA president Joao Havelange created some criticism. Maradona did not care; he had just lost the World Cup. Four years later, he would lose his international career.
The 1994 FIFA World Cup and Maradona will be remembered for one-act; his extraordinary celebration after scoring against Greece in the group stage. His aggressiveness eye-bulging celebration surprised many.
It was later revealed that the great player was heavily under the influence. Six hours before their game against Bulgaria, Maradona was sensationally kicked out of the tournament, mainly by the Argentina Football Federation.
He had tested positive for five variants of ephedrine, a stimulant banned by FIFA. A record 21 games at the FIFA World Cup, Maradona’s run in the competition had ended in disgrace.