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Diego Maradona: Cunning cheat or unplayable genius? Inside the Argentine’s World Cup glory

Diego Maradona

In the second of our World Cup icons series, Diego Maradona biographer and Spanish football expert Guillem Balague tells the inside story of how the Argentina number 10 inspired World Cup glory at Mexico 1986.

Diego Maradona came to the 1986 Mexico World Cup carrying more than just his boots. He also brought with him the hopes and dreams of an entire nation still struggling financially and emotionally from a war fought in the Falkland Islands four years earlier.

When Maradona and his Argentina team-mates won the tournament, they did so as representatives of a nation which in that one summer regained its pride – and its smile.

It was a World Cup that saw a 25-year-old Maradona at the height of his physical prowess despite the growing evidence of the addiction that would, in time, ravage his body; a superstar who won it for his country, for Argentines of all ages who reminded him on a daily basis who he was, where he came from and what he might have been had it not been for the magic of football.

‘Players had to fit shades on to their lamps’

Argentina entered the tournament with Maradona perceived by the entire squad as their trump card, their only real hope, the entire group built around his needs.

Defender Julio Olarticoechea, who shared a room with him in Mexico, remembers tip-toeing to the bathroom while Maradona slept, thinking: “I hope he doesn’t wake up, he may not be able to sleep and it’ll be my fault if he plays badly tomorrow.”

In terms of facilities provided for the teams, the Mexico World Cup was about as modest as it could be. Those available to the Argentine side were more akin to the primitive, underdeveloped infrastructure they had to deal with in their homeland rather than what might be expected of the biggest football competition on the planet.

The Club America residential quarters near the Azteca stadium contained one telephone for the entire squad and one television, situated in the dining room. On arrival, players had to fit the shades on to the lamps in their unfinished rooms. There were rooms some 100 metres away from the players’ quarters where four had to stay in conditions that made the rest of the facility look good.

All players, Maradona included, received the same paltry allowance from the Argentina federation – $25 a day.

But rather than break the squad, it helped to bind and strengthen them.

“When you agreed to go to ‘the shed’ you were actually saying that you are willing to do everything, to live in bad conditions, to do things on and off the pitch that you didn’t like,” said Jorge Valdano, who scored four goals during the tournament.

“That need to share everything, I think, helped the group, which became more and more homogenous. It’s the biggest transformation miracle I’ve experienced in my sporting career.”

They needed to stay united and help each other, especially with games being played at altitude and in the middle of the day, despite the dangerous heat, in order to appease television schedules around the world. Any protests were met with a cursory “get on with it” from Fifa’s president, Joao Havelange.

“We spoke for the good of the game. They spoke for the good of business,” Valdano recalled after leading protests with Maradona about the kick-off times.

‘A squad taking superstitions to a new level’

Unity was built around superstitions and pre-match routines that grew following the team’s opening win against South Korea. The most banal practices became custom, religiously adhered to for the whole of the tournament so as not to break the spell.

Days before their first group game, some players had been caught eating hamburgers in a shopping centre and were reprimanded by the team doctor.

Before the match, there was a barbecue using meat brought in by two Aerolineas Argentinas pilots.

Players chose their seats in the dilapidated bus that took them to the stadium.

When they got to the changing room the phone rang, defender Jose Luis Brown answered it and there was no-one on the other end.

Midfielder Carlos Tapia shaved when he got to the stadium, while Maradona made a figure on the ground with some boots, a shirt and socks, which nobody was allowed to walk over.

A camera bought by centre-back Nestor Clausen was used to record Olarticoechea asking other squad members questions as if he was a journalist.

The team drank mate, a tea-like beverage much favoured in Argentina.

Coach Carlos Bilardo rang his wife in Buenos Aires at precisely five o’clock.

Midfielder Ricardo Giusti left a sweet in the middle of the pitch.

Argentina won 3-1.

The next match was against Italy. The rebels ate hamburgers again, Aerolineas pilots brought meat for a barbecue, players took the same seats on the bus, Brown answered the phone to no-one, Tapia shaved (even though he didn’t need to), Maradona recreated his invisible man, Olarticoechea turned reporter, the team drank mate at the same time, Bilardo phoned his wife at precisely 17:00, and Giusti went to the centre of the pitch where he dropped a sweet.

Valdano, a man more inclined to read books than dance with fate, said of the rituals: “I am very respectful of personal superstitions but I am bothered by collective ones. At the end of the championship we had so many it was like a play that had been performed a thousand times.”

The captain Maradona never forgave

Team captain Daniel Passarella – the first Argentine to lift the trophy in 1978, and a man who enjoyed a cigarette and a glass of Scotch – had a 1986 World Cup to forget.

On arrival in Mexico the team were told not to drink the local water, but Passarella clearly thought the ice cubes in his late night whisky didn’t count and subsequently went down with a serious bout of diarrhoea. He trained as usual two days before the South Korea game, was announced as a starter, but then relapsed. He lost seven kilos in weight in those few days.

He returned to training before the third group match against Bulgaria but tore a muscle in his left leg. The team doctor claimed the player had intensified his training without permission, while the player insisted he broke down after being forced to play.

He would never play for Argentina again and remained convinced there was a conspiracy between Maradona and coach Bilardo to sideline him.

Believe who you will, but the upshot for Passarella was he packed his bags and made for the beach.

Maradona never forgave him and later wrote: “In ’86 we were breaking our souls while he was sunbathing in Acapulco.”

On the eve of the quarter-final against England, Passarella became ill again and was admitted to hospital with a colonic ulcer. Maradona declined to visit him.

A search around Mexico City to find a quarter-final kit

A draw against Italy, a two-goal victory over Bulgaria and a 1-0 win against Uruguay meant the scene was set for a quarter-final against England.

It was a toxic, febrile atmosphere stoked up by the media – the Falklands War still fresh in minds – that guaranteed this was never going to be just another game.

Maradona proclaimed: “It’s just football, full stop.” But no one believed it, least of all him.

He later admitted: “We all declared before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas [Falklands] War… Rubbish!”

English fans had chanted during their last-16 match against Paraguay: “Bring on the Argentines, we want another war!”

Former Argentine soldiers sent telegrams to their team urging them to recreate the performance of the missiles that sank the British destroyer HMS Sheffield.

The time between the Uruguay game and the quarter-final against England seemed like an eternity but, in the end, the Argentina squad were relieved to have had the break.

The team had been told they would have to play in the dark blue second kit they had worn against Uruguay, but Bilardo wanted different shirts because the ones they had were heavy and unbearable, especially in the stifling Mexican heat.

The trouble was that shirt sponsors Le Coq Sportif did not have any of the open-necked shirts that the team were asking for, nor did they have the time to make them.

Argentina’s technical assistant Ruben Moschella and kit man Tito Benros were then charged with trawling around Mexico City to find a shirt suitable to play a World Cup quarter-final in. They narrowed it down to two, the first a similar colour to the existing kit and another in a brighter blue.

“Oh no, not that one,” said a visibly disgusted Bilardo, only to have the wind taken out of his sails when moments later Maradona walked in, pointed to it and announced: “What a nice shirt this is, Carlos. With this one we will beat the English.”

“OK,” said the coach, “let’s go with this one.”

And so it was that 24 hours before one of the most memorable games in football history, in an improvised workshop, kit men and Club America employees embroidered numbers on to the new bright blue shirts in a silver-grey fabric normally used by American football teams, and the coat of arms of the Argentine federation.

‘He’s little, fat and he’s only got one foot’

England’s plan was never to man mark Maradona, although the selection of Terry Fenwick – the no-nonsense central defender with a record number of yellow cards in a World Cup – certainly sent a message.

England manager Bobby Robson reportedly said to him: “Don’t worry Terry, he’s little, fat and he’s only got one foot.” Words that probably would have haunted him for the rest of his days.

Brown summed up the feelings of many of the Argentine players. “You get to the centre of the pitch and they play the national anthem and I’m telling you, it was like I put a knife between my teeth. I wanted to see if I could get revenge by winning a match,” he said.

“I left my normal life behind. And we all thought the same thing. We never talked about the problems of Las Malvinas, but we all transformed.”

For a game that will forever be remembered as one of the most significant of all time, it had a pretty mundane first half.

Then came a five-minute cameo where Maradona showed the world the two extremes of his on-pitch character: the cunning, opportunistic cheat and the untouchable, unplayable, footballing maestro. Knave or knight? Almost certainly both.

It was a performance that saw him transformed in the eyes of his nation from footballing genius to legend.

The infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal in the 51st minute followed an inadvertent volley from Steve Hodge that turned into a back pass when it flew high into the air.

It should have been Peter Shilton’s, but the goalkeeper reacted a crucial half second too late in going for the ball.

The advancing Maradona jumped for it first. In the air he shaped his body as if about to head the ball, then a fist thrust out and punched, sending it bouncing slowly into the open net.

Seemingly everyone saw the handball – everyone apart from Tunisian referee Ali bin Nasser and Bulgarian linesman Bogdan Dochev.

Dochev, having said he was convinced the goal was totally legal at the time, told a member of the refereeing commission just two days later that he had seen Maradona’s hand but didn’t disallow the goal because the referee had already awarded it.

Three and a half minutes after the controversy came the goal which to this day is described as one of the greatest goals ever scored. A goal that would never have happened had Bin Nasser blown the whistle for an obvious foul on Glenn Hoddle in the action that preceded it.

A mesmerising 10 seconds of brilliance played out as Maradona embarked on a mazy run from inside his own half that ended with him calmly slotting the ball into the net to put his side 2-0 up.

The game changed lives, not just for Maradona but also for his team-mates and many of his English opponents.

England’s hard-tackling centre-back Fenwick had set out to unsettle Maradona, only to see him come back on to the pitch after receiving treatment and breeze past him in the second half on his way to scoring what was dubbed the ‘Goal of the Century’.

Fenwick won 20 England caps and, barring 16 minutes in a friendly with Israel in February 1988, the quarter-final was his last full appearance for England. He later admitted the experience of England’s elimination from the World Cup in Mexico left him “bitter and twisted” for 20 years.

Had he not been booked early on in the game for fouling Maradona he would almost certainly have obstructed him outside the box rather than just brushing an arm across his stomach as he made his way ever closer to Shilton’s goal.

Maradona’s team-mate Hector Enrique would go on to become a national treasure in Argentina. The man who passed the ball to Maradona just before he set off on his hypnotizing dribble would later – tongue placed firmly in cheek – claim an assist adding: “With the quality of the pass that I gave him, if he had missed I would have killed him.”

England goalkeeper Shilton never forgave the number 10, not for committing the handball, he said, but for not apologising for it. He later refused to invite Maradona to his testimonial.

Maradona’s response was predictably acidic. “He didn’t invite me, true – oh, my heart bleeds! How many people go to a goalkeeper’s testimonial anyway? A goalkeeper’s?!”

Years later, Chris Waddle put the ‘Hand of God’ furore into perspective: “A lot of England fans will never forgive Maradona for what he did. But if Gary Lineker had done it at the other end, he’d still be hailed as a hero.”

England midfielder Hodge could never have imagined just how much swapping shirts with Maradona at the end of the match would affect his life. In that one action he guaranteed his future and that of his descendants. For 20 years the shirt was on loan to the National Football Museum in Manchester, then in May of this year it sold at auction for £7.1m, the highest fee ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia.

Recently it was announced that the ball twice put into the net by Maradona was coming up for auction, where it is expected to sell for up to £3m.

The ball’s owner? Match referee Bin Nasser.

‘There should have been a happier ending’

Next up was Belgium, the surprise package of the tournament.

Victory over England had left the Argentines feeling indestructible and the deadlock was broken on 51 minutes. A through ball from Jorge Burruchaga and a delightful lifted finish from the outside of Maradona’s left foot over the head of the advancing Belgian keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff set them on their way.

Then picking the ball up some 40 yards out, a straight run that eliminated three defenders and a change of direction put Argentina’s number 10 through and, before Pfaff could decide whether to stick or twist, Maradona struck it past him a second time.

Maradona’s brilliance had once again decided the outcome of the match. This time it had taken 12 minutes. After the best individual display ever seen in a football World Cup game, Argentina were in the final where they would meet West Germany.

For Maradona that was his quietest game of the knockout stages, though he would not be denied the final word.

Despite leading 2-0, Argentina let West Germany back into the game when goals from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Rudi Voeller levelled the match by 81 minutes.

Moments later, a bouncing ball landed in a busy centre circle. Maradona headed it to his right, then got it back. With two opponents closing him down and two others blocking his way ahead, he spotted Burruchaga about to launch a diagonal run on the right.

He let the ball bounce twice before threading through an inch-perfect pass to meet Burruchaga’s run. The striker’s third touch dispatched it into the bottom corner.

“He gave me the best pass of my career, the way only he can,” said Burruchaga. “I drew strength from I don’t know where to run those last metres.”

Once again Maradona’s decision making at the crucial moment would prove vital and ensured that the World Cup was going back to Argentina.

It was his fifth assist of a tournament where he had also scored five goals, meaning he had been actively involved in 10 of his team’s 14 goals and hit half of the total shots on target.

When they returned to their base the players held hands and took a lap of honour around the training ground.

That was the extent of their celebrations. The directors of the Argentine federation had not thought to organise anything beyond ensuring they had first class seats on their flight home, while their victorious team travelled in economy.

There should have been a happier ending.

The unbreakable bond that had been built between the squad – those brothers in arms – through the years gradually morphed into a strained, backbiting series of relationships.

Maradona went on to lead his country to the 1990 World Cup final in Italy, where they were beaten by West Germany. By then his career his cocaine addiction had taken hold and he was banned for 15 months in 1991 after testing positive for the drug. He captained his country again in the United States in 1994, but was sent home after failing a drugs test for ephedrine.

But in the summer of ’86, when he stepped on to the balcony at Casa Rosada with the World Cup in his hands – the same balcony from which Argentina’s former first lady Eva Peron had delivered her famous speech to her “beloved descamisados” [the poor] – Diego Armando Maradona knew that he had finally achieved his dream.

Never again would he be as happy as he was in that one moment.

BBC World Cup icons series