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Diego Maradona and the story of the 1986 World Cup

The 1986 World Cup in Mexico created the legend of Maradona as thousands in India watched his magic, on TV, in colour

Diego Maradona in action against Belgium in the semi-final of the 1986 World Cup. (Photo: Getty Images)

There’s one key attribute that elevates a footballer in the eyes of a Bengali. It’s the art of katano. Loosely translated, it would mean “to dribble”. But there are other connotations too: to dodge, swerve, feint. A footballer who can katao is the best, because that’s what football is about. For the Bengali and, I dare say, for football fans in the global south in general, one of the reasons the game is so important is because it’s a trickster’s game. It’s a game where one who has nothing can still triumph by dodging the rules, the harsh challenges, the unfair structures of oppression. And Diego Maradona, who died on 25 November at the age of 60, was the ultimate trickster, the artful dodger, the fox who became the king of the jungle because he willed it so.

Before the 1986 World Cup, hardly anyone in India knew of Maradona. In the main this was because Indian television was in its infancy. While Doordarshan had broadcast the semi-finals and final of the 1982 World Cup live, the entirety of Mexico ’86 was broadcast live, and in colour. If you could get a colour TV set, that is. And 1986 was Maradona’s World Cup. Not even Pelé in 1970 dominated an entire tournament all by himself, the way Maradona dominated Mexico ’86.

He was coming off his best season yet for Napoli, guiding the Neapolitans to third in the Serie A and finishing as the club’s top scorer with 11 goals. In many ways, the Argentina of 1986 were similar to Napoli: a primarily defensive-minded team with few outstanding talents. Apart from the biggest talent in the world, that is. Coached by Carlos Bilardo, the Albicelestes played in a counter-attacking 3-5-2 formation, with Maradona playing as traditional No.10, and striker Jorge Valdano the most advanced player, coming in from the right wing to capitalise on Maradona’s through-balls.

The first game in Group A was against South Korea. Korea were playing in only their second World Cup after 1950, and the match was the walkover many had predicted. Argentina cantered to a 3-0 lead by the 46th minute, with Valdano scoring two goals and Oscar Ruggeri the third. Maradona set up all three. The next game against reigning world champions Italy was trickier. Italy were ahead in the sixth minute, via a penalty scored by Alessandro Altobelli. Then Maradona took it upon himself to set things right for Argentina. He had a personal demon to exorcise as well.

In the 1982 World Cup, Maradona had arrived as a much hyped 21-year-old. Argentina met Italy in the opening match of the second-round group stage. A place in the semi-finals was up for grabs. Italy’s hard man defender Claudio Gentile was assigned the task of marking Maradona. And he delivered. A brilliant YouTube clip shows Gentile’s adroit practice of the defensive dark arts on a young Maradona. Gentile pushed, body-checked and scythed down the Argentina No.10 repeatedly, completely throwing him off his game. Someone counted that Gentile had committed 23 fouls on Maradona that day.

But Maradona was more savvy in 1986, not the least because he now plied his trade in Italy, and knew exactly how to counter the Italian defence. It was only fitting then that he would be the one to bring Argentina level. It was a beautiful goal. In the 36th minute Valdano received a pass in front of the Italy penalty box. Maradona, a yard ahead to the left, probably anticipated a first-time chipped pass from Valdano. He spun away from his marker, ghosting into space at the edge of the penalty area. Valdano’s lobbed pass duly arrived.

Maradona was already running at full speed to meet the pass before the ball had even left Valdano's boot, rushing past Italy defender Gaetano Scirea. Scirea caught up with him though and Maradona seemed to be heading out too wide to the left. Suddenly, he sprang up, guiding the bouncing ball with his left foot across the box, in front of the flat-footed goalkeeper Giovanni Galli, and into the bottom right corner of the net. Argentina had equalised, Maradona had gained his revenge, and his first outstanding act of the tournament had been registered.

One of the oft-repeated truisms of tournament football is that teams need to pace themselves, slowly growing into the tournament and reaching top gear at the business end. But both Argentina and Maradona had already found their groove by the time they met Bulgaria in the third group-stage match. The team’s quick counter-attacking style was firing on all cylinders. Maradona was almost untouchable and Valdano was in ruthless goalscoring mood. Bulgaria was duly rolled over 2-0, with Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga scoring one goal apiece. Burruchaga’s 77th minute goal was from another piece of Maradona magic. The No.10 skipped past his marker down the left, before swivelling to hit a pin-point cross for Burruchaga to head in.

In the round-of-16 match against Uruguay, Maradona seemed to be playing a different game from the other 21 players around him. He ran rings around Uruguay, who seemed so intent on stopping the Argentina captain that they were unable to string together too many attacks of their own. Among Maradona’s highlights was a gorgeous free kick which bounced off the bar and a parade of flicks, drag-backs, quick turns and breathtaking close control. Although Argentina only won 1-0, the margin would have been far bigger had his teammates put away the many chances that Maradona had laid on a plate for them.

And then, to the quarter-final, and the most famous match in World Cup history. England vs Argentina. England were in fine form in the tournament, and in Gary Lineker, they possessed the deadliest striker of the World Cup, with five goals to his name. For the longest time, the match was nothing to write home about. Played under a blistering noonday sun, England were poor, and Argentina not much better.

For the entirety of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half, the only thing of note was England defender Terry Fenwick’s persistent fouling of Argentinian players, including a punch on Maradona’s head in the 50th minute. And then came the “Hand of God”. Maradona, the arch-trickster, sprang to life when England defender Steve Hodge sliced a clearance high into his own penalty box. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Maradona went for the ball, both leaping for it...and then Maradona poked it over the much bigger Shilton’s head with his left hand. The referee didn’t see it, and Maradona gambled, pretending it was a perfectly legal headed goal, even as the England players howled with outrage.

Four minutes later, Maradona flipped on God-mode and gave the finest masterclass in katano that the World Cup has ever seen. Picking up the ball in the centre-circle, in the Argentina half and facing his own goal, Maradona spun around, completely wrong-footing Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid. He then speeded down the right, swerving past a lunging Terry Butcher. The ball sticking to his left boot as if in thrall, he went past Fenwick into the penalty area. Peter Shilton came off the line and spread himself. Maradona slowed down a jot, teased Shilton and then rounded him to his right. Terry Butcher came again to tackle. Maradona held him off, and while falling over, slipped the ball into the empty net. The entire sequence had taken nine seconds.

“Diegoal! Maradona! It’s enough to make you cry, forgive me. Maradona, in an unforgettable run, in the play of all time. Cosmic kite! What planet are you from, to leave in your wake so many Englishmen?” screamed Radio Argentina’s commentator Victor Hugo Morales in Spanish. Barry Davies, commentating for the BBC, cried out, “You have to say that’s magnificent! Pure football genius.”

And the legend of Maradona was born.

Maradona was just as brilliant in the semi-final against Belgium and the final against Germany. His performance in these two games alone would have made him an all-time World Cup icon, but coming after the “Goal of the Century”, you could say that the two games were rather underwhelming (they weren’t).

Back to the Bengalis. They already loved Brazil, with that team’s jogo bonito (the beautiful game) forming a sort of ideal for Indian football in general. But Maradona, seen live on screen, was nothing short of mythic. Writing after Maradona’s death, footballer after Indian footballer has pointed out the pivotal role that 1986 played in their understanding of the game’s full potential. It’s an oft-repeated fact that Bengalis (and Malayalis) are split down the middle between supporting Brazil and Argentina. That’s just not true, they either support Brazil, or they support Maradona. They support Argentina because they feel they owe it to Maradona.

Diego Maradona at a felicitation ceremony in Kolkata in 2008. (Photo: Getty Images)
Diego Maradona at a felicitation ceremony in Kolkata in 2008. (Photo: Getty Images)

By identifying with Maradona, Bengalis were also tapping into their own anti-colonial history. Here was a diminutive, slightly squat man, taking on the Europeans and then demolishing them as he ran circles around them. And it would be fair to say that since Maradona’s humiliating exit from the world stage after failing a dope test, the search has been on for the next master of katano from Argentina. For a brief while, it was Ariel Ortega. But he dribbled himself into cul-de-sacs. Then, Pablo Aimar. He had the talent but not the sheer willpower.

Finally, for over the past decade, there has been Lionel Messi. He could be considered an even better footballer than Maradona, but Messi has failed quite spectacularly with Argentina. So while Bengalis are fond of Messi, they don’t really care as much, because Messi's exploits have been with Barcelona. You see, it was never about following European club football. In Kolkata, there’s East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting—more than enough clubs to support. It’s what an international star does for his national team that matters. And in that, as in much else, the über-trickster, the master of katano, the cherubic little demon Diego Armando Maradona, will forever reign supreme.

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