This feature is part of the Maradona World Cup series
Diego Maradona played in four World Cups; in each one he left a different indelible imprint around the globe, none more so than on a football-mad youngster living in England. A boy who grew up watching a player that at times looked like he had descended from heaven and at others like he had ascended from hell.
I have never supported a football team, never felt the pull or need for indoctrination into a particular club. I have always been a fan of football and enjoyed watching special players and special teams, leaving me free to experience all football without tribal prejudice. This has given me freedom to appreciate talent and clear vision to see the game’s darker side.
I was nine-years-old when the 1982 World Cup kicked-off in Spain, already a devout follower of football – innocently settling down to a glorious month of football. I was about to be introduced to a 21-year-old footballing genius. Our paths would cross a further three times via the television networks – in the 1986, 1990, 1994 World Cups – and once with my own eyes at Wembley, in a Football League Centenary Celebration game where Maradona captained a Rest of the World team.
The World Cup in Spain was to be the biggest tournament so far as João Havelange made good on his electoral promise and increased the finals from 16 teams to 24 teams. There were to be 52 matches played between 13 June and 11 July. This was before the current television saturation and online streaming, which allows viewers to watch the game almost 24/7. For me, it was Christmas at the height of summer.
Diego Armando Maradona missed out on selection for the 1978 World Cup because the pragmatic chain smoking César Luis Menotti decided he was too young to handle the pressure. This was despite the Argentine making his professional debut at the age of 15 for Argentinos Juniors and his full international debut aged 17.
Nevertheless, by the time the 1982 World Cup had come around, Maradona had already become an icon of Argentine football. He had signed for his beloved Boca Juniors in 1981 and led them to the league title soon after. A year later, and just prior to the World Cup, Maradona was sold for a world-record £5 million to Barcelona. The Catalan fans did not have to wait long for a glimpse of their investment.
Argentina arrived in Spain as reigning champions and kicked off their defence of the trophy in the Camp Nou, Maradona’s new home. After the crushing disappointment of missing out on a place in Menotti’s 1978 tournament-winning team, Maradona was desperate to make an impact in Europe, however a below-par performance by the Argentines saw them lose the opening game 1-0 to Belgium.
Read | Diego Maradona at World Cup 1986: the archangel
The Argentine squad was a blend of older players retained most probably beyond their effectiveness out of a sense of loyalty by Menotti, and young players that lacked international experience in the intensity of a World Cup. Maradona was to be the lynchpin that held the team together, but he never really got on the ball in the opening game.
Even more of a concern was the treatment of Maradona by the Belgian defenders; they set the tone for a tactic which was implemented by every team Argentina faced during the tournament: stop Diego and you stop the team. How he was stopped didn’t seem to matter to the opposition or, more importantly, the referees.
The second game saw a more cohesive performance by La Albiceleste as a 4-1 victory over Hungary helped to dispel some of the national mourning back in Argentina that had followed their earlier defeat to Belgium. Maradona scored two goals in a virtuoso performance, which gave credence to the pre-tournament hype surrounding the Argentine number 10.
The performance served notice and momentarily drew my eye away from the flamboyant Brazilians and their number 10, Zico. It was not enough, however, to usurp the Brazilian from being my player of choice in the school playground the following Monday.
The final group game saw Menotti’s men play Central American side El Salvador, who were playing in only their second finals. The now familiar pattern of violence was repeated, however it wasn’t just Maradona who was targeted; anyone wearing the pale blue and white stripes were fair game. El Salvador had been soundly beaten 10-1 in their opening game against Hungary and spent the rest of the tournament trying to ensure that no opposition player could get into their penalty area.
One of the worst offences came on 20 minutes after Argentina were awarded a penalty for a foul on Gabriel Calderón. The referee was in no doubt, but the El Salvador team swarmed around him like an angry mob before defender Francisco Osorto lost his cool and kicked the official in the leg. The result, remarkably, was just a yellow card for Osorto. It appeared that the referees afforded themselves the same level of protection as Maradona.
Argentina won the game 2-0, with the diminutive number 10 showing only occasional glimpses of his ability. A free-kick exquisitely bent over the wall and into the side-netting was the closest he came to scoring. He would certainly need to be more effective in the second round, which consisted of a mini group against South American rivals Brazil, who were playing the tournament like it was an exhibition (think Harlem Globetrotters playing football).
Read | Diego Maradona and the reality behind the Hand of God
The other team in the group were the very antithesis of the Brazilians, Italy. The Azzurri had scraped through their opening group without winning a game. Progression was on goals scored (two), which was better than Cameroon’s (one). What they did have, though, was an uncompromising defence including two combative centre-halves, Gaetano Scirea and Claudio Gentile.
The opening group game of round two saw Italy take on Argentina at 5:15pm. What followed would have struggled to get past the 9:00pm watershed in 1982. For a nine-year-old sat in his front room on the sofa, it was probably the nearest I would come to witnessing a public assault.
From the first minute, Italy targeted Maradona, Enzo Bearzot gave Gentile the task of man-marking him. The Juve defender was the archetypal pantomime villain, with dark hair and of Middle Eastern origin. To round off the look, a thick moustache menacingly adorned his top lip. His team-mates nicknamed him Gaddafi due to being born in Libya. Had it been Christmas, in a theatre you would have shouted, ”he’s behind you”, but this was the World Cup and Maradona knew very well he was behind him.
Years later, the Italian defender gave an interview where he commented: “I studied him for two days, watching videos and realising there was a strategy I could use against him. That was to make sure he was so well marked that he couldn’t get the ball from his team-mates, because once he has possession that’s when he becomes a problem.”
Maradona was followed all over the pitch by Gentile for 90 minutes, during which he endured foul after foul. At one point Gentile went straight through the back of Maradona as he received the ball, which resulted in no caution. The ball was played into Maradona’s feet but, before he gained possession, Gentile produced a stiff arm across the face, leaving the playmaker in a crumpled heap. Another free-kick to Argentina and another let-off for the pantomime villain.
On 35 minutes, Maradona was booked for protesting too strongly to the referee after another x-rated challenge had gone unpunished.
In the second half, Bearzot’s men visibly grew in confidence as their perfect – if crude – plan was having a demoralising effect on Maradona and the rest of the Argentine team. Two goals within 10 minutes by Marco Tardelli and Antonio Cabrini gave the Azzurri an unassailable lead. Argentine captain Daniel Passarella pulled a goal back with seven minutes to go, only for midfielder Américo Gallego to be sent off a minute later for Argentina. Catenaccio had won the day.
Read | Diego Maradona at World Cup 1990: the weeping angel
Maradona never blamed Gentile for the brutality served upon him by the Italian; instead, he laid the blame squarely at the feet of the official who failed to protect him.
At full-time I drew breath and, in my naivety at what just happened, was very excited as it meant that Argentina would have to attack the Brazilians in their next game. It was going to be a glorious sight – Zico and Maradona would be on the pitch at the same time, with no negativity and the dastardly Claudio Gentile to spoil everything.
I tried to point out the exceptional confrontation that lay ahead to my mum, via my 82 Panini sticker book, but I was met with, “uh huh, that sounds good, time to get ready for bed”. Nobody seemed to understand my excitement at the impending clash between South America’s two footballing behemoths.
They looked otherworldly. Having only been used to watching FA Cup finals and the occasional England game, the majority of my viewing experience thus far had been predominantly pasty footballers, often with perms and moustaches playing in the rain, or at a tired soulless bowl that was the old Wembley. Now there was colour, noise and exuberance to match the glorious image of the Seleção’s golden shirts and La Albiceleste’s blue and white stripes.
As the two teams walked onto the pitch, there amongst all the anticipation and fervour were the two number 10s, Maradona and Zico. I was a mercenary to skills and tricks. This game would determine whose name I would claim in the playground during the first break on Monday, and for the remainder of the World Cup.
The game was played in a far more languid style than the previous staccato encounter with the Italians and their dark arts. Both sides were happy to trade attacks, though for all the skill and creativity, the score was only 1-0 at half-time – a Zico tap-in after Éder had sent a wicked, swerving 35-yard free-kick crashing into the underside of the Argentine crossbar. It looked like the name would remain the same on Monday.
In the second half, the game started to get stretched. Maradona was seeing more of the ball and starting to make inroads to the Brazilian defence, with close control and an electric change of pace. It was this type of movement that allowed him to slip the ball past the Brazilian left-back, Júnior, who recovered and lunged at Maradona as he went into the area. The ball wasn’t even within playing distance when the challenge came in. The referee gave a corner; Maradona, incredulous at the decision, did a backwards roll into a handstand and onto his feet, then screamed at the referee at the injustice.
Read | Diego Maradona at World Cup 1994: the fallen angel
As the second half wore on, Brazil took a stranglehold on the game. A rare far post header by Serginho put Brazil 2-0 up, then Zico played a pass which took out four Argentines. The aforementioned left-back, Júnior, was the furthest forward, and he slipped the ball first time past the advancing Ubaldo Fillol.
Frustration and tempers reached boiling point. On 85 minutes, Maradona clipped a ball into Juan Barbas; Batista raised his foot and caught the midfielder on the side of his head with his studs. Commentator John Helm summed up things best: “A kick on the head there, following that Maradona managed to put a little kick in on Batista, and he’s off. That is the end of Diego Maradona’s World Cup. Well, this is sensational, the world’s greatest player by repute has been sent off. He lashed out at Batista there, after the original offence by the Brazilian substitute.”
Maradona slowly walked toward the touchline. The giant Argentine defender, Alberto Tarantini, pulled him into his chest, ruffled his hair and kissed him on the head, like a parent calling their disconsolate child in from playing out, while their friends carried on having fun.
Helm continued: “Diego Maradona looked almost in tears there; he’s being roundly booed here in Barcelona. What a tragic end to Maradona’s World Cup. He’s about to come and play in Barcelona, but this must be the most tragic moment of his career so far.”
Maradona crossed the touchline, making the sign of the cross, kissing the small silver crucifix around his neck and then looking up to the heavens. What had I been thinking? How could this man ever replace Zico in my affections?
And so he was gone. With a brutal kick to Batista’s midriff, Maradona vanished from my mind for another four years. His name destined never to be used at Overdale County Primary.
El Diego, however, would return in Mexico with a display that, within the space of four mindblowing minutes, had me crying, followed by stunned disbelief. It would be a tournament performance of which the world is still waiting to see repeated. Maradona would be back, this time as the Archangel
By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44