“BEAUTIFUL VIEW. Magnificent desolation.” Some will recognise those, considering the circumstances, remarkably sparse words. Many others, for good reason, won’t. Buzz Aldrin’s utterance, moments after becoming the second man to step on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, are lyrically dwarfed by arguably the most famous phrase ever spoken by a human: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong had pronounced minutes earlier. And that takes some beating.
Though Aldrin’s achievements, if not his words, are no less monumental than Armstrong’s, history has judged one more favourably than the other; a perceived injustice the former has lived with bitterly, by many accounts, to this day. All on account of Armstrong being first out of the door. It’s not easy being second.
On 6 May 1954, Roger Bannister became the first athlete to run a mile in under four minutes at Iffley Road track in Oxford. The world swooned, and continued to until the great Englishman’s recent passing. Yet on 21 June, only 46 days after Bannister’s dash towards immortality, Australian John Landy ran a faster mile in Turku, Finland. What’s more, that new record of 3:58 would not be broken for a further three years. While history remembers Bannister, historians remember Landy.
We are intrigued by the pursuit of excellence, and landmarks like Bannister’s are immediately easily etched into the public’s collective memory. But our interest wanes considerably in the achievements of those who come in the wake of the history-makers. Sustained excellence breeds familiarity, and that leads to entitlement, even apathy. Just ask Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo how quickly extraordinary feats and statistics are taken for granted.
No one made the extraordinary seem mundane quite like Diego Maradona. And never more than in a matter of days during the glorious Mexican summer of 1986.
On 22 June, Maradona scored what is universally accepted as the greatest goal of all time; his meandering, other-worldly second in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against a dazed and confused England defence. It was, everyone agrees, a once-in-a-lifetime goal.
It wasn’t quite. Only four days later, incredibly, he repeated the trick. More incredible, however, is how under-appreciated Maradona’s other greatest goal of all-time remains. While his second goal against Belgium in the semi-final is hardly forgotten, it’s an enduring curiosity just how much this astonishing goal continues to linger in the shadow of his slalom through the English defence, not to mention the Hand of God effort.
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This is not helped by the fact that the Maradona himself rarely gives it the affection he so enthusiastically lavishes at every opportunity on his solo effort against England. Here he is giving his semi-final effort the most cursory of mentions in his autobiography El Diego: “For the second, the credit was Cucciuffo’s and Valdano’s, who made it for me. This time, when I scored the goals, I thought of La Tota, of how happy she must be feeling about it because each game brought more joy.” A nod to his teammates and mother, and that’s it.
In his superlative book on the history of Argentine football, Angels With Dirty Faces, Jonathan Wilson describes it as a goal of “dazzling brilliance”. Yet even that glowing description falls short of doing it justice.
It’s one of football’s most famous, evocative photographs. Maradona, the ball at his magical left foot, eyeing a line of six Belgian players, all seemingly with the fear of God in their eyes. It’s a remarkable image, perfectly captured by photographer Steve Powell for Sports Illustrated, and a candidate for best sporting shot of the 20th century.
It is, however, an illusion. What looks like Maradona threatening to take on a cowering herd of players, was in fact a snap taken moments after a short free-kick had made its way to the Argentina number 10, who stood, back to the photographer, eyeing a disintegrating defensive wall.
To this day many football fans mistakenly presume it was taken from that famous semi-final at the Azteca in 1986. It wasn’t; the clue is in the Belgian strip. That particular Maradona phantom menace was taken at the opening match of the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain, an encounter Argentina lost 1-0 to Belgium. The real deal took place four years later.
June 25, 1986, may just be the day that Maradona flirted with football perfection like no other player had done before or since. Today, his second goal against England remains football’s holiest cow, the case for it being the greatest of all-time almost unarguable, any dissent liable to get the non-believer chased out of town in ridicule. In terms of performance, however, the aesthetically blinding nature of his semi-final heroics against Belgium are more than comparable to the brilliant and controversial nature of what Maradona himself called “the pickpocketing of the English”.
As against England, Argentina’s captain scored two fantastical goals against Belgium. Despite being in a World Cup semi-final, the fact that double came so soon after the Hand of God match has devalued their brilliance and context. It’s the Buzz Aldrin syndrome. Except that, in 1986, only Maradona could overshadow Maradona.
Read | Diego Maradona at World Cup 1986: the archangel
The first goal, on 51 minutes, itself criminally overlooked, was a thing of beauty, Jorge Burruchaga slipping a pass of stunning vision into the path of Maradona who clips the ball over the advancing Jean-Marie Pfaff with the deftest of left-footed touches. Maradona would return Burruchaga’s favour with interest in the final against West Germany four days later.
It’s the 63rd minute of the World Cup semi-final, and Argentina lead Belgium 1-0. Defender José Luis Cuciuffo controls the ball on his chest and drives infield, eyes fixed on only one man. Maradona, back to goal, awaits the inevitable pass, his starting position a textbook definition of an enganche.
It’s the domain of many a gifted Argentine playmaker before and since, from Ricardo Bochini, through Maradona, to Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar and, of course, Lionel Messi. The 115,000 spectators inside the Estadio Azteca, and millions around the world, hold their breath.
In one movement, Maradona controls the ball with his right foot – the only time he would touch it with his significantly weaker foot – and already has his eyes raised toward goal. He then shifts the ball to his left foot, to which it will remain almost magnetically attracted for the rest of the move.
Three defenders – Stéphane Demol, George Grun and Patrick Vervoot – in unison, but clearly with little to no confidence, take tentative steps towards Maradona, like a herd of buffalos approaching a crocodile-infested lake. Maradona sensing blood, accepts the challenge head on, literally. The herd instantly begins to retreat.
Suddenly the wall of red shirts begins to crumble – or so it seemed. In reality, unlike the more accommodating and stretched English defence, Belgium’s more cohesive – though not necessarily more proactive – back line was simply undone by Maradona’s sublime elusiveness. Where there had looked no way through a split second earlier, a chink of light appears. Maradona, as he had done against England, was about to bend space and time to his own will.
In the Belgian defence, there is a paralysis of decision-making. Demol and Grun are dismissed with a tap of the ball to the right. In hindsight, one or the other should have committed a foul on Maradona. A free-kick and booking would have been a small price to pay compared to the ensuing mayhem.
Maradona was now veering to the right, towards the blonde-haired figure of Vervoort. The run is, still at this point, just about stoppable. But having drifted past Demol and Grun, and just short of Vervoort, Maradona creates a gap just ahead of him, to the left. Displaying incredible dexterity and low centre of gravity, he pivots towards that opening. The reaction of the defenders has a touch of the band playing on as the Titanic sinks. All three are almost at jogging pace, uncomprehending the enormity of what is happening around them.
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The next two touches, with the outside of his left foot, are the most devastating of the run. They account for Vervoort, the third victim of the move, who is now helpless to stop a Maradona suddenly gaining momentum away from him. As he steps into the penalty area, Maradona is at the centroid of a triangle of the three Belgian defenders. None are further than two metres away; none with any hope of stopping him.
Another touch and Maradona was now running towards his next victim, the panic-struck Eric Gerets. The Belgian captain, caught flatfooted by Maradona’s sudden change of direction and speed, is off balance and disoriented to such an extent that he has to execute a 270-degree turn to once again face his tormentor, now running parallel to, and away from, him.
For a split second, Gerets, a vastly experienced defender, had been twisted and turned into facing away from Maradona; a footballing equivalent of being on the dark side of the moon. Having regained his bearings, Gerets, quickly realising the gig was almost up, launches into a desperate last-ditch lunge, as Terry Butcher had done in the quarter-final. It is too late. Even giving away a penalty is no longer an option.
Maradona has given himself that crucial, decisive yard. Six seconds; six touches. One with the right foot, five with the left. Maradona has only the goalkeeper to beat. Fatefully for Belgium, and their World Cup dreams, he prepares to deliver the seventh – the mercy bullet.
In a 1980 international friendly at Wembley, a 19-year-old Maradona had humiliated the England defence in a manner that would become more familiar, and famous, six years later. Three defenders – Phil Thompson, Phil Neal and Kenny Sansom – were left in varying degrees of shambles. As Ray Clemence came off his line, Maradona casually slipped the ball to the right of the helpless Liverpool goalkeeper – and agonisingly beyond the far post.
Maradona never forgot the miss, and memories of it arguably played a big part in taking a different option in 1986, when he decided on the extra touch that took him past Peter Shilton and left him with an open goal.
In El Diego, Maradona denies the Wembley miss forced his thinking as he bore down on the England goalkeeper, though he conceded that subconsciously a part of him always carried that around with him. Against Belgium, the situation was different.
The claustrophobic nature of his waltz through the Belgian defence and the limits of Newtonian physics meant not even Maradona was in a position to skip past the advancing Belgian goalkeeper. There was only one option. While trickery had done for Shilton, ferocity was Pfaff’s fate. Maradona pulled the trigger: it was beautiful, a magnificent desolation of the Belgian defence. As the ball hit the net, Argentina were through to the World Cup final.
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To preserve the beauty of the moment, an off-balance, stumbling Maradona somehow managed to stay on his feet to veer off in celebration, right fist raised in the air triumphantly. Not since the days of Pelé at the 1958 World Cup had one individual dominated a match, or tournament for that matter, so comprehensively. This was Diego Maradona, an extraordinary footballer with extraordinary inconsistencies, at his dazzling peak.
Argentina, of course, beat West Germany 3-2 in the 1986 World Cup final, and Maradona, in time, would claim Pelé’s previously uncontested title of the greatest footballer of all time. Four years later, he took Argentina to another World Cup final, this time a far less glorious one. On the way, he reenacted Wembley 1980 and Azteca 1986 with another mazy dribble through the Brazilian defence to set up Claudio Caniggia’s late winner in the round of 16 clash.
But those few days in Mexico remain the apex of Maradona’s career; his single-handed destruction of Belgium perhaps the most devastating a footballer has ever been at any single point in the history of the beautiful game.
If social media had existed in 1986, Maradona’s second goal past Pfaff would have sparked a Twitter meltdown to end all meltdowns, Gerets and co reduced to online memes long before the final whistle. And the ubiquity it would have demanded may have ensured it got the greater acclaim it deserves, regardless of what happened four days earlier.
I’ve yet to encounter a football fan who prefers Maradona’s second against Belgium to his second against England. Not even the man himself finds it in his heart to compare the two. But that’s fine. Statistics cannot be argued with, but beyond the results and trophies, footballing beauty remains intangibly subjective.
Pelé was the greatest; until Maradona became the greatest; until Messi became the greatest. Few would now debate that Johan Cruyff is the finest Dutch player ever, but there was a time when the Dutch themselves did. Piet Keizer was a spectacularly gifted footballer yet forever existed in Cruyff’s shadow for Ajax and the Netherlands. “Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one,” the Dutch writer Nico Scheepmaker said enigmatically.
Maradona’s goal against England is the greatest, but the effort against Belgium may well be the better one.