This feature is part of Virtuoso
It is a testament to the brilliance of Diego Maradona that, when considering his finest performances on the grandest of all stages, more than one springs to mind. To the Anglocentric world, his 1986 World Cup story is synonymous with the quarter-final clash against England. Those whirlwind four minutes in a blazing-hot Estadio Azteca showed both sides of his complex character: the win-at-all-costs kid from the potrero, happy to unashamedly break the rules, and the imperious genius with generation-defining talent.
However, as the competition intensified, with Argentina just one game away from the final, Maradona repeated his heroics in the semi-final against Belgium in the same arena, in front of 115,000 fans. In a mirror image of the England game, Maradona came to life early in the second half, bagging a quick-fire brace to grab the headlines and win the game for his country.
The game hadn’t started so brightly for La Albiceleste, and Maradona was furious with the goalless first period. In his 2017 memoir of the tournament, Touched by God, the number 10 revealed how he confronted his fellow players on the way back to the changing rooms, urging them not to let the Belgians become too cocky. Wearing the captain’s armband, Maradona would bear the burden and lead by example soon after the restart.
Jorge Burruchaga picked up the ball on the right before cutting inside. Spotting Maradona’s change of pace and run, he nonchalantly poked the ball with the outside of his right foot into the penalty area and into the path of Maradona. Daniel Veyt and Stéphane Demol were quick to close down El Diego in order to restrict his space, but as the onrushing Jean-Marie Pfaff came to within inches of his majestic left-boot, Maradona delicately dinked the ball over him and into the far corner of the net. He was never more dangerous than when his prey was close, when he could feel their breath on his skin.
Maradona completed his brace eight minutes later, saving the best until last, just as he did against the English. Unsung stopper José Luis Cuciuffo burst out from defence, playing the ball into Maradona’s feet before continuing his run in anticipation of the return pass. The kid from Villa Fiorito used his teammates’ run as a decoy before darting and jinking through four Belgian defenders. Face-to-face once again with Pfaff, Maradona opted for power instead of finesse this time, blasting the ball across the goalkeeper’s body.
The Belgium game came just three days after the bruising England encounter, and it shouldn’t be underestimated how physically and mentally difficult it must have been for Maradona to perform so well, under immense pressure, and in such a short space of time. It was also against one of the greatest sides Belgium have produced. Not until 2018, 32 years later, did Les Rouges improve on their 1986 performance, when the so-called golden generation finished third in Russia.
Although he failed to score in the final, Maradona was involved in the crucial moment, returning the favour to his teammate by assisting Burruchaga to score the 84th-minute winner in a 3-2 thriller against West Germany. This was Argentina’s second World Cup triumph in the space of three tournaments, but this one felt different compared to 1978. Sadly, the home-soil victory will always be associated with the military regime that cast a dark shadow over the country for seven years. In stark contrast, the 1986 side came of age in a new era of democracy and hope.
The 1986 version of Maradona was, at the age of 25, at the peak of his physical powers and in the midst of the best spell of his career. In seven years with Napoli, which ultimately became the player’s spiritual home, Maradona won two Scudetti with the unfancied southern side, wrestling power from the northern giants who typically dominate the football landscape on the Italian peninsula.
Ironically, Maradona’s incredible performance at the 1986 World Cup came under the tutelage of Carlos Bilardo, a coach often synonymous with negative football and pragmatism, an approach completely at odds with the romance of his predecessor, César Luis Menotti. Maradona, whilst operating within a team framework, always marched to the beat of his own drum, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that his superhuman performances would have won the World Cup for Argentina that year regardless of who was in the dugout.
Yet the player himself admits the success was not solely down to him, that it couldn’t have been achieved without his teammates. This was evident in the goals against Belgium, where the assists from Burruchaga and Cuciuffo proved both brilliant and selfless. “I had to come out and win it alone,” wrote Maradona in Touched by God. “But it was thanks to my teammates that I got to be the star.”
And therein lies the inherent beauty of football; a team game often settled by moments of pure magic. Lest we forget, there was never a fellow magician quite like Diego Maradona.
By Dan Williamson
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp