Italy reached the Final when they played at Mexico in 1970, but returning 16 years later the Azzurri struggled to make any kind of impression. Nik Howe looks back on a disappointing tournament for Italy but one rich in controversy.
Having led the Azzurri to World Cup victory at Spain ’82 - their first success in 44 years - and to fourth in the previous tournament, there were high expectations of Enzo Bearzot and his squad this time round. However, the pressure of being reigning world champions and some strange tactical and team selections cost Italy dearly. He resigned after the tournament and handed the reigns to his ‘82 and ‘86 assistant Azeglio Vicini.
The overriding memory of Mexico ‘86 is of Diego Maradona almost single-handedly winning the tournament for Argentina with five goals - four legal, one not. An unforgiving competition played in blistering heat will also be remembered for the free-flowing football played by France and Brazil, an astonishing Belgium side making it to the semi-finals and inconsistent decisions made by referees drawn from many more countries than in previous tournaments.
But it was Tunisian whistle-blower Ali Bennaceur, in charge of the Argentina-England quarter-final, who came in for most criticism. In what appeared to be the World Cup’s most blatant piece of gamesmanship, the diminutive figure of Maradona jumped higher than goalkeeper Peter Shilton to punch the ball into net.
Amazingly, and despite ferocious protests from Bobby Robson’s England players, the goal was allowed to stand. Maradona made amends by then scoring what was undoubtedly the Goal of the Tournament, perhaps the Goal of the Century. But what rankles most with England supporters is the fact the Argentine was exonerated for his ‘Hand of God’ goal. FIFA went on record to state that Maradona’s football in Mexico was honest. Millions of TV viewers throughout the world thought differently.
For the Argentine legend to be remembered just for that ‘goal’ doesn’t do him justice. For a month he demonstrated he was the most skilful, imaginative and most accomplished player in the world. To say Maradona individually carried his team is too much, but he inspired, directed and prompted their play. Their star forward’s football and Argentina’s play throughout the tournament warranted them as champions.
Having dropped just one point - to Italy - in their opening group, Argentina went on to beat the Uruguayans in the second round and England in the quarter-finals. But it was against Belgium in the semi-finals that Diego came into his own, masterminding his team’s victory over the surprise side of the last 16. And it was a Maradona-inspired Argentina who prevailed over a courageous and disciplined West Germany in the Final. The Argentine captain was rightly crowned King of the World.
In four World Cups Diego Maradona only truly shone in Mexico ‘86. Having made his international debut against Hungary in 1977 aged 16, he was hotly tipped to be part of the Argentina squad for the 1978 tournament on home soil. However, Coach Cesar Luis Menotti resisted the temptation to call-up a young and inexperienced Maradona and he was made to wait a further four years for his chance to mesmerise a world audience.
Despite scoring twice in an opening round game against Hungary, Spain ‘82 ended in disgrace for the little No 10. A hugely frustrated Maradona was sent off as the reigning world champions crashed out at the hands of their South American counterparts Brazil.
The 1990 tournament hosted by Italy, where Maradona was coming to the end of a amazingly successful seven-year spell with Napoli, was on the whole more rewarding but would ultimately end in disappointment. In one of the worst-ever World Cup Finals, a now united Germany kept Maradona quiet and exacted revenge on Argentina for their defeat four years earlier.
The forward’s final and darkest hour in the World Cup came at USA ‘94. Having helped his country to victory over Greece and Nigeria, Maradona tested positive for the banned stimulant ephedrine and was sent home from the competition in disgrace.
In contrast the true genius of Maradona was shown at Mexico ‘86. In the early stages of his Italian stint, the Argentine was in peak physical condition and wowed the huge audiences at the Finals with his sublime skill, amazing balance and deft touch in front of goal. Five of his 34 international strikes were scored at Mexico ‘86, one less than tournament top scorer Gary Lineker. And - the ‘Hand of God’ aside - all were of the quality only most players can dream about.
The nation’s hero led a rather lacklustre Argentine side, coached by Carlos Bilardo, to a Final against West Germany. In that Final, in which Argentina were victorious, Maradona cemented his position as one of the true World Cup greats to rival the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff and Michel Platini. But for all his genius, and despite going on to make 91 appearances for the national side, Maradona’s career will forever be tinged with controversy.
Often described as the Goal of the Century, Diego Maradona’s sublime second was is in stark contrast to his controversial first against England. Having put Argentina ahead with the now infamous ‘Hand of God,’ Maradona left nothing to chance when doubling his side’s advantage four minutes later. Collecting the ball in his own half, the Argentine set off down the right evading challenges from Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid. Perfectly balanced, with the ball seemingly tied to his feet, Maradona skipped past a further two defenders before rounding goalkeeper Peter Shilton and nonchalantly tapping the ball into an empty net.
Argentina 3-2 West Germany
Brown 21 (A), Rummenigge 73 (WG), Valdano 55 (A), Voller 81 (WG) Burruchaga 84 (A)
Argentina: Pumpido; Cuciuffo, Brown, Ruggeri, Olarticoechea; Batista, Giusti, Enrique, Burruchaga (Trebbiani); Maradona, Valdano
West Germany: Schumacher; Brehme, K H Forster, Jakobs, Briegel; Eder, Matthaus, Magath (Hoeness), Berthold; Allofs (Voller), Rummenigge
Ref: Romualdo Arppi Filho (Brazil)
Never had one tournament been dominated by a single player like Diego Maradona dominated Mexico ’86. The Final was to be no different. A solid but uninspired Argentina were up against a West German side desperate to avenge their World Cup Final defeat four years earlier at the hands of Italy.
Lothar Matthaus was given the unenviable task of man-marking Maradona, but the German struggled to contain the pint-sized South American and within 20 minutes he had brought him down on the edge of the 18-yard box. The free-kick was floated in by Burruchaga to be met by Jose Luis Brown, who headed a soft goal past Harald Schumacher.
Argentina continued to push but couldn’t capitalise on numerous chances. However, 10 minutes into second half Enrique put Jorge Valdano through with only Schumacher to beat. He coolly slotted past the German ‘keeper to notch his fourth goal of the tournament. The Argentines looked like lifting their second trophy in eight years. But typically, the Germans weren’t going to go down without a fight. Using their substantial aerial advantage, they managed to draw level with two goals in quick succession.
Inevitably, though, Maradona had the last word and three minutes after the German equaliser he fed Burruchaga with a beautifully weighted ball and the striker restored the Argentine’s lead and gave them a deserved victory.