Dubai: Diego Maradona passed away on Wednesday, less than four weeks after his 60th birthday. The great captivated millions of football fans and converted millions more during the 1980s, and Maradona — along with Pele — was the name that always came up for the decades that followed whenever a debate cropped up about who was the greatest footballer of all time.
However, the good, bad and ugly of the diminutive maestro’s flawed genius can be captured in five short famous — or infamous, depending on your persuasion — minutes at the Mexico 86 World Cup.
Maradona had already lit up a magical tournament that is etched in the memory of any football fan of a certain age. This was a competition unlike any other, with truly global superstar teams from Italy to Uruguay, Brazil to England and West Germany to — of course — Argentina. In the early matches, Maradona’s mazy runs and physics-defying turns were a wonder to behold, as he set up goal after goal for Jorge Burruchaga and Jorge Valdano up front in sky blue and white.
But things changed forever as the world tuned in to see this unlikely athlete and his South American cohorts take on an England team in the quarter-finals many touted as better than the 1966 World Cup-winning side.
On June 22, 1986, the only place worth watching was Mexico City as Maradona, Burruchaga, Valdano and Sergio Batista faced the cream of Europe in the white shirts of England. Each Englishman was a household name across Europe, from Peter Shilton in goal to Terry Butcher at the back; Glenn Hoddle and Peter Reid in the middle; Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker up front. Even the England bench had stars such as Ray Wilkins, Chris Waddle and John Barnes. This was going to be a battle.
But despite all these iconic names, it was the smallest man on the pitch who made all the difference, with one towering leap to steal a goal from Shilton’s hands, and then — quite simply — the ‘Goal of the Century’.
Four years earlier, Maradona and Argentina departed Espana 82 with their tails between their legs after an early elimination, and a red card for Diego. He would not let another chance pass him by — he was prepared to win at any cost.
At the vast Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, it was — as expected — an evenly fought match. Cagey, a war of attrition, meaty challenges and two sides frightened of making a mistake — silky football this was not.
Until the 51st minute, that was, when football witnessed its most talked-about goal in history. The world collectively held its breath as Maradona clicked into gear and skipped past three men in white before his path was blocked. Ever aware, he pinged the ball to Valdano and kept on running, expecting the one-two return. However, it was England’s Steve Hodge who sent the ball back to keeper Shilton, unaware of the bullet train Maradona still barrelling forward. The ball bounced once and Shilton leapt to collect.
Leap of faith
I said Maradona was physics defying, and no matter how many times you watch it, what happened next still astounds. Maradona — seven inches (18cm) shorter than the England goalkeeper — outleapt Shilton and, courtesy of the ‘Hand of God’ above his head, he fisted the ball over the keeper and the ball bounced into the empty net. “If you look at my feet, you’ll see that I’m already in the air, moving upward. I keep moving up, and he hasn’t even left the ground,” Maradona later said while describing the infamous moment. “I got an idea, to put my hand and my head in.”
From the ridiculous to the sublime as, while commentators and analysts were still dissecting the controversial opener, Maradona floored England and broke their hearts with the most wonderful of individual goals. I still get goosebumps recalling it. Maradona ran more than half the length of the pitch, skinning six England players, wrong-footing these world-class players and putting them on their behinds before slotting past Shilton. The Goal of the Century was born.
Jekyll and Hyde, notoriety and genius in a few fleeting moments that could easily be used as an illustration of a life steeped in adoration, controversy, addiction and inner-demons.
The rest is history
The emotion with which Argentine commentator Victor Hugo Morales described the second goal against England is etched into memory. “What planet did you come from?” he shouted. “Thank you God, for soccer, for Maradona.”
Argentina won 2-1 and Maradona went down in history as he went on to lift the World Cup after a 3-2 victory over West Germany in the final.
And despite his self-inflicted and fatal flaws, he will always be remembered for his talent on the pitch, and five amazing minutes in Mexico.
“The best of the lot, no question,” Brazil’s Zico, a rival of Maradona’s at Mexico 86, said. “I saw Maradona do things that God himself would doubt were possible.”