For the average football fan in India, 1986 was a seminal year. This was the year in which they were exposed for the first time ever to the beauty of international soccer. Colour television had reached even the smaller towns of the country towards the end of 1984 and this provided the network that could be used for transmitting live the various international sporting events. Thus, sports lovers started watching live the action taking place in the Olympic stadia, Grand Slam tennis championships and in Test matches involving India. However, there were no major events related to football till the FIFA World Cup held in 1986 in Mexico.
The thrill that gripped the entire state of Kerala when the matches started getting aired cannot be explained in mere words. It appeared as if the whole state had nothing to talk about other than the details of the teams and players. Brazil, then playing an enchanting style of football, and possessing in their ranks such brilliant players as Zico and Socrates, were the favourites. Other top sides included France, Italy and West Germany. Among the unfancied teams that created an impact during the initial round was Argentina, who topped Group A that included reigning champions Italy.
From the very first match, it was evident that the Argentine side revolved around the skills of its captain Diego Maradona, a diminutive dynamo widely reckoned as the top footballer in the world. Maradona had made his debut in World Cup four years ago but had to face the ignominy of being sent off during the game against Brazil, which his side lost 0-3. The intervening four years between the two editions of the championship had seen him play first for Barcelona in the Spanish league before moving to Napoli. His tenure at Barcelona was marred by disputes with the club officials and rough tackling on the field, that in one instance, evolved into a full-fledged brawl. However, his move to Napoli brought a change of fortunes as he soaked in the adoration of the fans at Naples, who were thrilled to have him in their middle. He soon grew in stature and was reaching the peak of his prowess when the 1986 World Cup commenced.
In the second round, Argentina defeated Uruguay 1-0 to set up a quarterfinal clash with England. This was the game that gained lasting game and infamy for Maradona. The latter of these happened first, when six minutes into the second half, he punched the ball into the English net using his left hand, while jumping high in the air to intercept the ball that had been sent to goal keeper Peter Shilton by Steve Hodge. Both Shilton and Maradona had leaped high and from the angle visible to the referee it appeared that the ball was deflected off the head of Maradona, thus leading the goal to be allowed. England players protested vehemently causing the referee to check with the linesman before reconfirming the goal. Television replays from different angles showed that ball was indeed pushed by Maradona, thus making it a “hand ball”. However, decisions taken by the referees on the field used to be taken as the ultimate ones during those days and the goal stayed. Maradona’s subsequent remark to the media that the goal was result of “little of the head of Maradona and little of the hand of God” caused this incident to be known subsequently as the “Hand of God” goal!
However, within the next four minutes, Maradona showed the whole world the full extent of his genius by scoring what was voted in 2002 by FIFA as the “Goal of the Century”. Gathering the ball from his own half, he launched into a solo run and with 11 touches on the ball, lodged it in England’s net! The soaring excitement that viewers felt as he dribbled past, feinted and out stepped five England players reached a crescendo when the ball crossed the goal line past a shell shocked Shilton, who was foxed by a clever dodge. Even a recall of this stupendous goal would bring the tingling sense of high-powered thrill in the minds of all those fortunate enough to witness this exhibition of divine skills from “God of Soccer”.
Maradona showed that this was not a one off performance by scoring a similar “solo virtuoso goal” against Belgium as well. In fact, in this semifinal tie, Maradona found the net twice as Argentina won 2-0. In the final against West Germany, with the match tantalisingly poised at 2-2, Maradona sent a defence-splitting pass in the final moments, which was seized upon by Jorge Burruchaga to net the winner. Thus, Maradona led from the front and brought the FIFA Cup back to Argentina, eight years after their maiden triumph in 1978. There was no doubt regarding him being chosen as the “Best Player” of the championship; Maradona’s performance was so powerful and overwhelming that there could not have been any other serious contenders for the “Golden Ball” award.
At the top of his game
The years from 1986 to 1990 saw Maradona reach his peak as a footballer. He guided Napoli to victory in Serie Italian A Championship in 1986-87 defeating such star studded clubs as Juventus and AC Milan. This win was repeated in 1989-90, with Napoli coming up second during the two intervening years. Other major triumphs recorded by Napoli during this period included Coppa Italia in 1987, UEFA Cup in 1989 and Italian Supercup in 1990. Though he was recovering from an ankle injury that affected his form and fitness, he could still navigate Argentina to the final of 1990 FIFA World Cup, where they lost to West Germany 0-1. The semifinals against Italy, played in front of his “home crowd” at Naples, placed the “Napolitanos” in a huge dilemma as to whether they should show allegiance to the national team or support their hero. In the end, Maradona converted a penalty during the shootout to clinch a victory for Argentina.
Maradona’s career went on a downward spiral after 1990. He tested positive for cocaine after an examination carried out while playing for Napoli in March, 1991. A 15-month suspension was ordered by FIFA, which led him to miss the 1992 Copa America championship. His decreased focus on the game and scandals involving contacts with Italian mafia and leading a loose life tarred his image further, leading to his departure from Napoli in 1992. He turned out for Argentina in the FIFA 1994 World Cup but was sent home after testing positive for ephedrine, a performance increasing drug. The game against Nigeria, that Argentina won, turned out to be his last for his country in the World Cup.
Thus, Maradona’s exit from the international arena was tinged with disgrace, a far cry from his status a few years earlier, when he was the lord of all he surveyed on the soccer field. His foray into managing the Argentine side ended in disaster as the team crashed out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, losing 0-4 to Germany in the quarterfinals, leading to his contract not being extended.
He forged close relationships with political leaders of Latin America, among which the most notable was his friendship with Fidel Castro of Cuba. Maradona met Pope Francis, who convinced him to return to his faith, upon which he donated his Argentina T-shirt with No. 10 emblazoned on it, and it is presently displayed in one of the museums in Vatican. He also toured around the world, with Kerala being favoured for one of his visits. He remained liberal and largehearted till his end which came on Wednesday, November 25, 2020, when he was recovering from a surgery on his brain.
Maradona escaped from the slums of Buenos Aires, where he spent his early life, to the rarefied world of the rich and the famous riding solely on his genius as a footballer. He faced difficulties in adjusting to the demands of life as a celebrity and allowed success to derail his commitment to the game. But despite these material changes brought about by sudden prosperity, he remained at heart a person who cared deeply about the less privileged mortals in the society. His achievements elevated him to the status of a living legend in Argentina where his success offered a balm for the embittered nation traumatised by military dictatorships and economic hardships. The spontaneous outpouring of emotions upon hearing about his death from fans of the game from all over the world stands as testimony not only for his undisputed popularity but also the ability of the lovers of this sport to forgive his follies and mistakes and remember only his wizardry with the ball at his feet.
The greatness of a player is judged by his ability to raise the quality standards of the entire side and capacity to perform on the big stage. Maradona fulfilled these conditions more than any other footballer during the 20th century. He single-handedly navigated the fortunes of his sides (Napoli and Argentina) and took them to titles. And he invariably came good on the big stage; his performance levels increased with the size and magnitude of the arena. It can be said unhesitatingly that Maradona takes his place alongside Ferenc Puskas and Pele as the greatest football players of the 20th century.
Let us all salute him as the head of Maradona is finally placed in the hands of God. Rest in Peace, Diego.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)