The 1986 Fifa World Cup in Mexico stands out among the other editions for one particular reason. It saw the best football played by the greatest ever player to ever grace the game, Diego Armando Maradona.
But football was almost robbed of this glorious chapter in its history.
In 1985, as Argentina began their six-match World Cup qualifying campaign, Maradona, who was making a return to the national team after three-year rest period, was attacked by a Venezuelan fan after the team landed in the country to play the match, according to FourFourTwo.
Maradona injured his meniscus in the knee in the process but known to smile in the face of adversity, he not only played that game but also scored twice in a 3-2 win for Argentina.
Despite a knee injury that kept getting worse, Maradona soldiered on to help Argentina win their next three matches.
“I am Maradona, who makes goals, who makes mistakes. I can take it all, I have shoulders big enough to fight with everybody,” he had said. “When I wear the national team shirt, its sole contact with my skin makes it stand on an end.”
Argentina needed a point from their two matches against Peru but lost the first game in Lima. The final game thus brought huge pressure. It was alleviated by the fact that Maradona’s knee was on the point of breakdown. Playing him could have led to him missing the World Cup but not playing him could have been detrimental to the team’s chances of making it altogether.
The Buenos Aires native, almost completely injured, played the game but couldn’t be at his magical best. Argentina trailed to Peru with ten minutes to play and Maradona was barely able to kick the ball.
“I was physically ruined, carrying around that damned right knee. I dreamed of hammering the ball into the net, but I just couldn’t do it – I wasn’t up to it,” Maradona said.
But the little Argentine had a lot more about him than his worldly skills. He was a true leader, a terrific motivator, and a man who had everyone’s ear. With the hopes fading, all it needed was a whisper from the great man to his teammate Ricardo Gareca
“Right there, I said to Gareca, ‘This is how the World Cup is going to end for us: we’ll suffer for it, but we’ll win it’,” Maradona said recalling his words to Garcea.
Argentina rescued matters and booked a ticket to Mexico. Maradona had taken Argentina to the World Cup virtually on one leg.
“When Maradona had to take on responsibilities - personal responsibilities or as the leader of the team - fractured, injured, under enormous physical constraints, he did it,” Victor Hugo, the legendary Uruguayan commentator said about the Argentine great who rarely let his team down.
It wasn’t just his legs that had done the talking but also his persona and leadership, qualities that were going to be needed in big supply in the coming months.
Man with ‘big shoulders’
With Maradona on the pitch, it was all about him. He was the player everyone wanted to stop legitimately or illegitimately. In the 1986 World Cup, he suffered 53 fouls, the most by any player at a World Cup.
Hogging all the limelight on and off the pitch, Maradona made life a lot easier for his Argentine teammates.
“One slept soundly the night before a game not just because you knew you were playing next to Diego and Diego did things no other player in the world could do, but also because unconsciously we knew that if it was the case that we lost then Maradona would shoulder more of the burden, would be blamed more than the rest of us,” Jorge Valdano, who was a member of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup-winning team along with Maradona was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
“That was the kind of influence he exercised on the team - I would say it’s more technical than social,” he added.
Maradona’s presence elevated the whole team. Throughout his history as a player, he made a habit of leading ordinary teams to glory all by himself. Be it Argentina at the 1986 World Cup or Napoli in Serie A.
“The crucial difference with Pele is that Maradona wasn’t surrounded by great players; he had to carry the team himself. If you took Maradona out of Argentina, they would not win the World Cup, but I think Brazil without Pele would still have won,” said French forward Eric Cantona.
An on-field coach
The fact that distinguished Maradona from other greats of the game was that he was not just a gifted footballer who could rely on his feet to do the talking. He regularly out-thought his opponents and was the brain of his team. Many referred to him as an on-field coach.
“Maradona was a technical leader: a guy who resolved all difficulties that may come up on the pitch. Firstly, he was in charge of making the miracles happen, that’s something that gives teammates a lot of confidence,” said Valdano,
The Buenos Aires native always stood for his teammates. His commitment at times even extended to his fellow colleagues. During the 1986 World Cup, while carrying Argentina’s hopes at the tournament, Maradona managed to find enough courage and energy to take on then Fifa president Joao Havelange.
The Argentine crticised the world body for hosting matches during day time under severely high temperatures in Mexico to suit the European audiences that led to a war of words with Havelange.
The off-field issues though barely hampered Maradona on the pitch as he dominated the tournament from minute one to last.
Man of the masses
In club football, away from the Argentine blue and white, especially at Napoli, Maradona was no different. He made the fight of the neglected city, steeped in poverty, his own. Often second best to the footballing and non-footballing powers of the north, Napoli were desperately in need of a hero that would provide them hope. Maradona did a lot more than that.
Two years after joining, Maradona managed to take the team from 12th position to the top as Napoli won their first-ever Serie A title.
“I feel like I represented a part of Italy that didn’t count for anything,” Maradona said in the 2019 Asif Kapadia documentary about his life in Naples.
“I won this one at my home,” he added.
It thus comes as a little surprise that Maradona has been immortalised in the south Italian city with his murals to graffiti in the various parts of the city.
He never shied away from lending a helping hand to the people of Naples and often led the way on his own even when the authorities backed out.
In 1984, he urged Napoli and Fifa to arrange a friendly to help an ailing kid gather expenses for his treatment. After Napoli and Fifa refused, Maradona, against the wishes of his club, turned up for that charity match that was held in one of the city’s poorest suburbs. He played a game on a muddy surface with over 4,000 people in attendance.
“Maradona is a God to the people of Naples. Maradona changed history. In 80 years, we had always suffered, fighting against relegation, yet in seven seasons with him, we won two leagues, a Uefa Cup, two Italian Cups,” said Naples native Fabio Cannavaro, who was in the youth ranks at Napoli when Maradona was there and later won the World Cup with Italy in 2006.
After Maradona died on Wednesday, the tributes once again centered around his extremes – his silky skills on the pitch and the brazen demeanour off it. The impeccable qualities that he possessed as a leader of the team which allowed him to galvanise the football community and an entire nation remain underrated.
Hence, as the world waits for the next Diego Maradona, simply a fleet-footed genius won’t suffice; because El Diego was so much more.