The 1986 World Cup was notable in the modern post 1970 era of colour televised World Cups. It was dominated by one towering individual, both a hero and a villain.
We have icons of the game now, players who arguably dominate their team dynamic – Messi with Argentina, Ronaldo with Portugal, Neymar with Brazil but none of these compare with Diego Maradona in 1986.
Maradona was a pantomime villain of course. But just as Luis Suarez draws reluctant admiration for his efforts at Liverpool now, you had to appreciate Maradona’s phenomenal ability. That appreciation has grown in time. For the English at the time, he was enemy number one.
In 1986 he was at his peak. Four years earlier, at the 1982 World Cup he had been too immature, and his frustration boiled over against Brazil, where he was sent off for a horrible challenge. By 1990 the excesses of his extraordinary time at Napoli and years of being fouled had begun to take their toll. It was also a more physical game back then.
Referees were more lenient and Maradona took a fair bit of punishment. At the same time, he took delight in skipping past lunging challenges as he accelerated past defenders.
As well as Argengtina, hopes were high for perennial favourites Brazil. The best games of the 1982 World Cup seemed to involve the wonderfully flamboyant Brazilians. The languorous captain from 1982, Socrates, returned in 1986 while the ageing and injured number ten Zico was available for cameo substitute appearances. Up front they had Careca, a goal-scoring forward alongside a mixture of old favourites, such as Junior, and newer unknown players from the Brazilian league.
The surprise star was Josimar, an attacking full-back that only Brazil seem to be able to produce (that’s code for “can’t defend”). Josimar combined the non-stop running of Dani Alves with the fierce shot of Carlos Alberto. He didn’t score the goal of the tournament in 1986 but his two efforts against Northern Ireland and Poland might have won the award in another tournament.
We expected the European challenge to have been led by the 1982 champions Italy, the West Germans and the 1984 European champions France. But, Italy had peaked and the most impressive European teams initially were Belgium and Denmark. The 1986 Belgium side was not the golden generation we see now but an effective, experienced side who had knocked out the Dutch in qualifying.
The Danes, who beat West Germany in the group stages, were also experienced and organised but also had one of the most skilful players in the tournament in the elusive Michael Laudrup.
As in 1982 England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all qualified for the tournament. For all three of these home nations the tournament started badly. The Scots were under the caretaker leadership of Alex Ferguson who replaced Jock Stein who had collapsed and died at the end of the final qualifying game against Wales.
Scotland had a side built around the strong early 1980’s Aberdeen & Dundee United sides, supplemented by English-based players, but they could only struggle to last place in a group alongside Denmark, West Germany and Uruguay.
Northern Ireland had the remains of the over-achieving 1982 side but were drawn in a tough group with Brazil and Spain. They really needed to beat Algeria in their first game, but despite taking the lead through Norman Whiteside, they could only draw 1-1. For Palace fans this game was notable for the appearance of club legend Rachid Harkouk who by then on the books of Notts County. Northern Ireland failed to progress as they lost to Spain and then perhaps inevitably, to Brazil.
England had a relatively easy group to qualify from. Morocco had very little pedigree, Poland were nowhere near as good as their 1974 side and the Portuguese side were falling apart as players refused to train, after a controversial selection process. Despite that, the Portuguese managed to pull themselves together for long enough to beat England 1-0 in the opening game.
England followed that with a dire 0-0 draw against Morocco, which they lost their captain (and Baggie legend) Bryan Robson to injury and their most experienced player Ray Wilkins to suspension after a petulant sending off.
Entering the final decider against Poland, England had to make changes. Peter Reid and Steve Hodge came into midfield, while Peter Beardsley replaced Mark Hateley up front. The game is probably the most famous of Gary Lineker’s career. He was a good old-fashioned goal-hanger and in that game, he was in the right place at the right time, as England scraped through to the last 16.
One of the curiosities of the tournament was that there were 24 teams competing in the group stages for 16 places in the next round. The four best third place finishers therefore qualified for the knockout phase.
By the last 16 England had hit form and cruised part Paraguay 3-0 with Lineker scoring two more. Meanwhile their next opponents, Argentina, narrowly beat their neighbours Uruguay 1-0.
The performance of the round was from Real Madrid and Spain’s Emilio Butragueno, another notable goal-hanger, who scored four goals in a surprise 5-1 victory over Denmark, who had beaten West Germany in the group stage. Next up Spain were to play Belgium who beat the Soviet Union 4-3 after extra time.
The tie of the round saw European Champions France knock out reigning Champions Italy 2-0. France’s tough draw continued as that win was to be followed by a quarter-final against Brazil, who had thrashed Poland 4-0.
The loudest match saw hosts Mexico beat Bulgaria 2-0 in front of 110,000 fans in the Azteca stadium. That win meant a quarter-final against the unimpressive West Germans who could only squeeze past Morocco 1-0 with a late Lothar Matthaus goal.
The quarter-final stage saw the most memorable game of the tournament between Argentina and England, just four years after the two countries had been at war. The main action took place in the second half, after a scoreless first half.
You have probably seen Maradona’s two goals and reacted fairly strongly to both. The ‘Hand of God’ goal came first, as the tiny Maradona used his arm to sneakily push the ball past Shilton after Steve Hodge had mis-hit a ball up into the air. The best dribble you’ve ever seen came shortly after. Maradona might be a [insert your phrase of choice here] but he was a quite phenomenal player and that goal was amazing. England did fight back, throwing Barnes and Waddle on as attacking subs. Lineker pulled one back and narrowly failed to equalise at the end.
England were out but Lineker’s six goals would win him the Golden Boot, the finest achievement by any Englishman at any World Cup, from 1967 onwards.
In 1982 Brazil went out 3-2 after an epic game against Italy. Once again, Brazil were to go home early, but this time in less romantic fashion, on penalties against France. The game saw two of the strongest midfield units playing a game of a technically high standard even in extreme heat, but penalty misses by two Brazilian legends proved crucial – Zico missed in ‘normal time’, then Socrates, who missed the first penalty of the shoot-out.
I’m not sure Brazil have ever been quite the same again. The flamboyant approach of the 60’s and 70’s has been replaced by a more pragmatic one. There is less mystery about the squad because we see the players in the various European leagues every week. History might repeat itself this year if Belgium go further in the tournament than Brazil.
The other two quarter finals, also decided on penalties, were dull in comparison. Those penalty shoot-outs saw the demise of hosts Mexico against West Germany, and then the Belgians overcome the Spanish.
So to the semi-finals. Again, the greatest moment of this stage of the tournament was provided by Maradona who scored a solo goal similar to his second against England except this time down the inside left channel. This was one of two goals he scored as Argentina comfortably overcame Belgium 2-0.
The France v West Germany semi-final was a repeat of an infamous game four years earlier. If Maradona was the pantomime villain for the English, German keeper Harald Schumacher performed the same role for the French. In 1982 his cynical challenge on Patrick Battiston denied France a victory. In the 1986 semi-final he denied France through excellent keeping. At the other end, the French keeper Joel Bats, penalty-saving hero of the quarter-final against Brazil, made a complete horlicks of an early Andreas Brehme free kick, touched to him by the mighty Felix Magath. West Germany held out and grabbed a late second through the spectacularly eighties-permed Rudi Voeller.
That German side embraced the mullet look, with the notable exception of Hans-Peter Briegel, perhaps the greatest ever Sunday League footballer. He shunned not only the foolish haircut but also socks. As well as exposing his bare shins, his lack of skills made him a permanent injury-risk. And yet he seemed to be the fittest man ever and as hard as nails. If Millwall made Germans, it would be him.
The final took place in front of over 110,000 in Mexico City. West Germany adopted the obvious tactic of man-to-man marking Maradona, but that did not mean the game was killed off as a spectacle. Instead some unheralded players were able to come to the fore.
Argentina scored first when Schumacher misjudged a free kick allowing the less than exotically named Jorge Luis Brown to score. Jorge Valdano added a second before the West Germans fought back in the second half and drew level with goals from Rummeneige and Voeller.
Maradona then managed a moment of magic threading a pass to Burrachaga who out-paced Briegel to slide the ball in for the winning goal.
An appropriate end to a tournament that one player had dominated.
A Post Script
Back in 1986, there was still something exotic about the bright dramatic colours of the slightly imperfect satellite feed with the muffled commentary that was very different to the rather drab fare each week on Match of the Day.
While Brazil were not a great side they had unearthed Josimar. Hosts Mexico always played in front of fanatical fans who went berserk when Mendete scored a spectular scissors kick. The wonderfully named Vasily Rats scored a classic World Cup screamer (or ‘worldie’ for you teenagers). And there were plenty of other great goals.
Click on the link below for the 20 greatest goals of the 1986 World Cup.