In a career littered with highlights, Diego Maradona’s genius stood out more than ever during four glorious weeks in the searing heat of Mexico’s 1986 summer.
At the beating heart of Argentina’s national team, Maradona captained his country to victory in the 13th World Cup, scoring five goals and assisting as many. No player has contributed more at the sharp end of the pitch in the tournament since.
It’s become almost a reflex among a litany of football fans to dispel suggestions that the triumphant Argentina of 1986 were more than a one-man team. While there were certainly talented players who didn’t don the number ten shirt, Maradona’s influence is borne out in the numbers.
Alongside scoring or assisting ten of the teams 14 goals that summer, Maradona either took or created 57 of the 101 shots Argentina racked up across their seven matches in the tournament (via Opta).
Going into the World Cup, doubts about Maradona’s fitness loomed. The then 25-year-old was thought to have needed an operation on his right knee or risk breaking down mid-game. Argentina then lost the fierce, combative Daniel Passarella – captain of the 1978 World Cup winning side – on the eve of the tournament to illness and injury, heaping even more of the spotlight on Maradona.
Expectations back in Argentina weren’t high. Or rather, that’s the picture Maradona painted. The nation’s captain described how fans watched Argentina’s opening game against South Korea ‘with their eyes half-closed’ in his autobiography. Had they been able to sneak a peak, onlookers would have been treated to the glorious sight of an imperious display from their number ten, as Maradona laid on all three goals in a comfortable victory.
El Diego failed to either score or assist in just one of Argentina’s seven games that summer. Yet, he could scarcely have come closer. Maradona started the move in the build up to the only goal in the round of 16 clash against Uruguay with a classic dribble. In the same match, he struck the crossbar, teed Jorge Valdano up for a golden chance the striker squandered and even had a goal for himself dubiously ruled out.
Before England’s quarter-final meeting with Argentina, their manager Sir Bobby Robson laid out the rather daunting task he was faced with: “I’ve got 24 hours to devise a way to stop Maradona,” as quoted by Brain Glanville’s The Story of the World Cup. “It won’t be easy. Other teams have already tried everything. They’ve assigned one man to mark him, they’ve closed down space, they’ve let him go while attempting to cut off his service. To no avail…
“Let’s just say that without Maradona, Argentina would have no chance of winning the World Cup. That’s how great he is.” Yet, Maradona hadn’t even shown his best form in the tournament at that point.
Maradona’s talent was so great Argentina’s manager essentially created a new formation just to get the best out of his incredible number ten. Like most things in football (and life) there isn’t one, true creator of the 3-5-2 system, however, Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina were certainly one of the first to play and thrive in this formation.
With Maradona sat behind the striker Valdano, Argentina’s number ten had the freedom to roam around the pitch, unshackled of any real defensive responsibilities. Bilardo, having seen the formation work in a trio of friendlies two years prior, saved the formation until the quarter-final against England. As the statistics suggest, Maradona more than rewarded the faith which inspired this system overhaul.
Maradona scored all four of Argentina’s goals in the quarter and semi-finals against England and Belgium respectively. For most of the final, West Germany’s Lothar Matthaus did well to quell Maradona’s insatiable talent – in a performance the great man described as ‘phenomenal’ – though they conceded two goals the number ten wasn’t directly involved in.
Yet, with the scores level and seven minutes left to play, the ball bounced towards Maradona in the centre circle, surrounded by a throng of West Germans. With his first touch Maradona set Jorge Burruchaga away to score the goal to clinch the game and the title. Maradona’s fifth (and most important) assist of the competition ensured he is the only player to score and create as many as five goals in a single tournament since 1966.
As impressive as these statistics are, a smattering of numbers can only shed a flicker of light on Maradona’s generational talent at the peak of his powers.