Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Soccer's Sorcerer

Diego Maradona, with his undoubted genius, made an unforgettable mark at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and helped Argentina become world champions

By Shevlin Sebastian

June 23, 1986, Azteca Stadium, Mexico
Quarter finals: England vs. Argentina

Argentine captain Diego Maradona collects the ball from near the centre line on the right flank. He starts to move slowly, then accelerates with the sudden speed and finesse of a deer. He is immediately challenged by two English defenders. Maradona sidesteps one and swerves around the other, his eyes on the ball all the time. He runs hard. Again, two English players converge on him. Incredibly, he finds a gap between the two, squeezes past them and is now in the open, on the right side. He is unchallenged and in full stretch now, the ball mesmerisingly glued to his left feet.

English goalkeeper Peter Shilton hesitates. He is afraid to commit himself early, but Maradona has already reached the top of the penalty box, although he is chased by three English players. So Shilton has no option, but to move forward. He closes the angle, but Maradona gives a feint. He pretends as if he is going to take a shot at the left corner. However, it is a dummy. Shilton splays his legs, as Maradona moves to the right and flicks the ball into the empty net.


The stadium erupts. Maradona erupts. He clenches a fist and runs towards the Argentinian section of the stadium, and yells his jubilation. The other Argentine players converge on him. There is a rapturous joy. This is surely one of the greatest goals in the history of the World Cup. Or in the history of football.

In fact, in 2002, users of overwhelmingly voted it as the ‘Goal of the Century’. The Mexicans were so taken up by the goal that, later, they built a plaque at Azteca Stadium commemorating it.

This work of beauty was compensation for an earlier disputed goal in the same match. In the 51st minute, Mardona runs towards the goal and, amidst a clutch of English players, he gives a diagonal pass to teammate Jorge Valdano, who is running in a parallel line, but the ball goes behind him and reaches midfielder Steve Hodge who has run back.

He tries to clear it, but miscues the kick and the ball heads in a high arc towards the penalty box. Shilton runs out to punch it, but Maradona, already running forward, jumps up and hits the ball with his left hand into the goal. Unfortunately, the Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser did not see it. The English players protest vehemently. But the referee is unmoved. And the goal is allowed.

Later, at the press conference, Maradona said, tongue-in-cheek, “I scored the goal, a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” Thereafter, this goal has been permanently dubbed as the ‘Hand of God’ goal.

June 29, 1986, Azteca Stadium.
World Cup final: Argentina Vs. Germany

Two spectacular goals by Karl Heinz Rummeneige and Rudi Voeller has helped Germany draw level with Argentina, 2-2. The South American confidence is beginning to erode. There is only ten minutes left. It is a moment that demands magic. And so, once again, soccer’s sorcerer responds. Maradona collects a pass from inside his own half, eludes three defenders and clips a through pass to Jorge Burruchaga that splits the German defence.

Burruchaga is unchallenged and running like the wind, towards the box. Goalkeeper Harald Schumacher, in a striking canary yellow jersey, advances towards the Argentinian. But, at the most important moment of his life, Burruchaga keeps his cool and sends a low shot that eludes the diving and desperate Schumacher. Score-3-2.

When the final whistle blows, the man responsible for the decisive pass, is already on his knees, his arms outstretched, his eyes heavenward, tears rolling down his face, and an outstretched smile that made it seem as if he had no lips.

Diego Maradona’s dream of winning the World Cup had come true. This was the first time, since Pele, that a player had stamped his individual authority on the World Cup, and with as much flair.

Right from the first match, against South Korea, when he performed brilliantly, despite some persistent fouling, Maradona had produced soccer of the highest class.

The feints, the slow start to his runs, the sudden acceleration, the swift changes of direction, the outrageous dribbles, the perfect headers, and those swirling free kicks that puzzled both defenders and goalkeepers alike.

There was no footballer like Diego Armando Maradona.
And, on June 29, 1986, Diego Maradona was 'El Rey', the King Of The Planet.

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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