World Cup Archives—Part V: Witnessing Diego Maradona’s Rise to Prominence and his Fall from Grace (Mexico 1986 to USA 1994)

As the 2014 World Cup draws increasingly closer to kick-off, Melosport continues to round-up the best of the archives across a seven-part series


1986 Mexico World Cup        

1986 Mexico official logo

1986 Mexico official logo

The land famous for its Arabica coffee beans, Columbia, had originally been selected to host the 1986 World Cup but abdicated due to financial difficulties. Mexico stepped in and became hosts for the second time in 16 years.

Similar to Chile’s preparations for the 1962 tournament, an earthquake devastated Mexico less than 12 months before the competition was due to commence but the locals, along with outsiders, rallied together to rebuild the country and stage the World Cup.

The format of the tournament changed as the second-round group phase was abandoned in favour of a straightforward knock out competition from the last 16 onwards—consistent with the present format.

However, in slightly complicating matters, reducing 24 teams down to 16 (via six groups) meant an extra four positions became available for the best four performing third-placed teams.

Making their debuts in 1986 were Canada, Denmark and Iraq.

Carlos Bilardo, who took over the Argentina coaching reins in 1983, amassed a relatively poor record with of 13 wins from 34 internationals in the lead up to Mexico ’86. However, Bilardo was pragmatic—all he required was a outfield team with seven defending players and three attackers. It helped his cause somewhat that one of the latter three was Maradona, and so he built a team around the diminutive forward, employing a unique 3-5-2 formation.

Maradona was at his very best in 1986

Maradona was at his very best in 1986

Holders Italy started off slowly as Argentina finished top of their respective group, with two wins. The-then 25-year-old Diego Maradona was finally living up to his hype and was pivotal in galvanising La Albiceleste from being a hard-working team to potential world champions.

Maradona’s world record transfer to Barcelona in 1982 may have ended in failure, but his move to Napoli and Serie A invigorated the man who could “make miracles appear out of the mundane.”

Against the country who remunerated him handsomely, Argentina’s No. 10 scored his first of five goals for the tournament but kept the peace as the 1-1 draw meant both his ancestral and adopted homes progressed to the knock-out rounds.

Argentina scored six goals during the group phase—Maradona scored one and assisted in four.

Laudrup and the Danes caused quite a stir during the group stage

Laudrup and the Danes caused quite a stir during the group stage

Denmark started strongly with three wins in their respective group stage, which included a 6-1 thrashing of Uruguay. Michael Laudrup, who was then plying his trade with Italian giants Juventus, and would later go on to wear the colours of both Barcelona and Real Madrid, was the star of the show. On route to the top of the group, the Danes also claimed the surprising scalp of West Germany, in addition to a win over Scotland.

Brazil also notched up three wins as they beat Spain, Northern Ireland and Algeria.

England made life difficult for themselves as an opening defeat to Portugal was followed up by a scoreless draw with Morocco. Needing a victory in their final match to progress, Everton’s Division One top scorer—Gary Lineker—claimed a first-half hat-trick as the Three Lions beat Poland 3-0.

Gary Linker won the 1986 Golden Boot with 6 goals

Gary Linker won the 1986 Golden Boot with 6 goals

Morocco finished top of the group and became the first African country to progress to the second phase of a World Cup finals. However, the country’s euphoric progression was soon halted by Lothar Matthaus and West Germany.

The second-round produced some eye-catching results as the in-form Danes were crushed 5-1 by Spain. Brazil continued to score goals with four unanswered strikes against the Poles. Furthermore the Belgians and the Soviets played out a highly scoring 4-3 thriller with Nico Claesen scoring Belgium’s extra-time winner.

Reigning World Champions Italy faced the current European Champions France and the Platini-inspired Les Bleus beat the Azzurri 2-0 at the Stadio Olympico in front of a capacity 70,000 crowd.

Lineker continued his golden touch by scoring a brace against Paraguay as England progressed to the quarter-finals, where they would face Maradona and co—the first meeting between the two countries since the Falklands Conflict.

Maradona's first goal against England was beyond questionable

Maradona’s first goal against England was beyond questionable

A largely mundane first half exploded into life after the interval. Maradona latched onto a poor clearance and punched the ball into the goal. England coach Bobby Robson could not believe his eyes when the referee awarded the goal.

After the match the world’s best player would state that the goal was a combination of his ability and divine intervention:

“Un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios”—A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God

Four minutes later Maradona earnt the former half of his tag “half-angel, half-devil” from the renowned publication L’Equipe. He collected the ball in his own half and beat numerous England players plus Shilton, before rifling the ball home.

“You have to say that is magnificent”—BBC commentator Barry Davies

Lineker added another goal to his repertoire to reduce the deficit and then had an almost copy-cat effort which he missed in stoppage time. Argentina progressed at England’s expense.

Although penalty shoot-outs had only been introduced in 1982, the three remaining quarter-finals were all decided via the spot. France edged out Brazil, West Germany beat the hosts and Belgium eliminated Spain.

The semi-finals witnessed two more goals from Maradona in a 2-0 win over Belgium. His second strike was another mazy dribble—just to reiterate his status as the best player on the planet. The Germans replicated the same score line against the European Champions to set up an intriguing final.

The eve of the World Cup final was dominated by Maradona. Despite his misdemeanour against England, his genius outweighed his flaws.

“Never before in half a century of World Cups has the talent of a single footballer loomed so pervasively over everybody’s thinking about the final. Maradona’s impact goes far beyond the simple realisation that he is indisputably the best and most exciting player now at work in the game. It is inseparable from the potent sense of declaration inherent in almost everything he has done in the field here in Mexico, from his vast public’s conviction that he has chosen the Aztec stadium as for the setting for the definitive statement of his genius.”— Hugh McIlvanney writing for the Observer before the final.

German dynamo Lothar Matthaus was allocated the unenviable task of man-marking Maradona. Despite the Bayern Munich midfielder’s best efforts, Maradona still managed a small piece of magic by sliding the perfect through-ball to send Jorge Burruchaga clear of the German defence. With the scores 2-2, he raced down the pitch and scored Argentina’s winner with a composed finish to win the World Cup.

It was fitting that Maradona had the honour, as captain, of lifting the World Cup—Mexico 1986 forever became known as Maradona’s World Cup.

Key Facts

  • Teams: 24
  • Winner: Argentina
  • Runner-up: West Germany
  • Goals: 132 in 52 games (average 2.5 per match)
  • Golden Boot: Gary Lineker (England)—6 goals in 5 matches


1990 Italia World Cup

If the 1986 tournament was forever associated with Maradona, the 1990 World Cup has always been affiliated with Luciano Pavarotti and Nessun Dorma.

Italy became the second country to host twice, with a gap of over half a century between both events as they beat off competition from the Soviet Union to host the 1990 showpiece.

Costa Rica, Republic of Ireland and the United Arab Emirates made their debuts, while there were notable absentees in the form of France, Portugal and Poland.

Maradona was a shadow of the phenomenon four years previously in Mexico but Argentina knew his presence was vital if they were to provide a dogged defence of their crown.

Their campaign commenced with a 1-0 shock defeat, albeit a hugely entertaining one, against a vastly ill-disciplined nine-man Cameroon outfit thanks to Francois Omam-Biyik’s winner.

Mexico 1986 finalists West Germany displayed a statement of intent as they comprehensively beat Yugoslavia and UAE in their opening two games—Matthaus revelled in an advanced role to score three goals.

Armed with the most expensive footballer in the world, much was expected of the Azzurri on home soil.

Roberto Baggio, who had transferred from Fiorentina to Juventus during the season, scored the goal of the tournament against Czechoslovakia during the group stage and Toto Schillacci remarkably turned from fringe player into goal machine for the Italians.

England were paired with the Republic of Ireland, Holland and Egypt in their group. The Dutch and particularly Marco Van Basten had heaped total misery on England during the preceding European Championships (which the Dutch won), but England now had an exciting star in their ranks—Paul Gascoigne.

Gascoigne had been a late inclusion into the squad but the dynamic 23-year-old midfielder settled in immediately at the highest level. Against Holland in particular, the Spurs ace caused the Oranje numerous problems but no-one could capitalise in a 0-0 draw.

England won their final group match against Egypt to finish top. The Dutch and the Irish meanwhile knew that between them someone would face the in-form Germans.

The Dutch drew the unlucky straw in the final 16. Die Mannschaft prevailed 2-1 but the match became famous for the battle between Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Voller.

England faced Belgium in the second round and rode their luck after the Belgians hit the woodwork on more than one occasion. The hero of the hour was David Platt, as he scored an exquisite volley from a Gascoigne free-kick in the last-minute of extra-time.

Also in the last 16, Maradona may not have been at full strength but his purposeful run and assist to Claudio Canniggia meant Argentina knocked out their South American rivals Brazil. Argentina’s stand-in goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea kept Argentina in the game and would later become even more of a hero for his country.

Elsewhere, wherever Roger Milla and his Cameroon team-mates went, they entertained. Milla embarrassed Colombia’s goalkeeper Rene Higuita in extra-time as Cameroon became the first African side to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

The Three Lions were the next opponents for Cameroon. What appeared to be plain sailing when Platt headed England into the lead, turned on its head in the second half as Kunde and Ekeke gave the Africans a 2-1 lead. English hearts were in mouths but 1986 hero, Gary Lineker, demonstrated nerves of steel by scoring two penalties to save the day.

Schillacci and the hosts were still progressing. Wins over Uruguay and then Jack Charlton’s Ireland meant Maradona would play the semi-final against Italy in his adopted Stadio San Paolo home (Napoli’s home ground).

The match finished 1-1 and went to penalties. Following his wonder save from a Baggio free-kick during the game, Goycochea thwarted the home side in the tale of the spot-kicks and the holders incredibly still had one hand on their trophy.

In the second semi-final, the English and the Germans faced each other at the World Cup for the first time since 1970 and both played their part in the game of the tournament. A deflected Andreas Brehme free-kick and a typical impromptu Lineker finish sent the game into extra-time.

Both teams hit the woodwork and then England concluded the first of their numerous penalty shoot-out woes. The Germans set up a repeat of Mexico 1986 final and Gascoigne’s tears became an iconic imagine in English.

Italia 90 was one of the highlights in Gascoigne's career

Italia 90 was one of the highlights in Gascoigne’s career

Reminiscing in England’s penalty failure, Lineker said in a recent interview:

“In the 1990 World Cup I roomed with Shilton. We’d watched a few shootouts in that tournament and in every one we saw you could pretty much guarantee two of them would go straight at the keeper. We had a conversation saying if you waited as a keeper you’re bound to save at least two. But every one of the Germans’ efforts hit the stanchion and went right in the corner. Because Peter waited he never got close to any of them. That’s why it’s all my fault!”

The final was very poor. Maradona’s star had sufficiently waned and Argentina’s tactics resembled butchery. The World Cup Final’s first red cards were issued—Pedro Monzon received his marching orders after chopping down Jurgen Klinsmann and Gustavo Dezotti was dismissed late on for a second caution.

Brehme converted an 85th minute penalty and West Germany won the World Cup for the third time—Franz Beckenbauer became the first man to captain and coach a World Cup winning side.

Key Facts

  • Teams: 24
  • Winner: West Germany
  • Runner-up: Argentina
  • Goals: 115 in 52 games (average 2.2 per match)
  • Golden Boot: Salvatore Schillaci (Italy)—7 goals in 6 matches


1994 USA World Cup

Official 1994 World Cup Poster

Official 1994 World Cup Poster

FIFA’s decision to award the 1994 World Cup to USA was met with considerable scepticism since football in the US was behind the likes of American Football, Baseball and Basketball in the popularity stakes.

Although the tournament’s format remained the same, there were two key rule changes. The backpass rule had been introduced plus; three points were awarded for a group phase win to encourage attacking football—Italia ’90 was the lowest average scoring World Cup.

Greece, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia made their debuts, plus a reunified Germany competed as one country. France, Uruguay and England failed to qualify—the first World Cup since 1938 whereby Britain was not represented.

The heat was a cause of concern in the run up to the tournament where some games were expected to be played in over 40 degrees celsius. Common sense prevailed and players were allowed to freely drink water while matches were in progress.

Controversy marked the early stages of the World Cup as Maradona, who had come out of international retirement to play for his country again, tested positive for a banned stimulant ephedrine.

Say no more

Maradona’s goal celebration against Greece

“Some alarm bells did ring internally within FIFA when, after his first goal against Greece, Maradona rushed over to the TV camera and screamed into it. He may simply have wanted to tell the world he was back, but the image of his crazed expression broadcast to billions of TV viewers around the world struck a discordant note.”—Jimmy Burns (The Life of Diego Maradona)

With a slim line and rejuvenated Maradona on board, Argentina looked more like their past selves from Mexico ‘86 side rather than Italia ’90. Two wins in two games (against Greece and Nigeria) though counted for little as they then lost to surprise packages Bulgaria and then were knocked out by Romania in the second round without their talisman.

Escobar was shot dead soon after his return to Colombia

Escobar was shot dead soon after his return to Colombia

Colombia were eliminated during the group stages, with an own goal by Andres Escobar contributing to the Los Cafeteros’ early exit. Upon returning to Colombia, Escobar was shot dead, amid speculation that the defender’s actions cost gangsters millions of dollars relating to a gambling syndicate.

Defending champions Germany made hard work of their group with two narrow victories over unfancied opposition—3-2 against South Korea 3-2 and 1-0 against Bolivia.

Italy reiterated their slow starting reputation as they lost their opening game to the Republic of Ireland. Coach Arrigo Sacchi then regrouped his troops to collect four points from matches against Norway and Mexico. All four teams in the group finished on the same number of points and goal difference. Each team had won, drawn and lost once and Norway were eliminated as they scored the least number of goals.

Cameroon, again, created headlines as 42-year-old Roger Milla became the oldest goalscorer at a World Cup finals. Russia Oleg Salenko also created history by scoring five goals against the Indomitable Lions.

Romario (right) and Bebeto (centre)

Romario (right) and Bebeto (centre) combined to produce a prolific partnership at USA ’94

Romario and Bebeto formed a potent strike partnership for Brazil. In particular, the former was one of the in-form strikers in European club football and his predatory goal scoring skills were hugely influential during USA 1994.

The Brazilians played a famous brand of “slow-slow-quick-quick-goal” in the American heat and negotiated their group stage, which consisted of Cameroon, Russia and Sweden without any problems.

A Denis Bergkamp-inspired Holland were paired with neighbours Belgium in their group. Both teams progressed but the highlight was Saudi Arabia’s Saeed Al-Owairan scoring a superb solo effort against the Belgians.

The Rode Duivels faced another neighbour—Germany—in the second round. Voller and Klinsmann rekindled their old strike partnership to ensure the holders progressed to the quarter-finals and Italy left it very late to beat Nigeria as an 88th minute equaliser from the devine pony tail, Roberto Baggio, meant extra-time, where he also scored the winner.

The second round was relatively uneventful but the World Cup really came alive at the last eight stage.

Captained by Romario’s partner-in-crime at FC Barcelona, Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgarians carried a threat which matured as the tournament progressed into the knock-out rounds. Stoichkov carried a huge goal threat upfront and the wolf-like Bulgarian defender, Trifon Ivanov, marshalled the backline.

Ivanov had won half the battle with opposing forwards before the game had kicked-off

Ivanov had won half the battle with opposing forwards before kick-off

A spot kick victory over Mexico resulted in a quarter-final encounter against the defending champions. When a Matthaus penalty put the Germans ahead, the game seemed to be following the script, but late in the game, two fine goals in the space of four minutes from the skipper and Yordan Letchkov eliminated the holders.

Spain and Italy contested a fiery all-Latin affair as Luis Enrique was on the receiving end of some rough treatment from Mauro Tassotti, which the referee and his assistants missed.

In keeping up with appearances, Baggio scored another vital goal to win the match.

Luis Enrique after Tasotti had elbowed him

Luis Enrique after Tasotti had elbowed him

Holland and Brazil played out a thriller at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The Selecao raced into a 2-0 lead thanks to their striking duo but the Oranje hit back through Bergkamp and Aron Winter. Replacing the suspended Leonardo, Branco ended matters via a trademark free-kick inside the last ten minutes.

Sweden and Romania drew 2-2 with Swedish goalkeeper Tomas Ravelli proving the hero in the penalty shoot-out.

The big two, Brazil and Italy, were kept apart by the semi-final draw. Brazil edged out Sweden 1-0, while a magical five-minute spell from Baggio meant Italy beat Bulgaria 2-1, where Stoichkov scored his sixth goal of the tournament.

Italy’s delight at reaching the final was tapered as Baggio picked up a hamstring injury. That said, the final at the Rose Bowl contained a romantic notion—both teams were World Cup heavyweights with three championships each. Furthermore, both had contested the iconic 1970 final in Mexico.

There was no swagger this time around, only disappointment for the neutrals, as the teams cancelled each other out in a bore scoreless draw—even after extra-time.

Although injured, a heavily strapped Baggio did play but was largely ineffective. His most telling contribution was to miss the decisive penalty, handing Brazil their fourth World Cup—their first since Pele’s era (1970).

World Cup winners Brazil, with even a young Ronaldo at the young (in blue)

World Cup winners Brazil, with even a young Ronaldo at the front (in blue)

Key Facts

  • Teams: 24
  • Winner: Brazil
  • Runner-up: Italy
  • Goals: 141 in 52 games (average 2.7 per match)
  • Golden Boot: Oleg Salenko (Russia) / Hristo Stoichkov (Bulgaria)—6 goals

By the end of the tournament, there was a poignant reflection on Maradona’s career which was effectively over. Eight years previously he dominated all opposition with his spellbinding skills and now he had been disgraced from the sport. Pele won three World Cups to Maradona’s one but the question of who was the better player will never fail to be an eternal bar-room conversation.

Maradona and Pele are universally considered as the two best players of all-time

Maradona and Pele are universally considered as the two best footballers of all-time



World Cup Archives—Part IV: The Introduction of Total Football through to Marco Tardelli’s Iconic Goal Celebration (West Germany 1974 to Spain 1982)

World Cup Archives—Part III: Rallying from a Natural Disaster to Winning the Jules Rimet Trophy for Good (West Germany 1974 to Spain 1982)

– World Cup Archives—Part II: From Capoeria Disappointment to the Emergence of Pele (Brazil 1950 to Sweden 1958)

– World Cup Archives—Part I: From Launching one of the World’s Greatest Sporting Dynasties to the Brink of War (Uruguay 1930 to France 1938)

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