FIFA World Cup hall of fame: Diego Maradona, none before him, none thereafter
His first World Cup ended with a red card. He was thrown out of his fourth and last one for failing a dope test. This human form of turbulence still engraved his place in the history of football for scripting in his second attempt what comes closest to winning the trophy single-handedly. To say Argentina of 1986 didn’t have other top-class players would be unfair on the Jorges — Valdano and Burruchaga — who both scored in the final. But under Carlos Bilardo was by and large a utility unit, with Diego Maradona. Debate on the greatest may go on.
Almost all who matter in football agree that no other World Cup has been impacted so profoundly by the performance of one individual. An acclaimed and volatile talent well before 1986, controversy’s undisputed favourite child went to Mexico riddled with problems. He was about to father an illegitimate child, his injury-ravaged body needed heavy medication, attracting anti-doping watchdogs. Biographer Jimmy Burns wrote in Hand of God he was tested thrice during the tournament. There were natural concerns caused by a decadent lifestyle and also a selection spat over Daniel Passarella, who was left out at Maradona’s behest. Tackle from behind was yet to be labelled offence and to contain Argentina’s captain, they came from all directions.
The opponents knew who to target, but could not figure out how to stop the man who had a nail inserted in his ankle, broken by a defender in the Spanish league in 1983. Reels of a squat, muscular figure on a bulldozing run, tumbling yet not falling, and swaying past a cluster of menacing legs have been treasured in the archives. The Goal of the Century in the quarterfinal against England is most talked about. As if to show he could do this at will, he produced another outrageous solo in the next match against Belgium. All assists in the 3-2 final win against West Germany came from him. Having grown up in poverty, this porter’s son had learnt things the hard way, which partly explains why he seldom distinguished between fair and unfair.
For him, laws were like opponents, who had to be beaten at any cost. Mexico saw this in the Hand of God incident, minutes before the magical goal. The political background of this match after the Falkland War between Argentina and UK added another dimension to it. In the end, even the enemy conceded his genius. “Never before in World Cups has the talent of a single player loomed so pervasively over everyone’s thinking,” wrote the Observer. A different Maradona came back in 1990, bereft of dribbles and sprints, who took a mediocre team to the final.
He was mostly in the midfield, orchestrating the dirty job, slipping in the occasional trademark pass. It was extraordinary in another sense, considering that he traded creativity for doggedness, factoring in the situation and requirement. Twenty years later, he made a rather comic appearance as coach. By then, his place in the VIP gallery of football’s hall of fame was confirmed.