The 1986 World Cup will always be remembered for one man: Diego Armando Maradona. Without doubt, he was the star of the tournament and Argentina’s talisman as they became world champions for the second time. But there was more to that team than just one man & today we take a look back at the entire story.
The 1986 World Cup, held in Mexico, featured 12 venues, 24 teams, 52 games and 132 goals, but to this day it is best remembered for the deeds of one diminutive man. Argentina defeated West Germany 3-2 in the final on June 29 in the Azteca Stadium to lift the World Cup trophy, having been inspired by the miraculous feats of their 25-year-old captain, Diego Armando Maradona. Aside from Maradona, Argentina’s squad contained a smattering of top-class players, such as Real Madrid forward Jorge Valdano and the talented attacking midfielder Jorge Burruchaga. However, the team was criticized in the lead up to the tournament for being too defensive. The Albicelestes’ only World Cup triumph to that point had come eight years earlier on home soil. That team was coached by the charismatic Cesar Luis Menotti, who valued beautiful football above all else and encouraged fluid, attacking play. The 1986 edition of Argentina, however, was managed by Carlos Bilardo, a much more pragmatic, defense-minded tactician. Dr Bilardo should go down in history not only as a great manager, but as a great character, too. To call him a perfectionist would be an understatement. After seeing his side win the World Cup final 3-2, he still berated his defenders after the game for conceding from two set pieces after being 2-0 up. Centre-back José Luis Brown claims that only half an hour after winning the tournament, he was already thinking about the next World Cup in 1990. His selections and tactics were rarely popular with the public, but he was never phased by peer pressure. If it hadn’t been for his controversial decision to make Maradona captain ahead of Daniel Passarella, who had captained his country to its first World Cup victory only eight years earlier, the summer of 1986 may not have panned out in the way it did.
In the build-up to the final, West Germany coach Franz Beckenbauer described La Selección as close to perfection and without an obvious weakness. He wasn’t far off. The team was set up beautifully both to play to its best in every area of the pitch and to get the best out of the likes of Maradona, Burruchaga and Valdano. With the exception of the little number 10, the Argentine side was under strict tactical instruction. Bilardo used a European-style 3-5-2, with Brown as sweeper and José Luis Cuciuffo and Oscar Ruggeri as the two other central defenders. The midfield five was designed to dominate the opposition and allow Maradona the freedom to produce flashes of brilliance. Such tactical shrewdness was relatively new to Argentina. Argentina conceded five goals in the tournament—and only three until two set pieces in the final—a defensive record which has been matched or beaten by every World Cup-winning team since, but the defence was a most impressive unit. Only having a defensive three meant that they were much more vulnerable at the back, particularly as wide player Ricardo Giusti preferred attacking much more to defensive work. Probably the two most famous players in the side other than Maradona were the two Jorges: Burruchaga and Valdano. Valdano, named La Liga’s Foreign Player of the Year in 1985-86, had just won La Liga and the UEFA Cup with Real Madrid and was at the peak of his powers. He only scored seven goals for Argentina, but four came in the 1986 World Cup and one of them came in the final itself. Burruchaga, scorer of the winner in the final, was also plying his trade in Europe, for French side Nantes in 1986. He was a key player in every area of the pitch. A great all-round footballer, his work rate was a sight to behold, but he could start attacks as well. He was almost as important as Maradona, but in a less memorable way.
Maradona’s staggering five goals and five assists means that he was “directly” involved in ten out of his team’s 14 goals at the tournament. However, this overemphasises his contribution to the team as the other ten players on the pitch in each game did a lot for the overall match, be it in terms of “doing the dirty work” by covering ground, defensive action, number of passes or just build-up to the goals. In football, it is nigh on impossible to have a “one-man team”, and when a team is genuinely reliant on one or two players to achieve anything, it never ends well. Had Argentina been reliant on Maradona and had not merely built their team around them, they would have struggled even to go far in the tournament, let alone win it. The Argentina 1986 World Cup squad deserves to be remembered as a footballing example to follow both tactically and in terms of its composition. Maradona’s glorious performances deserve to be remembered in their own right, but to say that he carried his nation to victory on his own is to discredit the players and manager which allowed his moments of genius to happen.
The final was an entertaining one. Jose Luis Brown soared high to head home the first goal for Argentina in front of 114,600 fans at the Azteca Stadium. Though Maradona was kept relatively quiet by the tenacious man-marking of Lothar Matthaeus, Argentina’s collective effort saw them dominate the majority of the contest. The Albicelestes appeared to have the trophy in the bag when Valdano overlapped down the left and finished coolly past Harald Schumacher to make the score 2-0 after 56 minutes. The introduction of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Dieter Hoeness helped swing the momentum in West Germany’s favor, and the former halved the deficit 16 minutes before the end of regular time, before goal-machine Rudi Voeller equalized. Maradona had one final moment of genius to contribute to the tournament, however, as he played a visionary pass through to Burruchaga who raced through on goal and slid the ball under Schumacher with six minutes left on the clock. The goal clinched the match and a second world title for Argentina.