Memories of Maradona: tournament form and the trap of football nostalgia

Memories of Maradona: tournament form and the trap of football nostalgia

“Maradona, turns like a little eel, he comes away from trouble, little squat man, comes inside Butcher and leaves him for dead, outside Fenwick and leaves him for dead, and puts the ball away. And that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world.

“He buried the English defence, he picked up that ball 40 yards out, first he left one man for dead, then we went past Sansom, it’s a goal of great quality by a player of the greatest quality. It’s England 0, Argentina 2.”

That is Bryon Butler’s radio commentary for Diego Maradona’s so-called goal of the century in the Azteca Stadium, Quarter Final of the 1986 World Cup.

It defines a magical World Cup moment – arguably the greatest World Cup moment.

And it is a memory that is undiminished, for me at least, by association with the infamous (rather than famous) Hand of God goal that opened the scoring after 51 minutes, breaking English hearts in the process.

Argentina won the game 2–1 as England threw the kitchen sink at it late on. Though in truth, a much underrated Argentina side were far better value for the win than the closeness of the scoreline suggests.

Maradona’s men went on to win the 1986 World Cup with a 3–2 victory over West Germany in a final match, that was for me, and was always likely to be, anti-climatic.

This is natural given the prize at stake, and also the nature of summer tournament football.

Inferior Product

At the end of a long, hard season in Europe, World Cups and Euros tend to start with a bang but fizzle out from the final group games onwards. And as a result anything you can read into the compressed form of tournament football and stellar individual performances at Euros or World Cups has to be treated with suspicion.

Like it or lump it, international football is now an inferior product. It is a significantly more inferior product to the elite levels of the club game. And in the context of teams thrown together, featuring players of various degrees of freshness, at the end of a long hard season, there are serious implications for recruiting clubs and also fans recalling past games through the misty lens of nostalgia. It is something of a trope to suggest that the star men of summer tournaments rarely go on to sustain that level after big money moves but anecdotally at least the evidence seems to back that view up.

Names like James Rodriguez, Salif Diao and El Hadji Diouf, Dragan Stojkovic, Denilson, Stephane Guivarc’h, Oleg Salenko, John Jensen, Savo Milosevic, Theodoros Zagorakis, and Marcos Rojo are all names that regularly recur in lists of poor post-tournament buys. And all of them back up the view that clubs that buy in haste after an international tournament typically repent at leisure.

But, saying all that, Diego Maradona played and lived in a category that was all his own. He is arguably the last great star of international football.


Back in 1986, football was pre-Sky TV, pre-Bosman and pre the Champions League. A world cup winner’s medal was still a massive deal, the pinnacle of a player’s career, as it would be for the next ten years or so – before the rot set in for international football.

As such, Maradona, Argentina, Brazil, the Dutch, even the Italians, had a genuine exotic provenance then that is hard to explain for younger fans today.

Remember, the games’ true stars, in the dim, dark 1970s and 80s only briefly illuminated our screens for 2–3 weeks at a Euros or World Cup. Or you glimpsed them fleetingly in grainy goal highlights footage on Sportsnight, Football Focus or Saint and Greavsie, or whenever a UK side was doing battle in European club competition.

It would be another 10–15 years before a new generation of young British fans could enjoy regular live games on TV, Serie A coverage on Channel 4 and the new Premiership and Champions League on SKY. Budget airlines were yet to open up the wider world to ‘football breaks’. So, ‘going away’ was a major deal, enjoyed only by the young, the intrepid and the addicted, within the broad cohort of football fans.

Back in 1986 I turned 16, during that Mexico 86 tournament and so Maradona’s World Cup created something of a perfect storm for me.

When people use that phrase: “you’ll never be 16 again” they are waxing nostalgic for that moment when, for the first it is all coming together. Adult life is moving into view, the music, the football, the clothes, going out. It is all starting to make sense, to fall into place.

It is that part of life that Marxist sociologists refer to, quite underwhelmingly, as ‘a period of primitive cultural accumulation’. It is the time of life that really defines life chances, and what happens next – for better or ill.

And for me the tousle-haired, Argentinian playmaker, Maradona, is inextricably linked with that nostalgia for coming of age. Both as a person and as a football fan.

Maradona won the golden ball for player of the tournament whilst England’s goalscorer on the day against Argentina at The Azteca, Gary Lineker, won the golden boot as the tournament’s top scorer.

But while in England, fans remain hung-up on The Hand of God fall-out and the legacy of Falklands War petty nationalism, the defining image of Maradona for me, in Mexico, come from the game, not against England, but against Belgium. It was a match, where again, El Diego more or less decided the result single-handed.

On initial viewing, the first goal here (in this FIFA montage), looks like a meat and drink finish following a sluggishly tracked run. That is until you see the reverse angle replay and the deftness of the number 10’s final touch that really only a Messi or Neymar can muster these days in key games.

The second goal is the equal, if not better than that second ‘Goal of the Century’ goal v England.

Maradona changes the play by eschewing the obvious 1–2 opportunity thirty yards from goal in a central position. That’s the passing combination that most conventional front six players would play in his situation. By retaining the ball and shifting his bodyweight instead, to take the ball inside, Maradona instantly wrong foots the panicked Belgian backline.

He advances, with an almost imperceptibly high cruising speed following a subtle, but devastating, change of pace. And he scores with an early outside of the foot hit, on the run at full speed. It’s a sublime improvised finish, taken at the very final moment, as he threatens to become unbalanced.

In the FIFA film (linked above), you can also see the full context just as it was for Maradona and all creative players in the 1980s.

Maradona excelled despite the laxest of refereeing, despite brutal tackling but also while facing relatively pedestrian attitudes (by our standards) to defending, managing space and tracking back.

Maradona, it must be said was a man both of and ahead of his time. He was a modern player but also a street footballer. But he was playing against pre-athletes, relative to today.

Messi and Ronaldo, do everything that Maradona did too today, but they do it at breakneck speed and against equal foes. Albeit in deference to Maradona, the stars of La Liga (Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, Neymar and Bale) also play on bowling green pitches, enjoy the best of sports science, and are protected by fit, professional referees and officials that can and do keep up with play.

This famous image (below), from that win over Belgium paints the perfect picture of just what a threat, and force of nature Maradona was in 1986:

Maradona takes on Belgium
Maradona takes on Belgium

One of my all-time favourite football images, it is a far more eloquent illustration than I could ever hope to make, of just how Maradona’s very presence in possession struck fear and panic in the hearts of every single defender called to face him in his peak years.

Before the injuries, the drugs and the mayhem took its costly toll on his life and talent, Maradona really was one of a kind. And he was also one of a kind I was seeing for the first time.

And that fact alone makes my memories of Mexico 86 burn ever so much brighter than the tournaments that followed or preceded this one.

I am not dogmatic enough to state that Maradona should see off all-comers in the race to be considered the best ever. If pushed I’d side with Messi and Ronaldo for preference. However, Maradona’s greatest moment in Mexico, coalesced with a pivotal moment in my life as a football fan. I’ll never be 16 again and for me there will never be another Diego Maradona or a World Cup Finals to rival Mexico 86.