The passing of Diego Armando Maradona has caused unspeakable sadness across the world. Why does the death of a footballer who hung up his boots more than two decades ago still spark such sentiments? Part of the reason might be his memorable performances in World Cup tournaments. On the planet’s biggest stage, El Pibe de Oro could do things that before had seemed impossible, and have rarely been repeated since then. His influence on the tournament extends past his 1986 heroics. It’s a story that is as fascinating and with as many twists as Maradona’s life itself.
Left Out of the 1978 World Cup
Some players gradually grow into greatness. This was not the story of young Diego, however. He made his professional debut days before his 16th birthday. Daring, angry, and with an immense technique repository, Maradona made an instant impact for Argentinos Juniors.
His gift for football fully recognized, he received his first call-up to the national team in 1977. Maradona’s age proved to be a disadvantage next year. In spite of being one of the nation’s leading goalscorers, manager Cesar Luis Menotti decided that it would be wiser to leave the youngster out of a historic World Cup confrontation that saw Argentina lift the trophy on home soil.
Any further doubts about Maradona’s abilities in the Albiceleste jersey were shattered the year after. Held in Japan, the World Youth Championship was the first time that international audiences were treated to the hyped, but undeniable talent of the player. Maradona scored six goals in that tournament and, together with Ramon Diaz, carried Argentina towards winning the trophy. It was a momentous occasion for a football-starved nation. For a moment the greatest senior and youth teams in the world were theirs.
1982 – Copa Mundial de Fútbol
The 1982 World Cup, in many ways, is the perfect snapshot of Diego Maradona’s career. It was here that the term troubled genius found its way more often into the news articles regarding the player.
The stage was set for Argentina. They were World Champions and their squad included a mixture of bona fide legends like Mario Kempes or Osvaldo Ardiles, as well as young upstarts like Ramon Diaz, and Maradona himself who’d become something of a local star since joining Boca Juniors.
This was the first time that Diego found himself up against vicious tackles that would characterize the oppositions’ styles of defense throughout his international career.
Argentina lost its opening game to Belgium but won emphatically against Hungary and El Salvador. The second group round of the competition pitted the Argentinians against Italy and Brazil.
Tireless man-marking, as well as a host of kicking and shoving from defender Claudio Gentile left Maradona largely ineffective against Italy. Worse was to come when they met Brazil’s now-legendary 1982 national team. With their fierce South American rivals in front and getting ready to celebrate victory, Maradona earned himself a red card. The tournament ended in tears for the promising player.
1986 – Mexico ‘86
The 1986 World Cup is permanently etched into football folklore, largely because of Diego Maradona’s performances. Predictably his career in the four years since the previous tournament had involved plenty of drama. He’d earned himself a world-record transfer to Barcelona, only to leave after disputes with club officials. He then joined lowly Napoli, virtually the only team that would sign him, and proceeded to transform them into a European powerhouse against all expectations.
As for Argentina themselves, few wasted time singing their praises ahead of the tournament. Qualification and friendly matches did very little to spark enthusiasm. Yet, as the Albiceleste took to the field for their opening victory against South Korea, there was something distinctly resolute in Maradona’s attitude. He scored a beautiful half-volley against Italy that did little to help his popularity in his newly adopted country (except that in Naples, of course). Argentina finished top of the group, and El Pibe de Oro was living up to his nickname.
Up next was the distinctly tense South American derby against Uruguay. After this match ended in triumph, Argentina took on England. Perhaps, no other game in the history of the World Cup has had more written about. This was not just a football game. It was a show of strength between two nations that had recently been at war over the Falklands Islands.
In the 51st minute, Maradona scored one of the few goals to deserve its own nickname, The hand of God. The English players may have cried foul, but mere minutes later they were introduced to the full extent of Diego’s otherworldly talent. He ran, slid, and dribbled past players in a frantic 10 seconds that ended with the ball in the back of Peter Shilton’s net. Argentina won and, had Maradona’s story ended right here, he would still be praised today as one of the world’s greatest footballers.
The mercurial player scored another brace in the Semi-Final against Belgium, before seeing off an efficient, if unattractive West German side in the Final. Maradona had scored five goals and assisted five throughout the tournament. He meritoriously lifted the World Cup above his shoulders as much of the planet greeted him as the unchallenged hero of the sport itself.
1990 – Italia ‘90
In many ways, the old-fashioned football style, one dominated by technique and imagination, died in the 1986 World Cup with Maradona standing as its final champion. The game had become tamer and more tactically advanced by 1990 when Argentina arrived in Italy to try and defend their crown.
Maradona may have been a conquering hero in Naples, but he was the villain as far as most other Italian spectators were concerned. Boos and jeers following him wherever he played in that tournament.
Opposition defenders were also more organized and aggressive than they had been before, nullifying a lot of the Argentinian’s flair. The World Cup winners struggled out of a group that included Cameroon, Romania, and the Soviet Union.
They next made their way – not without struggling – through matches against Brazil and Yugoslavia, before coming out on top in a penalty shootout against hosts Italy. The hostility of that match transferred towards the final. Once again the Argentinians were in the last act, and once again they were playing Germany. This time, the more balanced, tedious approach won the game.
All cameras were fixed on Maradona’s melancholy. For once, his brilliance had not been enough. He then swiftly announced his retirement from international football, but this would not be the last time we would see him at a World Cup.
1994 – World Cup USA
Maradona made one final appearance as a player in a World Cup tournament. This time, the planet’s biggest footballing spectacle was held in the U.S.A., a country not known for its love of soccer outside of a national league that had once included semi-retired Pele, George Best, or Gerd Muller.
Diego Maradona’s participation certainly upped the ante, and, according to the man himself, was heavily encouraged by organizers. His previous four years had been tough. He’d left Napoli after failing a drug testing, and enjoyed mildly productive stints with Sevilla and Newell’s Old Boys.
However, with Argentina dangerously perilous to losing out on World Cup qualification, the nation’s favorite son was called upon once more. The national team qualified, if barely, and Maradona was left having to field the unprecedented pressure of carrying the country’s hopes on his shoulders.
The tournament began brilliantly. Argentina shone against Greece with Maradona scoring a goal and running away in jubilation, eyes bulging, towards the cameras on-hand. Next, came a win against Nigeria, before the famous number 10 was unexpectedly called to provide a drug test. Sadly, he failed it and received another 15-month ban. The national team would be following him out the door soon afterward, following a 3-2 defeat to Romania.
It would be Diego’s swan song as a player in the World Cup, but not the last time he would make worldwide news for attending the event, either as manager of Argentina or simply as an exultant spectator.
Diego Armando Maradona was a football player like no other. The mere presence of his god-like talent and larger than life personality made every World Cup that he attended a greater event. While the news of his passing is devastating, his displays on the pitch are immortalized in the memory of the world.