Reflecting on the 1986 World Cup Final
On Sunday, Argentina and Germany will meet in the World Cup final for a record third time. Germany have a head-to-head advantage in competitive matches between these sides, but in finals it's all square; one win apiece, with three goals scored on each side.
These sides are also the only sides to have met in the finals of two consecutive World Cups; their previous two meetings came in the showpiece matches of Mexico '86 and Italia '90. For both teams, this Sunday marks a chance to banish the demons, because since that 1990 final in Rome, Germany haven't managed to lift the trophy again and Argentina haven't even got past the quarter-finals until this year.
Of course, an even longer wait for Argentina has been for the trophy itself. In the 28 years since Diego Maradona lifted the World Cup in the Estadio Azteca, the frustrations of successive generations of players -- and countless 'new Maradonas' -- have only served to help his own legend grow even more. But on that day, Maradona's display was of a different nature to his imperious, match-controlling efforts in the quarter and semi-finals of that same tournament.
In the quarter-final against England he directed play and scored twice (of which one, it's true, shouldn't have been allowed); in the semi against Belgium, it was a similar story. In each match, he produced a goal which belongs on a shortlist (however short) of the greatest solo goals in World Cup history.
In the final, West Germany knew who the danger man was, and marked him superbly -- if viciously by 21st century standards -- there's a video that's often played on Argentine TV during retrospectives, showing all of Maradona's touches during the 1986 final. They invariably end in a hard tackle or in the Argentine number 10 taking a few quick touches before laying the ball off to a team-mate.
In many ways, watching that video, it's hard not to think of Lionel Messi's contributions throughout the current World Cup. Messi has been less viciously shackled, it's true, but he's been marshalled just as closely and his key, match-winning contributions have come in the moments when he's managed to escape those close attentions.
So it was for Diego in the 1986 final. The bizarre beauty of the video of his touches in the Azteca on the 29th of June that year is that we don't see any goals, but we do see his contributions to them. A backheel to Jose Cuciuffo 22 minutes in leads to a foul on Cuciuffo; then defender Jose Luis Brown scores the opener from the resulting free kick (his only goal in 36 matches for his country).
Eleven minutes after half time, another blink-and-you'll-miss-it but key contribution from Maradona; he feeds Hector Enrique (the man who, two rounds earlier on the same pitch, had given the ball to Maradona before Diego scored that solo goal against England). Enrique runs clear and passes to Jorge Valdano for Argentina's second. 2-0 up, Argentina are closing in on their second World Cup, with Maradona key to both goals in spite of Lothar Matthaus' fine marking job.
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Late in the game, though, the Argentine defence lose their heads twice in seven minutes. First Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, then half time substitute Rudi Voller get their heads to corners and suddenly, with nine minutes to go, a match which Argentina appeared to have wrapped up is back level: 2-2.
Years later, in his autobiography, Maradona is presumably referring to this match when he says, with all the subtlety and politeness he's renowned for, that, 'the only way to beat the Germans is to kill them.'
But kill them -- figuratively speaking -- he does, just minutes after Voller's equaliser. In the 84th minute, the ball is nodded to Maradona, who stands in the middle of four German players. Even before two green-shirted opponents quickly close him down, before the ball has even reached him, Maradona has already seen what none of the other side have; Jorge Burruchaga bursting forward from midfield into space.
Maradona needs just one touch to thread the ball through the gap in Germany's midfield; a twenty yard through ball in the middle of the pitch sends Burruchaga clear, one-on-one with Harald Schumacher, and Argentina are back in the lead. Minutes later, the match is over and the Albiceleste, for the second time in three World Cups, are world champions.
If it seems simplistic to reduce the match to a discussion of Maradona's contributions, there's a reason for my decision to do so; even whilst being all but marked out of the game, it was Maradona -- when he was allowed a split second to work with -- who proved decisive.
The rematch four years later was an ill-tempered game in which Argentina picked up a couple of unwanted records. Pedro Monzon and Gustavo Dezotti picked up the first two red cards in World Cup final history, and Argentina -- who came into the match with four players already suspended -- became the first side to fail to score in a final.
There aren't even many Argentines who'll pretend they deserved to win in 1990, but the 1986 win is of course remembered fondly, and regularly repeated on television. It had Maradona, it had those two goals against the English on the path to the final, and in proving Argentina could reach the top without the advantage of playing at home in a nation run by a hated military regime, it had a lot more to recommend it than the previous win, in 1978.
Lifting the trophy on Sunday in Brazil, of all places, would provide plenty of joy to Argentines as well, and not only because it would bring to an end that 28 year wait for a third title. Most of the Argentines I've spoken to accept that Germany are most people's favourites -- but they know as well as anyone that a real genius needs just fractions of seconds in which to do his work. Diego taught them that much.
Sam Kelly covers Argentine football and the Argentine national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.