It is an accepted truism of modern soccer that, unlike in the five-on-five world of basketball, the 11-on-11 nature of fútbol makes it nearly impossible for a single superstar to take over a game and lead his team to a championship. In fact, data shows that soccer tends to be a “weakest-link” sport, which is to say that you’re only as good as your worst player on the field. If there is a singular exception, however, it is Diego Armando Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. In the history of the men’s World Cup, which has now been contested 21 times, no player has ever lorded over a single tournament the way Maradona did that year by leading Argentina to its second title.
Maradona, the flamboyant and controversial legend who died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 60, will forever be frozen in time at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca as the 25-year-old genius who confounded the best efforts of West Germany, Belgium and England and lifted an otherwise ordinary Argentine team to glory. During the same game, a 2–1 quarterfinal victory against England, Maradona scored two goals four minutes apart that could be described as the greatest and most notorious World Cup goals of all time. On the first, Maradona leaped in the air and beat English goalkeeper Peter Shilton to the ball, surreptitiously (and illegally) using his left fist to punch the ball into the goal. Maradona would later say the goal had been scored by “la mano de Dios,” and it was forever known as the Hand of God goal.
But Maradona’s second goal that day was a distillation of all the qualities—superhuman ball control, next-level speed of thought and the sheer audacity of his imagination—that made him perhaps the sport’s greatest genius. Receiving the ball in his own half near midfield, Maradona spun and flicked it with his left foot to elude two defenders, then embarked on a glorious 60-yard run at speed, never touching the ball with his right foot, beating four more hapless English interlopers before sliding the ball past Shilton into the net. The television call from Argentine commentator Víctor Hugo Morales remains indelible: “What planet did you come from?”
Maradona added two more goals to beat Belgium 2–0 in the semifinals and the assist on Argentina’s game-winner in a 3–2 classic against West Germany in the final, sealing his place in the lore of the sport.
Maradona would end up playing in four World Cups from 1982 to ’94, losing in the final to West Germany in ‘90 and being thrown out of USA ’94 when he failed a doping test. Meanwhile, his greatest exploits at club level came in Italy at Napoli, which Maradona captained to the club's first league titles in 1987 and ’90. But Maradona’s tumultuous time in Italy came to an end after he failed a drug test for cocaine and faced a 15-month suspension from 1991 to ’92. Maradona’s drug use and weight gain led to a pattern of health scares over the years, including multiple occasions when he was near death but survived.
Yet Maradona’s dark side and human frailties only seemed to endear him more to an Argentine public that anointed him a cultural deity among the likes of Eva Perón and the tango singer Carlos Gardel. Raised in the Buenos Aires shantytown of Villa Fiorito, Maradona rose to the closest position in sports to the King of the World—and then tumbled dramatically off its pedestal. It is a peculiar aspect of Argentine public life that Argentines have always adored Maradona far more than Brazilians have loved Pelé. The two are inextricably linked as the greatest men’s soccer players of the 20th century. Pelé won three World Cups to Maradona’s one, but Maradona hit loftier heights in 1986 than Pelé did in any of his World Cups. Ultimately, a fan’s choice of one player over the other reveals not just a sports preference but a general worldview. For what it’s worth, Maradona and Pelé clearly had differing perspectives on the United States. While Pelé played for the New York Cosmos in the NASL from 1975 to ’77 and visited the U.S. frequently, Maradona reveled in his disdain of Uncle Sam and his support of leftist leaders from Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. (For many years, Maradona’s drug record prevented him from gaining admission to the U.S.)
Unlike Pelé, who never became a coach, Maradona had a checkered career as a manager that never came close to matching his playing achievements. His most memorable coaching tenure lasted from 2008 to ’10 with the Argentine national team and its superstar, Lionel Messi, who was always as reticent as Maradona was voluble. It was a poor match. Messi never appeared comfortable with Maradona, who was unable to put together a tactical game . plan that unleashed Messi’s talents for the national team. While Maradona regularly won the press conference during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, his rudderless Argentina was throttled by Germany 4–0 in the quarterfinals, wasting Messi at the height of his powers.
Yet for as combative and rude as he could be, Maradona will always be known for his unparalleled love affair with the ball. It is no coincidence that one of his most popular highlight videos—with millions of views on YouTube—has no game highlights at all. Instead, it’s a three-minute video of Maradona warming up by himself before a 1989 game, shoes untied, oblivious of the camera, performing casually jaw-dropping tricks with the ball to the soundtrack of the Opus song Live Is Life. Maradona is 28 years old in the video, but he still exudes the simple joy of a boy with his ball. That feeling, which he may have possessed more deeply than any human to live on this planet, is universal. Timeless.