On Sunday afternoon, before 114,500 manic soccer fans at the World Cup final in Mexico City's mighty Azteca Stadium, soccer's El Rey, its king, its little Dieguito, was finally crowned. True, it was the right foot of another Argentine, Jorge Burruchaga, that sealed the 3-2 victory over West Germany in the game's 84th minute, slanting the ball low and fast past a despairing, spread-eagled Harald Schumacher into the net. But the play that set up the goal—indeed, the plays that set up all of Argentina's goals—was conceived by Diego Armando Maradona, captain of his country's team, without doubt the most dangerous attacker in soccer and, by extension, the most famous and admired team athlete in the world.
Imagine Wayne Gretzky or Larry Bird performing in a dominion of billions—not just millions—of fans, against a dizzying progression of defenses—zones, man-to-mans, traps—designed solely to stop him, running nonstop for two 45-minute periods with men kicking at his ankles and swiping at his knees, and you begin to appreciate the athletic genius of the 5'5", 152-pound, 25-year-old striker named Maradona. Just when Argentina's World Cup seemed to be slipping away Sunday because West Germany had been able to hold Maradona goalless, he eluded Karlheinz Foerster, his second-half shadower, picked up a loose ball and, with a precision that borders on the supernatural, stabbed a pass through a line of four German defenders to Burruchaga, on a dead run and barely breaking pace, for the score.
In a few moments the World Cup would be Argentina's for the second time in eight years—it won the tournament in Buenos Aires in 1978—and tears would be rolling down the Indio features of Maradona as he clutched the ugliest, most desired trophy in world sport.
It was a fitting end to a week dominated by what could only be described as Mar-Idolatry. Even Dieguito's horoscope was discussed with passion. (The Mexico City News, somewhat impractically, advised him that as a Scorpio, a fishing or a hiking trip could provide a needed change of pace.) In Buenos Aires, both Argentina's and Maradona's coronation had already taken place, Monsignor Jorge Caseretto of the diocese of San Isidro declaring that he had already arranged a victory with God. Street posters declared MARADONA PRESIDENTE!
July 6, 1986
Any and all other pretenders to soccer superstardom had already disappeared. Brazil had been eliminated in the quarterfinals by France, and the great Frenchman, Michel Platini, turned out to be not so great as he and his elegant teammates had fallen in Wednesday's semifinals, 2-0, to the workmanlike West Germans.
The swashbuckling Maradona, meanwhile, almost single-handedly disposed of the tough Belgians in Argentina's semifinal match, effectively responding to what may well have been the most ill-considered remark of the tournament. Before the game Belgian goalie Jean-Marie Pfaff had declared, "Maradona is nothing special."
Whirling, slicing and stutter-stepping through Belgium's zone defense—"We do not have one player capable of stopping Maradona," said Belgium coach Guy Thys—Maradona scored the game's first goal 6 minutes into the second half on a Hector Enrique pass, chipping the ball in left-footed from close range. And only 12 minutes later he went solo from 25 yards out, sealing a 2-0 Argentina victory with a goal—his fifth of the tournament—that was almost a mirror image of his spectacular 55-yard run for a goal in the quarterfinals against England. (A goal, incidentally, that is already commemorated by a plaque at Azteca.) For Dieguito's fans, who, national loyalties aside, number just about every soccer fan in the world, his performance in the Belgium game confirmed that he was the brightest star of the Mundial, the new king of soccer.
But West Germany was not about to concede him his crown without a fight. About 135 miles northwest of Mexico City, close to the little colonial town of Quetéraro in a charming 18th-century hacienda-turned-hotel, all soft-pink adobe, the Germans formulated their plan. This was Der Kaiserkampf, where Franz Beckenbauer, once the Kaiser of German soccer and now his national team's coach, rallied his troops for the final assault on Sunday. Beckenbauer was still slightly amazed that his team had even reached the final, especially in light of the progression of pallid performances on the field and the comic opera events off it that had marked West Germany's early games.
For starters, there was the Sex in Mexico story—women allegedly seen coming and going from the players' hotel rooms—originated by a German journalist. Next, there was the running feud between star striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and goalie Schumacher, who were each filing columns to rival newspapers back home. All the while, Beckenbauer missed few opportunities to bad-mouth his own team.
"Stupid," he called it after a 1-1 tie with Uruguay in its first game of the round-robin phase. "Garbage!" he said following a 2-1 defeat of Scotland. Then, after a 2-0 loss to Denmark, advised by his team doctor to take it a little easier on his men, Beckenbauer told a press conference, "It's the best game we've played." Whereupon the press dissolved in laughter.
West Germany had managed to sneak through its semi with France by scoring an early, lucky goal after a free kick, then hanging on until the Frenchmen's frustration became so intense that Rudolf Voeller was able to lob the ball over goal-tender Joel Bats and into the net in the game's final minutes. So West Germany was in the World Cup final for a record fifth time, and Beckenbauer had a new preoccupation: Dieguito, el cebollita, the little onion himself. Franz, as usual, was frank. "He is the best player in the World Cup," the German coach said. "The best player in the world. We will do our best to put him out of the game, but it is almost impossible."
Those words didn't frighten Diego, not after playing two seasons as a marked man with Naples in the notoriously physical Italian league. But neither was Maradona as unimpressed with the West Germans as were most of the soccer cognoscenti. "Germany's strong point is that it plays like a team," he said. "It never gives up. It is hard and tough-tackling. I'd be ignorant not to have the greatest respect for their men, for Karlheinz Foerster, Lothar Matthaeus, the ones they'll put on me. But that's fine. If they use all that manpower to cancel me out, we let loose Burruchaga or Jorge Valdano. I especially want Valdano strong for the final."
How many games can a single genius win on his own? The answer is: as many as he needs to. For although Maradona scored no goals, he surely won the game. Still, when the final against West Germany began, it seemed that Maradona had been right to consider the threat a strong one. Brilliantly prepared by the demanding Beckenbauer, the Germans appeared to be a new team, attacking from the start, rather than playing cautious defense against the freewheeling Argentines as most had expected. Unexpectedly, it was Argentina with the strong defense, led by its fullback, Jose Luis Brown.
Joe Louis, as the English-speaking press delighted in referring to him, bears no relation to the great heavyweight champ, except perhaps in courage. Brown opened the scoring after Matthaeus, who spent the first half glued to Maradona, fouled the Argentina star and yielded a free kick. Burruchaga centered the ball and Joe—sorry—Jose unorthodoxly ran up from the defense to head it home and give Argentina a 1-0 lead. That score held through the first half, which was fine for the South Americans, except that soccer historians recalled that in its two championship years, 1954 and 1974, West Germany had come from behind to win.
As the second half began, West Germany's Norbert Eder, running in for a heading shot, crashed into Brown's right shoulder and appeared to displace it. Refusing to leave the field in spite of obvious pain, Brown played out the game with his right arm in a makeshift sling, his thumb hooked in a hole ripped in the front of his shirt.
With Brown heroically anchoring the defense, Argentina struck again 10 minutes into the second half. Maradona reached midfielder Hector Enrique with the ball, and Enrique sent it along to Valdano, who found a huge, undefended gap on the German left side and made the score 2-0.
But the West Germans, as Diego had predicted, would not die easily. From a corner kick, Voeller, an extra attacker who had been sent into the game early in the second half by Beckenbauer, headed it down in front of the goal to Rummenigge's right foot and it was 2-1 with 17 minutes left.
Only 7 minutes later, a second shock: From another corner kick, with eight Germans packed around the goalmouth, the ball found its way to the head of Voeller. Incredibly, it was 2-2. Until, that is, Dieguito once more stepped in and sent the pass to Burruchaga for the winning goal that ensured that tradition would stand: No World Cup fought in Latin America has ever been won by a European interloper.
All Sunday night in Buenos Aires people danced and car horns hooted; in some neighborhoods, celebration turned into rioting and at least three people were killed. There were fresh demands that Dieguito return home to play for an Argentine club. But he is happy in Naples, he says. And those close to Maradona declare he is still bitter that it has taken him, a cabecita negra—a "black head" as Argentines of Indian blood are demeaningly called—so long to be accepted by upper-crust Argentines.
No one in Buenos Aires would use the expression for Diego now, of course. He is El Rey. The King.