1986 World Cup: The Diego Maradona Show

Fate had a hand in the World Cup returning to Mexico in 1986, a mere 16 years after it first staged the event.

The Argentine legend cemented his legend by leading Argentina to victory at the 1986 final in Mexico.

Fate had a hand in the World Cup returning to Mexico in 1986, a mere 16 years after it first staged the event.

Colombia was originally selected as the host nation, but Colombian officials decided they did not have the financial wherewithal to pull it off and withdrew in 1983. Mexico was quickly installed by FIFA as Colombia's replacement, becoming the first country to host two World Cups.


  • Number of participating teams: 24
  • Top scorer: England's Gary Lineker (6 goals)
  • Number of games: 52
  • Total goals scored: 132
  • Average goals per game: 2.54
  • Highest scoring game: Denmark's 6-1 win over Uruguay on June 8
  • Total attendance: 2,407,431
  • Average attendance: 46,297


But things took a turn for the worse when a massive earthquake struck Mexico City on Sept. 19, 1985. Over 25,000 died, another 150,000 were left homeless and up to $4 billion US in damage was caused in less than three minutes.

Just eight months before the opening kickoff, the tournament was in jeopardy as Mexico's ability to recover and properly organize the event was in doubt. Luckily, the stadiums suffered no damage and the country quickly picked up the pieces and overcame many obstacles to stage the World Cup.

Another year, another format. The field was still made up of 24 teams, again divided into six groups of four. This time, however, the top two teams in each group, along with the four best third-place finishers, qualified for the round of 16, which was now a straight knockout.

In the aftermath of the Austria-West Germany debacle from 1982, FIFA wised up and mandated the final two games in each group of the opening round be played simultaneously, thus eliminating any chance of chicanery.

MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: France's 2-1 victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals. Four years after a bitter loss to West Germany on penalties, Les Bleus won an epic thriller against Brazil in a shootout. The action was non-stop for two hours with Michel Platini and Zico leading the way and French goalkeeper Joel Bats emerging as the hero. A true classic. The Argentina-England quarter-final ranks a close second.

MAN OF THE TOURNAMENT: Maradona. Who else? The brilliant Argentine artist single-handedly delivered his country its second World Cup, scoring five goals, setting up several others and dominating games with his wizardry, skill and vision. Gary Lineker finished as the top scorer, but Maradona was the hero and he won the Golden Boot award as the tournament MVP.

SPOTLIGHT: Yes, it was Maradona's hand, and not God's, that was responsible for the goal against England. But while the "Hand of God" goal remains one of the most contentious moments in World Cup history, there can be no disputing that his second goal against England ranks as the greatest ever scored in the tournament - and, maybe, in soccer.

The Argentine genius was renowned for scoring beautiful goals, his dribbling skills and vision setting him apart from his contemporaries, but his strike against England transcended mere sports - his goal was pure art.

Starting in his own half, Maradona embarked on a 60-yard run, dribbling past no less than five English players with the ball glued to his foot, bursting into the penalty area with a quick turn of pace and sublimely slipping the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

The goal was voted the greatest ever at the World Cup in an online poll conducted by FIFA in 2002 and a statue of Maradona immortalizing the moment was erected outside the Azteca stadium.

AND ANOTHER THING: FIFA did not learn from the mistakes it made 16 years earlier when Mexico previously hosted the World Cup.

The choice of Mexico as host nation in 1970 was not a popular one, as the oppressive heat (rising well over 35 C), combined with the high altitudes, made it impossible for players to perform at their peak. FIFA also bent to the whims of the television networks and staged a portion of the games - including the final - at noon, forcing players to compete while the blazing hot Mexican sun was in full effect.

In 1986, matches were, again, contested at high altitudes and games kicked off at noon and 4 p.m. in the broiling midday sun in order to optimize the world-wide TV audience.

Format and scheduling changes aside, this was the World Cup of Diego Maradona. The mercurial Argentine genius, who on his own turned Napoli into a powerhouse in Italy's Serie A, was at the height of his form and unquestionably the greatest player in the game.

Maradona had a point to prove after a terrible performance four years earlier in Spain. He would make amends in Mexico, leading Argentina to its second World Cup. No other player, not even Pele in 1958 nor Paolo Rossi in 1982, had dominated a single competition the way Maradona did in Mexico. That he did it in such stylish fashion when the game of soccer was hijacked by ultra-defensive tactics made his achievement even more impressive.

This was also the World Cup that featured Canada's first and only appearance on the big stage. With Mexico not required to qualify, the CONCACAF qualifiers swung wide open and Canada took advantage by defeating Honduras in St. John's in September 1985 to book its ticket.

Italy had the pleasure of kicking off the tournament on May 31 in Mexico City, but the champions were dealt a crushing blow when they were held to a 1-1 draw by Bulgaria. It was evident that this was not the same Italy that rampaged to the title in Spain. The Italians looked a spent force, their only win coming against South Korea, and were fortunate to finish second in Group A behind Argentina.

Maradona was sensational in the first round, scoring once and having a hand in setting up Argentina's five other goals.

Mexico topped Group B ahead of Paraguay thanks to wins over Belgium and Iraq, another World Cup newcomer.

Canada took its World Cup bow on June 1 in Leon in spectacular fashion. In the searing mid-afternoon heat, the Canadians came out attacking against the heavily favoured France, and more than once pinned Les Bleus back deep in their own end. Canada came within a hair's breadth of scoring on several occasions before France took control of the game and eventually scored in the 78th minute. It was a brave effort by the Canadians as the French escaped with a narrow victory.

Unfortunately, Canada couldn't build on that momentum, losing its next two games to Hungary and the Soviet Union, and it crashed out of the tournament without scoring a single goal. The Soviets, who crushed Hungary 6-0 in its opening match, and France finished 1-2 in Group C and moved on.

Brazil won all three of its games to finish first in Group D, while Spain took second place ahead of Algeria and Northern Ireland. Denmark made an instant impression in its World Cup debut, claiming top spot in Group E with three wins, including a definitive 6-1 whitewash of World Cup veterans Uruguay and a 2-0 effort against West Germany. The Germans finished second, thanks in part to its slim victory over Scotland.

Like Group E, Group F saw a surprise winner in Morocco. The Africans held England and Poland to 0-0 draws before thumping Portugal 3-1. After an opening loss to Portugal and a draw with Morocco, England saved itself from the shame of going home early with a convincing 3-0 win over Poland in its final game, Gary Lineker scoring a hat trick. The Poles finished third behind the English, but still advanced to the second round.

The round of 16 saw the French dump the Italians out of the tournament with a 2-0 win in Mexico City and Spain shocked Denmark 5-1 with a four-goal effort from Emilio "the Vulture" Butragueno. Belgium and the Soviets engaged in a seven-goal thriller, the Belgians winning it with a pair of goals in extra time. England followed up its win over Poland with a 3-0 victory over Paraguay, Lineker adding two more goals to his tournament total, while the Germans needed a Lothar Matthaus goal in the 88th minute to get past Morocco.

Belgium, one of the third-place teams that made it out of the opening round, continued its inspiring play in the quarter-finals, dusting off Spain with a victory in a penalty shootout. The Germans were held to a 0-0 draw by Mexico in regulation, but then smashed the hosts 4-1 in a shootout to book its spot in the final four.

The other two matchups in the quarter-finals were true classics, with the England-Argentina contest producing not one, but two seminal moments in World Cup history.

In Guadalajara, Brazil, fresh off its 4-0 destruction of Poland, took an early lead against France with a goal from Careca. Les Bleus battled back and Michel Platini levelled the score just before halftime.

Both sides put on an attacking display: Careca, Zico and Braco for Brazil, France guided by the efforts of Platini, Alain Giresse and Jean Tigana. The action was relentless as the French and Brazilians rampaged forward in untold numbers, looking for the winning goal.

The match seemed to turn in Brazil's favour when it was awarded a penalty shot with 12 minutes to go, but French goalkeeper Joel Bats saved Zico's effort and France went on to win the contest in the gruelling heat in a dramatic penalty shootout.

The grudge match between Argentina and England took place the next day at Azteca stadium in Mexico City. The game was played under a cloud of socio-political tension, the Argentine press egging on the national team to exact revenge on the English and reclaim honour after losing the 1982 Falklands War.

Diego Maradona's Hand of God goal. ((AP Photo/El Grafico, File))

A goalless and fairly uneventful opening 45 minutes gave way to an incident-filled second half where Maradona delighted spectators with his devilish genius and produced two of the most talked about goals in World Cup lore.

The first came six minutes after the restart when the stout Argentine burst through the brittle English defence with a quick turn of pace before losing the ball. England midfielder Steve Hodge couldn't clear it and hooked the ball over his head towards his own goal after taking a feeble swipe.

As the ball hung majestically in the air, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Maradona raced for it, but the Argentine trickster slyly punched the ball as both players went up for it, expertly camouflaging his offence and duping the linesman and referee by nodding his head as if he made contact with it.

The ball rolled across the goal-line as Maradona celebrated while England protested to no avail. At the post-match press conference, a brazen Maradona claimed the goal was scored "a little bit by the Hand of God, another bit by the head of Maradona." TV networks around the world showed the incident time and time again that evening, as Maradona's "Hand of God" goal became enshrined in the sporting lexicon.

Just minutes after punching the ball into the net, Maradona scored legitimately against England with what many consider not only the greatest goal ever at the World Cup, but also the greatest in the history of the game.

The Argentine master collected the ball 10 yards inside his half and slowly dribbled into English territory. As he picked up speed, he began to breeze by one England player after another, his remarkable dribbling skills and vision carrying him forward. After effortlessly slaloming his way through half the England team, he burst into the penalty area and ended his 75-yard run to glory by coolly slotting the ball past an onrushing Shilton into the back of the net.

In a span of four minutes the world had seen the worst and best of the Argentina's sporting god. While the "Hand of God" goal was the very definition of deceitful, Maradona's second goal, later dubbed "The Goal of the Millennium," was pure poetry, affirmation of his genius and standing as the greatest player in the world.

Gary Lineker scored with nine minutes left, but the English (who were outplayed and rightly lost) were sent home and humbled at the feet - and hand - of Maradona.

What would Maradona do for an encore? Belgium found out to its peril in the semifinals when he scored in the 52nd minute. The Napoli star followed it up with another sublime solo effort nine minutes later when he raced deep into the offensive zone and left four Belgian defenders for dead before swerving and rifling the ball into the net. 2-0. Game, set and match to the Argentines.

France and West Germany met in the semifinals for the second straight time, with the French looking to exact revenge over Seville. Harald Schumacher and Patrick Battiston shook hands before the match, but France squandered several chances, allowing the Germans to emerge victorious 2-0 and advance to their fifth World Cup final.


And so to the final, on June 29, at the Azteca stadium, where Maradona had been at his best for the entire tournament.

The Germans assigned Lothar Matthaus the Herculean task of marking Maradona. While Matthaus duly kept the Argentine maestro in check, more or less, his defensive duties robbed West Germany of his creativity in midfield

The cerebral Matthaus found the going rough at first: Maradona played a back-heel pass to a teammate, leaving Matthaus in dire straits. The German reacted by chopping down the Argentine from behind. Argentina duly punished Matthaus for his rash challenge when Jorge Burruchaga delivered a high ball into the penalty area from the ensuing free kick. Jose Luis Brown ghosted towards the far post and nodded the ball into the net in the 22nd minute.

It was a disaster start for the ultra-defensive Germans. Still, Matthaus got a handle on controlling Maradona, forcing Argentina to explore other options. Down a goal, the Germans committed more players forward in attack at the start of the second half but were cruelly hoisted by their own petard.

With Germany caught up-field, Argentina quickly launched a counterattack. Hector Enrique fed a pass to Jorge Valdano on the left and he swept the ball past an onrushing Schumacher before depositing the ball into the net. 2-0 for Argentina after 56 minutes.

West Germany looked dead and buried, but manager Franz Beckenbauer substituted the tall centre-forward Dieter Hoeness into the game and his team suddenly found life in the 74th minute. Rudi Voller, another second-half substitute, headed a corner kick into the path of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who scored.

Matthaus quickly deserted his task of keeping tabs and Maradona and began working his playmaking magic in the heart of midfield. Slowly the screw turned against Argentina and with nine minutes left in regulation the Germans levelled the score. Another corner kick was flicked into the middle by Thomas Berthold's header and Voller nodded it home. 2-2!

After being merely a passenger for most of the game, Maradona stepped up in Argentina's time of need. The Napoli star proved to be the architect of Argentina's winning goal, weaving his way deep into the German half before sending Jorge Burruchaga on a clear break with an exquisite, defence splitting pass that the forward thrashed past Schumacher with six minutes left in regulation.

Argentina was crowned world champions for the second time and Maradona, the undisputed king of the tournament, basked in the hot Mexican sun as he lifted the World Cup trophy.


  • Canada was coached by Tony Waiters, a former goalkeeper for Blackpool (1959-66) and Burnley (1970-71) in England. He also played five times for England's national team.
  • Although he was coy about it in the post-match press conference, Maradona came clean about the "Hand of God" goal in his 2002 autobiography when he wrote: "Now I feel I am able to say what I couldn't then. At the time I called it 'the hand of God'. Bollocks! It wasn't the hand of God, it was the hand of Diego! And it felt a little bit like pick-pocketing the English."
  • A new attendance mark was set in Mexico as 2,407,431 spectators attended the 52 games. The Argentina-West Germany final was the best-attended game with 114,660 fans. At the other end of the spectrum, only 13,800 fans saw the Canada-Hungary contest in the first round.
  • Yugoslavia's Bora Milutinovic is the only man to coach five different countries at the World Cup (Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the United States in 1994, Nigeria in 1998 and China in 2002). All the teams, with the exception of China, advanced beyond the first round.
  • Hugo Sanchez, Mexico's goal-scoring hero in 1986, was also a qualified dentist.
  • Morocco was the first African nation to qualify for the second round at the World Cup.
  • Mexico has played in 13 World Cups, but has only progressed as far as the quarter-finals, both times (1970 and 1986) on home soil.
  • Jose Batista was given a red card a mere 56 seconds after the opening kickoff in Uruguay's first-round game against Scotland, the quickest expulsion ever at the World Cup.
  • Portugal was back at the World Cup for the first time since 1966. It would have to wait almost as long (another 16 years) before making its third trip to the World Cup in 2002.
  • Gary Lineker is the only English player to finish top scorer in a World Cup.