A genius makes his mark

Mexico 1986 was Maradona's World Cup. Putting aside the disappointment of the previous edition, the little genius almost single-handedly helped Argentina win the title.

Argentina was entrusted with the responsibility of hosting the 1978 World Cup despite calls for a boycott of the championship in protest against the nation's anti-human rights practices. England, once again, failed to qualify. So did Yugoslavia and the USSR, while little-known football nations, Iran and Tunisia, made their debut. France returned to the elite fold after a gap of 12 years.

The tournament began on a dull note with West Germany and Poland playing out a goalless draw. The two teams, however, progressed to the next stage, leaving behind Tunisia and Mexico. Argentina and Italy went through from another group, ahead of France and Hungary, while Brazil and group leader Austria went past Sweden and Spain. Holland, playing without Johan Cruyff, who dropped out, scraped through to the next stage on goal-difference at the expense of Scotland, which had such accomplished players as Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness. Peru was the other qualifier from this group.

The eight teams were drawn into two groups — Italy, Holland, West Germany and Austria in one pool, while Argentina, Poland, Peru and Brazil forming the other. Robbie Rensenbrink inspired Holland to a 5-1 win over Austria, followed by a 2-0 victory over Italy that cleared the team's passage to the final. In the final group match, Holland and West Germany, the 1974 finalists, played out a draw.

In the other group, as expected Argentina and Brazil fought for the final berth. Argentina needed to beat Peru by a clear four-goal margin to deny Brazil. Not many believed this was possible. However, Passarella and Co. scored six goals without reply. Eyebrows were raised and doubts were cast over the match, but the fact remained that Argentina went through and Brazil had to bow out.

Searching for its first Cup win, Cesar Luis Menotti's Argentina did not let the chance slip. Holland too was seeking its first title, having missed the opportunity in the previous edition. Besides, no European nation had won the World Cup in Latin America.

In the absence of Cruyff, Holland was that bit less inventive. The match itself was tense and marred by rough play. Mario Kempes showed his aggressive runs and slaloms, but nothing happened. Around half time Kempes got the chance and made no mistake. The Dutch stormed back, and in the second session equalised through a Nanninga header.

The match went into the extra time and an exhausted Argentine side came as a contrast to the pepped up Dutch. But as it happened, one moment of brilliance by Kempes ended Holland's dream.

Expectedly, the victory was a shot in the arm for Argentine football as events later were to prove.

1982 SPAIN

The 1982 edition went to Spain. And as a first big change, the number of teams in the final round was raised from 16 to 24. The quota was also revised to allow 13 teams from Europe, three from South America, two each from Africa, Asia/Oceania and the Concacaf region, apart from Spain (host) and Argentina (holder). Holland, runner-up in the previous edition, and Uruguay, former world champion, failing to qualify for the championship came as a great shock. As per the ratings, West Germany, Italy, Argentina and Brazil were the favourites.

As the tournament commenced, fans were in for more shocks. Belgium beat Argentina in the opener. England made a delightful start, trouncing France with the quickest goal of the tournament (27 seconds by Bob Robson) and then getting past Czechoslovakia and Kuwait. Italy had a tortuous route, qualifying for the next round on the merit of more number of goals scored than Cameroon — 2-1.

Brazil, with Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Cereze in its ranks, cruised to the next round. Spain and Northern Ireland also made it, but the manner in which West Germany qualified was weird.

West Germany, Austria and Algeria finished on equal points. However, Austria, which needed to avoid defeat by four goals to qualify for the next stage, `helped' Germany by losing 1-0. The result meant that West Germany went ahead of Algeria on better goal difference. In the next stage, Argentina's fall was the biggest happening. It lost to both Italy and Brazil. What's more, the man who would become a legend, Diego Maradona earned a red card for an act of petulance in the match against Brazil.

Paolo Rossi became Italy's hero and the top scorer in Spain. He warmed up with a hat-trick against Brazil that knocked the South American giant out of the competition. Elsewhere, West Germany and France progressed.

Rossi played sensational football to help Italy defeat Poland and enter the final. West Germany huffed and puffed to get past France in an incident-filled semifinal where German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher nearly killed Battiston with a wanton foul. West Germany became unpopular but France was beaten via the penalties. In the final, Rossi clicked again. Besides scoring himself, he also set up two other goals as Italy defeated West Germany 3-1 to bag its third title.

1986 MEXICO

In 1986 Colombia was named to host the World Cup, but it backed out owing to internal problems. Mexico was then given the responsibility of staging the event, which came to be known as Diego Maradona's World Cup.

No player had influenced a World Cup as much as this little genius. Putting aside the disappointment of the previous edition, Maradona, almost single-handedly, helped Argentina win the title.

South Korea, for the first time in 32 years, qualified for the tournament. What is more, it had the satisfaction of scoring its first goal (Park Chang-Sun) against Argentina apart from winning its first point with a goalless draw against Bulgaria.

The quarterfinal phase brought to fore the first magic moment of Maradona, who inspired Argentina to a 2-1 win over England; the first goal being his much publicised `Hand of God' goal and the other an out of the world act, beating four defenders before leaving goalkeeper Peter Shilton clueless. England's only consolation was that Gary Lineker, by scoring the lone goal, became the tournament's top scorer with a tally of six.

West Germany defeated Mexico 4-1, Belgium eliminated Spain 5-4 and France eliminated Brazil in the shootout, thanks to goalkeeper Joel Bats. During regular time Brazil's Zico was guilty of missing a crucial penalty.

France met Germany in the semifinals. Four years ago, when the two teams clashed in the semifinals, France lost in the penalty shootout. This time, France went out before that (2-0). Platini, Tigana and Giresse proved ineffective, while Joel Bats came a cropper against Brehme and Rudi Voeller. In the other semifinal, Maradona's brilliance melted away Belgium, who managed to keep the Argentine strikers at bay for some time. His two sparkling strikes left the Belgium goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff in a daze.

The focus was on Maradona as Argentina and Germany clashed in the final. Lothar Matthaus was given the special task of marking the great Argentine. Matthaus' foul on Maradona provided the free kick, off which Jose Luis Brown headed in Argentina's first goal. Valdano scored the second goal.

But the shrewd Beckenbauer rung in the changes, brought in Rummenigge and Voeller, who restored parity. Argentina, however, went on to win the match, and quite appropriately Maradona conceived the winning goal, which Burruchaga executed. Argentina lifted the Cup for the second time in eight years.

S. R. Suryanarayan