ICONS OF THE WORLD CUP

S. DINAKAR Diego Maradona

THE sheer genius of the man took him to dizzy heights. Along with Pele and Di Stefano, he is the most complete player to have stepped on a football field.

He could indeed do magic with his legendary ball control, speed, vision and scoring ability. A player who could impose himself on a game, change the course of events almost singlehandedly.

His was also an inspiring presence. The Argentines had a very different air about them when Diego Maradona was pulling the strings, with those glorious moves conjured out of nowhere.

Maradona's dazzling attributes also made him a marked man of the defenders, and times without number, he was a victim of harsh tackles. Maradona did drive his opponents to a state of desperation.

From the streets of Buenos Aires to football's acme, it was one exhilarating ride for Maradona, who came from a humble background. Hungry for success he certainly was.

However, his super celebrity status and stardom took their toll. Maradona was drawn towards drugs, triggering a host of problems, including temperamental flare-ups. Let's focus on his infinitely brighter side though.

Maradona's exploits in the '86 Mexico World Cup are stuff dreams are made of. Argentina regained the World Cup after '78, and Maradona was the heart and soul of the team.

He was now at the peak of his powers, and although Maradona was a midfielder by name, he ran down the wings, cut in through the middle, struck with head and feet, and sent a shiver down the spine of the defenders.

He buried the match-winning goal against Italy, then found the mark twice in the quarterfinal duel against England, although the first strike was the controversial 'Hand of God goal' where this short-statured bundle of energy was said to have directed the ball into the goal with his hand past goal-keeper Peter Shilton.

What followed moments later was sensational. Maradona took possession near the mid-field, eased past five English defenders, displaying his dazzling dribbling skills, and slotted home. One of the finest, if not the best, World Cup goals.

Maradona poached twice in the semifinal, one strike coming from a swift shot from a difficult angle, after breaking through a barrier of defenders. A classic strike.

And then, in the final, where Maradona was so diligently marked by the Germans, it was the Argentine skipper's superlative pass that paved the way for the deciding goal. The Germans had staged a dramatic recovery to make it 2-2, and were going all out for the winner, when Maradona, quick to spot that Buruchuaga had a clear run, released the ball, and soon the Argentines were celebrating.

The '86 World Cup triumph was easily the highlight of Maradona's career. In Argentina '78, he was considered too young for the big event by wily coach Cesar Menotti, was hacked down by defenders in Spain '82, and led an off-colour, ill-tempered and unpopular Argentine side to the final of Italia 90, where the Germans had their revenge. Of course, in USA 94, he went out in disgrace, for consuming a cocktail of drugs.

He had done enough earlier to be remembered for the right reasons though.

Lothar Matthaus

HE was the strongman in the German side. A supremely confident player, both in defence and offence, Lothar Matthaus epitomised the very best of German football.

Supremely fit, he possessed the famous German resilience, was technically solid, and could adapt to the differing situations wonderfully well.

Matthaus figured in an unprecedented five World Cup teams, beginning from Spain '82, has a stunning 150 international caps, and though not tall in stature, this powerfully built footballer, was a towering presence in the German side.

The fact that he could last so long speaks much about the man's discipline and work ethics, apart from footballing skills. He managed to keep pace as football changed with time.

Matthaus also displayed leadership skills, and it was hardly surprising that Germany regained the World Cup under his captaincy in Italia 90. Matthaus showed the way to his men, made them believe in themselves.

Beginning his career as a defender, he gradually developed into a roving midfielder, such was his versatility. By instinct, he was an aggressive footballer, loving to surge ahead, creating the possibilities and making the breakthrough himself on occasions.

In '86, it was his freekick that helped Germany subdue a fighting Morocco in a hard fought pre-quarterfinal encounter, and he kept Maradona in check for most part of the final with a heroic display. Germany lost, but Matthaus would have his moment of glory four years hence in Italy.

Germany appeared a beautifully organised outfit in Italia 90 and Matthaus, an Inter-Milan star now, was often in the thick of things, triggering raids, nipping attacks in the bud, and scoring himself.

Matthaus struck four times in all, against Yugoslavia, UAE, and Czechoslovakia, the last one a calmly taken penalty kick in the quarterfinals. The German was a dead ball expert, and his positional sense during the set pieces was often impeccable.

His enduring relationships with coaches Franz Beckenbauer and then Berti Vogts also helped make Germany one of the feared sides in the 80s and 90s. A self-effacing team-man, he was for sure.

Matthaus was 36 when he won his 150th cap for Germany in France 98, reflecting his durability. He was an old warrior, who just refused to say die.

Michel Platini

HE was effortless, a player blessed with silken skills. An influential midfielder, who could turn contests around in a jiffy.

Like all great players, Platini could foresee things, and had a mind that could read the game in a matter of minutes. And his passes had a rapier like precision about them.

The French side of the early and mid-80s was bristling with talent, and it was the midfield, that had Platini, Tigana, Giresse, and Genghini, all wonderfully fluent players, that kept the team buzzing.

Platini was just 21 when he represented France in the '76 Montreal Olympics and he soon became an integral part of the National team. He travelled to Argentina for the '78 World Cup, and though France had a disappointing time on the big stage, it was nevertheless a learning experience for the youngster.

It was a different story, however, in Spain '82, where France was probably the most attractive side in the competition along with Brazil.

The French midfield was seen in all its glory with Platini's strength on the ball, and ability to feed and score, being key factors. In short, he was the leader of the pack.

It was sad that France's stirring run came to an end in the semifinals, after a titanic clash with West Germany. It was a dramatic match and France appeared to have clinched it when it led 3-1 in extra-time but the Germans bounced back to level the scores. And in the tie-breaker, it was the Germans who held their nerve.

Sadly, the dramatic encounter was also an ill-tempered one and the manner in which German goal-keeper Schumacher brought down French midfielder Battison - it was a crude, cruel, violent tackle - was shocking. Schumacher escaped unscathed from the referee, who should surely have sent the custodian out.

Instead, the Germans were given an opportunity to re-group and they took the opportunity, like most German teams would. The French side ended the contest in tears.

Despite, the crushing disappointment of the World Cup, France went from strength to strength, and, not surprisingly, emerged triumphant in the European Cup '84, where, Platini was - to put it in one word - dazzling.

He turned out for Juventus in Serie 'A' and was accepted by most as one of the finest midfielders in the game ever. Mexico '86 beckoned and France travelled to the big event as a fancied team, and Platini, its radiant star.

France was not its usual breezy self in Mexico, although Platini did manage to make his presence felt in a high-voltage quarterfinal against Brazil with a priceless equaliser that eventually took the French to the semifinals, he could not quite conjure magic in the manner that he normally did.

France ended up third in Mexico, and Platini joined the list of World Cup greats, never to have won the World Cup. It's sad, but then, that's the way it goes in sports.

Romario

ROMARIO is the game's romantic hero, its great charmer. Like the beating of the drums, his football is vibrant. And like the brush strokes on the canvas, the patterns that he weaves on a soccer field, are dazzling.

The man plays with so much passion that it is hardly surprising that he is the eternal favourite of the Brazilian fans.

Yet, life has been difficult for Romario, the supreme entertainer from the land of the Samba magicians.

Sadly, the Brazilian's World Cup career has come to an end. There was a clamour for his inclusion for the 2002 edition, but at 36, he was considered a touch too old for the biggest football show on earth.

In France 98, injury trouble kept him out of the final team, though Romario insisted he would be completely fit for the latter stages of the tournament.

Romario need not lose heart. His place in football history as one of the greatest poachers is assured. It was Romario, who was principally instrumental in Brazil regaining the World Cup in USA 94, following 24 barren, frustrating, years.

It was difficult to take the ball off his feet, he could outrun, and dribble past most defences, and was among the calmest in the box, where he slotted the ball past the custodian mercilessly. A gloriously talented footballer he certainly was. Dangerous with his boots, and deadly with his head.

In USA, the stocky and strong Romario formed a deadly strike-force with the swift, lightly-built Bebeto up front. With the midfield where captain Dunga stood out, calling the shots, Romario and Bebeto wrought havoc up front.

In the early phase, Romario uncorked a wonderfully opportunistic goal against Russia, In the knock-out phase, the feared duo provided Brazil the cutting edge. In a hard-fought last sixteen encounter against the U.S., it was Romario's laser guided pass, after a searing run, that provided Bebeto with an opportunity to score.

And then, in the quarterfinal against Holland, the two combined wonderfully well to knock in the first two goals. It was Romario's superb header that sunk Sweden in the semifinal.

Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, in a lion-hearted display, checked the rampant Brazilian duo in the final, however, the Italians went down in a heart-stopping tie-breaker.

The Brazilians celebrated again after 24 long years, and the mercurial Romario had found a place in football's hall of fame.