Every once in a while a sporting event comes along that grows in stature the older it gets. Twenty-five years ago today one of the most famous football matches of all time took place in Mexico City as Argentina met England in the 1986 World Cup. I recently watched this match in its entirety to take you on a journey back to the Azteca Stadium.
Match – Argentina vs England, Quarter-Finals of the World Cup.
Date – June 22nd, 1986.
Attendance - 114,580
Background – A lot of the talk before this game was about the matchup in the 1966 World Cup quarter final at Wembley, a game that England won 1-0 and was best known for the sending off of Argentina skipper Antonio Rattin for ‘violence of the tongue’. Rattin was incensed and took 10 minutes to leave the pitch, starting a rivalry that remains today. The two teams had met three times since that game but not for six years when England won 3-1 at Wembley in 1980. The Falklands War of 1982 soon followed and only a World Cup could bring together these two teams on the same pitch at the time.
Argentina (3-5-2) – Nery Pumpido (River Plate), Jose Luis Brown (Atletico Nacional), Jose Luis Cuciuffo (Velez Sarsfield), Oscar Ruggeri (River Plate), Ricardo Giusti (Independiente), Hector Enrique (River Plate), Sergio Batista (Argentinos Juniors), Julio Orticoechea (Boca Juniors), Jorge Burruchaga (Nantes), Diego Maradona (Napoli), Jorge Valdano (Real Madrid).
England (4-4-2) – Peter Shilton (Southampton), Gary Stevens (Everton), Terry Fenwick (QPR), Terry Butcher (Ipswich Town), Kenny Sansom (Arsenal), Trevor Steven (Everton), Peter Reid (Everton), Glenn Hoddle (Tottenham), Steve Hodge (Aston Villa), Peter Beardsley (Newcastle), Gary Lineker (Everton).
Youngest player on the pitch – Trevor Steven (22).
Oldest player on the pitch – Peter Shilton (36).
World Class – Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker, Diego Maradona, Oscar Ruggeri.
Borderline and not fully appreciated by their countries – Glenn Hoddle, Jorge Burruchaga.
Not good enough at that level – Terry Fenwick, Peter Reid.
Players who’d perhaps be better today than then – Peter Beardsley, Julio Olarticoechea, Sergio Batista.
Players who would also still excel at that level today - Gary Steven, Kenny Sansom, Ricardo Giusti, Jorge Valdano.
Player who went on to get the most international caps - Peter Shilton (125).
Player who went on to get the most international goals – Gary Lineker (48).
Players who went on to manage their country – Glenn Hoddle (1996-1999), Diego Maradona (2008-2010), Sergio Batista (2010-).
Where are they now? – Notables include Enrique who is actually Batista’s current assistant coach with the national team and Valdano who last month lost his battle with Jose Mourinho and stepped down as Real Madrid’s Director General and President. Sadly, Cuciuffo is the only player who is no longer alive, after he was shot while hunting with a friend in December 2004. For England, Hoddle – who would lose to Argentina on penalties as coach 12 years later – is now running a football academy in Spain. Sansom, Steven and, most notably, Lineker all work in television; Reid manages Plymouth Argyle while Butcher is managing in Scotland for Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Jonathan Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ called Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo ‘one of the most system-driven managers of all time and you’re probably aware that Wilson would know. In fact, this Argentina team gave Wilson the name for his brilliant book as they inverted the pyramid and started the trend of 3-5-2 that would take over football after the World Cup was over. This game showed both the brilliance of such a system and the flaws that would ultimately cause its decline over a decade later, but more of that later.
Argentina’s system worked because all eleven players were incredibly disciplined. Whenever a player made a run, another one would always slot into his role to make them very difficult to break down. No one was better than this than Diego Maradona. People remember Maradona for his brilliant attacking moves but he was more than adequate in midfield, chopping at the heels of opponents and covering for Jorge Burruchaga when he’d gone on a run to support Jorge Valdano. The use of Sergio Batista (their current manager) was vital as he rarely made a run forward and often stopped England’s attacks through the middle. If England did get the ball to Gary Lineker or Peter Beardsley then they would be overmatched 3 on 2.
For England, it was a typical 4-4-2 that simply got overrun in midfield against Argentina’s more fluid system, until manager Bobby Robson made changes later in the game that almost changed the result and history. The problem Robson had was that he didn’t recognise this until too late. England’s best player heading into the match, other than Lineker, was Glenn Hoddle whose performances in the two previous games in Mexico had reignited a slow-starting England. However, in this match Hoddle was invisible. Argentina’s advantage in the middle of the field led to far more possession than their opponents and the longer the game went on the more Hoddle fell deep. He would occasionally spray lovely long balls to the feet of teammates but they would be so isolated that a turnover would inevitably take place soon after. At 2-0 down, England brought on Chris Waddle for Peter Reid, and later John Barnes for Trevor Steven, and their 4-2-4 with high wingers exposed Argentina’s defence in wide areas and pushed Giusti and Olarticoechea back so far that England had all the ball for the final 15 minutes. Barnes made a run to the byline in the 80th minute, the first one of the day for England, and crossed for Lineker to head home his sixth goal of the World Cup, but he almost had a seventh three minutes later when Barnes did the same, only for the ball to miss the goal by inches. Argentina held their breath as England found top gear but it ultimately was too late and the rest was history. This was Maradona’s game and no one could take it away from him.
Scouting Diego Maradona
Although I didn’t watch the CBC feed their announcer Graham Leggat started their broadcast with these words of wisdom: “The focus of everybody is on the wonderboy of South American football, how he plays today could well decide the outcome of this game.” How right he was.
In this game a 25-year-old Maradona, in his 52nd cap, was unstoppable and of course will be remembered for scoring the greatest illegal goal of all-time and the greatest legal goal of all-time, all in a span of five minutes. Having seen those goals endless amounts of times I actually enjoyed watching everything else Diego did in this match. In many ways watching how he controlled the game in the run-up to those goals made me appreciate the goals more (well at least the second one). The moment Maradona got the ball, England players, full of fear, flocked towards him and did nothing. He was the jar of honey for the bees but with two feet that simply glided by them before finding a teammate in space he created. I couldn’t watch him without thinking of Lionel Messi. In this match, Maradona seemed to pick balls up in deeper areas than Messi does today but was equally inspiring dribbling with the ball at his feet, gliding past English defenders as if they didn’t exist. However, it has to be said that the standard of tackling was pathetic compared to today’s players. In fact it’s not a reach to say that, as Maradona would acknowledge later, if England had been more physical then Maradona probably would not have the impact he had on the game.
‘It’s hit his bloody hand!!!’
‘A goal for the Gods’.
The BBC commentary team of Barry Davies and Jimmy Hill for this game was absolutely fantastic. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the game:
- Davies after Maradona’s first impact in the 10th minute: “It’s the first we’ve seen of the little man, and great player, though he is, it would be as well if we didn’t see him too often.”
- Davies sums up the first 23 minutes: “It’s tight, it’s tense and the fear of making a mistake is evident.”
- Davies on Argentina’s sweeper: “Brown is no Daniel Passarella, he’s efficient but by no means gifted.”
- From the ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’ files, Hill on officials: “Poor quality of referees has been a fixture of this World Cup because they insist on using inexperienced refs from emerging nations.” And again on England’s issues on the left side of midfield, that remains unsolved 25 years later: “Hodge has provided the midfield balance on the left, what we were all looking for in the beginning, a left footed player who can play in midfield.”
- Davies on the quarterfinal between France and Brazil the previous day: “The artistry and beauty of the game was well shown as the world watched the game in Guadalajara.”
- Hill on Brazil as news broke that their manager Tele Santana had resigned: “If he’d resigned yesterday morning, Brazil might have still been in the World Cup, he lost it yesterday, not taking off a tired Socrates.”
- Davies after one of many Maradona dives: “As with his team, there are certainly two sides of his character.” Hill added: “He’s the best player in the world but by no means the best actor.”
- Hill in a less heated moment talks up the brilliant Maradona: “When we look at our own players back home, some of them being sold expensively to Italy, I think in all honesty we can say there is no light than shines as bright as Maradona. He can do it on his own, he can lay it on for other people; can take part in inter-passing movements, has fantastic pace, also tremendous strength; he’s won a couple of headers in midfield and on that fine one, unfair or not, he still read the backpass quicker than Shilton did and the ball was running away from him.”
- Davies with a brilliant reflection of the game: “Argentina have played with more imagination, attacked more and deserve their lead, but if the referee and linesman had better eyesight then the game would be 1-1.”
Five things that happened that wouldn’t if it was played today
- Four Everton players made England’s starting XI and no players from Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United did.
- Terry Fenwick didn’t get sent off. England was a poor tackling team and the QPR centre-back was the worst of the bunch. He chopped down Maradona after 10 minutes and got a yellow card, ran half the field to get into the referee’s face after Maradona’s first goal and later cynically brought down Jorge Valdano. As someone who has followed England for many years, it was actually comical to see how poor technically Fenwick and Butcher were at the heart of their defence.
- Incredibly it took just 44 seconds after Maradona punched the ball into the net before England kicked off. This was the 51st minute of the match not the last! It wasn’t as if England were in a rush to get going. If that happened today it would have been triple that amount of time at least and every England player would be in the face of an official. Although I’m not a fan of such behaviour and I called out Fenwick in the previous comment, it was actually refreshing to see him go up to the referee, after all it was one of the most obvious moments of cheating the game has ever seen. Fenwick actually raised his hand to signal a handball before the ball went into the net. Most of his teammates sadly looked resigned to the inevitable that Maradona had broke them apart.
- The game was short. During the first half, Maradona had a comical scene with the linesman where he removed the corner flag and then had to put it back together and there were the usual stoppages for small injuries, yet the referee played 33 seconds of added time. In the second half, he played 62 seconds of added time and we all know what happened in that half.
- England fans in the crowd all had Union Jack flags that represents the United Kingdom rather than the cross of St George, which is now synonymous with England at World Cups.
Five photos from the game
Fantastic positioning from the referee.
Terry Fenwick with one of many woeful challenges as he chops down Jorge Valdano.
Where’s Danny Dyer when they needed him?
Diego on his way to finishing off the goal of the century.
And as Shilton goes down he looks like he’s about to shoot before he goes around him and slots it into the open net.
As a child in England I forever remembered that game for his first goal. As an adult I am doing my best to remember it for the second one, but it’s not an easy transition.