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World Cup Icons: Diego Maradona

Adored in his native Argentina, Diego Maradona’s blockbuster World Cup career featured some of the tournament’s most famous moments.

1978 World Cup

A player who would go on to achieve historic success in the competition, Diego Maradona’s World Cup journey began in heartbreak.

Having made his international debut as a 16-year-old the year before, a teenage Maradona was the last player to be cut from manager Luis Cesar Menotti’s squad for Argentina’s home Finals at the 1978 World Cup after being initially included in the preliminary 25-man squad.

Crushed by his omission, Maradona had to watch on at home as his compatriots were crowned world champions in front of ardent Argentine crowds.

Maradona was able to bounce back in style as he announced himself as one of the most gifted young players on the planet in the World Youth Championships the following year. Aged 18, the diminutive Maradona was the star of the tournament in Japan, dazzling with his technical skill whilst firing six goals in six matches as Argentina took home the trophy.

1982 World Cup

By the time the next World Cup Finals came around in Spain in 1982, Maradona was the most expensive footballer in the world having transferred to Barcelona from Boca Juniors for around £5m on the eve of the tournament. 

Now an established member of a much-fancied Argentina side aged 21, Maradona underperformed as the World Cup holders succumbed to a 1-0 defeat to Belgium in the opening game at his new club home at the Camp Nou.

Despite bouncing back with comfortable victories against Hungary and El Salvador to progress through to the second round, with Maradona bagging a brace in the former fixture, there were reports of issues between the experienced members of the World Cup-winning team of 1978 and the newly integrated younger stars including Maradona himself.

This lack of harmony in the group showed as the Argentines were defeated by both Italy and Brazil to be eliminated in the second round. Following a series of rough tackles inflicted on Maradona across both matches, the new Barcelona signing ended up losing his temper and was sent off against South American rivals Brazil for a retaliatory foul late on.

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1986 World Cup

Fuelled by the pain of his omission in 1978, and the frustration of his and Argentina’s underperformance four years later in 1982, Maradona had a point to prove at the 1986 Finals in Mexico. As captain, much was expected of Maradona to deliver ahead of the tournament.

Maradona would marvel in Mexico right from the off, registering a hat-trick of assists in Argentina’s 3-1 win over South Korea in their opening game. After scoring his first goal of the tournament in La Albiceleste’s second group match, a 1-1 draw against Italy, Argentina ensured progression to the second round with a routine 2-0 win over Bulgaria.

Edging past Uruguay 1-0 in the second round, Argentina set up a mouth-watering quarter-final clash against England in an encounter which would go down as one of the famous matches in football history.

With the match locked at 0-0 at half-time, a crazy four-minute period in the second half would dramatically turn the tie in Argentina’s favour and ultimately cement Maradona’s legend in the sport.

Breaking the deadlock in the 51st minute, Maradona latched onto a loose ball in the air before diverting the ball into the net past a leaping Peter Shilton in the England goal with his hand. With the England goalkeeper and defence up and arms about this glaring foul act, the referee was none the wiser and awarded what would became coined as the ‘Hand of God’ goal.

Perhaps spurred on to display his true genius in light the controversial nature of his opener, Maradona would go on to score one of the greatest goals of all time just four minutes later. Picking the ball up just inside his own half, Maradona set off on a weaving run, skipping past six English players including goalkeeper Shilton before sliding the ball into the net. 

This moment of majesty would later be heralded as the ‘Goal of the Century’ and voted the best goal in the history of the World Cup, with the effort perfectly demonstrating Maradona’s unparalleled skill, balance and agility.

Buoyed by his quarter-final exploits, Maradona went on to net a brace in the semi-finals in 2-0 win over Belgium to send Argentina into the final, the second of which was another stunning solo goal.

The final against West Germany would see Maradona doubled up on by the German defence, with their attempts to contain him ultimately in vain with the Argentine icon supplying the vital assist for Jorge Burruchaga to net the winner in a 3-2 triumph.

Obtaining immortal status back home in Argentina as the team’s inspirational World Cup-winning captain, Maradona was awarded the Golden Ball after scoring or assisting 10 of his country’s 14 goals during the competition in what is largely viewed as one of the best individual showings at the tournament of all time.

1990 World Cup

Maradona would go close to captaining Argentina to a second successive World Cup win in Italy four years later. After stumbling through the group stages in third place after suffering an upset to Cameroon in the opening match, La Albiceleste set up a round of 16 tie with famous South American rivals Brazil.

Maradona, who struggled with an ankle injury throughout the tournament, would supply the telling assist for Claudio Caniggia to score the only goal of the game as Argentina edged past Brazil 1-0 in the second round. Yugoslavia were up next in the quarter-finals, with Argentina advancing on penalties despite talisman Maradona’s tame effort from the spot being saved.

There was a unique atmosphere surrounding the semi-final against host nation Italy, with the match played at the home of Napoli – the club at which Maradona held almost God-like status.

Proud people and ardent supporters of their local team, it’s fair to say significant portions of Neapolitans were equally if not more invested in their club hero’s success on the night as they were the fortunes of the Italian national team.

Argentina would once again face a penalty shootout, only this time Maradona would succeed from the spot by coolly placing the ball in the same spot in which his effort was saved in the previous round against Yugoslavia, with Argentina progressing through to the final.

A repeat of the 1986 World Cup final against West Germany, this time Argentina came out on the losing side. With Maradona unable to find his usual rhythm against a strong defence, West Germany sealed a 1-0 victory late on courtesy of a controversial penalty dispatched by Andreas Brehme.

1994 World Cup

In what was mostly a beautiful World Cup journey for Maradona over the years, his association with the competition would ultimately end in disgrace at the 1994 Finals in the United States.

Having received a 15-month ban from FIFA in March 1991 for testing positive for cocaine, Maradona was sidelined as La Albiceleste struggled to qualify for the World Cup in the USA. Eventually returning to help his country overcome Australia in a playoff to secure their place at the tournament, there was hope Maradona would able to shine in the competition one last time.

He certainly looked the part in Argentina’s opening two matches, having commendably adapted his game from a daring dribbler to more of a deep-lying playmaker at the age of 33. 

His goal in Argentina’s 4-0 opening win against Greece prompted an iconic World Cup celebration, with Maradona sprinting towards the touchline to look directly in the camera, eyes bulging, in a frenzied release of emotion.

In Argentina’s second game against Nigeria, Maradona set up both goals from set-pieces to help guide the South Americans to a 2-1 victory in what would ultimately prove to be the final time he turned out for his country.

Failing a drugs test in the aftermath of this Nigeria match, Maradona was banned for the rest of the tournament. Rocked by the loss of their talisman, Argentina were eliminated in the second round by Romania.

It was a sad way for such an illustrious international career to end, but nothing could take away from the scale of the Argentine’s achievements in the competition over the years.

His showing at the 1986 Finals in Mexico in particular ensured he will forever be remembered as a legend of the sport.

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