History of the World Cup: 1986 – Maradona puts on a show in Mexico

Diego Maradona lifts the World Cup trophy after victory in the 1986 final.

Mexico replaces Colombia as host in 1986, Diego Maradona puts on a one-man show, England cries foul over “The Hand of God,” Canada competes at its first World Cup, and Argentina beats West Germany in the final.


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.

Argentina was crowned world champion 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.

[snippet id=3758859]


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 final at Azteca Stadium, 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. Argentina duly punished Matthaus for a 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.

Eventually, 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 Harald Schumacher before depositing the ball into the net.

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.

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 Burruchaga on a clear break with an exquisite, defence splitting pass that the forward thrashed past Schumacher with six minutes left in regulation.


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


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.


France’s 2-1 victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals. 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 quarterfinal ranks a close second.


The quarterfinal between Argentina and England 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.

With the game tied 0-0 early in the second half, Maradona 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. Maradona would add a second goal minutes later, and Argentina went on to win 2-1. 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.


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.”


Yes, it was Maradona’s hand, and not God’s, that was responsible for the first 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. It transcended mere sports—his goal was pure art.

Starting in his 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.

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.


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

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 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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


Yugoslavia’s Bora Milutinovic is one of only two men (Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira is the other) 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.


• 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.

• Morocco was the first African nation to qualify for the second round at the World Cup.

• Mexico has played in 15 World Cups, but has only progressed as far as the quarterfinals, both times (1970 and 1986) on home soil.

• 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.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.