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Clive Gammon
July 07, 1986
Superstar Diego Maradona fast-stepped Argentina to the World Cup championship over West Germany in Mexico City
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July 07, 1986

Tango Argentino!

Superstar Diego Maradona fast-stepped Argentina to the World Cup championship over West Germany in Mexico City

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On Sunday afternoon, before 114,500 manic soccer fans at the World Cup final in Mexico City's mighty Azteca Stadium, soccer's El Rey, its king, its little Dieguito, was finally crowned. True, it was the right foot of another Argentine, Jorge Burruchaga, that sealed the 3-2 victory over West Germany in the game's 84th minute, slanting the ball low and fast past a despairing, spread-eagled Harald Schumacher into the net. But the play that set up the goal—indeed, the plays that set up all of Argentina's goals—was conceived by Diego Armando Maradona, captain of his country's team, without doubt the most dangerous attacker in soccer and, by extension, the most famous and admired team athlete in the world.

Imagine Wayne Gretzky or Larry Bird performing in a dominion of billions—not just millions—of fans, against a dizzying progression of defenses—zones, man-to-mans, traps—designed solely to stop him, running nonstop for two 45-minute periods with men kicking at his ankles and swiping at his knees, and you begin to appreciate the athletic genius of the 5'5", 152-pound, 25-year-old striker named Maradona. Just when Argentina's World Cup seemed to be slipping away Sunday because West Germany had been able to hold Maradona goalless, he eluded Karlheinz Foerster, his second-half shadower, picked up a loose ball and, with a precision that borders on the supernatural, stabbed a pass through a line of four German defenders to Burruchaga, on a dead run and barely breaking pace, for the score.

In a few moments the World Cup would be Argentina's for the second time in eight years—it won the tournament in Buenos Aires in 1978—and tears would be rolling down the Indio features of Maradona as he clutched the ugliest, most desired trophy in world sport.

It was a fitting end to a week dominated by what could only be described as Mar-Idolatry. Even Dieguito's horoscope was discussed with passion. (The Mexico City News, somewhat impractically, advised him that as a Scorpio, a fishing or a hiking trip could provide a needed change of pace.) In Buenos Aires, both Argentina's and Maradona's coronation had already taken place, Monsignor Jorge Caseretto of the diocese of San Isidro declaring that he had already arranged a victory with God. Street posters declared MARADONA PRESIDENTE!

Any and all other pretenders to soccer superstardom had already disappeared. Brazil had been eliminated in the quarterfinals by France, and the great Frenchman, Michel Platini, turned out to be not so great as he and his elegant teammates had fallen in Wednesday's semifinals, 2-0, to the workmanlike West Germans.

The swashbuckling Maradona, meanwhile, almost single-handedly disposed of the tough Belgians in Argentina's semifinal match, effectively responding to what may well have been the most ill-considered remark of the tournament. Before the game Belgian goalie Jean-Marie Pfaff had declared, " Maradona is nothing special."

Whirling, slicing and stutter-stepping through Belgium's zone defense—"We do not have one player capable of stopping Maradona," said Belgium coach Guy Thys—Maradona scored the game's first goal 6 minutes into the second half on a Hector Enrique pass, chipping the ball in left-footed from close range. And only 12 minutes later he went solo from 25 yards out, sealing a 2-0 Argentina victory with a goal—his fifth of the tournament—that was almost a mirror image of his spectacular 55-yard run for a goal in the quarterfinals against England. (A goal, incidentally, that is already commemorated by a plaque at Azteca.) For Dieguito's fans, who, national loyalties aside, number just about every soccer fan in the world, his performance in the Belgium game confirmed that he was the brightest star of the Mundial, the new king of soccer.

But West Germany was not about to concede him his crown without a fight. About 135 miles northwest of Mexico City, close to the little colonial town of Quet�raro in a charming 18th-century hacienda-turned-hotel, all soft-pink adobe, the Germans formulated their plan. This was Der Kaiserkampf, where Franz Beckenbauer, once the Kaiser of German soccer and now his national team's coach, rallied his troops for the final assault on Sunday. Beckenbauer was still slightly amazed that his team had even reached the final, especially in light of the progression of pallid performances on the field and the comic opera events off it that had marked West Germany's early games.

For starters, there was the Sex in Mexico story—women allegedly seen coming and going from the players' hotel rooms—originated by a German journalist. Next, there was the running feud between star striker Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and goalie Schumacher, who were each filing columns to rival newspapers back home. All the while, Beckenbauer missed few opportunities to bad-mouth his own team.

"Stupid," he called it after a 1-1 tie with Uruguay in its first game of the round-robin phase. "Garbage!" he said following a 2-1 defeat of Scotland. Then, after a 2-0 loss to Denmark, advised by his team doctor to take it a little easier on his men, Beckenbauer told a press conference, "It's the best game we've played." Whereupon the press dissolved in laughter.

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