Mexico ’86 – Sombreros and Sunshine

Mexico 86

…that’s what springs to mind when harking back to that glorious summer when football once again won the heart of the world.

It could all have been so different. The finals had been awarded to Colombia but they withdrew from hosting duties in late 1982. The country had more serious issues to contend with such as taking Pablo Escobar down – a feat they would not achieve until 1993.

In May 1983, Mexico was awarded the privilege of hosting the 1986 tournament. The country had welcomed the world in 1970 when Brazil and Pele shone, and now, 16 years on, they would open their arms to us, again.

Less than ideal circumstances

Mexico City was hit by a huge earthquake in September 1985, a temblor that would still be delivering aftershocks as late as April the following year. At least 5,000 souls died in this tragedy and the damage to infrastructure in the country itself was in the billions of dollars worth. The country joined together in the aftermath of the quake and approximately 4,000 people were rescued from the rubble.

When the world arrived, Mexico had suffered that April aftershock tremor just over a month previously. As Barry Davies referenced in the BBC coverage of the opening ceremony, outside the Azteca Stadium much of the population were watching on televisions in tents or other temporary accommodation. Yet, somehow, the Mexican people managed to provide the perfect environment for the world’s greatest sporting event. Some players, a certain Argentinian, in particular, revelled in their surroundings.

On with the show

The format of the 1986 finals saw another change from that in Spain, four years earlier. Instead of a second group stage after the first round, 16 teams would now make the first knockout stage, known as the last sixteen. The six groups would see their top two teams progress, along with the four best third-placed teams.

As was the case from the 1974 tournament up until it changed again for the 2006 finals in Germany, the holders, not the hosts, would play the opening game. Italy, victorious at Spain ‘82, started with a 1-1 draw versus Bulgaria on May 31st.

Old head on young shoulders

In 1982, a then 21-year-old Diego Maradona had let the bully-boys get the better of him. Claudio Gentile kicked him all over the pitch in Argentina’s meeting with Italy while in their final tie before elimination, Brazil’s Batista gave the world’s greatest player more of the same treatment. The young maestro cracked. Maradona received a red card for retaliating against the Brazilian.

Now, four years on, the eyes of the world were once again watching this temperamental genius, watching for an extreme – be it in skill or anger. Maradona chose the former.

From Argentina’s opening match with South Korea, Maradona knew he was in for another tough month. But now he expected it, took it as a compliment, almost. He did not take the bait in Mexico as he had in Spain, leaving the tournament with just one yellow card.

Group Stages – Separating the wheat from the chaff

Argentina and Italy managed to navigate their way through Group A without much trouble, finishing 1st and 2nd, respectively. Their meeting ending 1-1, thanks to goals from Altobelli (penalty) and Maradona. South Korea were out while Bulgaria scraped their way through in 3rd. As well as Maradona, Argentina’s coach, Carlos Bilardo, could call upon Pumpido, Ruggeri, Brown and Burruchaga. Italy had Vialli, Altobelli, Scirea, Ancelotti, De Napoli, and Tardelli.

Hosts, Mexico, were in Group B with Belgium, Paraguay, and Iraq. As expected, Iraq finished bottom after three defeats. Paraguay surprised a lot of people by grabbing second place ahead of Belgium. The Europeans still qualified for the last sixteen as one of the best third-placed teams. Belgium’s most influential players were Enzo Scifo and captain, Jan Ceulemans. Real Madrid’s Hugo Sanchez was who the Mexican hopes were mostly pinned upon. Mexico needed Sanchez to shine for any chance of success.

The USSR won Group C, ahead of France and Michel Platini. This was a fantastic achievement considering the USSR had replaced their head coach two weeks prior to the tournament. They destroyed Hungary 6-0, beat Canada 2-0 and drew 1-1 with France. Along with Platini, France also had Jean Tigana and Joel Bats among their ranks.

In Group D, Brazil and Spain were the heavyweights and there were no surprises when Northern Ireland and Algeria finished with just a point apiece and were going home early. This wasn’t vintage Brazil, yet, they still boasted the likes of Falcao, Socrates, Zico and Careca. Like France, Brazil were noted for their fine football in the group stage. Josimar made a name for himself, too. The attacking full-back scored a couple of cracking goals in the tournament.

Legendary Northern Ireland goalkeeper, Pat Jennings, would hang up his gloves, his final appearance, the 3-0 defeat to Brazil as Northern Ireland left the tournament on Jennings’ 41st birthday.

Denmark won Group E – the “Group of Death”. With that easily-identifiable jersey colour of pale red and white, along with the oversized numbers on the back, they were a team who captured the imagination of fans around the world. Michael Laudrup, Jesper Olsen, Jan Molby and co delighted many Danish and neutral fans in the early stages. They hammered Uruguay 6-1, and beat Scotland and West Germany (the Berlin Wall would be standing for another three years), too. With maximum points and a goal difference of +8, the Danes were arguably the most impressive team in the first round. West Germany came second in Group E while Uruguay and Scotland flattered to deceive, falling at that first hurdle. This was a huge disappointment as Scotland’s squad contained such talent as Souness, Nicol, Leighton, Gough, McLeish, Strachan, McStay, Archibald, Sharp, Nicholas, and McAvennie. Sadly, manager Jock Stein had collapsed and died of a heart attack the night Scotland qualified for the finals at Wales’ Ninian Park in Cardiff. Alex Ferguson had taken over for the tournament in Mexico.

The final group contained England, Morocco, Poland, and Portugal. With only nine goals scored in all six group fixtures, it was a very tight finish. Morocco went through as group winners with England in second and Poland also qualifying. Portugal were done. Gary Lineker scored a first-half hat-trick in England’s last group game, a 3-0 win over Poland. This sent the soon-to-be Barcelona striker on his way to winning the Golden Boot with a total of six goals in the tournament.

Sweet sixteen

Without a doubt, the highlight of the second round, or last sixteen, was the brilliant encounter between the USSR and Belgium. Belanov’s hat-trick for the USSR was in vain as Belgium came through as 4-3 winners after extra-time.

Mexico continued on their way to the last eight with a 2-0 win over the ever-negative Bulgarian side. Hugo Sanchez was back in the starting eleven after being suspended for their third group match, the 1-0 win over Iraq. Sanchez had picked up a yellow card in each of the first two games. Manuel Negrete, however, was the orchestrator of the victory over Bulgaria. From midfield, he created everything and even got on the scoresheet himself in the first half with an outstanding scissors-kick finish from the edge of the box.

Brazil disposed of Poland, 4-0. Socrates’ two-step penalty opened the scoring before the break and there was no way back for the Poles in the second half. The 33-year-old Zico was in the twilight of his career but he did come on as a sub against Poland and won the penalty which Careca put away for Brazil’s fourth goal.

Denmark failed to live up to all of their early promise, succumbing to a 5-1 trashing to an Emilio Butragueno-inspired Spanish team. El Buitre (The Vulture) scored four goals that day.

Strikes from Platini and Stopyra either side of the interval brought an end to Italy’s reign as world champions. France won 2-0 and never really looked in danger facing a tired Italian eleven.

In the other fixtures, West Germany beat Morocco in cruel circumstances. Just over one minute away from needing extra-time, Lothar Matthaus scored a low, long-range free-kick to crush Moroccan dreams. Argentina overcame Uruguay, and England strolled past Paraguay. Lineker scored another two goals in their 3-0 win.

Then there were eight

The quarter-final match-ups in Mexico had some delectable ties. In Guadalajara, Brazil and France played out an exciting 1-1 draw. Careca’s excellent opener was cancelled out by Platini’s equaliser. France held their nerve and won 4-3 in the shootout. Socrates and Platini were actually two of the players who missed their spot-kicks. Luckily for Platini, Luis Fernandez made no mistake with the deciding penalty and France were on their way to the semi-finals.

The host nation bowed out in the quarter-finals. After a hot-tempered affair, Mexico could only draw 0-0 with West Germany and they then lost 4-1 on penalties. Negrete was the only player to score from the spot for the South Americans.

In the Azteca Stadium, Argentina and England went head-to-head. Bobby Robson’s men got to half-time at 0-0 but just five minutes into the second half, disaster struck. A mishit looped clearance went into Peter Shilton’s area. As Shilton advanced to punch it, Diego Maradona rose with a fist of his own to beat the Shilton to it. The veteran English ‘keeper and his defenders were incensed but none of the officials had seen the ‘Hand of God’ connect with the ball. Argentina were ahead. Three minutes later, Maradona made the world (besides the English) fall back in love with him, again. Picking the ball up in his own half, he skipped past England’s midfield, defence, and Shilton, to put it into the empty net. Argentina were two up and England now stared defeat in the face. Lineker did bag his sixth goal with ten minutes left. He rose well to get his head on the end of a good cross from John Barnes. Alas, it was too little, too late.

Spain faced Belgium in the remaining quarter-final. A late Spanish equaliser made it 1-1 and took the tie into extra-time. Belgium won 5-4 on penalties and would now face Maradona and Argentina in the semi-final.

The final four

Argentina were now the only remaining South American team. All other semi-finalists were European. They would play Belgium while France and West Germany met in the other game.

Joel Bats, in goal for France, had impressed in the previous match with Brazil. However, he had a nightmare in the semis. Andreas Brehme’s 9th-minute free-kick was fumbled by Bats and West Germany were ahead. Rudi Voller finished France off, making it 2-0 in the 90th minute. France and Platini’s World Cup was over.

Maradona was in top form facing Belgium. He scored both goals in the 2-0 win. His second goal in that game would surely have received more adulation if his stunner against England just hadn’t been so unbelievable, taking all the plaudits.

France and Belgium met in the 3rd-place playoff. France won 4-2 after extra-time in a pulsating game.

Riding on the crest of a wave

A month after it had all started at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, it would draw to a dramatic close in the same venue. Over 114,000 people were there to the see the 1986 final between Argentina and West Germany. It was to be the silky skills of Maradona and his fellow countrymen up against the organisation and strategy of Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany.

The normally sturdy West German-defence was cut apart twice by Argentina as Brown and Valdano scored to put Argentina 2-0 up by the 55th minute. Maradona was having a quiet game by his standards. Beckenbauer had sent Lothar Matthaus out to shackle the Argentine number ten and it had worked to a large extent.

West Germany then manufactured two goals of their own, one from Rummenigge and one from Voller to level the game with ten minutes to spare.

But just three minutes after Voller’s equaliser, Maradona played his part. He only needed one touch from his own half. His first-time ball sent Burruchaga through on his own. The midfielder kept his composure to finish low and into the far corner past Toni Schumacher. Argentina had won the World Cup. The Azteca Stadium was a sea of blue and white as the “Hand of God” lifted the trophy.

Looking back

Maradona was awarded the Golden Ball for being the best player of the tournament. Belgium’s Enzo Scifo won the Young Player of the Tournament prize and, as mentioned earlier, Gary Lineker won the Golden Boot with his six goals.

Against England, Maradona’s infamous handball is still as well remembered as the magic he produced just three minutes afterwards. “Hand of God” aside, there is no doubt that Diego Maradona stole the show in Mexico. That tournament propelled his career to the next level. He returned to Napoli in Serie ‘A’ and led them to their first ever Scudetto the following season, repeating that feat again in 1990.

In a very eventful career, Maradona would be back on the world stage at Italia ‘90 and USA ‘94 but neither of those affairs would provide him or the Argentine fans with the elation they had felt during that sunny summer in Mexico.

If FIFA could bottle the perfect summer football experience, it would be called “Mexico ’86”.

About the Author

Shane Clancy
Irish Football writer. Drowning in nostalgia. Huge Liverpool fan. Share a house with two beautiful ladies (wife and daughter).