35 years ago today, on May 31, 1986, at around 11am local time, the eyes of the world were on the stunning Estadio Azteca in Mexico City for the opening ceremony of the 13th FIFA World Cup. The curious mix of semi-naked dancers, piñatas, military officers and a life-sized Pique were gone even before defending champions Italy began the stuttering defence of their crown with a draw against Bulgaria, but the impact of this most celebrated and iconic of football tournaments remains to this day.
Nine World Cups have taken place since that golden summer in the mid-1980s, some decent, others terrible, but none that has quite caught the imagination like Mexico.
I’ll admit my prejudices. As a seven-year-old I collected the Panini stickers, filled in the wallchart, had my first football shirt bought for me and, as far as I remember, watched a load of the games. It was a defining moment of my childhood, and, really, my life. I became obsessed by football, but beyond that, absolutely enthralled by the incredible world that this tournament introduced me to. What and where is Uruguay? What do people in Morocco look like? What is ‘Magyaroszag’ and why does it sound nothing like what we call Hungary? I’m pretty sure Albert Camus said everything he learned of life he owed to football. I think he meant that in terms of the human mind, relationships, existentialism and all that, but I simply began to appreciate what an incredible and varied world was out there – all that colour, the languages, the names, the capital cities.
So that’s my bias when it comes to Mexico 86, and I dare say it’s shared by a fair few million others now in their early-to-mid 40s — and certainly those who enjoy the profiles, photos, videos, quizzes and other nostalgic delights via Mexico86HQ.
A crossroads for sport
But is there something more to Mexico 86, something that can be shared by people a little older and even those who were born after the tournament took place?
Mexico produced some really good games, perhaps the finest being France’s penalty shoot-out victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals and the final itself, as Argentina just about overcame West Germany following a thrilling comeback. The second round games between Belgium and the Soviet Union and Denmark and Spain were also notable, with the Danes, Soviets and, of course, France and Brazil the teams most pleasing on the eye. There were some incredible goals, from fabulous long-range efforts courtesy of Vasily Rats and Josimar, to Manuel Negrete’s bicycle kick and the solo effort of Michael Laudrup in Denmark’s annihilation of Uruguay. Let’s also not forget Morocco becoming the first African team to reach the latter stages of a World Cup, winning a group that featured Europe’s England, Poland and Portugal.
The football on the field itself isn’t enough, though, to explain the attraction of this tournament some 35 years later. It took place at a crossroads for sport, and football in particular. The game was in the latter stages of a cynical era in which skillful forwards were thwarted by thuggish defenders, with red cards still a rarity despite some awful challenges during the course of the tournament. Off the pitch, while the sponsors were certainly involved at Mexico 86, and Sepp Blatter was very much already in situ, this was a time when the World Cup at least looked like an excuse to watch a load of matches over the course of a short space of time rather than stare at the logos of Visa and Coca-Cola alongside some people kicking a ball around. While the technology to beam live events across the globe via satellite was around 20 years old in 1986, the lost pictures, poor sound quality and TV graphics in Spanish no matter where you lived, gave a sense that you really were watching something taking place on the other side of the world, rather than down the road in HD.
The Maradona factor
Beyond all that there is Diego Armando Maradona. The genius who controlled a tournament in a way that no player ever has before or since. With the ball seemingly glued to his feet, twisting this way and that, he beat those lunging brutish defenders; those magnificent goals against England and Belgium, even that less celebrated first-round strike against Italy as he prodded home from a tight angle. Watch how he lifts the World Cup trophy alone; no build up, no passing it down the line, Maradona lifts the trophy and cradles it. It’s rare to see a photo of one of his team-mates – even the fine Jorge Burruchaga and Jorge Valdano who both scored in the final – holding the trophy.
Maradona remains emblematic of much of what is so enduring about Mexico 86. The innocence apparent as, like a kid in a park, he surged forward with the ball at his feet contrasted with the cynicism of his handball goal against England. The genius and risk-taking of those individual strikes versus England and Belgium compared to the mundane football served up by many of the other teams, even finalists West Germany. This was a global superstar and millionaire whose every performance was cherished by viewers during an era when most football fans would only see the world’s finest players every four years.
Maradona was the star of 1986, but others also proved themselves on the world stage, from Danes Laudrup and Preben Elkjaer to the brilliant goalscorers Gary Lineker and Emilio Butragueno. For some, such as Michel Platini, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Socrates and Zico, it was the last act of incredible playing careers; for others, perhaps Careca, Jean-Pierre Papin, Enzo Scifo and Gianluca Villa, it was their first introduction to the world.
It was Maradona’s tournament, undoubtedly, but that was 35 years ago and 1980s football’s icon is sadly now gone. While the 25-year-old in the albiceleste secured the trophy, we all get to keep whatever we choose from that magical summer of so long ago.
Written by @Mexico86HQ