In his slaloming career, Diego Maradona, who passed away on Wednesday opened up brutal defences with a mere swish of his left boot.
It will be a travesty to look back at the Argentine legend’s career simply through the goals he scored; Maradona and his myth go much beyond that. His career, in fact, is a collection of magical little moments on big stages, sometimes with his words and reactions but oftentimes it was the ‘leg of God’ that did all the talking.
‘Burying’ the English defence
They were inside a medical room, waiting to submit their urine sample, when Maradona made the startling confession to Terry Butcher, the beefy England centre-back. “Hand or head,” Butcher asked Maradona, barely half an hour after the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal. “Hand,” Maradona replied.
Till today, Butcher maintains he will never forgive Maradona for the most famous cheating incident in sport. But he was among the first to admit Maradona’s genius in the goal that followed, which left nearly half the English side on their knees.
First, Maradona pirouetted past Peter Beardsley in the Englishman’s half. He then eased past a tired Peter Reid, skipped past Butcher and then with a beautifully delayed touch, took Terry Fenwick out of the equation. He went around goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Butcher’s desperate sliding challenge was in vain as Maradona scored arguably the greatest goal in football to set up Argentina’s win.
The BBC radio commentator’s choice of words while describing the goal as it happened summed up the humiliation of English players: “Maradona turns, like a little eel… Comes inside Butcher, leaves him for the dead. Outside Fenwick. Leaves him for dead and puts the ball away. And that is why Maradona is the greatest player in the world. He buried the English defence.”
Swish and assist vs West Germany
Maradona did not necessarily have to be near a goal to make an impact. He could do it from the half-line as well, as West Germany experienced.
Franz Beckenbauer had seen how Maradona had embarrassed both England and Belgium, en route to the final of the 1986 World Cup. So the West Germany captain instructed his players to go hard on the Argentine – in his mind, that was the only way for his side to win the title, given that West Germany had huffed and puffed their way into the final.
In one of the greatest World Cup finals of all-time, Argentina and West Germany were tied 2-2 with 10 minutes remaining. Beckenbauer’s boys had done a fine job to keep Maradona away from the danger zones by using a mix of man-marking and manhandling skills.
But it wasn’t possible to keep Maradona away from making an impact – at least in that World Cup. It looked a very straightforward move when Maradona turned with a bouncing ball in the centre circle. There were two green shirts on him quickly, and it was safe to assume – going by the match’s trend – that they would snatch the ball from him.
But then, showcasing his unparalleled vision, Maradona played the ball in an open space down the right with a simple swish of the left boot, to release Jorge Burruchaga, who had the time and space to score the World Cup-winning goal.
The ‘other’ hand of God
In Maradona’s adopted city, Naples, came the lesser-known handball.
Four years after the incident against England, Maradona used his hands to guide the ball once again. This time, against the USSR. But it was not to score a goal. Instead, it was to save his side from going down.
Both, Argentina and USSR, had lost their opening match of the 1990 World Cup. The score was 0-0 when a shot by a Soviet striker looked destined to find the back of the net. But out of nowhere, Maradona popped up and, with his hands, he hit the ball away.
Igor Shalimov, who made his World Cup debut in that match, recalled the incident in a column for The Guardian: “The ball was heading into the goal, the referee (Erik Frederiksson) was six metres from the incident, and saw everything clearly… Yes, you have different kinds of handball when there is no intention but in this instance, a man deliberately handled the ball away from his goal. It wasn’t just that the ball hit his band: there was a movement of the hand. He hit the ball.”
Frederiksson did not give a foul, USSR were denied a goal, and were later dumped out of the tournament while Argentina went on to win the match 2-0, before eventually reaching the final.
The dribble vs Brazil
Maradona had a knee injury going into the 1990 World Cup, and Argentina were not the same as they were four years before. Still, they reached the final, where they faced arch-rivals Brazil, who had won all their games and conceded just one goal.
The final was the complete opposite of the 1986 title match. It was scruffy and disjointed, as finals of ten are. But it was Maradona’s genius that opened up the game. Maradona picked up the ball in his own half and embarked on a trademark dribble. He beat three Brazilian players in his slaloming run and as the fourth one tried to close him down, it opened up space for Maradona to pass the ball to Claudio Caniggia, who beat goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel to score a goal.
Even a half-fit Maradona could take players out.
The final touch: the God vs Greeks
It is one of Maradona’s finest goals – but also the least spoken about because of what happened next. Against Greece in the 1994 World Cup group stage match, on June 21, 1994, Maradona finished an intricate, one-touch team move by swiveling as he fired the ball into the top corner of the goal in the 4-0 win. More than the goal, it was the celebration that went down in history – Maradona ran towards the camera, his eyes bulging and screaming in anger and joy. Nine days later, he failed a drugs test. His fabled career was over and he was sent home in disgrace.
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