Diego Maradona dies at 60: When Argentine's World Cup exploits became the story of 1986 summer in India

The near-unanimous support for Argentina in India during 1986 World Cup had seemed unreal. And only one man had made that possible — Diego Maradona.

Abhishek Mukherjee November 26, 2020 10:16:30 IST
Diego Maradona dies at 60: When Argentine's World Cup exploits became the story of 1986 summer in India

Argentina's Diego Armando Maradona runs past English defenders Terry Butcher (L) and Terry Fenwick (2nd L) on his way to scoring his second goal during the World Cup quarter-final against England at 1986 World Cup. AFP

On 5 June, 1986, India began their first Test of their 1986 tour of England. This was a major tour, for India were touring England for the first time since the 1983 World Cup, that too under the same captain. The first Test was played at Lord’s, venue of arguably the greatest triumph in India’s cricketing history till date.

Chetan Sharma (eventually 5/64) rocked the England top order before Graham Gooch (114) helped resurrect the innings. Gooch fell just before stumps. England, 245/5 overnight, were bowled out for 294 next day.

But India did not get to see any of this, for there was no live telecast on Doordarshan (though there was a highlights package). It would be another eight years before Indians would get to watch live Test matches from outside Asia.

What Doordarshan did telecast live was the FIFA World Cup. Despite it being summer vacation, we were typically not allowed to stay awake. However, this was a once-in-four-years occurrence, and the telecast was of the highest quality, something we were not used to other than cricket from Australia and the four tennis grand slams.

As a result there was considerable interest around the tournament. The 1982 edition had been telecast as well, but television sets were not as popular back then. The cricket 1983 World Cup, followed by a growing interest and more coverage by Doordarshan, had helped boost television sales.

It was on the same 5 January that Diego Maradona scored his first goal of the tournament, against Italy. Argentina had earlier beaten South Korea 3-1, but there was no Maradona goal in that.

Diego Maradona dies at 60 When Argentines World Cup exploits became the story of 1986 summer in India

Argentine footballer Diego Maradona looks at his portrait during a visit in the Indian city of Kolkata on December 11, 2017. AFP

We had heard of Maradona before the World Cup. Coverage of European football was scant in Indian media, but the newspapers had published special booklets ahead of the World Cup, while magazines had brought out special editions. Every book had listed him prominently among the players to keep an eye on.

The Argentina team had other familiar names as well. Nery Pumpido and Jorge Burruchaga, both of whom played key roles in Argentina’s journey in the World Cup, had toured India with the national side for the 1984 Nehru Cup. Subsequent searches told me that Oscar Garre and Ricardo Giusti were part of the squad as well.

Despite all that, most experts did not predict Argentina’s triumph. Or that the Maradona phenomenon would take India by storm.

But let us return to the World Cup. The matches took place late at night IST, which meant that next morning’s reports were basic, often not there on days with multiple matches. The main reports for a match came the day after that.

It began with cricket and football sharing the sports pages, and often front pages. Thus, when Dilip Vengsarkar scored 126 not out (his third consecutive Test hundred at Lord’s), he got roughly the same coverage as Careca (Maradona’s teammate at Napoli), whose goal helped Brazil beat Algeria.

Vengsarkar and India wrestled their supremacy back in a few days’ time, for this was India’s first Test match win at Lord’s. Not even Denmark (1-0 against Scotland, 6-1 against Uruguay, 2-0 against West Germany) could put a dampener to that. Not even Maradona.

At this point Maradona had impressed the Indian sports writers, but not enough. He had, after all, scored only once in four matches. Their opinion did not alter after Argentina’s 1-0 win against Uruguay. He had been playing brilliant football, but Indian fans had still not taken to football data. They understood goals, and the newspapers echoed their opinion.

Michel Platini was suddenly in focus after his goal and France’s win against defending champions Italy, as were Spain after they knocked Denmark out of the World Cup.

With 126 not out and 33, Vengsarkar had top-scored in each innings at Lord’s. Amidst all this hullabaloo over football, he quietly did the same at Headingley, with 61 and 102 not out. India were on the verge of a famous series win, their first away from home in over a decade.

But by then all of India were following Brazil versus France, where Zico missed a penalty before France won in the tie-breakers. Platini had scored the only goal for France, and Indian media suddenly found a man they could put up as an equal of Maradona. The obvious comparison pieces followed.

Meanwhile, chasing 408, England were 90/6 at stumps on Day 3. India were on the verge of a series win, but they would have to wait, for the next day was a rest day. And on that night IST, all of India – or at least a sizeable chunk – was won over by Maradona.

The quarter-final between Argentina and England had attracted much hype. Four years before the match, Britain went to war against Argentina. Over nine hundred (mostly Argentine) had been killed in the Falklands War of 1982. Maradona would later use the word ‘revenge’ to describe the win.

Argentina went on attack from the onset, but England kept thwarting their efforts. The highlights of the first half included some excellent moves by Maradona and Peter Shilton’s excellent goalkeeping. The fun began after half time.

Maradona, five-foot-five, and Shilton, six-foot-one, approached the ball at roughly the same time. Both lunged for the ball, Maradona going for the header, Shilton trying to fist it away. And yet Maradona scored, somehow defying the laws of gravity.

He would later famously admit that the goal was scored by “a little by the head of Maradona and a little by the hand of God”. Nearly three decades after the goal, he would visit the Al Bin Nasser, referee of the match, at the latter’s home in Tunisia with a signed Argentine jersey.

But it was the second goal – the one that would be voted the Goal of the Century by fifa.com in 2002 – that changed everything. Even a thousand YouTube re-runs do not capture the sheer joy of watching the goal live. Realising that he had been surrounded, Maradona went for the only possible outcome. In an incredible 60-metre dash, he beat four English players (Terry Butcher twice), then Shilton, to score.

Nobody in India had seen anything like that till then. Nobody anywhere had, for that matter.

Despite the series win and the prospect of series-sweeping England at their den, nothing else seemed to affect Indian fans anymore. Football fever – a very popular phrase in later years – had caught up with India.

School had reopened by the time Argentina played Belgium in the semi-final, but surely that was not going to dampen our spirits, or force our parents to send us to bed?

We were spared, and Maradona scored twice again. Belgium were not high-profile (to us, it was the land of Tintin), but they had a star in Enzo Scifo. They played hard, defensive football, and marked Maradona. But they did not do enough.

There was nothing extraordinary about the first goal. For the second, Maradona cut through the Belgian defence on his own to score, evoking memories of the goal against England. It was not the Goal of the Century – there could have been only one – but it came fourth on the list.

By now some Indian newspapers were dedicating the entire front page to the football. This may not seem unusual in 2020, but one must remember that football coverage in India in 1986 was restricted mostly to local clubs. There was little coverage of world football. We knew who the giants were, but have not seen them play.

Now, with live coverage streaming across households, some in colour (another new phenomenon in India), our world was suddenly full of animated discussions over football. You could hear your neighbours cheer every move, every goal, at well past midnight – in localities where eleven used to be the traditional bedtime. And the media banked on it.

Maradona did not score in the final, largely due to Franz Beckenbauer’s strategy of deploying Lothar Matthaus in an uncharacteristic role. Matthaus did an impressive job of marking Maradona, but Argentina maintained a 2-0 lead till the 74th minute.

Then West Germany scored twice, and suddenly it was anybody’s match. And then Maradona, unable to break the shackles of Matthaus, managed to pass a ball to Burruchaga.

Argentina scored with four minutes to go, and out of nowhere, the crackers saved from last year’s Diwali came into action. The 1983 World Cup cricket had also resulted in nationwide celebrations, but at least India had won on that occasion.

The near-unanimous support for Argentina had seemed unreal. And only one man had made that possible.

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