TOUCHED BY GOD: HOW WE WON THE MEXICO ’86 WORLD CUP

By Mehedi Hassan

In June 1986 Diego Maradona, considered by many as the greatest footballer of all time, proudly hoisted the ’86 Mexico World Cup in his hands. Now thirty years on from that magical game, and after a life in sports marked by controversy, Maradona tells, for the first time, the untold stories behind that one-of-a-kind World Cup.

 

Touched by God cover

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Diego Maradona and Argentina’s triumph under the blazing Mexican sun, Argentine journalist Daniel Arcucci has ghost-written Maradona’s account of that unforgettable summer, entitled ‘Touched by God: How We Won the Mexico ’86 World Cup’.

It was first published in South America last year to remember the finals 30 years on and was translated into English only recently.

Arguably the book’s greatest strength is that it feels unmistakably like 1986 all over again.

If the cover of the book hints at a hagiography then the preface by famous Uruguayan journalist Victor Hugo Morales does little to dispel the impression.

Morales explains how as a commentator at the tournament, he just kept saying ‘genius’ over and over after Maradona’s second goal against England.

His devotion hasn’t waned over time. ‘That day Diego wrote everything that could ever be written about soccer,’ Morales writes.  ‘He carried on his shoulders the promise of a newly democratic country that needed to show it could now be a champion.’

In the book, Maradona insists that the first time he was introduced to drugs when he moved to Barcelona in 1981.

But he swears that he never used it during the month-long tournament in Mexico where his undisputed genius was revealed to the world.

‘Do you have any idea the player I would have been if it weren’t for the drugs? I would have been that player you saw in Mexico for years on end,’ says Maradona. ‘That was the happiest I have ever been on a soccer field.’

Almost every football fan of any age can picture tiny Maradona jumping up to punch the ball over England goalkeeper Peter Shilton into the net.

Maradona reveals in this book that he regularly scored with handballs — recalls his illegal strike with pride. ‘I beat out Shilton because physically I was in the best shape of my life.’

‘I was strong, really strong. I mean, if you look at the photos back then, I look like a boxer, with strong arms, pecs, a nice-looking kid. And I was fast. I would fly through the air… If we were at sea level, they might be able to catch me… The altitude ended up working in my favour.’

Maradona is an exuberant narrator. His earlier autobiography El Diego covered similar ground, but for this enjoyable new effort, Maradona says he re-watched all of Argentina’s matches from that World Cup for the first time in 30 years at his home in Dubai.

His first World Cup in 1982 had ended with his sending off for kicking a Brazilian in the groin. Going into the 1986 tournament, he was 25 but still an unfulfilled talent. ‘I was the giocoliere, the juggler . . . no victory laps or titles for me.’

As the captain of the squad, Maradona also took it upon himself to fire up his team-mates. He called endless ‘team meetings’ at which he made long bombastic speeches about how everyone hated them in Argentina.

Meanwhile Daniel Passarella, one-time club and country team-mate and former friend, is accused of being jealous, suspected of having had a fling with another player’s wife and named by Diego as the player who racked up a 2,000 peso phone bill at the training camp which the rest of the team were forced to pay.

According to Maradona, the Argentine team’s Mexico City training camp was ‘a whorehouse with no whores!’

The place was still under construction, had just one phone line, and had only expected 16 players, whereas 22 showed up. Two players had to sleep ‘in a shed area, with a cardboard partition’.

Some rooms lacked bathrooms.  The squad’s match day ritual was to shave outside, and then have pasta for breakfast, because most games kicked off in Mexico’s blazing noonday heat to suit European TV schedules.

Maradona’s personal team of unorthodox medics kept him fit, at least by his standards. Before each game, they swathed him in bandages to protect him from the kicking of his opponents.

The players also got daily injections ‘to strengthen our livers’.

Prior to the tournament many observers rated French captain Michel Platini ahead of Maradona, which seems a ridiculous assessment today.

Throughout the book, the little Argentine doesn’t mince his words and describes the Frenchman on more than one occasion as a ‘heartless turkey’.

And he reserves special fury for Carlos Bilardo and says the manager didn’t know what he was doing most of the time.

He criticised Bilardo for their pre-tournament tour of Colombia and for his lack of knowledge of the South Korean players, Argentina’s first opponents at the World Cup.

‘We didn’t even know their names, Bilardo less so.’

Maradona rates his performance in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Uruguay in the second round as the best of the tournament.

It was the first time the team had to wear their second-choice kit – navy jersey with black shorts. But there was a problem. A storm hit Puebla in the closing stages of their game against Uruguay.

But the jerseys weren’t water resistant and it weighed the Argentine players down like a ‘wet sweater’.

With the Malvinas/Falklands War providing the backdrop to their quarter-final with England, the team was due to wear their second-choice jerseys again.

‘Playing a match at that altitude in Mexico City at noon in a sweater? No way! We asked Le Coq Sportif to make us a blue jersey eyelet, just like the home jersey but they said they couldn’t do it in time for the match. Bilardo took out a pair of scissors and started punching little holes in the blues jerseys to try to imitate the eyelet – totally ludicrous.’

Maradona assigned ‘poor Ruben Moschella’, an AFA office employee, to source a new set of blue jerseys.

Moschella went to 40 different stores and came back with two different blue jerseys.

‘He could have just bought both sets, but that’s how they pinched pennies back then.’

Maradona chose the lighter of the two blue jerseys and two seamstresses were recruited to sew the national team emblem and numbers on them. Problem solved.

With dodgy blue jerseys, Argentina went to the Azteca to face England, and the rest is history.

‘If it had been up to the Argentines, each of the players would have gone out there with a machine gun and killed Shilton, Stevens, Butcher, Fenwick, Sansom, Steven, Hodge, Reid, Hoddle, Beardsley and Lineker,’ writes Maradona and shows his ire to the English.

Maradona, a Peronist nationalist, recalled that in the Falklands war of 1982, ‘seventeen-year-old boys had gone out to fight in Flecha tennis shoes, shooting pellets at the English, who decided how many Argentine boys they would kill’. For him, beating England would be revenge.

And yet, he says, ‘It was a gentlemen’s match.’ When some pushing and shoving broke out on the field, ‘we ended up shaking hands, almost apologising’. Afterwards, the English came into the Argentine changing-room to swap shirts.

By then he had followed up his ‘Hand of God’ with a solo dribble that is now considered football’s most glorious goal.

His team-mate Jorge Valdano told him: ‘You’re not the best player in the World Cup; you’re the best player in the world.’

Victory in the final against West Germany was his coronation. Afterwards he rode around on the back of one of the Argentine fans who had invaded the field.

Then the team flew home with the trophy overnight, in economy class, doused in whisky, jumping and chanting abuse at the world. ‘Team management flew first class,’ Maradona adds.

The book is rough-edged in parts but Maradona’s authentic voice and the best story in World Cup history carry you through.