If you were there, you will never forget Maradona in Mexico


By Barry Wilner - AP Sports Writer



From the press tribune above the Estadio Azteca field it was impossible to discern the trickery Diego Maradona had performed.

From the same location, it was impossible not to marvel at the brilliant maneuverability that Maradona also performed.

That was the paradox presented by Maradona, the great Argentine player who died Wednesday at age 60. He could be magical in positive and negative ways.

His most famous — and infamous — game came against England at the then-majestic stadium in Mexico City, a World Cup quarterfinal in 1986. The lure of being there was as strong for media members as it was for the 100,000 or so fans on hand. Not since Pele in his prime had there been such a must-see footballer on such a superlative stage.

Adding to the electric atmosphere were the legions of Argentina fans in their blue-and-white striped jerseys, waving their flags and chanting tributes to “El Gran Diego.” There even were some shouts of “El Dios Diego.”

If only they truly knew.

Soccer at its highest level is a game of intrigue, 11 players on each side weaving a tapestry. The wise fan does not concentrate on the ball the way hockey followers will watch the puck. Rather, you focus on the movement of the players as a group, the patterns and the probing, and eventually the penetrating attacks.

But not when Maradona was in his prime. You watched No. 10 for Argentina. Always.

Taking your eyes off Maradona was tantamount to going to the concession stand in the middle of the match.

And on that June day, in what would become the foundation of his legacy, Maradona delivered.

Following a goalless first half, Maradona struck in the 51st minute with a powerful header. Or did he?

A misplay by an England defender sent the ball high and toward the net, from which keeper Peter Shilton — one of the best ever — sprinted to clear it. The diminutive Maradona beat him with a leap and a swivel of the noggin. Or, more accurately, as video replays indicate today, a punch with his left hand from the side of his head.

GOAL!!!!!!!!! (the only way to describe such scores, of course).

From the press area, all seemed fair. To the English players and manager, it was a farce — a blatant breaking of the rules. To the Argentines, it was Diego doing his thing.

No matter, because the goal stood for a 1-0 lead. In fact, to most of us covering the game, the furor seemed misplaced.

Had the match ended with that score, Maradona’s reputation everywhere but among his countrymen might have been scarred forever. But then came something so spectacular yet refined, so wild yet controlled, that even the hardened folks in the press box felt like cheering.

And some did.

Maradona basically weaved around and through half of the England team, starting from just his side of midfield, and finishing his slalom run with a short poke into the net as he fell.

As the English telly announcer exclaimed, ” There was no doubt about that one.”

And no doubt it would be recalled globally on the same level as Americans remember Bobby Thomson’s home run or the Immaculate Reception.

Watching from on high — no, not “Hand of God” on high — every reporter knew there was no way of truly describing this goal. No way of giving it justice with words.

Certainly we all would try, fruitless as it might be. None of us, naturally, could match the skill and creativity — the sheer magnificence — conjured up by Maradona that afternoon.

Pele famously and appropriately dubbed soccer “O Jogo Bonito” (The Beautiful Game). That phrase fit the grace and graciousness of the Brazilian, and the way he played. Pele was a cheetah and a gazelle. If Pele’s football was a musical genre, try jazz.

Maradona was a bull, a charge-ahead locomotive. His music would have been heavy metal.

Yet on that summer day under a brilliant sky in Mexico City, Maradona showed us he had some of the virtuoso in him. And some impish sorcery, too.

By Barry Wilner

AP Sports Writer