From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.33 :: NO.23 :: Jun. 10, 2010
1986 was Diego Armando Maradona's World Cup. The Argentine genius, who on his own had turned perennial backbenchers Napoli into a powerhouse in the competitive world of Italian club football, was at the height of his prowess and was unquestionably the greatest star to watch out for in the mega event.
He single-handedly delivered Argentina its second World Cup title, scoring five goals, setting up several others. Though Englishman Gary Lineker finished as the top scorer it was Maradona who was the idol of the meet and went home as the tournament's most prodigious player.
His grip over the competition reached its peak during the grudge quarter-final encounter against archrival England. While his “Hand of God” goal remains one of the most litigious moments in Cup history, there can be no disputing the brilliance of his next strike.
This goal was pure art, with Maradona on a solo run, 60 yards out, dribbling past five English players, the ball glued to his feet. Once inside the penalty area he slipped it past goalie Peter Shilton, leaving everyone in awe of his finery. In a 2002 FIFA online poll this effort of his was voted as the best goal ever and a statue of El Diego was erected outside the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, immortalising those few seconds of unmatched class.
In the final against West Germany, too, Maradona got the better of his marker Lothar Matthaus and had the decisive impact on the outcome of the game.
Constantly hacked and shackled, he stepped up, with the game tied at 2-2, releasing Jorge Burruchaga almost from the half-line with a defence splitting pass. The forward ran 40 yards before dutifully thrashing it through the legs of 'keeper Harald Schumacher with just a few minutes left in regulation time.
1990: The Indomitable Lions, Cameroon, surprised defending champion Argentina in the first match of Italia '90, kicking off a wonderful run to the last eight stage of the World Cup, the first by any African nation.
Cameroon's previous appearance in 1982 had been a miserable affair, the side losing every single game. Italia 90 didn't promise anything better. Stuck with Argentina, the talented Soviet Union and Romania, Cameroon was not expected to move past the group phase. In the tournament opener at San Siro the Africans though proceeded to shut down Argentina with some heavy tackling. Paying the price for its highhandedness, the African side was a man down early in the second half and the defending champion seemed sure to take advantage of it.
But five minutes following the send off, it was Cameroon which got a free kick on the left side of the field and Emmanuel Kunde's poor centre was deflected hopefully to Omam Biyik. Rising above the Argentinean defence, he headed past veteran goalkeeper Nery Pumpido and the Lions at last had their first World Cup win.
In its second game, it was 38-year-old Roger Milla, who came to the rescue, his second half double forcing Romania to throw in the towel. A 0-4 loss to Soviets in the last group game did little to affect its campaign and Colombia waited as the next opponent. After a goalless 90 minutes, it was Milla again. He took a pass in the midfield, rode past a tackle before finishing brilliantly with a left-footed volley. Another goal was added two minutes later, Milla this time taking advantage after a gaffe from the flamboyant Rene Higuita. A late goal from the Colombians didn't spoil its party and Cameroon reached the World Cup quarterfinals, making history. The fairytale was stopped in its tracks there, a heartbreaking 2-3 loss to England following extra-time.
Argentina, however, recovered from the early slump and moved on to the knock-out phase as one of the two best third-placed teams from the six competing groups. An unknown hero came to the forefront, second choice 'keeper Sergio Goycochea (filling in after Pumpido fractured his leg in the second game against the Soviets) heroically throttling every sortie to his goal with superhuman flexibility.
Against Brazil in the round of 16, he brought out a series of saves extraordinaire to help in the 1-0 win, with Claudio Caniggia heading a goal in with just 10 minutes remaining on the clock. In its feisty quarterfinal versus Yugoslavia, where both teams were reduced to 10 men within the first 30 minutes, Goycochea again was the difference after the match was goalless in regulation time and in the 30 extra minutes after it.
With skipper Maradona bundling his penalty and Pedro Troglio following suit, Goycochea came up with a miracle, stopping the Yugoslavs' final two spot-kicks.
Diego's home-ground, Naples, played host to the semi-final against Italy and with a chunk of locals favouring their adopted son over the host nation, it was Goycochea time all over again. Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena saw their shots parried, Argentina winning 5-4 (penalty shootout 4-3).
1994: A World Cup of surprises with two unexpected teams, Sweden and Bulgaria, reaching the semi-finals for the first time in history.
Bulgaria, scrapped it to the knockout stage, winning its last group game against Argentina, which was sullied by an ephedrine fix on its skipper Diego Maradona on the eve of the game.
Helping La Albiceleste to graze through the qualifying process to USA 94, it seemed Maradona had finally banished all the demons that had forced him to sneak away from Europe, back to his closed sanctuary in Buenos Aires. Coach Alfio Basile selected him for Cup duties despite his limited preparation and match practice and the decorated No. 10 joined players like Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo and Diego Simeone, earning a favourite tag for Argentina irrespective of its unimpressive qualifying campaign.
By means not known to any, Maradona managed to shake off his ill-health and got on top of his battle with the bulge. The first game against Greece saw Argentina 2-0 up, Batigol scoring quickly after kickoff. At the hour mark, Maradona weaved his way through the Greek embankments and scored from 30 yards out, finding the net from the narrowest of angles.
The spontaneous celebrations that followed gave the world food for thought and also possibly the dope that sparked his expulsion from the tournament soon after. Maradona, high and happy, charged down to the touchline towards a camera and strained his vocal chords to the very extreme in wild jubilation.
A double strike from his partner-in-crime Claudio Cannagia saw Argentina go past Nigeria next and a pre-quarterfinal place was secured. The joy, however, was short lived; the skipper was finally caught with strains of ephedrine in a random dope test after the game. A 15-month suspension followed, ending Argentina's World Cup dreams and also halting Maradona's chequered but seditious career. But entertaining as always El Diego came out with many lines of defence, including a sabotage plot, planned by the then FIFA president, Brazilian Joao Havalange. The Brazilians did indeed win the World Cup, Bebeto and Romario combining well and celebrating in their unique “Rock the Baby” style for every goal, but alas Maradona's allegations were never to be proved.
1998: The first head-butt in a World Cup and a brilliant goal from Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp spelled the end of Argentina's World Cup campaign in '98. As a precursor to Zinedine Zidane's attack on Marco Materrazi, it was temperamental Ariel Ortega who brought disgrace to the Cup, head-butting Holland goalkeeper Edwin van Der Sar in a quarterfinal.
Ortega was immediately sent off and Bergkamp decided to compound further, the Latin Americans' misery. With minutes running out, the Dutch master controlled a high ball from Frank de Boer and then nutmegged defender Roberto Ayala before unleashing a volley to the far corner, securing a 2-1 win for Netherlands. The ill-tempered battle known as “Battle of Marseilles” ended at last, both sides bruised and battered and a man down.
But the grudge match in the Cup was not that. Iran took on the US and the Asian giant powered by its superstars, Ali Daei and Karim Bagheri, who were playing in the German Bundesliga, managed a favourable result, setting off wild celebrations in the streets of Teheran. Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia scored for the winner.
Brazil, meanwhile, rode on Ronaldo's shoulders, looking qualified to defend its title. The burly striker lived up to his top billing ahead of the tournament, leading the Brazilian attack from the front with four strikes before the final.
Ahead of the summit clash against the host at the Stade de France, he was believed to have suffered a fit, brought on by physical exhaustion and mental stress. Replaced by Edmundo in the team-list ahead of the match, Ronaldo miraculously was there in the starting line-up, rumours running amuck about sponsor Nike's ultimatum to the team management on his selection. Ronaldo was obviously out of sorts and Zinedine Zidane and Emanuel Petit had no problem in giving France its first World Cup title.
2002: Guus Hiddink and his fiery South Koreans made World Cup history, becoming the first team from Asia to reach the semifinals of the tournament. Up until 2002 the joint host with Japan had not won any of its games in the competition, despite an early debut, way back in 1954.
With every plausible effort to make Asia's first World Cup a memorable one, South Korea under Hiddink followed a strict regimen and national players were kept together for a length of time, being exempted from club duties. The rewards were almost immediate and in their first match in front of fanatical home support the Koreans outran the poor Poles, 2-0. The second game against big brother US was a little more difficult. A goal down and a penalty wasted, the Koreans kept on attacking. The perseverance paid off as Ahn Jung Hwan equalised with a glancing header with 12 minutes to go. The Portuguese with their golden duo of Luis Figo and Ruis Costa were humbled too, Park Ji-Sung scoring the unlikely winner.
Up next were the Italians and the Asian Red Devils won controversially, 2-1, in extra-time. Christian Vieri's headed strike was cancelled out late by Seol Ki-Hyeon and the game went into extra-time. Francesco Totti was soon sent off with a second yellow for diving and then Diamiano Tommasi's strike too was overruled by the referee. The Italians suddenly had genuine reasons to cry foul. Adding to Italy's misery, moments before the end of extra-time, Ahn Jung-Hwan clambered over an unusually static Paolo Maldini and headed in the golden goal past Gianluigi Buffon. So infuriated were the Azzuris that Jung-Hwan immediately paid the price, his contract with Serie A side Perugia being annulled.
In the last eight stage, too, the ever underperforming Spaniards saw Ruben Baraja's 50th minute strike disallowed for infringement, with another dodgy call robbing Fernando Morientes of a golden goal winner. To penalties it went and here Joaquin Sanchez's weak shot to the right was saved by Lee Woon-Jae. Hong Myung-Bo was up next and he scored calmly and the semi-final slot was assured. Luck or divine (refereeing) help ran out finally in Japan as Germany ended the run with a Michael Ballack strike.
2006: The Argentineans have always been entertainers in every World Cup they have played, sometimes with exceptional ball skills or at times with a wonder strike out of nowhere.
The 2006 tournament known for Zidane's faux pas and Italy's implausible triumph, saw its best moment again from Argentina.
In a group league game with Serbia and Montenegro, Esteban Cambiasso's strike after an extraordinary display of total ball control offered us an early glimpse of the side's style of play. After Maxi Rodriguez had opened the scoring seven minutes into the game, the Argentines pressed for more and were soon to be rewarded. Skipper Roberto Ayala started the spadework after repulsing a rival attack back in his own half. A round of 24 passes followed and in the end, as if reluctantly, Cambiasso brought down the curtain on the drama, hitting the roof of the net after a Hernan Crespo back-heel, as if taking pity on the victims.
Zidane, meanwhile, was enjoying the most wonderful of swansongs, guiding his team to another Cup final. There, too, he gave France the early lead, but Marco Materazzi had something else in mind for the master. After Italy had equalised soon after, he provoked Zidane with one barb too many. The Frenchman of Algerian origin lost his head in extra-time and head-butted Materazzi with the whole world watching. Zidane's Cup dream too ended with a crash.
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