The Argentina 1986 World Cup Squad was Much More than Diego Maradona

The 1986 World Cup will always be remembered for one man: Diego Armando Maradona. Without doubt, he was the star of the tournament and Argentina’s talisman as they became world champions for the second time. Throughout the tournament he took most of the headlines for a whole host of reasons. However, sometimes the narrative about his contribution to the team can go too far.

“That campaign Argentina went on to win the World Cup — but in reality, it was Maradona who won the famous trophy in Mexico City.”—The Sun, 10th September, 2014.

“Maradona’s virtuoso month dragged Argentina to the title at the expense of several teams with far more collective talent. But the little maestro’s magic and unshakeable will to win took them all the way.”—The Daily Mirror, 18th November, 2015.

“1986 World Cup: Maradona puts on one-man show.”—Sportsnet, 8th June, 2014.

It is said, or hinted, by some people that the Argentina 1986 World Cup squad was a “one-man team”. It is suggested that he won the tournament almost on his own and that the rest of the players around him weren’t good enough to win the tournament themselves.

In sport, myths usually form either through influential people not doing their homework or people looking for what suits an agenda instead of what is right. When it comes to the Argentina 1986 World Cup squad, it is a case of both. The players and manager are ignored through lack of research; some are mislead by Maradona’s wondergoal against England and the picture of him against six Belgian defenders, which actually happened in the 1982 World Cup; others want to pretend that he won the tournament “on his own” in order to prove that he is the greatest player of all time. His comparison to Pelé as one of history’s greatest players was certainly headline-grabbing. (Read: The Pelé Myth)

What is very important to get across from the start is that this piece is not written with any agenda regarding Maradona’s status amongst the greatest footballers ever. There is no desire to discredit his genius; in fact, watching the full 90 minutes of these matches has made me appreciate how good he was even more. There is no question that he was the team’s best player; this piece merely serves to show that the side contained many other great players whose names must not be forgotten.

The Manager: Carlos Bilardo

Dr Bilardo should go down in history not only as a great manager, but as a great character, too. To call him a perfectionist would be an understatement. After seeing his side win the World Cup final 3-2, he still berated his defenders after the game for conceding from two set pieces after being 2-0 up. Centre-back José Luis Brown claims that only half an hour after winning the tournament, he was already thinking about the next World Cup in 1990.

His selections and tactics were rarely popular with the public, but he was never phased by peer pressure. If it hadn’t been for his controversial decision to make Maradona captain ahead of Daniel Passarella, who had captained his country to its first World Cup victory only eight years earlier, the summer of 1986 may not have panned out in the way it did.

Something which is forgotten is that Maradona did not have the legendary status he enjoys now before 1986; far from it. Following his red card for losing his temper at the 1982 World Cup, he suffered two very difficult years at Barcelona. A bout of hepatitis and bad injury problems, coupled with controversy on the field, the climax of which was a brawl in the 1984 Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao during which he knocked out an opposing player, led to his not representing his country between 1982 and 1985.

In that time, Bilardo still showed some support for his future star. As coach of the national team he made a habit of regularly visiting his overseas players—he would visit the players at their clubs, show them video tapes and even rehearse set-pieces with them using borrowed team-mates—and he treated Maradona no differently even when he was out of the national set-up. This helped build a trust between the manager and his talisman.

But what proved to be even more important than his nurturing of Diego was his decision to give him the captaincy and build his team around him. This caused him to play at his very best, and the fruits of his labour are talked about to this day. Argentina could not have won the World Cup without Maradona, but Maradona could not have reached the level that he did without Dr Bilardo. This is the first example of the team not being reliant on one man.

The Squad

In the build-up to the final, West Germany coach Franz Beckenbauer described La Selección as close to perfection and without an obvious weakness. He wasn’t far off. The team was set up beautifully both to play to its best in every area of the pitch and to get the best out of the likes of Maradona, Burruchaga and Valdano.

Tactics

With the exception of the little number 10, the Argentine side was under strict tactical instruction. Bilardo used a European-style 3-5-2, with Brown as sweeper and José Luis Cuciuffo and Oscar Ruggeri as the two other central defenders. The midfield five was designed to dominate the opposition and allow Maradona the freedom to produce flashes of brilliance. Such tactical shrewdness was relatively new to Argentina. The team’s number seven, Jorge Burruchaga, said:

‘”Bilardo saw football in a way we were not used to in Argentina – tactical, the way you were supposed to live, the way you were expected to think.” “As a coach, first of all he thinks about the ‘˜nil’™, making sure no goals are scored against you.”

A team like set up like this cannot rely on one man, or it will surely be doomed to fail. Maradona was expected to do the lion’s share of the creation, but this does not mean that he was dragging the rest of the team along with him; there are many sides even today who use this blueprint of tactical rigidity with one playmaker free to string the team’s attacks together.

The Defence

Argentina conceded five goals in the tournament—and only three until two set pieces in the final—a defensive record which has been matched or beaten by every World Cup-winning team since, but the defence was a most impressive unit. Only having a defensive three meant that they were much more vulnerable at the back, particularly as wide player Ricardo Giusti preferred attacking much more to defensive work.

Nery Pumpido, who had won the Copa Libertadores with River Plate earlier that year at a time when South American domestic football was much more respected than it is now, was a strong goalkeeper with excellent positioning. Oscar Ruggeri, also at River Plate in 1986, was the right-sided central player at the back. One of Argentina’s greatest defenders, he went on to represent his country 97 times and was one of the World Cup winners’ best players at the tournament. On the other side was José Luis Cuciuffo—an intelligent defender who often roamed up the field to create chances, reminiscent of Laurent Koscielny at Arsenal.

José Luis Brown, who scored the opening goal in the final and also played the last minutes with a badly injured shoulder, was one of the key cogs in the brawn of the team. Only in the team due to an injury to Passarella, he performed brilliantly in every single match and was one of the main reasons why his team only conceded three goals in the six matches before the final. He had a great footballing brain, as is evidenced by the successful coaching career he forged after retirement, but it was also his lack of fear that helped him do so well as a sweeper.

Julio Olarticoechea was actually the left-hand part of the midfield five, but was used more as a wing-back with the attacking-minded Giusti on the other side. He is probably the least famous of the team who started in the final of the tournament, but his contribution is still worth mentioning as he did an excellent job of breaking up the opposition’s play on his side.

The “other” key players

Probably the two most famous players in the side other than Maradona were the two Jorges: Burruchaga and Valdano.

Valdano, named La Liga’s Foreign Player of the Year in 1985-86, had just won La Liga and the UEFA Cup with Real Madrid and was at the peak of his powers. He only scored seven goals for Argentina, but four came in the 1986 World Cup and one of them came in the final itself.

Burruchaga, scorer of the winner in the final, was also plying his trade in Europe, for French side Nantes in 1986. He was a key player in every area of the pitch. A great all-round footballer, his work rate was a sight to behold, but he could start attacks as well. He was almost as important as Maradona, but in a less memorable way.

The Unsung Heroes in Midfield

If Argentina had had weaker players than Ricardo Giusti, Sergio Batista and Héctor Enrique in their midfield, the team’s passage to the final may not have been as simple, and what is for sure is that the final proper would have been a very different story without them. Giusti was able to create enough trouble on the right side to allow his team-mates to get into space; Batista served as a dominant enforcer for the whole 90 minutes; Enrique, with Maradona being closely marked by Lothar Matthäus, did a great job of stringing attacks together.

This team certainly was not a one-man show. In fact, although it had an obvious best player, it did not have a solitary talisman. Burruchaga, Valdano and even the likes of Brown, Ruggeri and Batista could be relied upon to produce when it mattered at any point and in any situation.

The Statistics

Maradona’s staggering five goals and five assists means that he was “directly” involved in ten out of his team’s 14 goals at the tournament. However, this overemphasises his contribution to the team as the other ten players on the pitch in each game did a lot for the overall match, be it in terms of “doing the dirty work” by covering ground, defensive action, number of passes or just build-up to the goals.

Football, and just football statistics alone, is far more than goals and assists. General play is the most important of all, in which Maradona contributed massively, but which is always a team effort, but this chart goes some way to showing that the team were less reliant on their number 10 and more the supporting cast to his efforts. It looks at everything a player can do to affect his team’s goal difference in a match, be it through anything from defensive performance to work off the ball. The fact that Maradona’s “PeakGI” (goal impact) is not high enough to be on this list suggests that the 1986 Argentina team were not as reliant on him as other teams in the past.

The Matches

The best evidence for Argentina’s 1986 World Cup win being a team effort is in the matches, not the statistics. Certainly, in the matches against England and Belgium it was Maradona’s genius (and tenacity, such as the “Hand of God”) that got his team to the finish line, but it was the team’s and manager’s efforts which allowed him the opportunity to create the chances, goals and history.

The matches themselves are the most important things of all when it comes to judging this tournament and thankfully, there is close to full footage of Argentina’s 1986 campaign—featuring the entirety of the final; the match which best demonstrates the whole team’s efforts.

West Germany went into the final with a very clear gameplan: Stop Maradona at all costs. Lothar Matthäus was given the task of man-marking the playmaker, which he did very impressively throughout the entire match. What made it even more difficult for the 5ft 5in man was that whenever the ball came near him, someone would usually join Matthäus and he’d effectively have two men on him.

This is where the team as a whole came into its own. Quite incredibly, Maradona found a way to stamp his mark on the game: In one of the few moments where he found space in front of him his brilliant first-time ball through to Burruchaga allowed Argentina to retake the lead. However, this was the team’s final and not any individual’s.

Over the 90 minutes, the eventual winners were simply too good for the West Germans. In fact, Beckenbauer’s men had no right to bring the score back to 2-2 from the two set-pieces—their only two convincing chances of the game—and had it not been for the two defensive lapses which so angered Bilardo, Maradona’s moment of genius mat not have been needed. Even before the two German goals, the Argentines had multiple chances to make the score 3-0 and beyond.

Such a dominant performance was thanks to every man in the team doing his job perfectly. The defence barely let the opposition near the goal; the midfield made the middle of the park their own by breaking up their opponents’ play and starting multiple attacks; Valdano took his chance for the second goal brilliantly; Maradona produced the crucial moment of magic when he was able to find himself some space. Had it not been for the two German goals, it would have been the most perfect of big-game performances.

Conclusion

In football, it is nigh on impossible to have a “one-man team”, and when a team is genuinely reliant on one or two players to achieve anything, it never ends well. Had Argentina been reliant on Maradona and had not merely built their team around them, they would have struggled even to go far in the tournament, let alone win it.

The Argentina 1986 World Cup squad deserves to be remembered as a footballing example to follow both tactically and in terms of its composition. Maradona’s glorious performances deserve to be remembered in their own right, but to say that he carried his nation to victory on his own is to discredit the players and manager which allowed his moments of genius to happen.
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