Mexico 86: memories, magic, and Maradona

The first match I remember giving proper attention to was the 1986 FA Cup Final between Everton and Liverpool. Foolishly, I decided to support the first goalscorer (Everton struck first, but Liverpool came back to win 3-1). It was Gary Lineker who scored that Everton goal and, in him, I had a new hero.

As luck would have it, that moment fell on a World Cup year. I didn’t have to wait long for my next football fix. Despite the tournament’s time difference (which limited the amount that I could watch) and a less-than-perfect understanding of what exactly I was witnessing, Mexico 86‘ became the World Cup that helped me fall in love with football.

All emotional investments ask for a fine balance between joy and anger. My father had some very choice words for Ray Wilkins following his sending-off against Morocco – a continuation of his disdain for the player which began during the 1983 Cup Final: “the only time he even passes the ball forwards, let alone scores wonder-goals, is against Brighton”. The drama of a World Cup was happening right in front of my eyes for the very first time.

I remember waking early to find out the England-Poland score and dancing round the kitchen realizing it was Lineker’s three goals that had secured the victory.

The fond memories of my first Panini sticker album and completing it in full. All the stickers, all the scores.

I remember travelling with my mum to France to see my grandad receive the Légion d’Honneur at a special ceremony. I was spirited away by my cousin, one of many who sneaked out early, to watch France’s second round match against reigning champions Italy. Whilst receiving my education in dirty French songs, Platini and Stopyra gave France a 2-0 win that day. At that moment, I fell in love with les Bleus and haven’t fallen out of love since.

I lived in anguish while witnessing Diego Maradona’s hand of God; a defining moment that upset my young, innocent mind at a time when I was not yet able to understand that a) it was no more foul-play than Terry Fenwick trying to break his legs the whole match up to that point, b) it would not have happened if Steve Hodge hadn’t kicked the ball back into his own area and Shilton had bothered to jump and c) it was but one instance in a long line of English football’s spectacular hypocrisy in the face of wrongdoing, one that suggests Michael Owen’s dives against Argentina in both 1998 and 2002 have apparently been wiped from history. This was followed by pain of having to acknowledge how great the second goal was (again, not yet appreciating the extra deliciousness that everyone Maradona beat en route to goal was named Peter or Terry).

I squirmed on the sofa in agony and ecstasy during the penalty shoot-out between France and Brazil, devastated to see Platini blaze over the bar and delirious to see Luis Fernandez score the winning spot kick.

I marveled at Maradona’s balance in the semi-final against Belgium – not in scoring the goal, but in managing to stay on his feet as he wheeled away after scoring. Astonishment led to heartbreak watching Joel Bats’ mistake as France lost the other semi-final. I can recall Platini’s sad, tired, walk away, his last chance gone (a walk mimicked in very different circumstances by his spiritual successor Zinedine Zidane 20 years later).

Through a half-blinding hay fever attack, I watched a typical (West) German comeback in the final; a feature of the game taught to me through my dad’s eyes when retelling stories of Harald Schumacher and the “evil comeback” of Seville in 1982. Although this time, I witnessed them fail to come out on top, courtesy of a final piece of Maradona magic that sent Jorge Burruchaga through to score the winner.

Ah, yes, the theme tunes to both the BBC and the ITV coverage – I can still remember both! Speaking of tunes, my little sister and I made up a song fitting the names of all the France squad into We Are The Champions (TV programme – not Queen).

I remember, word for word, every panel of the World Cup review in Panini’s Football 87 which famously included, “Maradona gets his hands on the World Cup … but he had to get his hand on the ball first!”.

Mexico 86′ had me hooked on all things football, but in particular, the FIFA World Cup. I will always have a soft spot for international football and especially for les Bleus. I’ve endured the heartbreak of the 1993 Bulgaria defeat and basked in the indescribable euphoria of France 98′.

Today, the advent of the internet and wall-to-wall television coverage have together created a database covering each finite aspect of all the tournament’s participants well before its first kick. There are fewer pleasant surprises today than there used to be. But World Cup football still seems more colourful, exciting and celebratory than any other brand of the sport. And – at least until Brighton finish in the top four – I say you can keep your Champions League because the World Cup reigns supreme every time.

So thank you Lineker and Platini, Bats and Maradona, Jose Luis Brown and Rudi Völler. For obvious reasons, France 98′ has overtaken Mexico as my favourite World Cup, but I may not even have been watching had it not been for you all. There will always be a very special place in my heart for Mexico 86′.

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