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How Diego Maradona almost missed the 1986 World Cup - due to a "Venezuelan madman"

Diego Maradona
(Image credit: PA Images)

This is an extract from the Diego Maradona: The Untold Stories feature in the December 2020 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. You can buy it online with free delivery now

Diego Maradona’s best moments came at Mexico 86, but his attempts to reach that World Cup started in the worst way possible.

Sent off in his last game of the ’82 edition, for booting Batista in defeat to Brazil, he was made Argentina captain a year later aged 22, after new boss Carlos Bilardo visited him in Barcelona. Maradona had dreamed of it – for years he had been buying armbands in readiness, and already had a collection of more than 200 in a drawer at home.

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Despite that, Maradona didn’t actually play for the national team for three years. Having made clear that the star was central to his World Cup plans, Bilardo preferred to assess Argentina-based players until qualifying took place during six games in the summer of ’85.

320 Maradona

How this feature appears in FourFourTwo's December 2020 issue (Image credit: Future)

When Maradona & Co. touched down in San Cristobal for their opening qualifier in Venezuela, chaos ensued. “The crowd got out of control,” he said. “One madman found his way through the crowd towards me, and when he crossed my path, kicked me really hard. I limped to the hotel. The son of a bitch had buggered the meniscus in my knee.”

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Unable to sleep following the shock of the incident, Maradona battled on to not only play through the pain the next day, but score two goals in a 3-2 win. After four matches, Argentina had four victories, in a four-team group also featuring Colombia and Peru. But the longer qualification went on, the more Maradona suffered with his knee.

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Their final two fixtures were both against Peru. Argentina lost 1-0 in Lima, and needed a draw in the return match to qualify. Only the group winners advanced automatically. 

With 10 minutes remaining at home to Peru, Argentina trailed 2-1. “I was physically ruined, carrying around that damned right knee,” remembered Maradona. “I dreamed of hammering the ball into the net, but I just couldn’t do it – I wasn’t up to it.”

His team-mates soon came to his aid. In the closing stages, Ricardo Gareca equalised. “Right there, I said to Gareca, ‘This is how the World Cup is going to end for us: we’ll suffer for it, but we’ll win it’,” Diego later explained.

Preparations for the World Cup were hardly promising, though. In April 1986, Argentina lost to Norway – a country that had never been to a major tournament – and Bilardo faced scrutiny from within the government. “If Bilardo leaves, I leave,” said Maradona, before scoring twice in a 7-2 win over Israel.

“Many people had wanted Bilardo to go,” Maradona’s team-mate Pedro Pasculli tells FFT. “But he had created an extraordinary group. Without that, we would never have been able to win the World Cup.”

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But the group then faced another crisis – an argument between Maradona and Daniel Passarella, who had been Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain in 1978, but was now 33 and had been replaced as skipper. When Maradona and several of his team-mates were 15 minutes late for a meeting, it was suggested that the delay might have been because he was too busy taking drugs. “OK, I’ll admit I do drugs,” Maradona told him. “But not this time. You’re landing others in the s**t, kids who were with me and didn’t do anything. Have you got that, grass?”

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At a subsequent meeting, Maradona was confronted by another senior player, Jorge Valdano, and responded with accusations about Passarella’s private life, After another huge row, Passarella was struck down by illness and withdrew from the tournament, never to play for Argentina again.

Maradona assisted all three goals as they opened the World Cup with a win over South Korea, but was furious after being fouled 11 times. He ended up in a war of words with FIFA president Joao Havelange, angry over both his lack of protection and the decision to stage games in boiling temperatures for the benefit of European TV audiences.

Diego Maradona

(Image credit: PA Images)

The quarter-final against England was also at noon, but it didn’t stop Maradona. He had tried his famous Hand of God goal before: as a kid when he sparked controversy for junior team Los Cebollitas, and then in an Argentine league match against Velez Sarsfield. On the second occasion, it was disallowed.

“The ref advised me not to do it again,” he recalled. “I said I couldn’t promise anything.” When Maradona joined Napoli, he did it for a third time against Zico’s Udinese. “Zico came running over to me and said, ‘Diego, you must tell the referee that you scored with your hand, or you’re not being honest’,” he later told FFT. “I said, ‘Nice to meet you, Zico – I’m Diego Dishonest Maradona’.”

After infuriating England with the same trick, he followed it with the greatest goal of his career – a solo strike he’d almost pulled off at Wembley six years earlier. During that friendly defeat to the Three Lions, Maradona – then 19 – had similarly turned and dribbled past several players down the right, before attempting a toe-poke with his left foot just past the far post. After the game, he got a call from his 11-year-old brother. “You moron – you should have thrown the keeper a dummy, he’d already committed himself!” said Hugo. “You little s**t!” responded Maradona. “It’s easy for you to say that – you’re watching on telly.” At the Azteca in ’86, he took his advice.

Two more goals against Belgium propelled Argentina to the final against West Germany. Before the biggest game of his life, Maradona showed no signs of nerves. “The night before, Diego and I were in our beds, talking,” says Pasculli, his room-mate in Mexico. “We were recalling so many good memories, our first experiences in football. I struggled to sleep that night, it was really hard for me. But he said a few things and then just fell asleep.”

It was Maradona who prodded the ball for Jorge Burruchaga’s winning goal in the final. He would lift the World Cup as captain.

“It was extraordinary to be his room-mate and live with him throughout that World Cup,” says Pasculli. “Living a day with Diego was such fun – he was a simple guy and he didn’t make any of us worry about the fact that he was the best player in the world.

“He was one of us, but also had so much personality. You’ve got to have character to be a leader – which player in world football could have given you better advice than Maradona? He was our undisputed leader.”

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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.