Best World Cup Player Of The Decade Part 5: the 1980s

The series moves on to the nineteen-eighties for an in-depth look at the players who took centre stage in Spain and Mexico.

The 1980s

The two tournaments which took place in the 1980s are remembered for different reasons. Spain was the fantastic setting for some fabulous football from a resurgent Brazil, one example of blatant match fixing, cruel treatment for a rising star, and one of the most memorable goal celebrations. Above all else, 1982 was the year of redemption for Paolo Rossi. By contrast, Mexico four years later is still largely associated with a player who enraged and amazed in almost equal proportions on his way to a World Cup victory.

Spain in 1982 brought together 24 teams rather than 16 for the very first time. The consequence of this enlargement was a new format of two group stages, followed by the semis and the final. Eventual champions Italy started poorly but improved as the tournament progressed. The Brazilians did the opposite, scoring 15 goals in five games before crashing out courtesy of a Rossi hat-trick. Elsewhere, the hosts lost to Northern Ireland and Germany only reached the second stage after a lacklustre win over fellow qualifiers Austria.

The holders, too reliant on a battered and bruised Maradona, never seemed in contention and lost both second stage games. Now the stage was set for two all-European semis. Poland were no match for Italy and Rossi in the first; in the other game West Germany overcame France after a superb extra time fight back now largely remembered for goalkeeper Schumacher’s malicious tackle on Battiston. In the final Rossi scored again to claim the Golden Shoe for his six goals before Marco Tardelli wrapped up the victory and began his victory run.

Four years later and the top teams returned for Mexico 1986. Once again they faced a different format, this time going into a last-16 knockout stage after the group games. And once again Italy started slowly. The only difference with four years earlier was the holders didn’t really get any better. They would eventually lose to France in a last-16 match.

To be fair, excluding games between the Soviet Union and Hungary (6 – 0) and Denmark and Uruguay (6 – 1), the group matches tended to be tense affairs. Over half were drawn or won by a single goal. England were particularly slow out of the blocks, losing 1 – 0 to Portugal and drawing with Morocco before a first half hat-trick from Lineker against Poland secured a place in the knock out phase. Lineker added three more later on in the tournament to win the Golden Shoe.

Now the real work began. Brazil demolished Poland, Spain walked all over Denmark, France and Germany progressed, England made light work of Paraguay, and Argentina saw off Uruguay. Following a relatively quiet tournament to that point, Maradona suddenly decided to show his hand (a-hem).

The quarter final at the Azteca Stadium exploded into life with two goals in three minutes at the start of the second half. You know the details. The sheer lunacy of allowing the first as Maradona used his hand to flick the ball over Shilton; the breathtaking audacity of the second when a clutch of England players were outclassed during a sixty-yard run before Shilton was again beaten, this time legitimately and you have to say brilliantly. The other quarter finals all went to extra time and penalties. The age of the penalty shoot out had begun.

Thankfully neither of the semis or the final were blighted by penalties. Maradona toyed with the Belgians before scoring twice, while France lost at the same stage as 1982 to the same team – West Germany.

In the final Maradona was man-marked and largely controlled by Lothar Matthaus. This tactical move failed to stop the Argentineans racing into a two goal lead. A resolute fight back from the Germans threatened to make a mockery of most pre-match predictions. Then Maradona released a perfectly weighted pass into Burruchaga’s path for the third and decisive goal. It was a telling contribution from a remarkable player.

The choice of Best World Cup Player Of The 1980s is another difficult one. Part genius, part criminal, he was muscled out of the tournament in 1982, only to emerge four years later as an unstoppable force. Few have dominated a World Cup to such a degree before or since. The award for Best World Cup Player Of The Eighties goes to: Diego Maradona

The series continues soon with Best World Cup Player Of The Decade Part 6: the 1990s.

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