“You get kicked wherever you play,” were the words uttered by a 21-year-old Diego Armando Maradona when asked about the violent nature of European defending at the time.
It was 1982; Steven Spielberg’s ET had broken cinema, Prince William was introduced to the world, the Falklands War was waging on and Maradona was the most expensive footballer on the planet.
The Argentine had agreed to join Barcelona in the build-up to the World Cup in Spain from Boca Juniors for a world-record £6.3m fee. It was Maradona’s first tournament of such kind after being overlooked four years prior by Cesar Luis Menotti despite making his international debut at 17.
However, by the time the summer of ’82 rolled around, Maradona was already well on his way to achieving God status in his homeland after guiding Boca to the league title in his maiden season. He was poised to be the protagonist in an Argentina side looking to defend the crown they’d secured on their own patch in 1978, with Dieguito leading a perhaps unbalanced Albiceleste squad.
Nevertheless, with Argentina’s opening group game against Belgium being held at the Camp Nou, excited Blaugrana fans barely had to wait to enjoy a first-hand glimpse of their new prized asset.
However, the Belgians ‘stop Diego and you stop the team’ approach ensured the genius barely got a sniff as Argentina fell to a shock 1-0 defeat.
A mesmeric showing followed against Hungary in a 4-1 win as Maradona netted twice, before El Salvador’s concerted efforts to blunt La Albiceleste’s number ten ensured progression into the second round was hard-fought, but a 2-0 triumph made sure of their qualification.
Awaiting the Argentines in the second round were the Harlem Globetrotter-like Brazilians and the Selecao’s very antithesis: Italy, a nation still religiously following the catenaccio art form.
The Azzurri boasted plenty of profiles capable of functioning as the pantomime villain. They were the masters of the dark arts. Astute, shrewd and savvy.
Against Maradona’s Argentina, notorious Juventus ‘stopper’ Claudio Gentile was handed the task by Enzo Bearzot to man-mark El 10.
““I studied him for two days, watching videos and realising there was a strategy I could use against him. That was to make sure he was so well marked that he couldn’t get the ball from his team-mates, because once he has possession that’s when he becomes a problem.””
– Gentile on that man-marking job
Gentile’s meticulous studying of Maradona was a testament to the emerging Argentine’s genius, with the Italian’s man-marking job ultimately spectacular, if not markedly villainous. It was brutal, a duel for the ages, with Gentile’s rugged antics often going unpunished. Nevertheless, the Italian defender’s work set the precedent for an Azzurri triumph, and thanks to goals from Marco Tardelli and Antonio Cabrini, a 2-1 victory ensued.
Defeat to the Italians meant their remaining second round fixture was a must-win for Diego & Co.
The clash with the imperious Brazil represented a bout between two of the world’s greatest at the game’s most aesthetic position – you know, when languid #10’s actually existed before Jurgen Klopp had to ruin it with all this ‘intensity’ and ‘gegenpressing’ lark.
Zico was Maradona’s stylistic rival that day. The eccentric Flamengo star was a mere quarter of Brazil’s ‘magic square’ established under Tele Santana, with Zico and Socrates playing ahead of elegant deep-lying playmakers Falcao and Cerezo. They were the neutrals favourite, a side who played the game at its purest.
There was no Gentile-esque effort to stunt Maradona when the pair of South American rivals met on 2 July in Barcelona, with the dynamic of this bout in distinct contract to Argentina’s war of attrition with the Italians. This was a contest defined by fluency and fluidity, with Brazil racing into a 2-0 lead with Zico starring.
Maradona, meanwhile, had seen his influence on proceedings increase ten-fold after the restart, although his frustration at what he interpreted as sheer officiating incompetence was escalating by the minute. He had been unprotected by referees all tournament, and Maradona’s exasperation boiled over with just five minutes of his World Cup remaining.
Following a high challenge by Brazilian substitute Batista on Argentina defender Juan Barbas, Maradona kicked Batista in the midriff and was dismissed. Just like that, Maradona had altered from victim to villain in a moment of madness. A tournament’s worth of resentment, irritation and youthful insolence encapsulated in a sequence of petulance.
““Diego Maradona looked almost in tears there; he’s being roundly booed here in Barcelona. What a tragic end to Maradona’s World Cup. He’s about to come and play in Barcelona, but this must be the most tragic moment of his career so far.””
– Commentator Jon Helm
Argentina would fall to a 3-1 defeat, exiting as holders before their campaign had truly begun.
For Maradona, the man recognised as the finest player the planet had to offer at the tender age of 21, it would be the last time he’d disappoint in Spain, with the 1982 World Cup serving as a mere foundation-layer for one of the great tournament performances four years later.
This was only the start of Diego Maradona’s international legend.