When Argentina’s Jorge Luis Burruchaga appeared to knock the ball a touch too far ahead of him, having made a lung-bursting 40-yard run to get on the end of a sublime first-time pass from Diego Armando Maradona, West Germany custodian Harald Schumacher could not be seen in the TV shot. And while fans of La Albiceleste were surely cursing that “the keeper is going to cut it out”, their Die Nationalmannschaft counterparts must have been wondering “where’s Schumacher?”
There were only six minutes remaining of normal time in the Final of the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, and just three minutes earlier the Germans had underlined their trademark resilience by levelling the match at 2-2 – having been two goals down.
“It's incredible how many things people have told me about that goal. They said I knocked the ball on too far in front of me; that I ignored [Jorge] Valdano shouting for it to my left; that [defender Hans-Peter] Briegel almost caught me. But all I was focusing on was the goal in the distance,” recalled Burruchaga, speaking to FIFA.com. “I didn't see Valdano running alongside me through the middle, and nor did I hear Briegel behind me. It felt like the longest, most exhilarating run of my life.”
Fortunately for Burru, luck was on his side when it came to the aforementioned heavy touch. Having initially decided to clip the ball over the onrushing Schumacher, he ended up sliding a low shot through the legs of the then Cologne No1. The score now 3-2, the strike finally knocked all the fight out of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Co and secured a yearned-for second World Cup crown for Argentina.
An unexpected Final
Pre-tournament, La Albiceleste had touched down on Mexican soil earlier than any other side. Renowned for his attention to detail, coach Carlos Bilardo’s determination to ensure his squad were fully acclimatised to conditions in Mexico City – 2,200m above sea level – meant his charges found themselves at CF America’s training complex 30 days before the competition began. What's more, their shaky performances in qualifying and in warm-up matches had left Argentina supporters with scant hope of a repeat of their 1978 world title.
“The team arrived in Mexico low on confidence and nobody gave us much of a chance. On top of which there was a great deal of tension within the camp,” said Valdano, also in conversation with FIFA.com. “But, as the World Cup went on, the squad grew stronger and showed a great deal of character. I'd say that it was the biggest turnaround I've seen in my life. Before the first game we weren't even sure we'd beat Korea [Republic], but by the last game we had no doubts whatsoever that we were going to beat Germany.”
Meanwhile, opponents West Germany boasted a squad packed with talented performers, including the likes of Rummenigge, Rudi Voller, Felix Magath, Pierre Littbarski, Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus, though they too did not arrive at the World Cup in promising form. Indeed, Rummenigge, Voller and Klaus Allofs were all carrying injuries, “Our whole attack was crumbling,” summed up Matthaus, years later, to FIFA.com.
Nor did the oppressive heat aid the Europeans’ cause, with their opening three group games in Queretaro still remembered for cases of heat stroke suffered by their players. Even so, coach Franz Beckenbauer’s team gradually began to grow in strength and spirit, leading to victory over tournament sensations and then European champions France in the semi-finals. “The atmosphere was incredible and, in a way, that World Cup was ‘a summer fairy tale’ too [Editor’s note: the phrase was later coined for Germany 2006],” said Schumacher.
All eyes on Maradona
With five goals to his name and displays that would earn him legendary status, Maradona was undoubtedly the star of Mexico 1986. He was also the main attraction ahead of the Final, to be held in the Estadio Azteca, where El Diez had scored twice against both England and Belgium in the quarter- and semi-finals respectively.
Understandably keen to prevent Maradona waving his magic wand of a left foot once more, Beckenbauer modified West Germany’s tactical system, assigning Matthaus to man-mark El Pelusa, with Norbert Eder and Brehme patrolling nearby if required. And though it ensured Argentina’s captain and No10 saw little of the ball in the opening hour, goals from Jose Luis Brown and Valdano looked to have scuppered Der Kaiser’s plans.
“At 2-0, I remember looking into the stands and saying to myself: 'We're world champions',” said Valdano, looking back. “Of course, I'd overlooked one small detail: we were playing Germany, and they never give up. They then scored two quite similar goals, from corners, and were level.”
Indeed, Die Nationalelf pushed higher up the pitch, Matthaus was handed a more attacking remit – similar to the one he had been carrying out pre-Final – and Nery Pumpido’s goal was soon under much greater threat. First Rummenigge grabbed a goal back on 74 minutes, before a close-range header by Voller levelled proceedings seven minutes later.
“At first there was silence and some “accusing glances”, as Valdano put it, "but we didn't need to scream at each other to realise we had to go and look for a third goal,” said Burruchaga. At the other end Matthaus noted that “in our excitement [at scoring the equaliser] the defensive line pushed up to catch them offside when playing balls from deep. But [for their winner], one of our defenders forgot to step up…”
And there was Nantes midfielder Burru to make them pay, latching onto Maradona’s exquisite pass and netting past Schumacher: “To celebrate my goal, I dropped to my knees and raised my arms, and then I saw [Sergio] Batista. He was exhausted and went down onto his knees in front of me. I always say that because of his beard, it looked as if Jesus had appeared to tell us we were now destined to become world champions.”