Estadio Azteca - A little closer to the gods
© Foto-net

Mexico City's fabled Estadio Azteca has been the backdrop for some of history's most unforgettable FIFA World Cup ™ moments. Pele's last sparks of invention on the world stage, a final glimpse of the old Jules Rimet Cup and Maradona's famous goals against England in 1986 all took place on the lush grass of the vintage North American gem. Known simply as the Azteca, it is one of the beautiful game's truly great gathering places - and the only one to host two FIFA World Cup Final matches.

Teetering 7,200 feet above sea level, the stadium has earned a reputation for Mexico's national team as a fortress of results. In fact, Mexico only saw their FIFA World Cup ™ qualifying unbeaten streak in the stadium end in 2001 when they lost 2-1 to Costa Rica.

The bowl's signature roof traps and amplifies noise from the massive upper level, filling the air with high pitch shrieks and a deafening, cacophonous din to make the Mexico City landmark, and home to domestic giants Club America, one of the loudest stadiums anywhere. Add to that its more notorious conditions, namely altitude and smog, and you have the most inhospitable of venues for visiting teams.

The perfect football stadium lines up the legends
Built in 1966 ahead of the Olympic Games in 1968 and 1970 FIFA World Cup, the cavernous, three-tiered bowl was designed to hold almost 115,000 fans. An over-the-top undertaking for the time, the Azteca is a vivid demonstration of Mexico's mad devotion to the people's game.

The full construction took nearly four years to complete. Architects Pedro Ramirez Vasquez and Rafael Mijares travelled the globe before breaking ground to catch glimpses of the finest football stadiums of the time. Trips to Buenos Aires, Madrid, Rome, Florence, Paris, London, Moscow and Warsaw provided the duo with the inspiration they needed to design what many consider to be a faultless football stadium.

In addition to being an impregnable fortress for the Mexican national team, the Azteca has witnessed some of the most electrifying and immortal FIFA World Cup moments of the last 40 years. Pele said his goodbye to the international game with a peerless performance in the 1970 Final against Italy, inspiring what many call the greatest team of all time to a masterful 4-1 victory over an Italian side infamous for their cohesive defence.

The man many consider the greatest footballer in history scored a perfect low-and-hard header in the 18th minute from Rivelino's swerving cross. Leaving Albertosi with no chance, the celebration that followed involved Pele leaping into Jairzinho's arms and has since become one of the most recognisable snapshots in football history. After a 4-1 result, the Seleção, playing a languid, sultry brand of football never to be seen again, passed the Jules Rimet Cup around the brilliant Azteca grass for what would turn out to be the last time in 24 years.

Italy had a magic moment of their own en route to the ill-fated final. After finishing 90 minutes against West Germany even at one apiece, the semi-final's extra time period will go down in the annals of history as one of the most magnificent half hours of football ever played for a mass audience. A double from 'der Bomber' Gerd Muller and goals from Tarcisio Burgnich, Luigi Riva and Gianni Rivera saw a desperate attacking session fuelled by fatigue and the Azteca's extreme altitude.

Maradona's Mundial
Of all the moments of drama played out on the Azteca's manicured stage down through the years, Maradona's magic act of Mexico 86 stares down all comers. After surviving a massive earthquake one year earlier, the stadium barely withstood the earth-shattering orchestrations of El Diego.

Soon after the Azteca witnessed Manuel Negrete slam a scintillating side-bicycle against Bulgaria home to put El Tri in the quarter-finals, the towering ground got its first glimpse of Argentine genius Diego Armando Maradona at the quarter-final stage. When the Albiceleste locked horns with bitter old enemies England it was to prove a famous day in the folklore of the FIFA World Cup as both sides of the fractured star were on display for the shrieking Azteca to savour.

In the 51st minute, Maradona turned villain in the eyes of purists and moralists everywhere. Pouncing on the end of a horrid looping back pass from Steve Hodge, the diminutive genius rose to head over veteran goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Though the English captain and keeper was getting on in years, the possibility of him being out-leaped by the diminutive Maradona seemed unbelievable - and indeed it was. Replays proved what the England bench had suspected all along: Maradona had punched the ball into the net.

In a post-match press conference, the No10 cheekily attributed the goal to divine intervention, labelling it El Mano de Dios, or the Hand of God.

His second goal of the match settled the score at 2-1 and was voted the Goal of the Century by FIFA.com users in 2002. It will forever be immortalised by a statue of the No10 that stands outside the stadium.

Three minutes after punching home his first, in a moment of profound atonement and irresistible guile, Maradona collected the ball near midfield, spun like a top and began to race at a nervous English defence. Leaving six opponents behind him on a long sprint, Maradona rounded the wrong-footed Shilton to toe-poke home at the last possible moment.

The defiant Argentine heroics did not end there either. The semi-final against Belgium saw the skipper score two more. The first a delicate, almost dainty flick, and the second another defiant dribble through a terrified backline. And, as if there were any doubt, his telepathic through ball to Jose Burruchaga in the Final confirmed Maradona's reputation as the greatest player of the day - and of his generation.

Following the final whistle the Azteca crowd spilled on to the pitch to pay homage to football's gods. As Pele had been in 1970, Maradona was left shirtless and embraced by thousands high in the Mountains that surround Mexico City.