Thirty years ago today, Argentina and Belgium locked horns at the semi-final stage of the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. Diego Maradona’s side memorably won 2-0 to move a single step away from global glory, but that last-four joust remains no less unforgettable for the Red Devils – who bowed out after their finest ever performance in 12 World Cup tilts.
For Enzo Scifo, it was his first and, as he told FIFA.com, the "greatest of my four World Cups." Belgium's promising young playmaker of 1986 went on to reach the Round of 16 in 1990 and 1994, before a group stage exit in 1998, but that Mexican summer was never surpassed. "Maybe it's something that Belgium could repeat today," he explained, "but at the time everyone agreed it was something that would never happen to us again."
Given Belgium's slow start to the competition, it could easily not have happened at all. "We'd only just made it out of the group as one of the best third-placed teams," recalled Scifo. "There was friction within the squad, but the coach was able to take the right measures. The squad pulled together again and we rediscovered a certain humility that allowed us to knock out the Soviet Union and Spain, who were among the tournament favourites."
That would soon prove a valuable lesson for the gifted midfield prospect. "Throughout my career, that was a reference point for me," said Scifo, who was named Best Young Player at the finals. "I clung to it, telling myself that if that could happen, anything was possible. I realised that football isn't about playing in the best team. You need to have values and humility – and to tell yourself that sometimes you might not be the best, but you can compete with the best. I understood all of that at the age of 20."
'He destroyed us'
Playing with the No8 on his back, Scifo was yet to inherit the No10 shirt he would eventually make his own. Instead, it was Argentina's No10 who shone in the mythic role in Mexico, and redefined it in the process. Three days after his 'Hand of God' and Goal of the Century against England, El Diez was everywhere once again. Out wide, up front and deep in midfield, he orchestrated play, slowed it down, speeded it up – and bamboozled the Belgians with two moments of genius. "He's the one who knocked us out and he denied us a place in the Final with his two goals," said Scifo. "He made the difference because Argentina weren't having a good day. Nor were we because we'd just played two games that went to extra time and physically we were really feeling the effects. But he destroyed us."
He did so within the space of 12 minutes too, opening the scoring with a predatory finish from the outside of his boot before adding a second with another epic slaloming run. Those goals lit up the game and proved enough to earn Maradona the adidas Golden Ball, which he received after his pass for Jorge Burruchaga's winning effort in a 3-2 defeat of Final opponents West Germany. In contrast, Scifo and his team-mates missed out on third spot in a 4-2 extra-time loss to France the previous day.
Despite Maradona's part in Belgium's downfall, Scifo has never felt even a hint of resentment for the diminutive magician. Quite the contrary. "I have a special affection for Maradona," said Scifo, who also faced Maradona the following season when his Inter Milan side tackled Napoli. "I've never tried to measure myself against anyone. I just had admiration for a player like him, even if he was my opponent. I came up against a few great players in my career, but Maradona is among the ones who impressed me the most, and not simply because of his style of play. He had his own unique moves, but he also had an ability to always be clinical and change games single-handedly. I wondered how he did it. That's why everyone admired him. He had a game intelligence that allowed him to be decisive at any moment."
Scifo may have learned that everything was possible during that World Cup, but Maradona taught him something even more inspiring – that the impossible lay thrillingly within reach.