To be sixteen again – who wouldn’t want to go back to such innocent days when compared with the stress and strains of modern life. Sixteen when some of the good things in life were now legal, although growing up with a slightly wayward elder brother meant that I had tried them all long before the 13th FIFA World Cup kicked off in Mexico on the 31st May 1986.
Quite how the tournament was able to start was a miracle in itself. Columbia were originally chosen to host the tournament but due to the escalation of civil unrest they withdrew their candidacy in 1982. The USA, Canada and Mexico threw their respective hats into the ring and FIFA went with the safe choice of Mexico who had previously hosted the tournament sixteen years previously. Just three years later the country was rocked by an earthquake that left the tournament in the balance. FIFA were prepared to postpone the tournament by a year but the Mexicans insisted that all was in order so on the 31st May World Cup holders Italy took on Bulgaria in the Azteca stadium in the searing midday Mexican heat. And so the curse of the champions continued as Italy failed to win the opening game of their defence.
Unfortunately for me the tournament took place slap bang in the middle of my O-levels. With the prospect of revising for a Physics exam or watching England’s opening game versus Portugal two days later I made the obvious choice – after all who really needs to know how a Van Der Graaf generator actually works. It got worse through the month with a number of games clashing with exams – I have never seen people work so hard during the Technical drawing exam to finish in time for Brazil’s game versus Northern Ireland.
The home nation representatives were the same as 4 years previous – England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scots were thrown into disarray with the death of Jock Stein in their final qualifying game with Wales. Instead of appointing a permanent manager, they approached Alex Ferguson then manager of Aberdeen to take charge of the team in Mexico.
England started with a defeat to Portugal in the scorching heat of Monterrey, Three days later they lined up in the same stadium against Morocco and were expected to comfortably beat the Africans. But when was anything ever that easy for England? Four minutes into the game captain Bryan Robson fell awkwardly on the edge of the penalty area and stayed down. The curse of the England captain had struck again and he was out of the tournament with a dislocated shoulder. Thirty five minutes later and vice-captain Ray Wilkins was gone to, but this time it was to a straight red card after he accidently hit the referee with the ball after having a free kick given against him.
England in the end hung on for a goal less draw and with results going against them in the other games (thanks in part to the Portuguese players going on strike) they had to beat Poland in the final game to progress. All the pre-match worries and nerves were set aside by a typical poacher performance by Gary Lineker who bagged a first half hatrick to steer England through.
It was another 24 team tournament, but instead of the 2nd round group used in 1978 and 1982 they decided to allow the four best 3rd place teams to qualify for a straight knock out phase. This meant that Scotland had a change to reach the 2nd round for the first time – if only it was that simple for them. The Northern Irish, bolstered with Pat Jennings playing in goal at 40 years old (I mean, what country would seriously include a goal keeper in his 40th year at the World Cup!) were drawn with Algeria, Spain and Brazil. Drawing their first game with the Africans essentially eliminated them although they never gave up without a fight.
As if a World Cup and 18 O-Level exams weren’t enough of a distraction for me I also had two other “vices” I was trying to control. I had developed a nasty 10 Marlboro’s a day habit (I challenge any boy under the age of 16 to say hand on heart that they have never smoked) which I was successfully keeping secret from my parents, although I was having to bribe my brother not to tell them and I had also got a girlfriend. Well, not a proper one. She was a local girl, and one looking back now would be called a “slapper”. But with all those raging hormones and the odd furtive look at the fine collection of magazines my eldest brother, God rest his soul, had managed to procure and hide under his mattress I was going to take anything on offer.
Now, having re-read the above I feel as if I am being harsh on the girl. She came from a good family (Bank Manager stock), lived in a nice house, apparently was engaged to a much older bloke who had a job (she was just 16), and was very pretty with dark hair and dark eyes. But she was just a little bit wild. We used to frequent a Country Club (not as posh as it sounds – simply a cricket club in the country) and on a Saturday night if you got in first in buying her a drink you could be guaranteed to have the honour of walking her home and all that went with such a perk. Why is this relevant to football thousands of miles away? You will see.
So here are my top 10 highlights of the tournament from what I can remember.
1. Denmark’s forward line – In their first World Cup the Danes arrived with a squad brimming with talent. Allan Simonsen, Man Utd’s Jesper Olsen, Frank Arneson (Chelsea’s Director of Football), Morten Olsen (current National Team coach), Michael Laudrup, Jan Molby and the impressive Preben Eljkaer. A 1-0 versus Scotland was followed by a very impressive 6-1 win against Uruguay and then a 2-0 victory over Germany took them through with a 100% record. They went into the second round game as favourites against the Spanish and Jesper Olsen put them 1-0 in the first half. However, for the first time in decades the Spanish rose to the occasion and with Emilio “The Vulture” Butragueno proving unstoppable with four goals they scored five goals without reply.
2. That mad Mexican bloke running around the ground – Unofficially credited with the creation of the Mexican wave, although this has been debated long into the night, Mexico’s games were characterised by a mad local who would run around the edge of the stadium with a huge flag encouraging the fans to stand up as he passed – thus creating the wave effect. Thanks for that!
3. Scotland’s shorts – Who on earth designed those shorts with that ridiculous blue band across the bollocks? Never before has such a stupid idea been put into play. Apparently they only came in a 32 inch waist. Good job Razor Ruddock or Big Fat Frank weren’t in the team. Made them look like they were wearing a big nappy.
4. Gordon Strachan – After Scotland’s defeat to Denmark in the opening game they essentially needed a draw at least against Germany. They got off to a great start when Gorden Strachan fired them into the lead in the 18th minute. He rushed over to try and celebrate with the Scottish fans but being a bit small, and the advertising boards being a bit high he ended up getting his leg stuck. The high point of their campaign.
5. Uruguay’s tactics – So Scotland went into their last game with Uruguay knowing that a win of any type would take them through as one of the best 3rd place team. Uruguay knew they only needed a draw. They had been “robust” in the tournament so far and had seen the first red card with defender Bossio sent off after just 19 minutes against Denmark. FIFA expressed concern at their tactics and it became obvious that they had “had a word” with referee Quiniou of France as after just 44 seconds of the game he sent off Jose Batista for an ugly challenge on Strachan. But try as they might they could not break down the South Americans although keeping such attacking talent as Frank McAvennie, Charlie Nicholas and Steve Archibald was hardly conducive to trying to win a must win game.
6. Josimar – Brazil have an uncanny knack of unearthing fantastic players. After two wins from their first two games, Brazil had guaranteed their passage to the second round so they made a few changes to their side for the final game against Northern Ireland. At full back they gave a debut to 25 year old Botafogo. Just before half time he picked the ball up thirty yards out and hit an unstoppable shot over Pat Jennings for a memorable debut goal. How do you top that one? Well what about a better goal in your next match? Sure here goes. Try doing that in the playground!
7. Zico – With one Brazilian becoming a legend it was sad to see another make such an sad exit. Zico was one of the biggest names in the tournament and had been carrying an injury which had restricted his appearances to those from the bench. In the quarter final against France he was introduced in the 71st minute with the scores balanced at 1-1. Just a few minutes later French goal keeper Bats brought down Branco and with a chance to put Brazil in the semi-finals, Zico saw his kick saved by the French keeper. The game eventually went to penalties, where he did score one of the five spot kicks but still saw his team, favourites as they were 4 years ago crash out.
8. Dull semi-finals – Argentina versus Belgium was never going to set the world alight and if it wasn’t for Maradona there could have actually been an upset, but two more individual goals just underlined what a one man team they had been in the tournament so far. In the other one, France simply wilted in the heat to West Germany going down 2-0 in a game that is memorable for….a Mexican wave that lasted over 20 minutes.
9. A decent final for once – Another Sunday, another cricket match (see below) which we needed to get finished early which fortunately with some inspired bowling we did. Argentina proved they were than just Maradona when Joe Brown and Jorge Valdano put the South Americans 2-0 up with just over half an hour to play. Game over surely, but back came the West Germans through those legends Rummenigge and Völler to shock the South Americans. Seven minutes to go and at last Maradona made a telling contribution, sending Burruchaga free to score the winner. Whilst the English are not shy in their hate for the Germans, there could have been few who wanted an Argentina victory after the goal Maradona had scored with his hand in the quarter final.
10. World Cup songs – In 1982 we had classic offerings from England and Scotland. In 1986 we had the appalling effort from the England Squad with “We’ve got the whole world at our feet”. It was so bad that even Youtube had refused to keep a copy. Scotland’s was even worse – “Big Trip to Mexico”. I cannot find this one either – if anyone can find them give me a shout. 1986 was a poor year for football team songs.
There is one main omission from the list above and that was the legendary quarter final tie between Argentina and England on 22nd June in the Azteca stadium. The reason why it’s not in the above top 10 is that it is worthy of a section on its own. England had warmed up for the game by beating Paraguay in a bad tempered game which saw Gary Lineker floored in an off the ball incident. Argentina had been impressive, dropping just one point in their march to this stage.
The Falklands War had finished some four years earlier but there was still some high tension between the countries. It was a good job in some ways that the tournament was so far away. If it would have been in Europe you feel that the quantity of England fans travelling would have made much more of the issue. This was one game that no one wanted to miss. And so quite how I found myself captaining the 2nd XI cricket team is a mystery to me. Well its not actually. Normally I played for the 4th XI – happy in the knowledge that I was a big fish in a small pond at this level (averaging a nice 47 if you must know). Yet someone I managed to be talked in to jumping up two levels – doesn’t that tell you exactly who really wanted to play cricket instead of watching the game.
On the day in question three players dropped out and so I found myself captain, at the age of 16, of a team of 9 which included two 70+ year olds and a mixture of 14 and 15 year olds. Bastards – they knew how to make us feel guilty by saying what an honour it was. The only consolation was the team we were playing were damn good, and they had brought the start forward to 1pm so that we might just finish by kick off time at 5pm.
We met at the club at 12 o’clock and who should be there but the girl of my dreams (OK loins). I was the first one of her potential conquests there, so I bought her a coke and she told me her parents were out for the afternoon and would I like to “watch the game round hers” wink wink nudge nudge. I just had to be round hers by 4.30pm so we could “warm up”. So that settled it – I would have to throw the game.
My tactic relied on me winning the toss. With only 9 players and playing against a decent attack I figured we would be all out by 2pm and game over by 3pm. I won the toss and elected to bat. And sure to form we quickly lost 3 wickets for just 20 runs. I walked to the crease and decided that if I was going to throw my wicket away it would have to be holing out to a fielder on the boundary. The next hour and twenty minutes will go down as one of my finest moments in my life as I smashed the ball to all areas of the pitch, somehow avoiding the fielders. My fifty came via eleven 4’s, and when I eventually run out of batting partners I had 93 to my name and we had scored 181. Not quite my plan.
In the days before mobile phones I had no way of getting a message to my World Cup warm up so dispatched my brother (conveniently “injured” ) to tell her about my moment of glory. Our opponents made us work hard in the field, scoring the 182 in nearly two hours meaning I had 4 minutes to shake hands, collect the tea money and get back to her house.
Then I remembered – my lift was my brother who I had dispatched earlier and he had not returned. I managed to get a lift of one of the 70 year olds but of course he wanted to talc himself fully meaning I had missed my slot, quite literally.
We returned to the club where I watched the drama unfold. Half time and it was finely balanced at 0-0. As if by magic my angel appeared, annoyed that I had stood her up. I explained about my monumental performance and she warmed slightly. She asked if I wanted some air, so we went onto the veranda. Over her shoulder I could just make out the TV and that is how I saw the two defining moments of English football. First the hand of God then the feet of the devil. Three minutes, two goals from Maradona and I simply could not concentrate on the job at hand so for the first time in my life I made a decision of football over women and went back inside.
Bobby Robson had nothing to lose and so he threw on John Barnes, woefully underused in a tournament crying out for a wide man. Ten minutes from time Barnes skipped down the left and put in a cross for Lineker to score his 6th goal of the tournament. Despite some intense pressure Argentina held on to progress to the semi-finals. I headed back outside to see if I could pick up where I had left of. What happened next has to stay with me until my dying day to protect those involved. But lets just say it made 1990 a hard act to follow. Arrivederci Mexico, Caio Italia.