For me the summer of 1986 was about 2 things; finishing Primary School and watching my first World Cup.
In the pre Premier League era live football on TV was pretty much limited to the FA Cup final so for football mad kids the World Cup was heaven sent. My last days of primary school were largely spent trading swaps from the Panini Mexico 86 sticker album; I vividly remember trying to trade endless duplicates of Pat Jennings in a futile attempt to acquire Brazilian superstar Zico.
The constant flicking through the sticker book also meant the image of World Cup mascot Pique remains indelibly printed on in my mind.
When the action kicked off I was quickly disappointed by holders Italy- much talked up by older kids who remembered Spain ’82, Paolo Rossi and all that, in 1986 it was the same players just 4 years past it. But two surprise teams bolted out of the traps in Mexico. First there was the now defunct Soviet Union who pummelled Hungary 6-0 in their opener, then midfielder Vasily Rats scored a stunning long range goal against France, and then came Denmark.
Unlike their victorious Euro ’92 side the Danes of 1986 were spellbinding to watch with star strikers Preben Elkjaer & Michael Laudraup rampaging through defences in the early days of the tournament. They also sported the perfect mid 80s pinstripe and chevron jersey.
Strangely both the Danes & Soviets crashed and burned in the last 16 against unfancied sides as I learned a great World Cup cliche: don’t peak too soon! Both clearly did but provided some great memories along the way.
Denmark’s rise was particularly surprising given they were drawn in a group with Germany, Uruguay & Scotland introducing me to yet another cliche ‘the group of death!’ It was from here the Scots introduced me to a further wellwarn cliche: Scotland will always find the unluckiest possible way to miss out.
It’s often forgotten the Scotland team of 1986 was managed by a certain Alex Ferguson, who’d taken temporary charge after the tragic death of Jock Stein in their final qualifier. Defensively they were strong enough for Ferguson to omit Liverpool captain Alan Hansen, the midfield featured a wonderfully moustached Greane Souness and the creativity of Gordon Strachan whilst the forward line of Steve Archibald, Frank McAvennie & Charlie Nicholas didn’t lack firepower.
As it turned out, the Scots first ran into the Danish juggernaut and then faced West Germany, Strachan scored early to put them ahead but the Germans proved too strong and the Scots went down 2-1.
But still qualification could still be achieved with a win over Uruguay who’d just shipped six against Denmark, it couldn’t have started much better with Uruguay defender Jose Batista red carded in the first minute for an appalling foul on Strachan. What followed was 89 minutes of Scottish attacking and agricultural Uruguayan defending with Uruguay kicking their way to a 0-0 draw and a second round berth.
But my enduring memory of that game came in the aftermath when the BBC tried to get some post match reaction from the Tartan Army outside the ground and one angry fan barked “I hate Uruguay! I hate ’em so much I hope they get through and play England and I hope England win! That’s how much I hate Uruguay!!”
And so to England, drawn in Group F the tournament was a week old before we got started and it wasn’t a great start, England began against Portugal with high hopes and they dominated possession for long spells, looked in control but conceded on the break 15 minutes from time, 0-1 on dear.
If the first game was bad the second was a disaster. Against Morocco England should have eased to victory but Captain Marvel Robson succumbed to a shoulder injury and midfield partner Ray Wilkins was bizarrely sent off for throwing the ball (accidentally) at the referee. The game ended 0-0.
The knives were out for Bobby Robson, it was England’s worst start to a World Cup since the 50’s and he needed to rework his entire midfield and attack. His solution was to bring in Peter Reid, Steve Hodge, Trevor Steven & Peter Beardsley, dropping Mark Hateley & Chris Waddle. The reshaped team was a gamble but it took only 8 minutes to pay off with Gary Lineker turning home Gary Stevens’ cross, by half time Lineker had a hat trick and England were through.
Suddenly England had a star in Lineker and a team set up perfectly to maximise his poachers instinct with Hodge and Steven providing width and Beardsley able to provide clever through balls from his deeper forward role.
Sadly for me we’d gone on a family holiday and I only saw the game next day (due to the late kick off times In Mexico) and found out the result from Derek Jamieson’s breakfast show.
Onto the last 16 and I was still in Cornwall, most expected England to sneak a win and despite a shaky start England again won 3-0. Lineker now had 5 goals and was set for the Golden Boot.
And so to the quarter final and the most infamous moment in English Football history. In footballs ‘where were you when Kennedy was shot’ moment I was watching it on the telly with my dad. It wasn’t until full time that I realised it was handball, watching it live in realtime was very different to looking at the photo everyone remembers- he was devilishly quick!
Everyone knows what followed; Maradona scored a brilliant second, Lineker pulled one back and almost equalised. England were out whilst Maradona went on to lift the trophy.
I think the main reason the infamy of that goal has endured for so long is Maradona’s obvious pleasure in it, he’s never shown any regret at what he did, it’s hard to believe Pele or Cruyff would have reacted with such glee, nor was it Maradona’s only handball moment playing for Argentina (he would later handle the ball whilst clearing off his own line).
When Thierry Henry later handled against Ireland in a 2009 World Cup playoff, it was clear even on the night Henry was embarrassed and whilst never actually apologising for it he clearly would like to expunge the incident from his career, Maradona by contrast has often revelled in his.
The day before England played Argentina I witnessed my first great World Cup match; Michel Platini’s France against the Brazilian Samba boys. 1986 was probably the last chance to see the Brazil at their beautiful best, Brazilian sides since have concentrated on string defence combined with pace and power, back in ’86 it was all flair, tricks and samba soccer. Facing them The European champions and their dynamic midfield quartet of Platini, Giresse, Tigana & Fernandes.
The game ebbed and flowed, the crowd a sea of yellow & blue- Argentina may have had the best player but these were the two best teams. Amazingly only one goal apiece was scored with the French triumphing on penalties.
Everyone expected a Platini/ Maradona final, Argentina made it but the French fell foul of another great World Cup cliche: German efficiency. West Germany made it almost unnoticed into the last four, perhaps France underestimated them or maybe they were exhausted from the epic win over Brazil, whatever the reason France were subdued in the semi and went down 2-0.
The final proved entertaining but slightly underwhelming (the second part of that assessment could be applied to every World Cup final since.) Jorge Burruchaga scored the winner 6 minutes from time after the Germans had fought back from a 2 goal deficit, Argentina were champions and my first World Cup experience was over.
Mexico ’86 had everything, great games, brilliant players, colour, atmosphere and controversy. It was a heady cocktail that cemented my love of the beautiful game and it’s biggest event.
A year later my local library got a Mexico ’86 book recapping the tournament in A3 size prints of the matches, the book spent much of the following year on loan to me. I remember very clearly the last picture in the book- of 2 fans in the Azteca stadium after the final whistle of the tournament, both stripped to the waist with their backs printed, on the first fan ‘Adios Mexico ’86’ on the other ‘Ciao Italia ’90’. The summer of 1990 couldn’t come around fast enough.