In 1986, I watched my first FIFA World Cup. I don’t remember all the games or even some of the highlights, but two things mesmerized the curious kid that I was and they both still vividly live in my memory. One is the surprisingly marvelous performance of the national team of my native Morocco. It was the golden age of Moroccan soccer. The generation of the very talented goalkeeper Badou Zaki and the highly creative midfield front of Abdelmajid Dolmy, Mohammed Timoumi, Mustapha El Haddaoui, and Aziz Bouderbala that led Morocco to win a difficult group that featured England, Poland, and Portugal. Morocco became the first African nation in World Cup history to advance to the second round before falling to Germany (0-1) on a late Lothar Matthäus goal. The other thing that marked me as a child encountering the World Cup and high level soccer for the first time was the amazing journey of Diego Maradona, the captain of the Argentine squad. At only 5’5, Maradona dominated the tournament. His graceful touch, dazzling ball skills, and unmatched determination was by far the most important reason that Argentina became World champion for the second time in its history. Quite an amazing achievement in a team sport!
When I had a chance to re-watch some of those games as an adult, I realized that without Maradona, Argentina might not have made it out of the first round and if they had somehow advanced, they certainly would not have moved much further than the round of 16. Instead, Argentina was able to reach the final. Their adversary in that game was Germany. The Germans, much like today, were a well-oiled machine. While probably not as talented as the 2014 German squad, the teammates of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were as hard-working, disciplined, and detail-oriented. The Germans roughed Maradona up. The Argentine captain’s performance did not match his tremendous showings against Gary Lineker’s England and Enzo Scifo’s Belgium in the previous two rounds, but he was still able to set up two goals for the two Jorges, Valdano and Burruchaga, the latter scoring the game winner seven minutes before the end of the game. Argentina won the game 3-2 (see the bottom of the post for a Youtube link to the official film of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico). El Pibe de Oro, as Maradona is known in Argentina, made me fall in love with soccer. It is because of that first encounter with the Beautiful Game that I started playing soccer and that I later joined my local soccer club. I have never stopped playing ever since. Think of it as a cliché if you will, but playing a team sport from a young age built my character, strengthened my social skills, and allowed me to quench my competitive needs in a healthy way.
More than two decades later, my 5 year-old son has been watching his first World Cup this year. Coincidently, another physically unimposing yet gigantically talented Argentine player has mesmerized the young child. Lionel Messi has led Argentina to the World Cup final, despite the team being less than stellar on many fronts, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Barcelona star is doing his best Maradona impression and while he has not been as spectacular as the 1986 Argentine hero, he has been as impressive when one takes in consideration the much higher speed of the game nowadays and the much more imposing athletic ability of today’s athletes, compared to those of the 1980’s. Messi might end up holding the World Cup trophy this coming Sunday at the heart of the Maracana, the most prestigious stadium in the world and practically a shrine for the Brazilians, Argentina’s biggest rival in South America. My son’s World Cup also featured Algeria, the first North African side to reach the round of 16 since… Morocco in 1986. Given that my mother has Algerian roots, my son had a chance to learn more about my heritage and to cheer for a very good Algerian squad that could have beaten the mighty Germans in the second round with a little more focus. When you add to the tally the encouraging tournament of Team USA that overcame a difficult group and reached the round of 16, it is striking that my son had his first encounter with World Cup soccer in ways that are very similar to my own experience. It is all a coincidence, you say. I say there is something magical about it.
Hero: 1986 FIFA World Cup Film