A bagful of World Cup memories - but Mexico '86 outstrips them all
I STILL remember the game of football we played before the first match of the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.
We lived in Wolfhill Estate up in the hills of Ligoniel. Surrounded by green, we turned nearby fields into makeshift football pitches. If we couldn’t find four bricks we used our jumpers for goals.
Throughout the summer months we played football every day. Some games would last for hours only for the fading light to rob us of playing longer.
That particular afternoon we played on the patch of grass beside the McIlroys house.
We were like kids on Christmas Eve looking forward to the World Cup in far-flung ‘Me-he-co’.
Later that day, we sat with our half-filled Panini sticker books and tuned into the first game between Italy and Bulgaria at the magical Azteca Stadium.
I always remember the air horns in the Azteca sounded like a swarm of angry honeybees that had been disturbed.
Alessandro Altobelli scored for Italy with a finely executed volley.
Watching the stylish Italians in the World Cup was enough for you to want to be Italian, especially with names like Alto-bellllllliiiii and Antonio Cabrini and Giuseppe Galderisi.
Their Azzurri blue jerseys shimmered in the sun. The Italians looked like proper footballers.
Each Panini sticker gave you the date of birth of the player.
Socrates, the bearded Brazilian wonder, was born in 1954 and I remember thinking he was getting on in years and wondered would he be as good as he was in 1982.
As a kid, I remember feeling devastated at Brazil’s World Cup exit in ’82.
They were dream footballers.
Junior, Socrates, Zico, Falcao, Eder, Leandro and Cerezo – each of them works of art.
Brazil’s problem in ’82 – well, they had two problems: Waldir Peres was a terrible goalkeeper and Serginho was one of the most cumbersome centre forwards ever to wear the famous golden jersey (although Fred gave him a run for his money in the 2014 finals).
Serginho was originally not first choice and only gained a starting place due to Antonio Careca picking up an injury on the eve of the finals.
Had Careca been fit to play for that brilliant Brazil team, the ’82 finals might have had a different ending.
The former Napoli striker would take the ’86 finals by storm but the pity was Brazil’s star players hadn’t weathered well between World Cups.
In Mexico, Zico was 33 and plagued by a knee problem.
Zico showed glimpses of his magic (the defence-splitting pass to Branco in that memorable 1986 quarter-final against France that yielded a penalty remains my all-time favourite pass) – but the creeping years and injuries had blunted him.
In ’82, Socrates was sublime. Four years later, he was physically diminished.
It was common knowledge Socrates smoked like a train and drank like a fish and lacked the discipline required to win the World Cup. His unmistakable swagger would only take him so far.
Falcao, another star of ’82, made only fleeting appearances from the bench in ’86 and could no longer cope with the rigours of tournament football.
Back then, every World Cup was a voyage of discovery.
We were introduced to new players from exotic places for the first time.
The world was a much bigger, curious place.
This was long before the Internet age, YouTube and Wikipedia.
In a strange way we were truly blessed without technology.
We relied on the mind’s eye and VHS videotapes to preserve our World Cup memories.
With fitness doubts over Zico, Socrates and Falcao, Tele Santana – Brazil’s free-spirited manager - introduced the new generation of midfielders to the World Cup stage.
Elzo, an elegant but hard running midfielder, partnered Alameo who went on to star for Napoli during the Maradona years.
With Leandro pulling out of the Brazil squad bound for Mexico at the 11th hour, the world was seduced by another right back - Josimar.
Who will ever forget his outrageous 30-yarder that sailed into the top corner of Northern Ireland's net in Guadalajara?
And who will ever forget Pat Jennings waving the ball away with all the casualness of hailing down a Clanrye taxi in Monaghan Street?
Josimar scored another impossible goal in the second round game against Poland.
Brazil’s stand-in right back certainly left his mark on World Cup history.
So, too, did the imperturbable, ball-playing centre half Julio Cesar, especially for blasting his penalty off Joel Bats’ right-hand post in that unforgettable shoot out against the French.
The 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico remain my favourite tournament. Nothing comes close.
It had great teams, great individual players, great matches, great goals, loose tactics and heroes and villains.
Uruguay had some wonderfully gifted players in ’86 but they tried to kick their way through the competition.
There was Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Danish duo Michael Laudrup and the indefatigable Preben Elkjaer.
Morten Olsen was arguably the best ‘libero’ in the competition.
Emilio Butragueno announced his arrival on the world stage with Spain.
Known in Spanish football as ‘The Vulture’, Butragueno swooped to score four goals to break Danish hearts.
Careca looked the real deal for Brazil. Hugo Sanchez, Real Madrid’s goal poacher supreme, was the hosts’ great white hope.
Jorge Burruchaga, Maradona’s playmaking side-kick, was sensational for eventual winners Argentina.
And when his Uruguayan team-mates weren’t kicking the opposition, Enzo Francescoli could dribble with the best of them.
Another Enzo – Enzo Scifo – alongside the more experienced Jan Cuelemans for Belgium were the tournament’s gate-crashers and were stopped at the semi-final stages by two moments of magic from Maradona.
And everybody remembers where they were when Maradona almost single-handedly beat England in the quarter-finals.
I was in sitting in a quiet lounge in Redcastle, Co Donegal with my parents watching Maradona slalom through the England defence.
Even with all that celebrated bulldog spirit, big Terry Butcher never stood a chance.
Everyone in the lounge stood and applauded the television after declaring witness to genius.
The late Jimmy Magee, the voice of sport on RTE in those days, rose to the occasion too.
Like all great commentators, Jimmy let the pictures tell the story.
All he needed was two simple, historic words.
“Different class,” he beamed. “Different class...”
Every kid in our street was obsessed with Maradona.
His collection of performances in Mexico on the greatest stage will never be repeated.
How much of it was legal is anybody’s guess.
To me, Maradona was a footballer sent from the Gods who inspired my generation.
In the couple of seasons leading up to Italia ’90, RTE screened highlights of Serie A.
Napoli were still Scudetto challengers thanks largely to Maradona’s leadership.
As Italia ‘90 got closer the Argentine captain slimmed down, but it was clear from the opening match against Cameroon that the great man was not the player of four years earlier.
He still had the touch of an angel but those signature dribbles that broke defences in Mexico were gone forever.
I felt genuinely sad watching Maradona in Italia ’90 - sadder than I should ever have felt for a footballer.
That was the thing about World Cups – how players diminished from one tournament to the next, their club careers in between times rarely archived.
I don’t think I ever celebrated harder or jumped as high in my living room than the night Niall Quinn stretched to get on the end of Packie Bonner’s long punt up field to draw level with the star-studded Dutch in a group game in Palermo which guaranteed the Irish their place in the knockout stages of the competition.
The World Cup could be an unforgiving stage, too.
Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gulitt led Holland to European glory in 1988, but they never came close to reaching those heights at Italia ’90, and never got the chance again to redeem themselves.
But at least we had Hagi – Gheorgi Hagi – Romania’s answer to Maradona – a glorious footballer who played off the cuff.
In today’s game, a free spirit like Hagi would be deemed a luxury player, a manager's problem player, who wouldn't fit ‘the system’.
It remains one of those World Cup mysteries how Romania didn’t beat Republic of Ireland in Genoa in 1990.
Hagi was brilliant but he couldn’t break Ireland’s stout resistance.
But Toto Schillaci did.
Italy’s newfound hero needed just once chance on a balmy night in Rome to slay Jack Charlton’s battling brave-hearts.
At USA ’94, the high point for the Irish was Ray Houghton’s looping effort that sailed over the head of Gianluca Pagliuca in New Jersey. But that’s as good as it got for the Irish.
A few days later, in the searing afternoon heat of Miami, the Irish chased Mexican shadows for 90 minutes and were undone by two fine strikes from Luis Garcia.
A week later, Packie Bonner allowed Vim Yonk’s speculative effort to slip through his hands.
And that was that.
In 1998, a new Brazilian hero was born – Ronaldo – who had the full skills set.
Ariel Ortega tried manfully to carry Argentina, post-Maradona, to glory but the South Americans were outdone in the Marseilles sunshine by a moment of pure magic from Dennis Bergkamp.
Take a bow Barry Davies. Take a bow...
I watched the ’98 World Cup final in The Quays Bar, Galway, wondering – like every other distraught Brazil fan – what had happened to Ronaldo in the build-up to the game against hosts France.
It was always my childhood dream to go to a World Cup.
I told my father we would go to Italia ’90.
We would tour all the stadiums.
We’d get tickets to watch Maradona and cheer on Brazil.
But we never made it.
In June 2002, I was on a plane bound for Japan, fulfilling a dream, and heading to my first World Cup finals as a sports journalist for The Irish News.
With a dodgy laptop and accreditation around my neck, I bluffed my way from Niigatta to Ibaraki to Yokohama and finally Suwon.
We made the mandatory stop-off to Paddy Foley’s Pub in Roppongi.
The highlight of the trip to the Far East was staring out of my hotel window on the 32nd floor in downtown Seoul, the main streets awash with South Korean red as the home nation came to a standstill to watch their team beat Italy.
The other highlight was watching Brazil beat Costa Rica 5-2 in Suwon, with Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick.
Behind me in the press box sat the great Junior – the famous left back of 1982 – while Falcao was further back in the cheap seats.
This was long before ‘selfies’ became the latest craze, although I did get a quick Polaroid with Carlos Bilardo – Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winning coach – in one of the media centres.
In 2006, I traipsed around Germany – Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin and beautiful Leipzig taking in nine first round games in 12 days.
The older you get, the quicker the years and World Cups rush by.
It’s as if someone hit the fast-forward button. 2006. 2010. 2014. A click of your finger and thumb and they’re gone.
The world has gotten smaller too.
Because of Google, the World Cup is no longer a voyage of discovery.
We all know the players. We know everything about them. Even their shoe size.
And yet, we have clearer memories of games and players of yesteryear.
Nevertheless, the World Cup is still the Greatest Show on Earth.
It’s probably a bit more choreographed than it was back in the eighties. But, like every World Cup, Russia 2018 will be worth watching.
For the last couple of months I’ve been helping my nephew, Gerard, fill his World Cup Panini sticker book.
I’m kind of reliving part of my youth. It has cost me a small fortune.
My Top 10 World Cup moments...
1. Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in the quarter-finals in 1986
2. Niall Quinn’s equaliser against Holland in the group stages of Italia ‘90
3. Andres Iniesta’s extra-time winner for Spain against Holland in the 2010 World Cup final
4. Packie Bonner’s penalty shoot-out save from Romania’s Daniel Timofte in Ireland’s second round game in Italia ‘90
5. Alain Giresse's brilliant goal for France in their memorable semi-final against West Germany in 1982
6. Ronaldo’s two-goal salvo in the 2002 World Cup final against Germany. Redemption.
7. Eder’s chip for Brazil against Scotland in the 1982 group stages
8. Manuel Negrete’s scissor kick goal for Mexico against Bulgaria in the second round in ’86
9. Lionel Messi’s late goal against Iran during the group stages in 2014
10. Rivaldo’s cool finish for Brazil in their 2002 quarter-final encounter with England.