Diego Maradona spent one half today futilely trying to set up his teammates for goals. He spent the next half going one-on-one against all English comers, proving that Argentina's best team offense is to leave the 5-foot-5 superstar on his own.
Maradona scored two spectacular goals in a four-minute span early in the second half, sending Argentina to a 2-1 victory over England in a World Cup quarterfinal soccer match. The Argentines, the only Latin American team left, will play Belgium in a semifinal here Wednesday. Belgium defeated Spain, 6-5, in a shootout in today's other match story, C3 .
This match had been billed as the Falklands revisited, but it was more like the Magic of Maradona for 90 splendid minutes.
Officials had braced themselves for trouble because this was the first national team meeting between the countries since the war over the Falkland Islands in 1982. The two nations severed diplomatic relations at the time of the conflict.
Some Argentine lawmakers even requested that the team refuse to play England as an "affirmation of Argentina's rights over the Falkland Islands." President Raul Alfonsin's government rejected that plea, and Maradona said: "To ask such a thing is crazy. . . . They ought to take care of other problems, not bother with us."
There were more than 20,000 security people at Azteca Stadium, perhaps twice the number of fans here from Argentina and England. A couple of scuffles broke out in the stands, but it was nothing more serious than one might see at a Yankees-Red Sox baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York.
But around the stadium, it was soccer -- not politics -- that dominated the scene. There were about four dozen banners, few of which made reference to the Falklands. "We're here to have a good time and watch a match," said David Lewis of Liverpool, shirtless with red, white and blue paint on his face. "All the talk about revenge by the Argentines and the political implications came from the newspapers and not us."
England had allowed only one goal in four Cup matches before today. Before Maradona. For much of the game, he made the English defenders look like department-store mannequins with his deft dribbling.
Maradona had expressed a preference to play Paraguay rather than England in the quarterfinals because, "Paraguay does not mark that tightly. I would be like a fish in water. I would be able to express myself."
But English Coach Bobby Robson opted not to mark Maradona with one man, and Maradona roamed the field freely, embarrassing the larger, slower English defenders. "Maradona would have destroyed one-on-one marking," Robson said. "He was everyone's responsibility."
Thus Maradona ended up destroying every English player in sight on his two goals. The first came six minutes into the second half. Maradona flashed down the middle, dribbled by four defenders and pushed the ball to the right as he reached the penalty area. Teammate Jorge Valdano could not gain control of the ball, which suddenly arced toward the goal. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton and Maradona collided at the ball about 10 yards out, with Maradona jumping to head it. The ball went into the goal on one bounce for a 1-0 lead, and Shilton complained that he had been fouled.
Maradona made it 2-0 four minutes later with perhaps the most spectacular effort seen in this Cup. Starting at midfield, he made a stunning dash with the ball down the right side. In all, he dribbled by five defenders, the last two -- Gary Stevens and Terry Butcher -- coming as he veered into the penalty area and blasted a right-footed shot by Shilton. Butcher fell to the ground as the shot went in, then stayed sitting there for several moments, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Today, Maradona scored one of the most brilliant goals you will ever see," Robson said. "The first goal was dubious, but the second one was fantastic. I have the greatest respect for him, for his skills and his spirit. I didn't like the second goal, but I did admire it. It was a miracle goal."
After the second goal, England came alive and carried the play for the final 30 minutes. England cut the margin to 2-1 with just under 10 minutes remaining. Reserve John Barnes penetrated deep into the left corner before centering the ball to Gary Lineker, who headed it in from close range. On Argentina's next possession, reserve Daniel Tapia had an 18-yard shot go off the left post.
The Barnes-Lineker combination nearly tied the game with three minutes left. Again, Barnes dribbled deep into the left corner and centered the ball. Lineker made a diving header attempt, but the ball went off to the right as he ended up in the goal mouth himself.
England's late push came after it had been completely throttled for 60 minutes. "We did not control the midfield the way we would like," Robson said. "We tried very hard. You have to give credit to the Argentines. They played very well in that department.
"The first goal was going to be crucial. Neither side looked as though they were capable of scoring more than two goals."
In the first half, neither side seemed capable of scoring at all. Nothing happened in the half. Sure, Argentina and England will say they played 45 minutes of soccer, but 114,580 witnesses at Azteca Stadium might tell you they've seen more action from video games. Each team had one shot on goal, and Lineker -- who ended up scoring six of his team's seven goals in this Cup -- was not a factor.
The only excitement was generated by Maradona. The rest of the players, including his teammates, acted as spectators. Maradona went left, Maradona went right and Maradona went straight ahead, but for all his work, he never created a serious goal-scoring opportunity.
But in the second half, Maradona created his own scoring chances and sent England home. "Maradona, I think without question, is the best player in the world right now," his coach, Carlos Bilardo, said.