Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Searching for an heir to Maradona's throne

    Most people can remember where and when they first fell in love with the game of football. For me, it was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Although my interest was to begin with based solely on the progress of England, I quickly broadened my horizons to take in the games of other nations – Denmark’s 6-1 demolition of the thuggish Uruguayans is a particularly fond memory, as is the epic France-Brazil quarter-final. However as the tournament progressed it was becoming clear that something very special was unfolding in front of me, and it emanated from the magical feet of a very special player.

    It appeared to me that Diego Armando Maradona had dropped in unannounced from another planet to play in the World Cup. With my knowledge of the game only a few weeks old, it looked to me like Maradona had just exploded onto the scene, and I assumed that was the same for everyone. Of course I now know that the truth is somewhat different – the early promise, his vow to win the world cup at the age of ten, the junta using him as a propaganda tool, the huge transfer fees, the hero worship in Naples. Mexico 86 was when all the hype became a glorious reality. Never has a player so single-handedly dominated a competition, nor so inspired such an ordinary set of team-mates with his sheer brilliance. As a first taste of football! , it was perfect. Football would always be played like that, by players like that.

    Of course, it never has been since. One of the main gripes many people have about the three world cups that have followed since is the failure of any single player to lift himself above the rest and set the tournament alight. Maradona himself has been particularly critical, dismissing all the players at France 98 as “robots” with no flair or imagination. If all future world cups are to be won by well drilled teams erring on the side of caution, with their most notable asset being a sound defence and making tactical substitutions at the right time, the World Cup will overnight lose a lot of the magic that had me and millions of others so enraptured in the first place. It is the ability to raise their game and their team-mates to a new level at the World Cup that sep! arates a good player from a great one. It makes all other achievements pale by comparison. Even though he played his best football in Ajax’s three European Cup winning campaigns, Johan Cruyff will forever be etched in the memory as an immortal for his performance in West Germany in 1974. This also counts for Eusebio in 1966, Puskas in 1954, and Pele…. well we all know about Pele.

    Since Maradona, no player has even been close to having anything like the same impact on a World Cup. In Italia 90 two players who stood out were Lothar Matthaus and Paul Gascoigne, but Matthaus shone only briefly in the group stages and Gascoigne showed quality in flashes but was anonymous for long periods of matches. In fact it was Maradona, a battered shell of the man so superior in Mexico, that provided the tournament with its most eye-catching piece of skill, surging past three defenders before playing in Caniggia for the goal that sent Brazil home early.

    USA 94 produced four players half a notch above their peers – Gheorge Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Roberto Baggio and Romario. All shared the limelight but none could steal it. The Brazil-Italy final that was supposed to produce a Romario-Baggio showdown never materialised, Romario was surprisingly ineffective and Baggio was virtually playing on one leg. It is Baggio lifting his penalty high over the crossbar in Pasadena that is the enduring image of that World Cup.

    This trend of sterile World Cups was supposed to end at France 98, as the world waited for Ronaldo to shine. At 21 he was already the finest player of his generation, and was expected by many to dominate the tournament and prove himself a worthy successor to the throne previously occupied by Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and all. There was even ludicrous talk, fuelled mainly by Nike, that he could break Just Fontaine’s record of 13 goals in one tournament. He was subjected to a weight of expectation not seen since Maradona in 1986 – and what followed was an almighty let down. Right from the beginning he looked unsure of himself and his team-mates (his strike partner for the previous two years had been Romario, who was dropped before the tournament, leaving Ronaldo to play with the ageing and near useless Bebeto) and although he scored four goals, he was a shadow of the player who had set the world alight at PSV, Barcelona and Inter Milan. On the day of the final he suffered a panic attack hours before kick-off and took to the pitch in no condition to play the most important game of his career, and Brazil sunk without trace 3-0 to hosts France. That incident has been followed by career threatening injuries that have limited him to 8 minutes of football in two years. The game that should have been the defining moment of his career now appears to have sent it into irreversible decline.

    We are now less than a year away from Korea/Japan 2002, and it is hard to imagine any of the current stars of world football taking our breath away next June. Ronaldo has started training again, and how Brazil need him at the moment, but there are quite obvious concerns that he can never be the same player that looked destined for greatness just a few years ago. So will we ever see a truly great player light up the World Cup again? Of course we will. Football is cyclical and every generation throws up at least one outstanding player. It is just a shame for the current generation that if Ronaldo was the one, at the moment he looks like being the one that got away.



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