“Referees are to take stronger action against the tackle from behind,” said the Fifa media release on March 6, 1998. “A tackle from behind which endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play,” it said, adding that the offence could be punished by a red card.
By the time this decision to amend football’s Law 12, which deals with fouls and misconduct, was taken, Diego Maradona had retired after 21 years of football; his career spanning four World Cups and six clubs in three countries in two continents. The new rule would be implemented from the 1998 World Cup—the first without Maradona, who died on Wednesday at 60, after 1982—said the bulletin.
“When we see how the careers of great soccer players have been destroyed by attacks from behind, sporting ethics forced us to counter this,″ Michel D’Hooghe, head of FIFA’s medical committee, had said in 1994, pointing out that even in boxing attacking from behind is not permitted.
That Lionel Messi was 11 and Cristiano Ronaldo 13 when Fifa finally decided to walk the talk about protecting skillful players highlights the vastly altered circumstances in which the two make football look beautiful and how cross-referencing generations can lead to inaccurate conclusions.
Like all ball players before 1998, Maradona was kicked and brutalised by opponents for which now they would have been booked, ejected, given long suspensions, often all three. Marco van Basten retired from international football at 28 because his ankles and legs were battered beyond repair.
Fouled out of the 1966 World Cup, Pele had vowed to never play the competition and Zico had his shirt ripped by Italy’s Claudio Gentile in the 1982 edition. George Best, the Manchester United and Northern Ireland wizard, spoke about how the impact of tackles would go through shin guards, socks and protective padding “into the bone” of his leg (Blessed, The Autobiography).
In the World Cup that was all about him, Maradona mentioned feeling similarly. He was kicked 30 seconds into Argentina’s opening game against South Korea in 1986, he said. It was from behind and Spanish referee Sanchez Arminio didn’t say a thing, he said in “Touched By God”, a book on the World Cup triumph. Maradona said he was fouled by the Koreans 11 times in the game. “Thirty years have passed but when I watched the footage for the first time, it still hurt.” Check out the quarter-final against England that he made memorable and you can see Terry Fenwick landing an elbow on Maradona’s face.
It was worse in the 1982 World Cup to which Maradona went keen on proving a number of things: that Pele was wrong to doubt his abilities, that he should have been part of the edition at home four years ago and that Barcelona were right in paying nearly $8 million for him. Maradona claimed Argentina were denied a penalty in the 0-1 loss to Belgium and said, “I had the shit kicked out of me against El Salvador” (“El Diego”, the autobiography). The worst though was yet to come. In the shape and form of Gentile it did.
The Italy and Juventus central defender committed 23 fouls on Maradona, 11 in the first half. By today’s standard of protection against physical play, Gentile would have been red-carded early. All he got was a 42nd minute booking. This was after Maradona was shown the yellow card by Romanian Nicolae Rainea for complaining against Gentile. Soon after, Gentile barrelled into Maradona from behind and then broke another build-up by kicking his left leg. Around the 40-minute mark, Gentile fisted Maradona as he tried to turn. Early in the second half, Gentile clipped Maradona’s ankle when the Argentine faced his goal. There was also a push from behind that felled Maradona.
“…the appaling excesses of Claudio Gentile, set to mark — in every sense of the word, it seemed — Maradona, were a blemish on the match, the tournament and Italy’s eventual success,” wrote Brian Glanville in “The Story of The World Cup.”
“It wasn’t Gentile’s fault, that’s his job; it was the ref’s,” said Maradona in “El Diego”. In a goal.com article, Gentile, who was selected in the 1982 Fifa All Stars Team, is described as: “An intimidator of infamous proportions, Gentile often executed the tackle from behind.” Yet in 71 internationals and 400 league games, Gentile was sent off only once (Claudio Gentile: In Defence Of the Dark Arts Master by Stuart Horsefield).
But even Gentile couldn’t do what Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea did. Barcelona were up 2-0 when the man who came to be known as the “Butcher of Bilbao” broke Maradona’s ankle with a tackle from behind. “I just felt the impact, heard the sound like a piece of wood cracking,” he said (“El Diego”). Goikoetxea was only booked for the foul. The brutality on Maradona continued in Italy and by 29, pain and cortisone injections were a way of life with him.