In the week leading up to the World Cup final, Argentina's Diego Maradona had turned soccer's showcase event into his personal oyster. When the tournament ended, however, the pearl of victory defintely belonged to the entire Argentine team, which prevailed over two-time champion West Germany 3-2. How this result was achieved was a clear reminder that Maradona, a marvelously gifted striker, hadn't been playing alongside 10 mannequins for the past month. His teammates, cast largely in unsung supporting roles before Sunday's game, made their presence felt over the final 90 minutes of this quadrennial event, accounting for all three goals on a day when the globe's reigning superstar was held in check.
Defender Jos'e Brown opened the scoring 22 minutes into play with his first goal of the tournament, a head-directed putaway of a crossing pass that arched over goalkeeper Harald Schumacher's gloved hands.
Jorge Valdano struck early in the second half, taking the ball on a breakaway, charging quickly ahead, and slipping it past the West German goalie, who had come out to meet the assault.
Then, after the game was dramatically tied on a pair of headers in an eight-minute span, Jorge Burruchaga clinched the victory by popping in a 12-yard shot to conclude an open-field rush with six minutes left.
Maradona's mere presence no doubt served to distract the defense and help make these goals possible, but ultimately it was Argentina's overall execution that won the day, the tournament, and the futuristic Jules Rimet Trophy. The victory, Argentina's second in the last three tournaments (it won in Buenos Aires in 1978), was a popular triumph in Mexico, host to this year's 24-team playoff.
The crowd of 114,500 that jammed Mexico City's Azteca Stadium was decidedly pro-Argentina, and it rocked with glee and showered the field with silver confetti as the winners took a rather chaotic victory lap around the commercial-rimmed playing surface.
The battle for hemispheric superiority is a keen one in soccer, and after this round, Latin Americans could rejoice that they had moved into the lead over the Europeans, seven cup championships to six.
The Europeans left sunny Mexico bowed, yet hardly broken. They departed encouraged by having produced three semifinalists this year -- France, Belgium, and West Germany -- and with the knowledge that the 1990 tournament will be held in Italy.
The home-continent advantage has always loomed large in this whole-earth championship, which began in 1930, when Uruguay won. Since then, only Pel'e-propelled Brazil has ever triumphed playing on the other side of the Atlantic.
The fact that overseas teams must live out of a suitcase for more than a month, and in foreign surroundings, is certainly a mental hurdle for even the most experienced squads. Then, too, mustering the required concentration and sharpness for such a prolonged period challenges any team, home or away.
Just to get to the the month-long finals, teams had to survive a two-year mega-tournament that narrowed the contenders from 110 to 22 qualifiers, plus two automatic qualifiers (Italy, the defending champion, and host Mexico).
Then during the past month the winnowing process continued, with regionalized round-robin competition played throughout Mexico determining which teams advanced to the tense, single-elimination final rounds.
Almost happily, the World Cup has retained an Old World flavor free from the US-USSR/East German rivalry that dominates the Olympics. The Soviets competed this year, but lost to Belgium in the second round, while the United States and East Germany didn't qualify teams. Other countries, however, find this an ideal opportunity to take their turn in the international limelight. Some, such as Brazil, France, and England, are counted on to field strong teams. But there are surprises, too. The Belgians made their furthest advance ever by reaching the semifinals, where Maradona pulled the trigger with a pair of goals in a 2-0 defeat. Lightly regarded Morocco, meanwhile, became the first African team to reach the second round.
These achievements, of course, took a back seat to what Argentina was able to accomplish, which was to compile a sparkling 6-0-1 record. The lone smudge was a tie with Italy in the first round.