Once Upon a Time in Mexico: The 1986 World Cup as a John Ford Western
Who does not like an action packed drama where the hero emerges victorious single handedly destroying the enemy force? Trinankur Banerjee tells us one such epic tale here at Goalden Times. Only difference is that the story unfolds on a lush green football ground.
The article got featured in Guardian’s ‘Favourite Things Online This Week” column.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that God created Latin America and said, “Let there be Football!” If a certain Jorge Luis Borges lends his pen to create mystical short stories about the sport, then who are we, mere mortals, to deny that football is Latin America’s staple diet? I am not a football historian or a football analyst. I am just another cinephile who likes to understand the undercurrents and ripples of certain narratives in football. If that interests you, you can journey with me to discover how a single world cup forged the John Wayne of Football—the mythical hero, the misunderstood genius—Diego Armando Maradona.
The hero in the American western (film) is a loner, a wanderer—forever roaming cities in his search for justice. He is a modern knight who shall protect the woman and the land when the weak cannot. If need be, he will rise up to the need of the hour as the knight in the bloody armour. But, as Westerns have taught us, every hero needs a narrative. If westerns comprise series of signs like horses, women, and the gun, then football is also an amalgamation of the boot, the jersey, and the ball. They play for their jerseys, these heroes of the future. However, not everyone can be a western hero, for they lack the narrative. If Johan Cruyff is reminiscent of Greek tragedies, then the 1962 FIFA World Cup is a classical Hollywood film where the hero can travel through every obstacle to reach the ultimate solution. However, neither Garrincha nor Cruyff could become the western hero. That was because, before one became the hero, one needed to take the fall.
The narrative of fall and redemption is a characteristic of Westerns. In his magnum opus, The Searchers, John Wayne faces the horror of his mistake that led to the slaughter of his brother’s family. It is the guilt that calls for redemption. After a series of events, when the final epiphany of redemption arrives, the audience breathes a sigh of relief as Wayne takes Debby up in his arms and whispers, “Let’s go home, Debby.” It is this moment of redemption that converts the sinner to a mythical hero. I believe that is the case with a certain Diego, the hero of our super western.
To start with, the myth of Maradona being the loner genius who single-handedly turned the course of events and football history is perhaps the most important factor that contributes to his status of a modern cowboy. However, there is more to it than meets the eye. Before becoming a hero, he took a fall. It was perhaps the greatest fall in football history—“the hand of god”.
When 22 players walked out in the bright sunshine of Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca on 22nd June 1986,they couldn’t probably have been aware that a western was going to unfold on the field. In the next few hours, the hero took the fall. According to folklore, the hero denied the truth. Cynicism rippled around the world. Greatness came under scanner, vociferous debates started. But if there is a fall, there is redemption. I still believe if Argentina had won the game by that goal and even gone on to win the cup, the myth would not have been complete. But, that didn’t happen. Something else happened—a shoot-out with boots and balls. In the 54th minute, as the hero took the ball near the centre line in his own half, no one knew what was going to happen. The rest I will describe in a parallel cutting of a shoot-out common in westerns—a man with a gun against an army with guns, a man with a ball against an army creating a barricade of boots.
Only Peter Shilton stands in the way of the prey, the redemption, and the falcon. He will make him crawl for mercy with his boots, and he does. The ball rolls into the net and he runs towards the corner line in ecstasy. The redemption achieves its sense of finality—leaving three Peters, two Terrys, and billions worldwide dumbstuck.
It is our western hero who faces his nemesis now, his evil other. He will shoot him in his heart in a fair duel and the blood trickling down on the floor will write a new story of justice tomorrow when the small town awakes from its slumber. The hero walks off from the bloodbath—alone, satisfied—and everything is again right in the perfect world.
This interpretation may be entirely banal or eccentric, but it is true that when I see the ball roll into the net every time in YouTube, I can hear a whisper—“Let’s go home, Debby.” This tremendous feat could only have been achieved by an eccentric, an outlaw with a law of his own, a genius, and, above all, a man who loved his jersey like the western hero loves his woman. Football found its Antigone in Cruyff and its Banquo in Ferenc Puskás. Here is to the John Wayne of football—the nobody and the somebody—Diego Armando Maradona.