Pedro Pasculli, room-mate of Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup and scorer of a crucial goal against Uruguay in the knockout stages, shares his memories of Mexico and reveals the deep bond that still exists among Argentina's history-making squad...
by Adam Bate
"There are no words," says Pedro Pasculli.
"Suddenly, Argentina lost its myth.
"And I lost one of my best friends."
As the world mourns his loss, and the nation of Argentina is stricken with grief, there is the sense that Diego Armando Maradona touched the lives of millions. A communal experience.
In Naples, where his legend looms large, they are naming the stadium after him. Argentinos Juniors did that long ago. Boca Juniors is his club, while Leo Messi unveiled a Newell’s Old Boys shirt to honour his memory.
Many more feel connected to Maradona in some small way.
But there can be no doubt that it was 1986 that changed everything. There was his life before that year's World Cup and his life after it. Mexico was when man became myth.
And it was in that heady summer of 1986 that Pasculli was his room-mate.
Nobody can truly comprehend the journey that Maradona embarked upon as a result of his outrageous actions at the 1986 World Cup, but a select group did witness those actions close up. A band of brothers still bonded by the experience, now broken by his passing.
"I do not care what Maradona did with his life, I care about what he did with mine." So goes the famous line from Roberto Fontanarrosa. Pasculli agrees with the second part.
"When I am in a bar, for example, or just walking around when I am in Argentina, many people still congratulate me for my goal against Uruguay," he tells Sky Sports.
"We are still idolised by our people. After almost 35 years, people still love us."
Maradona is the third of the squad to lose his life. Jose Luis Cuciuffo died in 2004 and Jose Luis Brown, scorer of the opening goal in the final against West Germany, died last year. The remaining members are closer than ever.
There is even a WhatsApp group.
"Pranks are a must," says Pasculli. "But usually, we just share photos of our victory or simply update each other on our lives. After all these years, we are still a great group of friends."
I was first in touch with Pasculli in early November, in the wake of Maradona's brain surgery. Even then, he confirmed that one man was occupying their thoughts.
"Everyone has been messaging to support Diego."
Prior to his passing, more than one of the squad had a picture of Maradona rather than themselves as their avatar on various social media platforms. He was an icon of the game, an icon of Argentina, and, in particular, an icon for this particular group of players.
A hero and a friend.
"Goodbye, great captain," wrote Jorge Valdano in his eulogy.
"We were ordinary guys who did something extraordinary together with an extraordinary guy who thought himself ordinary," added Vasco Olarticoechea.
Maradona’s role in Argentina’s success needs no explanation. But what is striking is how his role is remembered by his team-mates. For them, it was not just the goals – five of them in Mexico – or even the assists, including that through-ball for Jorge Burruchaga that finally won Argentina that dramatic final against West Germany. It was not even his genius.
Pasculli remembers the leadership.
“From Diego, I learnt the psychological aspect of a leader – he was humble, always there to help, projecting confidence to everyone around him. He loved Argentina so much."
The story of 1986
There are so many stories, so many myths, surrounding Argentina’s adventures in Mexico that it can sometimes be difficult to separate the fact from the fiction.
Daniel Passarella, captain in 1978, had been named in the squad but departed on the eve of the tournament citing enterocolitis as the reason. Others reported a fall-out with Maradona.
Among the more persistent rumours include the time that Maradona and Pasculli were among a group of four who were reprimanded for going walkabout.
Goalkeeper Luis Islas is also said to have broken a curfew, much to Carlos Bilardo’s disgust, the manager only calming down when Maradona elected to take the rap instead.
Pasculli insists the tales have grown in the telling, reports overblown. "You are not the first to ask me and my team-mates about this and I am sure you will not be the last," he says.
"We were not based in a hotel, but in the sports facility of America, one of the most important clubs in Mexico. But this was 1986 and there was not much for us to do there.
"We had one day off per week and we just went out in the city to have a coffee, have a walk. But never alone. We always went out in groups. It was normal to have a walk to break the routine, going out together. There was nothing about a curfew, that it is not true."
There is one story above all others that persists. It is a notion now routinely repeated to laud Maradona’s achievements. It is the suggestion that Argentina were a one-man team.
The problem is that this story, much like the minor ones about broken curfews, is not entirely accurate. There was more to that Argentina team than even the greatest of players.
It ignores the fact that Burruchaga, the scorer of the winning goal in the final, had been voted as the outstanding foreign footballer in the French league that season.
It ignores the fact that Valdano, also on target against West Germany, and scorer of four goals in total at that tournament, received the equivalent award in Spain. He was the second highest scorer in La Liga that season, a key figure in Real Madrid’s title win.
Even beyond the bigger names, this was a trophy-laden team. Burruchaga was one of four players in the squad who had won the 1984 Copa Libertadores with Independiente.
Two more had been part of the Argentinos Juniors team that won the tournament the following year in 1985. Another three would go on to do so with River Plate in 1986.
Pasculli himself had won the title with Argentinos Juniors before moving to Italy, playing the preceding season for Lecce in what was the toughest league in the world at the time.
"The team was a good mix of players from Europe and Argentina," he says.
"Bilardo’s choices were essential to winning the tournament. He chose with bravery and wisdom, the very best players to face a tough competition like the World Cup.
"We were not favoured but the collective was crucial. We were all good boys, professional in training and in life. We had that hunger and that humility to play and to win."
It was a special group. Not that anybody recognised it beforehand.
"The media in Argentina did not just underestimate us. Above all, they denigrated us saying that the team was too weak and did not have a chance of even getting out of the group.
"We were humble. We did not listen to them. We trained hard and played well to win the trophy. I can tell you that many of those journalists who did not believe in us, at the end they were the ones shaking our hands to congratulate us."
This distorted view of the team’s capabilities was shaped by the poor results in the build-up. A warm-up victory over Israel in the final friendly ended a run of six matches without a win.
Bilardo’s novel 3-5-2 system, for which Argentina’s tactical triumph in ’86 will be remembered, had not been used in those games. He had toyed with it in 1984 – without Maradona – before parking the idea. Ready for use when he needed it most.
As a result, although South Korea and Bulgaria were beaten comfortably enough, there were few signs in the early matches in Mexico of the glory that was to come. The turning point for the team – and the life of Pasculli – came in the first knockout round.
Argentina had never beaten Uruguay in a World Cup and would go on to lose out to them in the Copa America in 1987 but a 1-0 win in Puebla set up a quarter-final against England.
"In a World Cup, every match, every ball played, is important," says Pasculli. "But this match was something more, because it was a South American derby.
"We were facing a great opponent, one of the favourites to reach the final and win the World Cup. It was a tough game and obviously I was pleased to score the winner. But after this victory we believed more in our powers and focused all our energies to reach the final."
Belief may have grown but that did not stop Bilardo changing the system. It was in that memorable quarter-final win against England that the coach unveiled his masterpiece.
With wingers out of fashion, he took the view that full-backs were not required and that it made more sense to pack the midfield with Maradona playing off the centre-forward.
There was just one problem.
"He had to sacrifice a striker to do it," says Pasculli.
"That striker was me."
The decision was difficult to accept, but accept it he did.
"Honestly, who could have imagined that Pasculli, the man who had scored against Uruguay and brought his nation to the quarter-final of a World Cup, would be the one left out?
"I suffered that choice but I always respected the coach’s decision."
Bilardo was vindicated in front of a crowd of 114,580 people in the Estadio Azteca. The game is remembered for two goals scored by Maradona. The first with his hand, the second with his genius. But the system also helped to stifle England in the Mexican heat.
"The unpredictable change of system was important against England," Pasculli admits. "Hector Enrique, a midfielder with defensive skills, took my place, and Valdano moved up.
"We won and I saw an historical match with two famous goals that everyone knows. Bilardo was sharp and his decision was for the good of the team. He wanted a solid midfield.
"And do you remember where we won the ball back in the extraordinary goal of Diego? In the midfield!"
Indeed, in its own way, it is football’s most famous assist.
Enrique would later quip that after the pass that he had given him – a straightforward five-yard ball delivered inside his own half – Maradona could hardly miss.
There was another masterclass in the semi-final against Belgium, Maradona scoring both goals in a 2-0 win. By this point, the tournament belonged to the Argentina No 10 but the pressure was on him to finish the job against the might of West Germany in Mexico City.
Even now, Pasculli marvels at the mentality of his great friend.
"The night before the final, I was not able to sleep," he recalls.
"I was too nervous for one of the most important days of our lives. All of us had problems sleeping. But not Diego. He was calm, like a leader is. He noticed I was not able to sleep.
"A few words from Diego relaxed me."
Maradona led Argentina to glory that day but he had company. His every move was tracked by Lothar Matthaus. It restricted his influence. The space was there for others.
Brown and Valdano opened up a two-goal advantage before West Germany mounted a comeback late on to level things up. There has not been a better World Cup final since. There has not been a better player provide the killer pass to decide it either.
Off balance and with three men closing in on him, Maradona had only a split-second to thread the ball through to Burruchaga. He did so and a legend was truly born.
Pasculli has had many experiences since – even a spell at Welsh club Bangor. He lives in Italy now, working on the Adriatic coast as a technical consultant to a club in the country’s third tier. But he knows that it is his role in one particular story that will define him forever.
He played with the great Diego Armando Maradona in the summer of his greatest triumph.
He played in the only Argentina team ever to win the World Cup on foreign soil.
"Unfortunately, our national team had not been so lucky in the last 35 years," he says. "They have shown great potential… but they have never achieved what we were able to do."
They did it together. Not a one-man team but a team inspired by one man.
"He will always be our leader."
Source: Sky Sports / Adam Bate