Jorge Burruchaga: The man who let Maradona conquer the world

The Independiente favourite kept a low profile, but he was the perfect complement to the extrovert who kept Argentina on course for the World Cup with a 2-0 win over Belgium

It is generally easier to play with good players than bad. The talented among us make everything look easy, they help the rest to do the simple things, they have the tools to work effortlessly through a task. In the 1986 World Cup having Diego Maradona in the team was the equivalent to playing poker with two aces already in the hand.

But even two aces can at times be beaten. You need to know how and when to play them, and when to take advantage. Jorge Burruchaga was Argentina's poker master in Mexico, even if his position as Maradona's right-hand man has somewhat unjustly been overlooked with the passage of time.

When one thinks of Diego's inseparable partner, Claudio Caniggia comes to mind first. But El Pajaro was more a puppet of the great No. 10 than his colleague: fast, daring, with a great eye for space, he was the perfect complement to a player who had gained in vision and understanding of the game what he had lost in explosive talent.

But in 1986, Burruchaga was the man who best understood Maradona within a team that knew the star was not just their best player, but the key to winning the World Cup. The semi-final against Belgium merely confirmed that fact. Argentina ran out 2-0 winners, thanks in part to a stunning pass from 'Burru' to release his captain. All Diego had to do was lift the ball over Jean Marie Pfaff to continue the wonderful run of form that had reached its zenith against England. 

"I have always said, 'thank God Diego is Argentine'. We always knew what he meant for us, although we should not forget we had an extraordinary team, that overcame tough times with the maturity needed to get over our problems and do whatever it took for the shirt. We all helped Diego become what he did. He was the ace of spades, but the team helped him a lot," Burruchaga said years later to El Grafico.

The Independiente favourite was the fifth midfielder in a rigid line down the middle of the pitch. The team played with two wingers, with first Oscar Garre and later Julio Olarticoechea on the left and Claudio Borghi, then Hector Enrique on the right. Ricardo Giusti and Sergio Batista anchored the middle, with the latter sitting just in front of the centre-backs. Burruchaga played in an almost free role behind the two forwards, Maradona and Jorge Valdano, helping out in midfield when necessary. 

Technically, the linkman was flawless. In a team with plenty of players capable of carrying out their assigned roles but lacking outstanding talents, Burruchaga was the most complete of Maradona's team-mates. He could mark, back up in defence, work his way into space, and he had the precision to play off Maradona's one-touch football and break the defensive line with his passing.

The midfielder never seemed to tire, he kept working and putting in the hard yards to the bitter end; but he also knew how to play. Most importantly, he understood that Maradona needed to have the ball at his feet constantly. He was by some margin Argentina's most prolific passer to the great No. 10.

Against Belgium Maradona touched the ball 98 times, more than in any other game at the World Cup. Burruchaga, who fed him incessantly throughout the 90 minutes, was the reason. Whenever possible, he would give the ball to Diego. 

There are many reasons why it all came together for Maradona in Mexico 86. Carlos Bilardo's foresight in putting his captain at the forefront was vital, as were his team-mates that put themselves at his beck and call for the good of the nation. Diego's personal trainers, who made sure he was in the shape of his life to absorb the demands of the World Cup also deserve credit for their brilliant work. 

But there was another man, silent and keeping the lowest of profiles, working tirelessly to make his colleague shine brighter than any player before or after. Burruchaga was never Maradona's friend, but he was a perfect partner on the pitch. He was the right-hand man, the brain who drove the genius to reach new heights in an unforgettable World Cup.