Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer star, has yet to score a goal in four World Cup matches and has taken only one shot on goal. This is a dismal performance, to be sure, but one that may be explained on another level.
Maradona has been fouled 34 times, 13 more than any other player in the tournament, and an average of more than eight a game. A key offensive player can normally expect to be fouled three to four times a game. Clearly, Maradona--even a hobbled, older and slower Maradona--has not been given room to play in his creative fashion, as teams have instructed their goons to chop him down.
Argentina, the defending World Cup champion, will play Yugoslavia here today in a quarterfinal game, and the speculation is that this most offensive defensive style will continue.
The man who will most likely defend against Maradona is Refik Sabanadzovic, an easygoing, likable young man who may have the game's toughest assignment. Sabanadzovic, 24, has never played against Maradona, but says it won't be necessary to knock him down.
"The reason they bring him down is because of his pace," Sabanadzovic said this week through an interpreter, Los Angeles restaurateur Dan Tana, a Yugoslav native who is an aide to the national team.
The Yugoslavs are encamped in the luxury hotel the Czechs used during the first round, in the spa town of Montecatini.
"They are not as fast as he is," Sabanadzovic said. "My intention is not to do that. I am going to do everything possible to stop him correctly. It is possible to be a defensive player without this."
Sabanadzovic did it against Spain, closely marking striker Emilio Butragueno without drawing a yellow card. So effective was his defense in that game that Butragueno, the Spanish captain, was replaced before the end of the match.
Although Sabanadzovic said he respects Maradona--understandably, since Maradona has the ability and timing to humiliate a defensive player in an instant--he does not fear him.
"Maybe Maradona cannot play 90 minutes like he did before," Sabanadzovic said, "but in one minute he can change the whole game. With one move he can decide the match, like he did against Brazil. It's going to have to be up to me to concentrate 100% to make sure he doesn't pull what he pulled against Brazil."
The play against Maradona in this World Cup has reminded soccer historians of the vicious strategy teams employed against Pele in the 1966 World Cup in England. That has come to be known, infamously, as the time Pele was "kicked" out of the World Cup. It remains a shameful remnant of soccer's wild past, which some question whether it has truly left.
Brazil was beaten by Hungary, 3-1, in its second match of the first round in '66. But the real beating was to Pele, who was unashamedly kicked and hacked every time he touched the ball.
In Brazil's next match against Portugal, there was more of the same, and worse. Portugal was leading, 2-0, when Portuguese defender Morais tackled Pele so roughly that Pele had to leave the game. He did not play again in the tournament.
World Cup officials were dismayed that their international star was missing from the sport's biggest stage. There was discussion about tightening the rules to prevent future on-field hooliganism. That was just talk. The real lesson was not obscured, however, as Portugal beat a Pele-less Brazil, 3-1. Teams knew a successful tactic when they saw one.
And so it has remained in soccer, despite official crackdowns on so-called professional tackles and rough play. The bright yellow FIFA banner bearing the appeal, "Fair Play, Please", is a fixture at every World Cup match.
While more fouls are being called, it's debatable whether the rough play has decreased. With only eight teams left in the tournament, there are seven players suspended for this weekend's games. Cameroon alone will be minus four starters because of red cards for rough play.
At this point, with "everyone doing it," the competition is beginning to have the look of an escalating arms race, which no team is prepared to lose.
"We see Maradona being fouled, but look at players on the Argentine defense," Yugoslav Coach Ivica Osim said. "They are not saints. As far as we are concerned, Maradona does not have to worry. He won't be fouled out of the match. He may be more surprised if no one fouls him."
It would be surprising, indeed.