Top 10 iconic moments in International Football: No. 1 - Diego Maradona's Hand of God
We conclude our series on the Top 10 iconic moments in International Football with an incident that left an indelible impression on the beautiful game; one that polarised opinion like never before on one of the greatest footballers the world has ever laid its sight on – Diego Armando Maradona’s Hand of God in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup.
There stands only a fleeting moment between fame and notoriety. Two incidents of contrasting natures, spaced four minutes apart. Two goals which will be forever etched into football’s Hall of Fame – if there ever existed one – and for reasons entirely different. At the centre of both was a diminutive Argentinian against an opponent he deeply loathed – England – on the grandest stage of them all – the FIFA World Cup.
Argentina vs. England – one of the most intense intercontinental rivalries you will ever witness. Its origins can be traced back to the 1966 FIFA World Cup held in England. The two teams met in the quarterfinals of the tournament at the Wembley Stadium. A fiercely contested game the Argentines would later dub as el robo del siglo (the theft of the century) as England won by a solitary Geoff Hurst goal which was reportedly offside.
A game which contained persistent fouling by both teams as the Argentine captain Antonio Rattin was sent off and he needed to be escorted off the pitch by the police. Post match, the English manager Alf Ramsey did not allow his players to swap shirts and instead resorted to calling them ‘animals’.
There were reasons outside the realm of football also. The 1982 Falklands war between Argentina and the United Kingdom further intensified this rivalry as Argentina were defeated and suffered heavy losses of man and machinery.
It is against this backdrop that we begin to describe the incidents of 22 June 1986 – a match that would take its place in the annals of football history.
The 1986 FIFA World Cup was held in Mexico after Columbia, the original hosts, withdrew from their responsibility, citing economic reasons. Both Argentina and England made it to the finals of the tournament by topping their respective UEFA and CONMEBOL qualifying groups. Argentina, placed in group A, had an easy passage to the last 16 after 2 wins (against South Korea and Bulgaria), and a draw against Italy meant they comfortably topped their group.
On the other hand, England had barely managed to scrape through after facing a must-win game against Poland (who they thrashed 3-0 thanks to a Gary Lineker hattrick). Both the teams were up against opponents from South America; while La Albiceleste beat Uruguay 1-0, England brushed aside the challenge of Paraguay by a resounding 3-0 margin.
This set up a lip-smacking quarter final clash between the two sides, with England slowly building up momentum after a sluggish start and Argentina buoyed by the performances of their talismanic skipper – Diego Maradona.
The date was 22nd June 1986. The venue was Estadio Azteca, Mexico City – one of the most emblematic stadiums in world football.
The match started with both teams understandably cautious. However, Argentina had the better of the opening exchanges with the England goalkeeper Peter Shilton kept busy in the goal. At the breather, the match was poised 0-0, with Argentina in the ascendancy, yet unable to break down a stubborn English defence. At the beginning of the second half, Argentina was very much looking likely to score first, though no one could have predicted the rather unspectacular way the deadlock would finally be broken.
It was showing 51 minutes on the clock when Maradona cut inside from the left wing and played a low diagonal towards his teammate Jorge Valdano, who was positioned on the edge of the box, as he continued his run into the penalty box in hope of a return pass. It wasn’t a perfectly weighted pass as it was played behind Valdano who was quickly dispossessed by Steve Hodge, the English left midfielder who was carrying out his share of defensive responsibilities.
In his quest to hook the ball clear, Hodge skewed it into his own box. The ball landed in the direction of Maradona who had already made his run inside the box. Out came Peter Shilton off his goal line to fist the ball away. This set up an intriguing aerial challenge between Shilton and Maradona.
Let us freeze this pane and step back to reconsider some facts. Shilton was 6ft 1in while Maradona was comparatively much shorter at 5ft 5in. This is without even factoring in the massive reach of the long arms of Shilton. Add to it the fact that goalkeepers are a protected species, who get awarded the benefit of the doubt in overzealous challenges. The English goalkeeper favourite for the ball? Hell yes!
This is when you have to marvel at the sheer ballsiness of El Diego. Most strikers would have given up, or made a half-hearted leap for an aerial ball they had minimal hopes of winning. But not Maradona. He wanted to reach it badly. Bad enough for him to cheat.
Displaying the presence of mind that made him a phenomenon worldwide and also those street urchin-like tendencies that characterised him, Maradona somehow managed to reach the ball first and, extending his left fist, punched it beyond Shilton and into the back of the English net. Not only that, he also managed to cleverly disguise his hand with his head at the very moment he made the contact with the ball. Add to that he had the audacity to celebrate the unsporting act.
The Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser or his linesman did not notice the infringement and the score line read 1-0 in favour of Argentina. The English players, clearly incensed, chased the referee back to the centre circle but the goal stood. The decision had been made. And what was the perpetrator of the incident doing?
“I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me, and no one came… I told them, ‘Come hug me, or the referee isn’t going to allow it.’”
The match ended 2-1 in favour of Argentina. Four minutes after the infamous ‘Hand of God’ came the iconic Goal of the Century, a goal diametrically opposite in nature, sublime as opposed to the shameless; a goal borne out of sheer brilliance (something I would rather discuss in another full fledged article and not just as a footnote). Gary Linekar would bring the margin down to one goal in the 80th minute. The Argentine defence held on resolutely in some testing circumstances and England finally ran out of time.
In the most match press conference, an unapologetic Maradona would remark that that the goal was scored “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”), from where we get the phrase, “Hand of God”. This was much to the chagrin of the then English manager Bobby Robson, who would retort that the goal was the act of “the hand of a rascal”. He was quoted in the Guardian:
“I saw the ball in the air and Maradona going for it,”.”Shilton went for it as well but Maradona handled the ball into the net. You don’t expect decisions like that at World Cup level”.
England trudged home with a sense of indignation while Argentina would go on the win the World Cup, soundly beating Belgium 2-0 in the semis and getting the better of West Germany 3-2 in a pulsating climax to the tournament. With 5 goals in the competition, Diego Maradona would go on to win the Golden Ball award as the Player of the Tournament.
The game added to the fierce rivalry between the two countries. Understandably, England felt that they were cheated. Argentina celebrated wildly as a revenge for the Falkland war and the unfair treatment they received in the 1966 edition of the World Cup. Former Argentine footballer Roberto Perfumo summed up the emotions succinctly when he said:
“‘In 1986, winning that game against England was enough. Winning the World Cup was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim”.
Maradona later wrote about the build-up to this match in his autobiography El Diego, in which he revealed his true intentions:
I say a final because for us, because of everything it represented, we were playing a final against England. More than defeating a football team it was defeating a country.
Of course, before the match, we said that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War but we knew a lot of Argentinian kids had died there, shot down like little birds. This was revenge. It was like recovering a little bit of the Malvinas.
In the pre-match interviews we had all said that football and politics shouldn’t be confused, but that was a lie. We did nothing but think about that. B****s was it just another match!
Later, a statue of Maradona would be erected outside the Estadio Azteca to commemorate the match. Another small additional info would be that referee Ali Bin Nasser would never ever officiate a FIFA World Cup match again after the ’86 tournament ended.
In a way it was perhaps inevitable that the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis (who incidentally is from Buenos Aires, Argentina) this month was met with some ironic puns which made headlines in some English tabloids. Maradona, a devout Roman Catholic, rejoiced at the election and stated:
“Everybody in Argentina can remember ‘the hand of God’ in the England match in the 1986 World Cup. Now, in my country, the ‘hand of God’ has brought us an Argentinian pope.”
A good omen for Argentina? Maybe.