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War, Football and Maradona – the tale of the sport’s two most famous goals

Genius. Cheek. Awesome. Cheating. Describe them how you will, but the 2 goals scored on 22/6/86 will forever be Football's most famous.


Maradona
Diego Maradona making English players look silly as he toys with them.

It was as if we had beaten a country, more than just a football team…”

The War

Around five hundred kilometers to the east of the Southern Patagonia coast lay an archipelago of around 778 little islands known as the Falklands. It is one of the few remaining lands that still remain part of the once great British Empire (or whatever remains of it in the form of British overseas territories).

This has never really gone well with the Argentinians of Patagonia who have – quite naturally - always maintained that Islas Malvinas were/are well and truly their lands and a Queen sitting 12,000 km away had absolutely no right over an inch of it.

On April the 2nd, 1982, a year after the failure of transfer-of-land-talks between the nations, the military junta of Argentina - desperate for some sort of distraction from the chaos their country found itself in domestically - invaded, occupied and laid claim to the archipelago

What ensued was a short, bloody war that led to the deaths of 907 people (650 of whom were Argentinians) and ended with an emphatic British victory. The political and economic ramifications of the War were truly epoch-making – and although the intricacies of said ramifications are mostly irrelevant to these pages, the effect this brief war would have on the psyche of the Argentinian public is certainly not. For the whole episode had left them frustrated, cheated and angry. While initially these emotions had led to the deposition of the military dictatorship at home, soon all their ire was focused on one nation; their one true enemy – England.

The Football

Argentina National Team
The ‘82 WC Argentina team poses with a banner that reads – The Malvinas (Falklands) are Argentina’s 

In 1982, the Argentinian national team had arrived on the shores of Spain for the World Cup fully convinced that their nation was winning the Malvinas Wars, such was the power of the propaganda machine back home.

The reality though was slightly different - the Argentine garrison at Stanley (capital of the Falklands/Malvinas) surrendered the day after the tournament kicked off.   As their inspiration, a curly-haired young kid named Diego Maradona, said - “We were convinced we were winning the war, and like any patriot my allegiance was to the national flag. But then we got to Spain and discovered the truth. It was a huge blow to the team.”  Although they made it past the first group stage, humbling defeats to Italy and Brazil ensured an earlier than anticipated exit for the defending champions.

Meanwhile back in England, Margaret Thatcher had toyed with the idea of not letting the Home Nations play in the Cup – for fear of a potential clash with the Argentinians at some stage in the tournament.

It had certainly not helped things that the Argentinians still harboured a great deal of resentment about the manner of their 1-0 defeat to the host nation, and eventual champions, England in the ‘66 WC. The match had been an ill-tempered affair which had been decided by the controversial sending of the talented Argentinian captain Antonio Rattin – not for a vicious tackle or an elbow to the head (which had been a common theme throughout the match from both sets of players), but for excessively talking back to the referee – and a potentially offside Geoff Hurst goal. The South Americans cried foul and still refer to the game as El Robo Del Siglo (the theft of the century); England’s acclaimed manager, Sir Alf Ramsey, called them ‘animals’ for their behavior and their rough, tough-tackling game.

Antonio Rattin (to the right of the ref) gets sent off in ‘66

Thatcher’s fears, it would turn out, were utterly unfounded as England too made it to the second stage only to see it all unravel rather quickly and following dull, goalless draws to West Germany and Spain, they would return home from their first World Cup outing in 12 years with an even greater sense of underachievement and frustration than La Albiceleste. England were now in real danger of becoming irrelevant on the international football stage.

The 1986 World Cup was going to be a chance for redemption; for both teams.

The Maradona

When a prodigious 17-year-old wunderkind named Diego Armando Maradona had been overlooked for selection in the 1978 World Cup, it had come as a surprise to many observers. It had also filled the young man with what they called bronca. While in its original Spanish Bronca means ‘to fight’ or is used to refer to ‘a person who is always seeking out and finding fights’, the Argentinian usage in its truest sense means an emotion akin to “anger, fury, hatred, resentment, bitter discontent – especially towards oppression”. It essentially meant a feeling that the entire world is against you, and is out to get you.

All of Maradona’s great triumphs were fuelled by Bronca. It was evident every time the squat little man set off on a dribble through players he knew were out to stop him by all means – legal or otherwise – and it was in plain sight every time he got up with ever greater vigour right after getting clattered by the many vicious challenges that he was subject to. For all we know, without Bronca, he might have been just another skillful South American entertainer.

By 1982, the Bronca engendered by his non-selection seemed to be driving him on as he entered the World Cup. His magnificent performances for Boca Juniors had earned him a world record £3 million transfer to Barcelona (how the world - and inflation – has come on since then!) and in this Cup, he would have the opportunity to show the Spanish public just why Barca had forked such a princely sum of money for his services.

Claudio Gentile introduces himself to Maradona in ‘82 

Claudio Gentile, however, had other ideas. In an exhibition of man marking that showcased the darkest of that particular dark art, the Italian set about Maradona with the demented determination of a dog handed his favorite chew toy. In the entirety of ninety minutes, he was never more than a couple of metres away from his opponent and ended up committing a fairly ridiculous 23 fouls on the great man. Maradona, in fact, was booked earlier than the Italian – for having the temerity to complain about the abuse he received.  With their opponent’s creator-in-chief in shackles, the Italians duly won the game 2-1.  

In the next match, Maradona would get thrown out of the World Cup a few minutes before his team as he aimed a kick straight at Brazil’s Joao Batista da Silva’s nether regions and got a deserved straight red. Trailing 3-0 by that time, Argentina would end up losing 3-1 and exiting the Cup before the knock-outs.

That summer, returning to Barcelona after his ignominious Cup exit, Maradona started cementing his place in the pantheon of footballing greats. Spain was soon spellbound by the little Magician; as his teammate Lobo Carrasco said - "He had complete mastery of the ball. When Maradona ran with the ball or dribbled through the defence, he seemed to have the ball tied to his boots. I remember our early training sessions with him: the rest of the team were so amazed that they just stood and watched him. We all thought ourselves privileged to be witnesses of his genius."

Maradona Barcelona
A young Maradona wows Spain

His two seasons at Barca though were marred when he had his leg broken by a horror tackle from Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea. The little Argentine’s attempt to seek retribution would be the last thing he did in a Blaugrana jersey – a flying donkey kick after another rough challenge from the Butcher of Bilbao that sparked a mass brawl. Just the way the little rascal would have had it.

In 1984, he broke his own transfer record as he went to Napoli for £5 million. He immediately formed a terrific bond with the club and the city; and by the time the ’86 World Cup came along, he was in the form of his life.     

The two teams walk out onto the pitch

22 June 1986 - The Match

A nation thirsty for revenge, a proud footballing nation attempting to reverse its apparent terminal decline, a bronca-fuelled genius who needed to prove a point or two and a historical (as well as sporting) rivalry that was its absolute peak – the stage was well and truly set.

The match started with the anticipated level of intensity, neither side willing to give an inch and as ever with the focus of the opposition’s hard man (in this case, the designated one was Terry Fenwick)  pivoting around Diego Maradona. Foul after nasty foul finally culminated with Fenwick’s elbow smashing into the little man’s face – a vicious assault that deserved a straight red and arguably, a jail sentence for assault (He would go on to smash Maradona’s face in three times through the match, and each time it went unpunished).  Dangerously for England, all this had been putting Maradona in a righteous fit of anger, and by the time the half ended he had started to assert his dominance on the match.

Goal I

Maradona Hand of God
A little bit by the Hand of God, a little bit by the Head of Maradona

In the 51st minute, Maradona suddenly burst it into life. From a seemingly non-threatening position on the right, he cut in and danced his way past a bewildered collection of English players Glen Hoddle, Peter Reid and the hapless Fenwick. When he reached the edge of the box,  his mere presence attracted two more Englishmen in the forms of Terry Butcher and Kenny Samson and - with that uncanny eye for a killer pass – moved the ball on to Jorge Valdano on the right of the box. It was a stunning piece of play from the best player in the world. A glimpse of just what he was capable of.

Steve Hodge, covering Valdano, intercepted, but his first-time clearance was abysmal and shot up high into the air. At  5’4½” Maradona had no right to even attempt to contest the high ball, least of all against Peter Shilton, a veritable giant, at 6’2”. Well, he did – and in his own words “the goal was scored a little bit by the Hand of God, a little bit by the Head of Maradona”. As he wheeled away in celebration, he yelled at his teammates to join him, lest the referee see through the ruse. 

It was cheeky, audacious and blatantly illegal. But he got away with it, just like Fenwick got away with his elbows (anyone who says an unpunished handball is more worthy of contempt than an unpunished elbow to the head, probably needs to be on the receiving end of the latter to fully comprehend their choice).

For the Argentinians, who felt the English had always unfairly held on to the Malvinas, but as one Argentinian daily memorably put it, "he who robs a thief has a hundred years of pardon".  Even today, that’s the theme of the Argentinian rhetoric – “England gets very righteous about Maradona, but England scores with their hand too. The sinking of the Belgrano was a hand goal”. Maradona himself described it later as “picking the pocket of an Englishman”

Goal II

Maradona Goal
Maradona’s route map on his journey to Footballing Heaven (p.c. Howler Magazine)

Four minutes later, though, he gave the watching world - and the stunned Brits -– more than just a glimpse of his supernatural talent; an extended edition if you will.  Keep in mind here that the pitch at the grand Estadio Azteca was a particularly bad one, knobby, wobbly and seemingly impossible to get a read on. After Hoddle had given the ball away cheaply, the ball reached the feet of the Argentine captain just inside his own half and with an instant pirouette was away from the attentions of Reid and Peter Beardsley. Kicking the ball forward, he started gathering pace (much like a boulder does as it goes downhill). He teased Butcher into a wild lunge and made off in the opposite direction, cutting in towards the goal. By this time he had reached maximum velocity and was hurtling along at full pelt. Amazingly, the ball was still under his spell – wobbly pitch or not, the football was now spellbound by the magician’s left foot. He ghosted past Fenwick like the burly defender wasn’t even there and pushed the ball just far enough from him to make Shilton think he had a chance.

Preposterously, at this point, he remembered a similar one-on-one situation he had been in back in 1980, one he had missed because he had shot past the post trying for too much precision. With all this analysed he made up his mind in less time than it takes for you to read the word “permutation” and rounded the poor keeper. By then Butcher had recovered and came back for more; holding off the brave Brit, the ball was coolly slotted into the back of the net.

Eleven touches of that left foot from start to finish. No controversy, no element of chance or deflections, no outcry. As the commentator Barry Davies put it, all you could say was “You have to say that's magnificent! Pure football genius!"

 Epilogue

After that, it almost felt the players were merely going through the motions. Probably dazed by the unparalleled genius of the little man. England put up a valiant fight back and got a goal back, but that’s how it stayed. 2-1 Argentina. The match was won. More importantly, lost pride was regained.

The two goals taken in isolation are still magnificent examples of cheeky audacity and pure skill, but taken in context – they become so much more.

Maradona, with all that grand sense of theatre and drama, that he inherently possessed, said it best -“It was as if we had beaten a country, more than just a football team. Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

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