In some corners of England, Diego Maradona will forever be remembered as a cheat. His greatness will be overshadowed by a single, iconic moment. ‘The Hand of God’ is freezeframed into the collective memory of English football.
It is the unforgettable image of the 1986 World Cup. A solitary incident that overshadowed an epic quarter-final and a superb tournament.
The scene was set for drama: England versus Argentina in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in front of 114,580 spectators and a global audience on television. It was the first meeting of the countries since the Falklands Conflict in 1982 when the South American nation attempted to occupy the British-owned islands that Argentinians call the Malvinas. A Royal Navy task force was deployed in the South Atlantic in response. More than 900 people were killed as British troops pushed the invading forces out of the Falkland Islands. Two-thirds of the dead were from Argentina.
Five years later Argentina was still angry, Britain still triumphant. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, had called an election in the aftermath of the conflict and had won by a landslide on the back of beating the ‘Argies.’ The quarter-final was shot through with political undertones. Before the game Maradona said that the Malvinas were not a factor. He was lying and admitted so later.
The threat of trouble hung over Mexico City. There was sporadic fighting in and around the Azteca between English and Argentinian fans before, during and after the match. The clashes were not serious enough to overshadow the football. Very little could have upstaged Maradona’s intervention.
Captains Diego Maradona of Argentina and Peter Shilton of England attend a coin-toss
Image credit: Getty Images
The day will always be remembered for a four-minute spell that etched itself into football legend. First, Maradona punched the ball into the net, outjumping Peter Shilton to put Argentina 1-0 up. Then he ran with the ball from his own half to score one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. It was Maradona’s day. Asked afterwards if he had headed the ball or fisted it into the net, the Argentinian genius said: “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”
The greatest player in the game’s history had just perpetrated the greatest crime inflicted on England in a World Cup. The incident has coloured the nation’s view of Maradona since. For a long time there was a refusal to acknowledge his greatness.
There were other factors, too. During the second half of the 1980s, the Heysel ban meant English clubs were unable to play in Europe. The domestic game was more insular than ever. Maradona’s finest achievement, even more than winning the World Cup, was leading Napoli to the Serie A title twice. Italian football was attracting the best players from across the globe and Milan, under Arrigo Sacchi, were blossoming into a team that is regarded by many as being the best club side in the game’s history. Against that backdrop, Maradona propelled Napoli to the only two titles of the team’s 94-year existence. This awe-inspiring accomplishment passed largely unseen in the UK. In the days before global TV coverage, few people were able to get a sense of Maradona’s feats at the San Paolo.
Diego Maradona of Napoli celebrates
Image credit: Getty Images
The image of Maradona as football’s bogeyman was franked by the Argentinian’s positive drugs test during the 1994 World Cup in the United States. The stains on his character overrode his genius – at least in England – for a long time. A wild-eyed Maradona howling into the camera lens after scoring against Greece in Foxborough became another enduring image of cheating to accompany the handball at the Azteca. Few in England doubted his brilliance but most believed it was undermined by gamesmanship and narcotics.
Some members of the older generation, who believed that England might have gone on to win the World Cup in 1986 without Maradona’s cheating, will probably never forgive the culprit, even in death. Time has blunted the hatred for many, though. A film, titled Diego Maradona, was released last year and put all the Argentinian’s magic and faults into context. Lionel Messi’s career has echoes of his countryman’s and invites comparison. Modern media has allowed a new generation the chance to see just how good Maradona was. For all his faults, it is impossible not to be seduced by the swagger and style of a footballer of such outrageous ability.
Those who played against him understand just how good Maradona was at his peak. Despite those two goals in the Azteca, England stormed back into the game. John Barnes, introduced by Bobby Robson as a late substitute, shredded the Argentina defence in a manner that impressed even Maradona. Gary Lineker pulled a goal back with nine minutes left and the South American side were clinging on. Only the remarkable, last-gasp intervention of Julio Olarticoechea stopped Lineker from equalizing. If England had levelled the scores, would they have gone on to win the game and perhaps even the World Cup?
“You’re joking,” Barnes said. “If we’d have made it 2-2 then Maradona would have gone up the other end and scored the winner. He was unplayable. The greatest ever.”
Cheating is part of Maradona’s legacy, especially in England. That will never fade and should not – the Argentinian embraced that component of his game with glee. Yet even the naysayers cannot deny his status.
Maradona is one of the sport’s true greats. That is undeniable, even in the home of his worst enemies.