Diego Maradona and the 'Hand of God' goal from 1986, 30 years on
It was 30 years ago today...
On June 22, 1986, Diego Maradona lived out an Argentine fantasy, hitting heights of football magic that few have seen before or since... and perhaps paying a long-term price for his achievement.
It was the day that Argentina met England in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup. This, of course, was just four years after the two countries had gone to war over the Falklands Islands, their first meeting since. But for Argentina, it goes deeper than that. In the nineteenth century, their country was effectively an informal part of the British Empire. In 1806-07, the British made unsuccessful attempts to invade. Afterward, they hit on the idea of financial imperialism, controlling the purse strings without the expense of a military occupation. The introduction of football was part of the imperial baggage.
England, then, was always a reference point, the object of an Argentine love-hate relationship. So they developed a self-defence strategy. The English might have had the formal power but the Argentines were smarter, trickier and more cunning in finding ways to circumvent usual restrictions. This is precisely what Maradona did when he managed to flick the opening goal of the game past Peter Shilton with his hand.
The referee did not see it, but his Argentina teammates did. There was a delay while they waited for the whistle. "Come and celebrate with me," shouted Maradona to his companions, aware that a little bit of deception was needed to complete the con.
Some years later I spoke with Terry Fenwick, one of England's centre-backs in 1986, about the experience of marking the man who at the time was unquestionably the world's greatest player. Fenwick was in awe of what Maradona was capable of, his capacity to turn and burst with the ball tied to his left foot, changing direction as he went. A player who was rugged rather than classy, Fenwick resorted to what he could do in an effort to stop him and was booked for a crunching late tackle. He stuck an elbow in Maradona's face off the ball and when it came time for Maradona's famous second goal, he was left helpless.
Maradona received a short pass from Hector Enrique in his own half of the field. He spun and ran, "turning like a little eel" in the unmatched words of BBC radio commentator Bryon Butler, who a few seconds later concluded the play by saying, "and that's why Maradona is the greatest player in the world."
His slalom dribble took him past man after man. From a defensive point of view, England were poor -- the space between players allowed Maradona to take them on one by one rather than presenting a collective block. He cut inside one centre-back, Terry Butcher, and then, on the edge of the area, he burst outside Fenwick -- the earlier yellow card perhaps preventing a crude attempt to halt his progress with a foul -- before throwing Shilton a dummy and slotting home from a narrow angle.
After the game Enrique claimed the assist, joking that he had laid it on a plate for Maradona. Centre-forward Jorge Valdano, who had been up in support, marvelled at Maradona's capacity to think at pace. Like those slowed-down scenes of Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull," the top sportsmen seem to see things at a different speed, with more time to evaluate their options. Valdano had been trying to make himself available for a square pass. Maradona told him afterwards that he had seen him, and was trying to work a way to play the pass when the option to keep going himself presented itself.
If the first goal showed that Argentina were smarter, the second showed that they were better. This was the way it was seen back home, at least. It was a local fantasy made flesh, blood and goal. It all but overshadowed what came next -- two goals in the semifinal against Belgium that may have been even better followed by an intelligent performance in the final against Germany, where Maradona dragged man-marker Lothar Matthaus all over the pitch to open up space for his teammates. Germany hit back to equalise at 2-2 before Argentina threaded a wonderful pass through to Jorge Burruchaga for the third title-winning goal.
The recently deceased Roberto Perfumo, a fine ex-player and a man of great wisdom, once drew an interesting comparison. Roman emperor Julius Caesar had a slave walk behind him to whisper in his ear reminders that he was only mortal. Argentina, said Perfumo, had tended to do the opposite with Maradona. They told him that he was a god. And that began on June 22, 1986. It did Maradona the man no good at all. Living in the aftermath of that day has not always been easy. There were times when it seemed unlikely that Maradona would be alive to celebrate this 30th anniversary.
Thankfully, despite all of his excesses and dark times, Maradona is still around to enjoy being a father and a grandfather -- and to daydream about the day that a "squat little man" (Bryon Butler's words again) took on the entire English defence and came out on top.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.