If the history of film was once described as before and after “Gone with the Wind,” it could be argued that the history of the World Cup can be defined as before and after the game between England and Argentina in 1986 – with one Diego Armando Maradona as protagonist.
It’s not that the game itself changed the way football is played, or had a long-lasting effect on the rules and regulations of the sport – unlike the match between the two nations in the 1966 World Cup, when Antonio Rattin claimed he didn’t understand English as the referee indicated he should leave the pitch.
Rattin’s refusal delayed play for so long that by the next World Cup, in 1970, red and yellow cards had been introduced as universal symbols that required no further explanation.
In 1986 what happened in the space of a few minutes was that everything that’s possible in a game of football took place on the pitch, in full view of everyone watching, and it was all carried out by one man. The bad and the good, the ugly and the beautiful, lawlessness and perfection all displayed for everyone to see.
Argentine writer Juan Sasturain often says the word ‘football’ is wrong, because it’s not a game one plays with one’s feet, it’s a game that one is not allowed to play with one’s hand. That’s almost the main rule. And yet Argentina’s first goal against England was scored with a hand, but unseen by the referee and the linesmen, it was allowed.
The infamous “Hand of God,” as the perpetrator dubbed it immediately after the match with a certain cheekiness – rather than blasphemy – almost like a child blaming his brother for stealing the sweets. “It must have been the hand of God,” Maradona chuckled when asked by the media about it.
It was a moment that stunned the world. A tiny man outsmarts the tall goalkeeper – Peter Shilton – by jumping high in the air with his arm stretched up, closed fist, and simply punches the ball into the net.
As shocking as it was unfair, the tension only rises as the fans inside the stadium and watching on TV wonder if the goal will stand.
Some live commentary of the match suggests it will be disallowed – “I think he handles the ball”, “is it hand-ball?” – but the authorities on the pitch never call it and goal it is.
For the English, a blatant injustice so hard to stomach that bookmakers William Hill paid punters who called it a draw in spite of the final score.
From headbutts to the 'Hand of God': 11 moments that defined the World Cup
And then a few minutes later, the “Goal of the Century” – as it was later voted in a FIFA poll – the same tiny man receives a pass from his long-time friend, midfielder El Negro Enrique near the halfway line.
Maradona starts running and dribbling like a child let loose in the potrero – the Argentine open spaces where kids runabout with any object that may resemble a ball, lusting for it, hanging on to it, caressing and dancing with it, playing with it, making sure nobody else can take it away – and as if it was somehow attached to his foot he passes one, two, three … seven English players.
Each one “left for dead” as the English commentator said at the time. Each one with a stunned look in their face, a mixture of horror that this was being done against them and admiration that they had such exclusive access to witness this marvel.
Dutch filmmaker and football writer Joe de Putter once described it as the only miracle of the 20th Century, and he wasn’t joking.
“This has nothing to do with the war’
Both these goals actually happened and we all saw them. They were real. And they made history.
A lot has been said since about them, about their author, and perhaps we have tried too much to extrapolate some further significance or meaning.
Both countries had a long tradition of football rivalry, and to boot it was the first time they met on a sporting arena since the Falklands or Malvinas War four years earlier. Many of the players had, at least on the Argentine side, friends or relatives who had been conscripted, maybe even lost their life.
The line “this has nothing to do with the war” had been repeated often enough to have instilled the notion that it might have something to do with the hostilities in 1982, and as the national anthems were sang by players on both side some of the Argentines had a warrior-like look on their faces, a hint that this rival is one they particularly wanted to defeat.
“He toppled his Majesty’s troops with no more weapon to hand than a number 10 stitched on his shirt” is a line from the subsequent hit song Maradó, by the seminal 1990s Argentine rock band Los Piojos.
There’s also a significant amount of literature claiming that somehow in Argentina, where it’s often said that the only crime is getting caught, people like the first goal better than the second.
And it’s true that there is a national narrative that seeks justification, maybe even forgiveness for the first by rationalizing – perhaps erroneously – that the victims somehow deserved it.
“It was like pickpocketing an Englishman,” Maradona described his feelings in the aftermath. While his friend, musician Fabian Von Quinteiro, once went as far as saying: “The sinking of the Belgrano was also a hand goal,” in reference to the Argentine Navy cruiser controversially sunk by a British submarine outside the exclusion zone during the 1982 conflict.
Jorge Valdano, who played alongside and tried to keep up with Maradona hoping to receive the ball in the unlikely event that it should be passed, later said: “In the potrero the second goal is worth two,” as if the informal rules of the street kickabout should take priority over the formal rules of the World Cup.
Jorge Burruchaga, when asked if he saw the handball at the time of the first goal, told CNN Sport: “No. I was on the opposite side, 20-25 meters away so I didn’t notice. I realized [something was up] because they all had surprised faces, and we celebrated in surprise.
“But also after that came a goal which, for me, is still the best in World Cup history. A goal which was worth the one with the hand and two more.”
It’s as if the two goals are rolled into one, and Argentina as a whole cannot think of of one without the other. Ask any Argentine about the “Hand,” and they will mention the “Dribble” in the same breath.
Diego Maradona: The world's greatest ever player?
The Argentine great died from heart failure in November 2020.
Quite simply the best football player who ever lived? Or was he? Permanently compared to other greats; was he better than Pele, than Johan Cruyff? He arrived on the heels of Argentina’s greatest, Alfredo Di Stefano, and left the position for the current world supremo, Lionel Messi.
Maradona is so adored that when his off-the-field misdemeanours, not to say crimes, often left him at death’s door, mass vigils popped up round the world, from Bangladesh to Naples.
A church has been started in his name. There is a museum devoted to him in Buenos Aires, located in the house where he grew up as a teenager. Grown men cry when they are able to evoke the emotions he has managed to awaken with his undisputed talent.
Though interestingly when opinion polls are run to chose Argentina’s best sports personality in history, for instance, the mild-mannered good-natured Juan Manuel Fangio wins hands down every time.
In the subsequent years since those two goals which we have come to think of as a single event, the rollercoaster nature of his life has seen him hit the headlines over and over: he has risen to deity status and fallen from grace to the darkest pits imaginable only to rise back up.
From one of the world’s biggest doping scandals on a World Cup forum, to a phoenix-like reinvention as the most charming manager ever to grace the game, his personal issues with addiction, substance abuse, illegitimate children, and feuds over money pale in comparison to his huge personality.
When he hosted a TV show, it was the most amazing and surreal TV show anybody had ever seen. If he entered a room, people stood in ceremony and tell the tale for years after of how they were in the room when he entered it. Power. Charm. Talent. And the ability to be seen to be frail, vulnerable and imperfect with it.
A walking contradiction that somehow validates contradiction; gives us all permission to accept our own humanity, our faults, our undesirable desires.
Whether or not he was better than Pele or Cruyff is neither here nor there. He was truly unique, and the literal proof of this can be seen in those two goals he scored against England in 1986.