Diego Maradona. Say the name. Let it hang in the air. Wait for the reaction – because there will surely be one. The Argentine footballer still polarises opinion more than 15 years after his retirement; some hail him as the greatest player ever, others as a special talent whose on-field and off-field behaviour detract from his greatness. Whichever camp the football fan belongs to, he or she rarely sits on the fence dividing the two. Judgements come quickly and with certainty, and the split seems even. Little wonder then that Maradona shares the title of FIFA Player of the 20th Century – an award voted for by the public – with Pelé.
If there is one thing that does separate the universally-revered Pelé from Maradona, it is the ability to elicit a reaction from even the most casual football follower, and further than that, to prompt comment from people who have no interest in the game whatsoever. The reason is simple: Diego Maradona is a cultural icon. While Pelé may have had a more successful career, and is certainly a more worthy ambassador for football than Maradona, I contend he remains an unblemished paragon but one that, outside his native Brazil, remains within the confines of football. Maradona, in contrast, has transcended the sport, for his peerless footballing ability co-exists with all-too-human frailties in one enigmatic, infuriating, self-destructive and sublimely gifted individual, the exhilarating highs and the ugly lows played out at times in the glare of the media spotlight, but so often under the stadium floodlights in front of a global audience. Iconic is an overused description, but in the case of Diego Armando Maradona, as accurate as one of his passes. He is an icon. And he owes it all to England.
Maradona’s ascension from footballer to icon happened, fittingly, on the football pitch, but typically, it was as much for his bad behaviour as his brilliance. Mexico ’86 was Maradona’s second World Cup, and he arrived there already a world star. A prodigy from the slums of Buenos Aires, the diminutive boy’s talent was quickly spotted, and he was quickly lifted from the ranks of his junior club to make senior pro debut at 15.
Maradona had done all his growing when he reached 5ft 5in tall, and his low centre of gravity was one of the most important facets of his game. Although short in stature, he was blessed with a strong frame, with upper body strength that belied his size with which he was able to hold off the attentions of much bigger men. He also had extraordinarily strong legs, with thighs that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the rugby field. This gave him the ability to change direction in an instant, a wicked burst of acceleration and a top speed that seemed an impossibility for his size. These physical attributes, together with a quick brain, formed the basis of Maradona’s greatest weapon – his dribbling. One sometimes hears of players described as being able to run as quickly with the ball as they can without it, and it’s never true, not really. But in Maradona’s case, he was as quick with the ball as opponents were without the ball, sometimes quicker, and that proved devastating. Add to his dribbling a sublime touch, a magical left foot, a powerful shot, and that rare instinct for sensing the relative position of opponents and team-mates, and you have greatness.
Despite all this ability he narrowly missed out on selection for the ’78 World Cup, which Argentina went on to win, even though he was prolific in front of goal for Athleticos Juniors. When he did get his chance at the World Cup four years later it was a bittersweet moment.
The tournament in Spain in 1982 commenced a day before the Argentinian surrender against the United Kingdom in the 10-week war between the two countries over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Maradona spoke of his country’s “humiliation” in defeat, an emotion felt keenly by the whole team. As the representatives of a football-mad country, the Argentinian national side felt duty-bound to provide a much-needed fillip to morale back home, but ultimately it was an unsuccessful tournament for the defending champions; Italy eventually triumphed over West Germany in the final.
On the back of his performances at the ’82 tournament and his previous prowess on the domestic scene, Maradona was bought that summer by FC Barcelona for a world-record £5 million, and although the move heralded even greater feats of brilliance from the player, many believe the move was the start of the personal problems that would plague Maradona for the rest of his career, and beyond. Bright lights, big city, big money, big trouble. Rumours abounded of excessive partying including cocaine use, and despite his extraordinary performances, there were frequent run-ins with the club’s hierarchy.
Maradona’s time at Barca was also blighted by serious illness and injuries, including a broken ankle as the result of a bad tackle. Even though the 22-year-old bounced back from surgery in just 3 months, apparently as good as new, his Barcelona career wasn’t destined to last much longer. During a match in the Copa Del Rey domestic cup competition, a tackle on Maradona that the player perceived as dangerous prompted a furious reaction. Maradona kneed his opponent in the head, seemingly knocking him out cold, sparking the most extraordinary melee in which players from both sides exchanged flying kicks and punches, bringing stewards, police and fans rushing onto the pitch. Maradona had to appear before the attendant Spanish royalty to apologise, but it wasn’t long before he was on the move. The world’s best player broke the transfer record a second time in 1984 with his £6.9 million move to the unlikely destination of Napoli.
Napoli were, with the greatest of respect, a strange choice, and Maradona’s decision to move there has been viewed with some suspicion due to the city’s association with organised crime. Another chapter in the Maradona mythology. It was certainly true that the team had no silverware of note in the trophy cabinet, and lagged way behind their northern enemies Milan, Internazionale and Juventus. But what Napoli could offer Maradona, as well as the trappings befitting the world’s best player, was a zealous fanbase and unparalleled status. He arrived with the pomp and circumstance of a king to a coronation, and by the time he left, having brought Napoli league and cup titles, the Neapolitans had elevated Maradona to a demi-god. But that’s another story.
We arrive in 1986, and so it was that by a quirk of fate, Argentina had the opportunity to exact some revenge on England for the Falklands War and reassert their superiority – on the football field at least – when they met in the quarter-finals of the ’86 World Cup finals in Mexico. The two teams had enjoyed, or endured, markedly different passages to the knockout stages of the tournament. England nearly didn’t make it at all – a defeat against Poland and a draw with Morocco left them teetering on the brink of an early exit, before an inspired piece of management from Bobby Robson brought Gary Lineker into the side. The Leicester goal-hanger snaffled a hat-trick against Poland in the third group game, and scored another brace in a 3-0 win over Paraguay in the second round which saw the Three Lions through. Argentina, on the other hand, coasted to the latter stages in relative ease. With Maradona now wearing the captain’s armband, his team notched two wins in their group matches either side of a draw with Italy – only Uruguay in the second round threatened to derail the Argentines’ progress, but although the Argentines had a Maradona goal chalked off, they went through 1-0.
Maradona was pulling the strings in midfield and attack, ably assisted by other fine players such as the rangy, skilful Burruchaga and Jorge Valdano, and Argentina looked a real force. They were favourites going into the match on paper, and the sweltering temperatures in the Azteca stadium added to the South Americans’ theoretical advantage. England were in no doubt who carried the biggest threat to their chances. Robson told the press in the build-up to the game that Maradona was the man to watch, and he also posited that man-marking the player was an impossibility, because the role would require a player of equal pace and agility to have a chance at stopping him. There wasn’t one, not in Robson’s squad, nor in any other. Even though Argentina looked like an insurmountable obstacle, mood in the England camp and back home among the supporters was buoyant. England had some good players themselves in the cultured Glen Hoddle, pacy provider and second striker Peter Beardsley, and Lineker, who was joint top scorer in the competition with five goals going into the game. There were also some tough cookies in defence in the shape of Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick, and a promising young player called John Barnes on the bench. What could go wrong?
The game kicked off to the roar of 114,580 fans, and they were up in arms after only nine minutes when QPR hard man Fenwick stopped a jinking run by scything down Maradona and earning himself a yellow card. There had already been a couple of stiff challenges on the danger man, but Fenwick could have no complaints, although predictably, he did. One of the accusations that have been levelled at Maradona is that he had a tendency towards the over-dramatic reaction. There was certainly no hint of play acting in that challenge, and to be fair, one must get pretty fed-up with journeymen defenders fouling as a tactic, especially after a bone breakage. I should add that I’m no apologist for divers. I do think Maradona rode the situation as well as the tackles, though. One only needs to look back at Argentina’s first group match of the tournament with South Korea to see the amazing good grace with which Maradona took a shocking, 90-minute assault. Other than a few exasperated gestures to the ref, there wasn’t much histrionics to mention, perhaps because he knew Argentina had the beating of South Korea and they were just doing whatever they could to stop the inevitable. England were more of a threat.
It was nip and tuck, with Argentina controlling the ball on a dodgy-looking pitch, but England still looking dangerous when they broke forward. Barry Davies, commentating for the BBC, was complimentary about England’s ability to crowd out Maradona for the most part, but he may have been better advised to keep his counsel lest the infamous Commentator’s Curse wreak its havoc. While John Motson was a man-of-the-people-style commentator, apt to get swept up in the moment, Davies was a cool, analytical head with a schoolmasterly voice and an air of authority. If he thought England were doing all right, they must have been.
And so they were. Aside from a few flashes of Maradona magic in largely unthreatening positions, the sure hands of Peter Shilton were relatively idle. England’s midfield started to gain more of a foothold, and Hoddle, who had been having a shocker thus far seemed like he might turn things around and actually provide some service to the isolated Lineker. Then another Maradona run, beating two, and another foul, which he took himself and curled just wide. The playmaker was starting to find his groove and that didn’t bode well for England’s chances. But at half-time it was 0-0. So far, so… OK.
The Argentinians came out of the traps with ominous speed and purpose when the game resumed, and when they scored on 51 minutes the goal was hardly a shock in itself. But it would become one of the most famous, or infamous, goals of all time. Started by Maradona with a nice piece of skill, finished with a dastardly piece of cheating, the goal that became known as the Hand of God at first confused, then enraged the watching public as replays showed the Argentinian number 10 play a one-two which midfielder Steve Hodge stretched for and spooned back towards his goalkeeper. Maradona had continued his run, and with a salmon-like leap, headed the ball past Shilton. With his clenched fist.
Some of the England players who were close enough to have seen the handball appealed, while the others just stood around, dejected. Maradona set off on a jubilant run to the corner, casting a guilty glance towards the linesman to check if he had been rumbled, but nothing was given. Respected pundit Jimmy Hill had questioned the standard of officiating before the match, concerned that the ref for such a big game had been drawn from the then minor footballing nation of Tunisia, and it looked like his fears were justified. It should be noted, though, that the appeal from England was muted; in truth it was a very clever piece of deception from Maradona, whose fist appeared from some angles so close to his forehead as to raise the question did he need to handball it at all? Couldn’t he have stretched the extra couple of inches to reach the ball legally? Replays from other angles, however, showed a clear stretch of the arm to knock the ball past Shilton’s outstretched fist, which complicated the whole coming-together for the officials who only had the benefit of seeing the incident once in real time.
Was Maradona bothered? Was he heck. In fact he revelled in the manner in which his side had taken the lead. In the post-match press conference, he revealed that he had beseeched his team-mates to join him at the corner flag to celebrate in case the officials smelled a rat and disallowed the goal. But more outrage was to come when quizzed further about the goal everyone now knew was illegitimate. He grinned and said that the goal was scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. Say what you will about the English press, but they don’t drop a dolly like that, and when it’s Johnny Foreigner being an absolute bounder, it’s open season. The immortal Hand of God headlines wrote the “goal” into the annals of history. Boo, hiss. Pantomime villain time.
This was a more innocent era, when open admission of, and even celebration of, a clear piece of cheating was shocking to the sensibilities of proud football traditionalists. Not, I fear, anymore. Will people be talking about the time Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez saved a ball on the line like a goalkeeper in an international match in 30 years’ time? Twenty years? Ten? Doubtful. The game has changed, clearly not for the better, but now all manner of skullduggery and cynical goings-on are mitigated by the fatuous defences of “professionalism” and “competitiveness”. Bullshit. Cheating is still cheating, always has been, always will be. But standards have slipped to the point where it’s no longer recognisable.
There wasn’t much time for the watching public at the Azteca and around the world to lament this grubby incident though, so unbecoming of a player of Maradona’s talent, as within five minutes he had scored the best goal ever seen. It takes about 11 seconds for Maradona to go from the centre circle to the England six-yard box, to go past the entire English left flank, to go from cheating bastard to unequalled genius. Eleven seconds of football heaven, starting in the middle of the park, facing his own goal, and surrounded by two England midfielders. That awareness of the people around him was never more in evidence than in this run, and in its genesis in the first piece of incredible trickery that left Peters Reid and Beardsley choking on Mexican dust.
Receiving the ball to feet, Maradona knocks the ball away from Reid and towards Beardsley, before flicking it between his legs and spinning away from both opponents. It was all over from there. The dribbling speed Maradona possessed saw him ghost away from the trailing Reid, an elongated stride caressing the ball back under control when it threatened to run loose and a moment later flicking it to the left of the challenge from Terry Butcher. One more touch, this time to the right, and ball and man were past Terry Fenwick who disappears out of the picture literally and figuratively, before another deft swerve around the onrushing Shilton. A valiant last-gasp tackle attempt by Butcher again, who had somehow managed to recover and gallop back towards goal, was to no avail. His crashing tackle attempt obscures the final touch from Maradona – an emphatic finish as if to crown the move with a knockout punch. Felled by Butcher, Maradona was up in a flash and away to receive the plaudits of the delirious fans, who even in the immediate aftermath clearly realised what they had just seen.
Best. Goal. Ever. Or, to give it its proper title Goal of the Century, another accolade bestowed on Maradona by FIFA and the voting public. Even Barry Davies, still unhappy about the injustice of the Hand of God goal, was able, with typically stylish professionalism, to utter the classic line: “Oh you have to say that’s magnificent.” How wonderfully English.
The Hand of God goal got the lion’s share of the column inches, and Maradona the full sting of the national vitriol. His name was on everyone’s lips, or at least that’s how it seems with hindsight. As an eight-year-old watching from the other side of the world, it couldn’t have been a more beguiling experience, one which encapsulated everything so thrilling and so crushing, so admirable and so distasteful, in one match. Parks the length and breadth of the country swelled with schoolboys out to emulate the dancing run, although commentary had to be provided by the player themselves. Maradona was the first pick when names were being chosen. Claims for handball were waved away with “It was a Maradona”.
England, to their credit, didn’t lie down, even in the face of a massive injustice and a moment of pure, demoralising magic. Barnes and Chris Waddle came on, and England’s game picked up to the extent that Lineker was able to score his sixth goal of the tournament in the 80th minute – the goal that would eventually secure the Golden Boot as the tournament’s highest scoring player. Another chance late on ended with Lineker narrowly missing another Barnes cross and finishing up in the back of the net, unfortunately minus the ball.
The late drama proved to be a tantalising tease; England pressed the tired Argentines to the end, but ultimately they were one mercurial, divisive, dishonest, brilliant genius short. Diego Armando Maradona lifted the trophy as Argentina captain at the end of the competition, but it was the England game that proved to be his defining moment. Will there ever be a greater piece of footballing theatre on the world stage? There’s only one way to find out. Bring on Brazil ’14.