Unlevel Playing Fields

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Sports  |  House: Booksie Classic


Diego Maradona scoring at the FIFA World Cup, 1986

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Hand of God

Submitted: December 02, 2019

Reads: 52

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Submitted: December 02, 2019

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There have been few games in FIFA World Cup – or indeed football – history that have left such a lasting impact on the sport than Argentina's quarter-final victory over England in the 1986 tournament. Played at the famous Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, the match was taken over by the greatest player on the planet at the time – and arguably of all time – Argentina's incomparable captain, Diego Maradona.


Argentina wasn't a one-man team at the tournament in Mexico, but Maradona's domination often made it look that way. His low centre of gravity, exceptional strength and brilliant footwork was a devastating combination that allowed him to escape from opponents in a flash. In 1984, he had broken the world transfer record for the second time by joining Napoli from Barcelona for £6.9 million. After illness and injury during his time with the Spanish club, Naples was the perfect fit for Maradona, the person as well as the player. When the 1986 World Cup arrived, he was 25 years old and entering the prime of his career.


After his disappointment at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, where he was sent off in Argentina's final match against Brazil, Maradona turned up in Mexico with plenty to prove. He was undeniably one of the most talented players in the history of the game and in the infamous quarter-final, he scored two of the most famous goals in football history. While Maradona's second goal encapsulated his sheer brilliance, his first was an equally perfect example of his ability to create controversy and divide opinion.


The fierce football rivalry between England and Argentina can be traced back to the 1966 World Cup quarter-final when Argentine captain Antonio Rattin was sent off as his team lost an acrimonious match containing excessive foul play. Rattin was angered at the send-off and felt the German referee was biased towards the English, being a fellow European nation. He stomped furiously over the royal carpet in the stadium, which led to England manager Alf Ramsey describing the Argentines as "animals". These comments were perceived as racist, which further soured relations between the two countries.


Sixteen years later, in April 1982, Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands and claimed them as their own Islas Malvinas. But on 14th June, British forces recaptured the Islands after a bloody conflict that cost 258 British and 655 Argentine lives. As a result, the match taking place just four years after the war was emotionally charged. Following the game, Maradona stated: "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."


The collision course appeared likely when England finished second in their group and Argentina stood unbeaten in their group matches. In the round of 16, England comfortably beat Paraguay to qualify for the quarter-finals, while in a rematch of the 1930 World Cup final, Argentina edged out South American champions Uruguay to book their place in the last eight. The stage was set for one of the most dramatic matches in football history. Even before kick-off, English and Argentine fans clashed on the streets of Mexico City, resulting in several being hospitalised. Inside the stadium, the tension was palpable.


When the Argentinian team emerged onto the Estadio Azteca pitch on 22 June 1986, they were wearing a different coloured shirt to when they beat Uruguay in the previous match. Their coach Carlos Bilardo believed the blue cotton shirts worn previously would be too uncomfortable in the searing heat of Mexico City and sent one of his staff to scour the shops for a suitable replacement kit. He returned with two different blue shirts, which they subsequently compared but were unable to choose between. It was then that Diego Maradona appeared and settled the matter by saying: "That's a nice jersey. We'll beat England in that."


Maradona lined up behind Jorge Valdano in Argentina's 3-5-1-1 formation, while England played a fairly narrow 4-4-2 with Steve Hodge and Trevor Steven furthest wide in the midfield. Although Peter Beardsley had a good chance for England, it was Argentina who dominated the first half by enjoying more of the possession and territory. They created a number of good chances, many of them by Maradona, but failed to get through England's resolute defence. England's goalkeeper Peter Shilton made some fine saves to ensure the teams went to the half-time break with the scores level at 0-0.


Argentina's first half superiority was about to tell in the most dramatic way imaginable. It was and still is, the most astonishing moment in the rivalry between England and Argentina. Six minutes into the second half, it began with a touch of Maradona brilliance. The No. 10 skipped past defender Glenn Hoddle, squeezing between two more England players before sliding a diagonal pass out to Jorge Valdano and continuing his run into the penalty box in the hope of a one-two movement. But the pass was played slightly behind Valdano and reached England's Steve Hodge, the left midfielder who had dropped back to defend.


After the ball skipped up on Valdano's foot, Hodge desperately tried to hook the ball clear but miscued it into the penalty area where Maradona was waiting. Seeing the danger, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton rushed out of his goal to punch the ball clear as Maradona also rose for it. Despite being 20cm shorter than the 1.85m Shilton, he reached it first with his outside left hand and knocked the ball into the goal. Incredibly, none of the officials spotted the handball and there was confusion as English players in the vicinity began their desperate appeals to referee Ali Bin Nasser.


Commentators initially thought they were appealing for offside despite the ball being played by Hodge and not an Argentinian player. It was only when they took a closer look at the replay that the reality soon became clear – Diego Maradona had deliberately handled the ball into the goal. In the meantime, Maradona did a great job of selling his deception. He wheeled away in typical celebration, although his quick glances at the referee and linesman were telling. He later said, "I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me, and no one came...I told them, 'Come hug me, or the referee isn't going to allow it.'"


At the post-match press conference, Maradona famously commented that the goal was scored "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God." From that moment, it would forever be known as the 'Hand of God' goal. The controversial goal intensified the bitterness and footballing rivalry between the two nations. While the English felt they had been cheated out of a possible World Cup victory, in Argentina it was seen as revenge for the Falklands War and even for what they still see as the unfair game of the 1966 World Cup.


In the aftermath, the referee and Bulgarian linesman Bogdan Dochev blamed each other for the error. "I was waiting for Dochev to give me a hint of what exactly happened but he didn't signal for a handball," Bin Nasser said years later. "And the instructions FIFA gave us before the game were clear – if a colleague was in a better position than mine, I should respect his view." Although Dochev had a clearer view of what happened, he refuted this assertion by saying, "Although I felt immediately there was something irregular, back in that time FIFA didn't allow the assistants to discuss the decisions with the referee."


England manager Bobby Robson was certain of what he saw and scathing of the officials. "Maradona handled the ball into the net. You don't expect decisions like that at World Cup level," he lamented after his team had been knocked out of the competition. Dochev struggled to cope with the intense scrutiny and his account was marked with bitterness and even xenophobia on more than one occasion. "If FIFA had put a referee from Europe in charge of such an important game, Maradona's first goal would have been disallowed."


Bogdan Dochev died in 2017, sadly haunted by the controversial incident. His widow Emily described how their life was ruined after the World Cup. "Bogdan withdrew into himself and friends never said hello to me again," she lamented. "I'll never forgive that referee and I'll never forgive Diego Maradona. It wasn't a Hand of God for us, it was a kick in the teeth." And Dochev wasn't the only one with ill feeling toward the Argentine. Even many years later, ex-England goalkeeper Peter Shilton said he still has a "bad feeling" towards Maradona because he never apologised for cheating.


Just four minutes after the 'Hand of God' goal came what would become known as the 'Goal of the Century'. It was so called because it is often claimed to be the greatest individual goal of all time and was scored by none other than Diego Maradona. From inside his own half, he went on an astonishing 60-metre run, beating four English players – including defender Terry Butcher twice. He finished the move with a feint that left goalkeeper Peter Shilton sitting on his backside, before putting the ball into the net to give Argentina a 2-0 lead.


Although England pushed forward late in the game and Gary Lineker scored in the 80th minute, they were unable to find an equaliser. Argentina went on to win the 1986 World Cup with a victory over West Germany in the final match and despite all the controversy surrounding the first goal, Maradona won the Golden Ball for player of the tournament. In the build-up to the 2002 World Cup, his second goal was officially voted 'Goal of the Century' on the FIFA website, and a poll conducted by a UK television station sportingly deemed the performance sixth in a list of the 100 Greatest Sporting Moments.


Nowadays, a statue of Maradona scoring his incredible second goal stands outside the Estadio Azteca to commemorate the moment. It's a tribute to his sheer brilliance, but also a moment that will forever be intrinsically linked to one of the greatest sporting controversies. In his inimitable way, he is as proud and thankful of one as he is the other. In a 2005 interview, Maradona said, "The truth is that I don't for a second regret scoring that goal with my hand." In 2015, he visited Ali Bin Nasser at his home in Tunisia with a gift of an Argentine football shirt bearing his signature and referring to the referee as "my eternal friend."


© Copyright 2019 Dave Tomlinson. All rights reserved.

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