“Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this Argentina 2, England 0.”
– Victor Hugo Morales
England vs. Argentina in the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup was about much more than football.
As well as the rivalry that the two nations enjoyed on the pitch, the game was also played amid considerable socio-political tension. Argentina’s pride was still bruised following its defeat in the Falklands War and the country was also coming to terms with the six years of military dictatorship it experienced between 1976 and 1983.
Life under El Proceso was brutal. Forced disappearances were widespread and freedom of expression were fervently suppressed. Even football wasn’t spared from the regime’s toxic influence. The 1978 World Cup – hosted and won by Argentina – is remembered as the dirtiest tournament of all time with allegations of match fixing persisting to this day. In truth, it was little more than a propaganda exercise, comparable with the Fascist World Cup of 1934 and Nazi Olympics two years later. Win at all costs was the mission and it was joylessly carried out by the players.
1986 was very different. The newly democratised nation were treated to the sort of beauty and grace that the junta tried so hard to suppress, courtesy of 5 ft 5 in boy from a shantytown on the outskirts on Buenos Aires – Diego Armando Maradona.
Maradona was already considered to be the greatest player on the planet but he had a point to prove at the World Cup. At the 1982 tournament, Argentina had been knocked out in the second group stage with El Pibe de Oro’s influence being smothered by a string of aggressive challenges and a infamous man marking job by Italy’s Claudio Gentile.
By the time England rolled around in 1986, Maradona’s tournament was going a lot better. After starring in the group stages as Argentina breezed through, he again played well as they bested Uruguay in the round of 16.
However, Maradona’s World Cup would ultimately be defined by a five minute period against the Three Lions. More than that though, the duality of his humanity – good vs evil – would also be laid bare. He scored two goals. One would encapsulate Maradona, the broken, evil schemer. The other would symbolise Diego, who created art whenever he stepped foot on the pitch.
Maradona would rear his ugly head just after half time. In the first 45 minutes he had been fantastic, tearing through the England midfield and forcing some fine stops out of Peter Shilton.
There was nothing that Shilton could do about this ‘shot’ though as it benefitted from some divine intervention. Much has been spoken, shouted and screamed about the infamous Hand of God goal. The arguments transcend football and are instead best viewed as discussions about morality itself.
Whatever your thoughts on the Machiavellian nature of Maradona’s actions, put them in your pocket for now. It’s time to remember the Goal of the Century.
Our tale begins inside of the Argentine half with Diego receiving the ball under pressure from two Peters, Reid and Beardsley. If this was any other player, this is where the story would end. Lucky then that this is not any other player. This is Diego, the greatest footballer of all time.
With the rhythm of a seasoned salsa dancer, he pirouettes out of danger and takes a heavy touch, driving towards goal. Reid jogs behind him and looks to be ageing a year with each passing step, such is the youthful exuberance of the boy he is pursuing.
With Reid having no luck, Terry Butcher gives it a go. Butcher tries to engage only to bounce off Maradona as though he is protecting the ball with some sort of forcefield. He’s getting close to the English goal now and Terry Fenwick is getting worried.
He tries to show Maradona down the line but Diego decides to take the absolute piss, knocking the ball past him as if he’s a traffic cone. Now he’s shaping to shoot.
Except, he doesn’t shoot. He’s still got one more dummy left in his showroom and manages to sell to Shilton for a knock down price. For the second time in five minutes, Diego has Shilton’s pants down, with his feint leaving the curly haired stopper scrabbling in the dirt.
All that’s left to do now is poke it into the empty net and set off a tidal wave of unadulterated ecstasy across Argentina.
This was more than a goal. This was a nation healing the wounds of a bitter war. A people shaking off the last shackles of a cruel dictatorship. A country revelling in the cathartic power of the beautiful game.
Maradona would go on to lift the 1986 FIFA World Cup with his 10 goal involvements remaining an all-time record.
Statistics like these are not what he should be remembered for though. He should instead be mourned as a bringer of joy, the scorer of the Goal of the Century, an imperfect man and the most worshipped sports star in human history.