In the archive of great World Cup photographs, there is one which many people would say stands above the rest. It is the image of Diego Maradona being confronted by six Belgium players at the 1982 World Cup.

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If ever a photograph encapsulates a player’s genius, this is surely it. It’s a simple snapshot which, on face value, showcases the Argentinian’s audacity and the opposition’s utter terror at the prospect of facing him – terror exemplified by the sheer numbers they had dispatched to dispossess him. Or such is the illusion.

The photographer, Steve Powell, can attest that reality was rather different.

Powell was shooting his first-ever assignment for Sports Illustrated and had trained his lens on the young maestro for long periods of the match in anticipation of something special. Frankly, everyone at Camp Nou had. Maradona was appearing in his first World Cup and had recently secured a transfer to Barcelona; he was a star in the making and a striking photograph waiting to happen.

Powell was given what was considered in photographic circles to be the worst perch – a seat up in the gods. But his lofted vantage point at least provided him with an uncomplicated backdrop. When the perfect moment arose early in the second half, with Maradona in possession and besieged by opponents, he clicked the shutter and captured the extraordinary-looking scene.

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“It happens to have great colours – the green of the grass and the orangey-red of the Belgium shirt – those are wonderful contrasts that make for a good image, and the composition is strong, too, with the beautiful fan-like effect of the players,” Powell said when I asked him what makes the shot look so good.

I agree. The way the Belgians are splaying left and right, like wild deer, fuses the image with a sense of comedic panic. Maradona, meanwhile, looks serene in comparison, balletic even, with his left boot wavering behind the ball and his entire body poised, on tip-toes, for action.

In some ways, though, the real brilliance of the photograph is the idea it induces: looking at it, you can imagine Maradona jinking his way past all of the players in front of him before casually stroking the ball into the net beyond a disbelieving goalkeeper – much as he did when Argentina won the following World Cup in 1986.

So, here’s the rub: beautiful though it may be, the photograph is intrinsically misleading. Maradona wasn’t being marked by a huddle of Belgians. He’d merely received the ball from a short free-kick from his teammate Ossie Ardiles and the players approaching him were part of a Belgian wall, hence their proximity to one another. I suppose it’s obvious in hindsight.

Maradona receives the ball from the short free-kick. Photograph: YouTube
Maradona receives the ball from the short free-kick. Photograph: YouTube

What’s more, Maradona didn’t waltz through them or around them. Instead, he attempted to hoik the ball over their heads, but his effort lacked leverage and was swiftly cleared by Belgium’s Luc Millecamps.

Yep, it turns out Maradona was rather shoddy that day, and Belgium went on to win the match 1-0. Consequently, the image was initially cast onto the scrapheap by the photographer and only received appreciation in the years that followed as Maradona’s legend grew.

The question, of course, is: does it matter that the image is so suggestive of something which did not actually occur? I think the answer is no.

Maradona’s attempt to chip the ball over the wall fails and is headed clear. Photograph: YouTube
Maradona’s attempt to chip the ball over the wall fails and is headed clear. Photograph: YouTube

The fundamental nature of photography is that it selectively captures a moment in time, it doesn’t necessarily speak of what went before or after, or of what happened beyond the bounds of the frame. Everyone knows that, we just forget it sometimes and we make assumptions to complete the story in our minds. In this case, the invitation to ‘see’ Maradona in his pomp is just too inviting.

But there’s no reason to feel robbed by the reality of Powell’s image. His image is, in itself, honest and accurate. Instead, we should delight in it simply for what it is: an apt reminder of an exceptionally talented footballer who had the skill to take on all-comers. After all, that’s why we loved the image in the first place, right?

Powell agrees: “Ultimately it’s not about the composition, it’s not about art, it’s not about that particular game. It transcends that,” he says. “It’s about communication. It communicates the power of Maradona and the fear he instilled. It’s about this one man and the relationship he had with opposing players.”

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Note: This article is written by Jonny Weeks – a photojournalist and picture editor – published at The Guardian UK.

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