Only a genius can create controversy and then overshadow it with a sheer individual moment of magic. Diego Maradona was such a magician who did both in a football match and that too against their old enemy England in a World Cup match.
Four years ago, there was a 10-week undeclared war between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982 over two British dependent territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and its territorial dependency, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
This war is known as the Falkland War.
During the conflict, 649 Argentine soldiers, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders died.
The conflict has had a strong effect on both countries and has been the subject of various books, articles, films, and songs. Patriotic sentiment ran high in Argentina, but the unfavourable outcome prompted large protests against the ruling military government, hastening its downfall and the democratisation of the country. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative government, bolstered by the successful outcome, was re-elected with an increased majority the following year. The cultural and political effect of the conflict has been less in the UK than in Argentina, where it has remained a common topic for discussion.
During the high voltage quarterfinals of Mexico 86 at the historic Azteca Stadium, the traumatic memories of the Falkland War added more fuel to give that a political angle.
At the end of the first half, while the game was still tied at 0-0, Maradona was beginning to influence the end outcome of the match. Six minutes into the second half of the game, Maradona took the ball out of the box with his left leg and passed it to teammate Jorge Valdano. Valdano tried to take on several English defenders, but the ball was intercepted and thrown back and forth and eventually cleared towards England’s goal by English midfielder Steve Hodge.
Because of the position of the players, Maradona would have been caught offside, but as the ball came off an opponent, he was onside. Alone inside the penalty box and with the ball dropping down, Maradona contested the ball with goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who stood 20 centimetres taller than Maradona. Shilton jumped forward with his right hand, while Maradona did so with his left arm outstretched. Maradona’s fist, which was raised close to his head, touched the ball first and hit the ball into England’s goal. Maradona began to celebrate while glancing sideways at the referee and the linesman for confirmation. He then fully celebrated the goal when it was given.
Tunisian referee Ali Bennaceur gave the goal, but after the English players’ protests, he sought the advice of his second linesman who confirmed the goal.
Mexican photographer Alejandro Ojeda Carbajal immortalized this moment in a photograph in which Maradona can be seen hitting the ball with his hand.
“Now I can say what I couldn’t at that moment, what I defined at that time as The Hand of God. What a hand of God? It was the hand of Diego!” wrote Diego Maradona in his autobiography.
In 2005, 19 years after scoring the controversial goal, Maradona confessed on a program La Noche del 10, that the goal was actually scored with his hand.
Several world media outlets reported the news, creating controversy.
Even Peter Shilton rejected the apology, arguing that it was now too late.
Maradona, a few days after the article came out, denied everything, saying that the newspaper had misquoted him. Maradona responded:
“I never spoke of forgiveness. I said only that the story could not be changed, that I do not have to apologize to anyone, because it was a football game in which there were 100,000 people in the Azteca stadium, twenty-two players, that there were two linesmen, that there was one referee, that Shilton (the goalkeeper) speaks up now and he hadn’t noticed, the defenders had to tell him. So the story is already written, nothing can change it. And that was what I said.”
“ I never apologized to anyone. Besides, I don’t have to apologize by making a statement to England. For what? To please who? What pisses me off the most is that they repeat this in Argentina and talk to people who know me. They talk about contradictions. At forty-seven I think that apologizing to the English is stupid.”
In an interview back in 2013, Maradona said, “Why should I apologise? In a game where we are all having fun and one does something naughty that 100,000 fans do not see. It’s not that I’m proud of scoring a goal like this, but I think it’s funny when they get mad because I scored a goal with my hand. I think it’s very funny.”
“They, England, won a World Cup with a goal that wasn’t against Germany. It hit the crossbar and went this [gesturing a yard with his hands] much out and the referee blew his whistle. So, they shouldn’t say anything about Maradona, because they cheated before I did eh…”
In 2016 Maradona said in another interview, “They (government) sent such young guys of 17, 18 years old to fight in that Malvinas and that was to a slaughterhouse.”
“By winning that game we could somehow diminish the pain of so many mothers that lost sons in Malvinas.”
“I do not confuse sports with politics and even less so regarding a war that brought us so much pain, but I saw my colleagues that were giving that much more and I wanted to give even more.”
In the 2019 documentary film Diego Maradona directed by Asif Kapadia, Maradona links the event to the Falklands War four years earlier, saying “[w]e, as Argentinians, didn’t know what the military was up to. They told us that we were winning the war. But in reality, England was winning 20–0. It was tough. The hype made it seem like we were going to play out another war. I knew it was my hand. It wasn’t my plan but the action happened so fast that the linesman didn’t see me putting my hand in. The referee looked at me and he said: ‘Goal.’ It was a nice feeling like some sort of symbolic revenge against the English.”
“I dream to score another goal against the English, this time with the right hand,” Maradona said in an interview with France Football magazine published last year.
Ivan Lopez-Muniz wrote in 2017 that in Argentina the “entire nation”, including the Government and the Argentine Football Association, still “praises the most blatant act of cheating ever caught on tape”, partly because “Argentines are humans, and humans are hypocrites” but also because of a long history of grievances against the English or British, that includes not only the 1982 Falklands War, but other matters such as England manager Alf Ramsay calling the Argentine players animals after Argentine Captain Antonio Rattin was sent off against England in the 1966 World Cup, as well as Britain’s invasions of the future Argentine capital Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807 (events learned by almost all young Argentines and by almost no English schoolchildren), and its seizure of the Falklands Islands (known to Argentines as Las Malvinas) “in 1832.”
Lopez-Muniz concluded that, because of the combination of high and low standards, “Quite simply, it means that Maradona, on that day, was an Englishman.”
After the controversy came the most iconic moments in the history of football.
As England tried to push their way back in the game, at the stroke of the 55th minute, Peter Beardsley, under pressure from Jose Luis Cuciuffo, gave the ball carelessly away in the Argentine half.
Two passes later it had found its way on to the feet of Diego Maradona.
Maradona, in his own words, describes that unforgettable moment in Mexico on June 22, 1986:
I still remember every second of that goal. Every single second, even when the ball bounced towards me. The Aztec Stadium pitch was really bad, it wasn’t well maintained and had pools of water lying everywhere. It wasn’t like the pitches we see today in the Champions League that are like pool tables. In ’86 the pitch was in a really bad state.
I remember that when I started dribbling, the ball was moving side to side. Peter Reid and I were talking about this the other day during an interview; when I was dribbling, I was looking to either side, but all I saw was Peter coming at me like this … [pulls a face showing all his teeth and straining his neck muscles]. All his veins were showing! And I asked him, “when I brought the ball forward, I saw you quit. Did you?” He said: “I could not catch you. Every time I’d make an effort you would be a metre further ahead. I would advance and all I could see was your number”. I thought it was fantastic.
After that, I remember [Terry] Butcher being on my left, and so was [Terry] Fenwick. I had [Jorge] Burruchaga and [Jorge] Valdano in support. So I’m thinking, do I pass or do I go alone?
Fenwick made my mind up for me. He was in front of me, but not knowing if he should come to the ball or cover Burruchaga. So, like I tell my players today, a defender that doubts is a defender that dies. Fenwick was thinking “I am one and have to cover two. Do I choose this one or that one?” In the end, he chose neither. He stayed in the middle. That was the doubt that killed him.
When I went past Fenwick, [Peter] Shilton came out. Although my initial thought was to shoot for the far corner, Shilton rushes at me like this.. [makes a collapsing gesture]. It’s not that I made a great move against Shilton, he just wanted to cover too much of the goal so he went all over the place. When I saw him, I thought… “What did they give this guy? They must have given him alcohol..” He was like a mad man. He fainted… so I just touched it, went round him and scored. GOOOAAAALLL!
But then Butcher comes in and kicks me so hard. It was one of the most painful things I’ve experienced. When we were on the bus, I was sitting with a bag of ice on my leg. But I didn’t care. We had beaten the English.
On Argentine radio, Victor Hugo Morales, whose commentary of these moments would become as immortal as the goal itself was already screaming “Genius! Genius! Genius!”
Twenty-one players on the pitch had been practically reduced to spectators, ringside seat owners to watch genius unfold in real-time.
Jorge Valdano was running alongside Maradona as reinforcement, there to his left if he needed someone to pass to, but as he recalled later “At first I went along with him out of a sense of responsibility, but then I realised I was just one more spectator.”
Meanwhile, Morales’ commentary at that moment came from someone in the throes of a divine experience.
“Sorry! I want to cry! Good, God! Long live football! What a goal! Diego! Maradona! I have to scream, forgive me…Maradona in a memorable run, in the best play ever…Cosmic kite! What planet did you come from…to leave in your wake so many Englishmen so that the country can become a clenched fist screaming for Argentina?”
What a genius Diego Maradona was!