Maradona and the Match England Never Got Over
Anyone who ever thought Diego Maradona would apologize didn’t understand Diego Maradona.
But that didn’t stop England from waiting 34 years for one of the greatest soccer players in history to say “sorry.’’ Even after Maradona’s death on Wednesday, much of the country still wasn’t over what happened on a hot afternoon in Mexico City in 1986—the incident known simply as the Hand of God.
That was the moment when the 5-foot-5 Maradona leapt to punch the ball with his fist into the goal illegally to help Argentina to a 2-1 win over England in a World Cup quarterfinal. The referee missed the infraction and Maradona wasn’t exactly going to confess. He preferred to say that his hand was guided by God.
For millions of Maradona fans, that only burnished his legend. He was the artist capable of great beauty and brazen disregard for the rules.
For England, however, it was a crime against Queen and country. And on the morning after his death, the British tabloids couldn’t resist putting it back in the headlines. Maradona wouldn’t have been English soccer’s favorite enemy without it.
The front pages of the Sun, Daily Mirror, and Daily Express all ran headlines describing Maradona as “in the hands of God.” Two of them combined it with a photo of the goal—as opposed to, say, Maradona lifting the World Cup. The Daily Star went even further, asking, “Where Was VAR When We Needed it Most?” referring to soccer’s now-standard instant replay.
“Yes he was a cheat,” the Star continued on its front page. “But what a bloody amazing cheat he was.”
The game’s staying power in the English psyche goes far beyond the events on the pitch, in part because of soccer’s uncanny ability to act as a proxy for geopolitical conflict. And on this occasion, the backdrop to the game was the Falklands War, a 74-day armed conflict in 1982 over a string of islands off the coast of Argentina that were controlled by the U.K.
By the time the fighting was over, with U.K. sovereignty maintained, more than 900 soldiers had been killed in total. But Argentina’s government has never dropped its claim to the islands it calls the Islas Malvinas. Neither had Maradona.
“More than defeating a football team, it was defeating a country,” he wrote later. “Of course, before the match, we said that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, but we know a lot of Argentinean kids had died there, shot down like little birds. This was revenge. It was like recovering a little bit of the Malvinas.”
South Atlantic territories aside, no one felt more aggrieved about the result than England’s goalkeeper in that World Cup, Peter Shilton. To this day, he feels that his side should have advanced and could have won the whole tournament instead of Argentina. Forget that Argentina was almost certainly the better team.
“Never at any stage did he say he had cheated and that he would like to say sorry,” Shilton wrote in the Daily Mail on Thursday. “Instead, he used his ‘Hand of God’ line. That wasn’t right.”
The reality is that Shilton probably should have beaten Maradona to the ball anyway. Not only was he 8 inches taller, but he could legally use his hands. Goalkeepers are taught that the airspace above the turf belongs to them and given license to plow through anything on their runway. It was the soccer equivalent of letting Maradona dunk on him.
“It has bothered me over the years,” Shilton wrote. “I won’t lie about that now. People say I should have cleared the ball anyway and that I let a smaller man outjump me. That’s rubbish.”
Maradona, who wished in the final weeks of his life that he might score against England again, was unrepentant in his autobiography. “The Thermos-head got angry because of my hand-goal,” he wrote, giving Shilton an absurd nickname. “What about the other one, Shilton, didn’t you see that one?”
(Maradona clarifies in the glossary to his own book that “Thermos-head” means “someone who is stupid.”)
The other goal Maradona was referring to happens to be one of the most dazzling efforts in World Cup history. Four minutes after the handball, Maradona dribbled from inside in his own half, through the English defense, to make the score 2-0. Though he ran in more or less a straight line, the mere threat of where he might go was enough to put defenders on their heels.
Shilton insists that England was merely shellshocked by the first goal. The rest of the soccer universe disagrees. In fact, plenty of his contemporaries refuse to see him as a scoundrel on the pitch. In an era of defensive brutality, when tackles from behind were allowed and tricky dribblers were routinely hacked down, Maradona was more often on the receiving end.
“He never feigned injury, never went down looking to get somebody booked or sent off,” the former Ireland midfielder Liam Brady, who faced him in Italy, wrote in the Irish Examiner Thursday. “He always bounced up on his feet and he was respectful of his opponents.”
At least until the final whistle. Maradona, the creative genius, reserved the right to call an Englishman “Thermos-head” later.