Reuters/London, United Kingdom
For all his footballing genius, Diego Maradona, at least for a generation of England fans, will be forever demonised for a moment of skulduggery in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium at the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona’s second goal in eventual champions Argentina’s 2-1 quarter-final victory is regarded as one of the best of all time. But it was his first that for many defined him.
Bobby Robson’s stoic England side had kept a highly-skilled Argentina side under control, but six minutes into the second half Maradona embarked on one of his trademark mazy runs into the heart of England’s defence.
After sliding a pass towards teammate Jorge Valdano, Maradona continued his run and when England’s Steve Hodge inadvertently sliced the ball goalwards, time stood still.
England keeper Peter Shilton came out to punch the ball clear but Maradona, as if propelled by a trampoline, soared skywards to touch the ball into the empty net.
Something seemed odd, though, as Maradona, at 5ft 5 inches (165cm), had apparently defied physics to beat 6ft (183cm) goalkeeper Shilton to the ball.
As Maradona ran away to celebrate, England’s players were apoplectic. Terry Fenwick was the first to chase after Tunisian referee, Ali Bennaceur.
TV replays revealed that it was not Maradona’s head that had made contact with the ball but a craftily concealed left hand that had pushed the ball past Shilton.
Had it happened today, with Video Assistant Referees (VAR), the most infamous goal in World Cup history would have quickly been ruled out and Maradona cautioned.
But the goal stood, and four minutes later Maradona led almost the entire England team a merry dance before making it 2-0 — a double whammy from which a shell-shocked England, despite a late goal, never recovered.
Even Maradona’s teammates were initially slow to celebrate the opener. “I told them, ‘Come hug me, or the referee isn’t going to allow it,’” Maradona said later.
In the post-match press conference, describing the goal, he uttered words that have never been forgotten.
The goal was, he said, “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”)
Shilton, England’s most-capped goalkeeper, never forgave Maradona, saying that while he was the best player in the world he could never respect him or shake his hand.
“The whole England team suffered because he cheated,” Shilton said. “He admitted to it in a roundabout way, saying it was the ‘hand of God’. But he didn’t apologise, or show any remorse. I was brought up to respect the game.”
While England was in uproar, back in Argentina, where the wounds of the Falklands War that the two countries had recently fought were still fresh, the adulation of Maradona reached saint-like levels. And it has stayed that way ever since.
Street artist Lean Frizzera completed a mural depicting the goal on an underpass in Palermo, Buenos Aires, nearly 25 years after that day in the Azteca Stadium.
The mural was inspired by Jose de San Martin — a national hero who helped liberate Argentina from the Spanish in the 19th century.
Even in England, where Maradona’s status amongst soccer’s pantheon of greats will always be accompanied by a large ‘but’, many prefer to remember his artistry.
“As bad as the first goal was, with cheating, the second one is a man who was at the height of his abilities and talent, and quite simply, he was one of the best players ever to walk the planet,” Peter Reid, part of the England midfield that was transfixed that day in the Azteca, told the BBC.
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