The scoreline is familiar, as is the fateful date, but surely the title for this article should be ‘The Hand of God’? Everyone knows that this was the game when England’s brave Three Lions and the hapless officials were slyly deceived by the diminutive Argentine, and thus any retrospective of the game must take this key moment as its starting point? Or perhaps not…the moment we always hark back to, with a characteristic tone of moral indignation, is remembered quite differently outside England

The Quarter Final game may occupy a similar space in the Argentine collective memory in terms of its significance, but the epithet that is more commonly used in the Southern Cone, invoking the Uruguayan commentator’s interest in cosmology, refers predictably to the ‘other’ moment of otherworldly intervention that day.

The nature of knockout football dictates that any country’s success or defeat can and often is traced back to just a few seconds which decide a tense and even game and that these seconds ultimately go a long way to deciding the media narrative for the whole game or indeed the team’s entire campaign. All the hard work undertaken in qualifying and the group stage can very quickly be undone by just one moment of idiocy, genius or simply ill-fortune.

For Argentines 1986 represents a moment of catharsis against a nemesis which far transcends the concerns of the football pitch, striking an especially raw nerve in the post-colonial Argentine psyche.

British colonial interest in Argentina dates back to the 19th Century when the British, with more than a smidgeon of self-interest, were among the first to acknowledge the independence of Argentina. From the early days of independence British interest in Argentina was significant (providing more than a third of all investment) playing a key role in the development of railway and tramway lines, agriculture, processing, refrigeration and export. One of the most indelible marks left, of course, was football, a legacy clearly visible in the nomenclature a number of Argentina’s biggest sides, ranging from River Plate and Boca Juniors to Newell’s Old Boys and All Boys (who currently play their football at the Estadio Islas Malvinas – The Falklands Isles Stadium).

Over time, Argentina have accrued a number of rivals in international football, ranging from five-time world champions Brazil to their smaller cousin Uruguay.

In the previous round, played at Estadio Cuautemoc in Puebla, Argentina deservedly overcome their River Plate neighbours and historic rivals by a goal to nil. However they are far from satisfied, for there are higher matters on their minds. One might think, in light of the historical bête noire role that the upstart buffer state has played in the history of both Argentinian and Brazilian football, that victory over their nearest neighbours would taste sweet.

Such is the superiority complex and sense of pride that Uruguayans feel with regard to their theoretically more powerful neighbour that the following phrase remains common on the streets of Montevideo ‘ataca Argentina, gol de Uruguay’ (Argentina attack, goal to Uruguay). As with any rivalry between two forces of unequal size, the rivalry means much more to the smaller adversary (think Wales and England at Rugby Union, or of any other surprisingly even David vs. Goliath you see fit). Argentines feel more relief than joy at ousting Uruguay, a dangerous team and a firm rival.

However, I digress: The next round puts them on collision course with the real enemy: England. In football terms, twenty years on from Argentina’s controversial quarter final exit in 1966 at the hands of hosts and eventual winners England, there is a strange symmetry to be found – especially as the South Americans too would go on the lift the great trophy.

In 1966, of course, for those unfamiliar with the minutiae of England’s successful campaign, the Boca Juniors midfielder Antonio Rattin was famously dismissed for ‘looking at the referee the wrong way’ and/or ‘violence of the tongue’ by German referee Rudolf Kreitlein. Rattin was so incensed that it took at least eight minutes to convince him to leave the field and upon doing so he proceeded to sit on the Queen’s red carpet. Alf Ramsey, enraged at the Argentines’ performance, infamously labelled the South Americans ‘animals’ – a crassly chosen (or well-chosen if you are of the Alex Ferguson school of niggling) barb that further riled the already fuming Argentines. This comment came hot on the heels of Ramsey having instructing his players to break with protocol and refuse to swap shirts with their opponents.

Indeed the collective South American memory of the 1966 World Cup is one of particular bitterness, viewing the competition as a conspiracy of European bully-boy tactics and intimidation, most blatantly exemplified by holders Brazil and Pelé being (literally) kicked out of the tournament by their ex-colonial masters Portugal.

Of course, much of the popular feeling surrounding the game was linked to occurrences beyond the football field. With the Falklands War (Guerra de las Malvinas) fresh in the mind, the Argentine players felt an enormous responsibility to win a game that meant far more to their people than football. England still had to overcome Paraguay a day later, but the feeling was that it was meant to be. England were slowly improving after their traditional false start, qualifying second to an unfancied but talented Morocco side.

Whilst the Malvinas issue remains a potent force for populist unity and nationalism it is fair to note that the issue wasn’t of universal importance to all Argentines. Avant-garde Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges famously labelled the conflict as ‘una guerra de dos calvos por un peine’ (a war of two bald men fighting for a comb). The giant of Latin American literature, who like many of his contemporaries spent large chunks of his life in the spiritual homeland of Europe, incidentally, would pass away in Switzerland just a week before the game.

For those closer to the coal-face, wounds from the tragic war were still raw, and a burning sense of injustice colours the mere mention of the colonial antagonist. This could only be sated by a victory against the smug, superior colonial power personified by the crass, overzealous leadership of Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady famously offered a thumbs-up gesture to the British Press upon learning that 323 Argentines had perished following an attack on the ARA General Belgrano, which was moving away from the islands and was outside of the Malvinas Exclusion Zone.

It was quickly proved that Britain’s military might could not be matched by the Argentines deeming the invasion a pointless exercise for all concerned, but on the football field Argentina had long matched or outclassed their European neighbours with a nexus of guile, flair and the individualism of the criollo style.

The mid-eighties found Argentina lurching from crisis to crisis battling against hyper-inflation, a cause of the countries commitment to Washington Consensus driven neo-liberalism, whilst recovering from a macabre period of state-sponsored terror and disappearances under the military dictatorship and its participation in the trans-national repression of Operation Condor. Football, as always, provided a release valve for the beleaguered Argentine masses.

Outside of more local ‘derbies’ and ‘clásicos’ the Argentina – England rivalry is surely the most deep-rooted antagonism between teams from different continents.

Within the Americas Argentines are not noted for their popularity. A popular Latin American joke asks how an Argentine commits suicide, explaining that he climbs to the top of his ego and then jumps  (¿Cómo se suicida un argentino? ¡Se sube a su ego y luego salta!). Any notion of Latin American solidarity is often utopian and misplaced. The subtle nuances of each nation state prevent it and often actively encourage the opposite. The existence of terms like ‘boliguayo’, a derogatory catch-all portmanteau used to refer to immigrants from Bolivia and Paraguay, goes some way to explaining the unpopularity of Argentina in those two countries. On a more general level, large swathes of the continent tend to see themselves as ‘mestizo’ (mixed-race), owing to miscegenation in the early colonial period. Argentina’s historical development was closer to that of the United States, importing a European middle class from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.

Despite all this however, one point of continent-wide unity is the Falklands issue. Lula da Silva of Brazil questioned the ‘geographical, political and economic explanation for the islands sovereignty’, whilst Ecuador’s Rafael Correa suggested that Latin American countries should actively pursue economic sanctions against the British.

With this in mind Latin Americans outside Argentina found themselves faced with a strange dilemma, of the sort every football fan is often faced with: that of which side represents the lesser evil? It’s probably fair to say that the quarter-final game, between Argentina and England, carried a significant political edge to it. It’s a game where Bill Shankly’s tongue-in-cheek old adage about the game being more important than life and death, for a short while, in certain places, seemed to have a ring of truth to it. Nationalist sentiment was augmented by the fact that only three of Argentina’s side were playing their club football in Europe. A largely Argentine-based squad were united by their shared experiences of life in their home country.

After much fanfare the game began with Argentina controlling the early stages without managing to make the vital breakthrough. Significantly Terry Fenwick deservedly received an early booking for hacking Maradona, a common theme throughout the tournament. Persistent intentional fouling ostensibly is as much an infringement of the game’s rules (and spirit) as using a hand, but somehow within the strange hypocrisy of English footballing values isn’t. The first chance saw Beardsley hit the side-netting after Nery Pumpido clumsily spilled the ball, way off limits. Argentina came out liberated from the cautiousness of previous games, with Olarticochea particularly causing problems for the English defence. Argentina had clearly done their homework on England with Hector Enrique deployed to shackle the classy Glenn Hoddle and Jose Cuciuffo and Oscar Ruggeri tight on Lineker and Beardsley.

Half time came with the sides deadlocked, little does the watching world know that two of the most remembered moments of World Cup history will come in a whirlwind six minutes. Both incidents, inevitably, involve the player of the tournament and arguably the greatest player of all time: Diego Maradona.

The first goal is described with bumbling inaccuracy by Barry Davies. The familiar received pronunciation of the Englishman faithfully representing the Corinthian values of the game that took root over a century ago and remain dominant to this day, much to the chagrin and bemusement of the rest of the world.

‘Maradona just walked away from Hoddle then,  Valdano….Hodge….. and Maradona….they’re appealing for offside, the ball came back off the foot of Steve Hodge, and Maradona gives Argentina the lead, the England players are protesting, but the little man who started it by walking past Glenn Hoddle, there’s where the ball by Hodge, Maradona had continued the run forward and the goal is given. At what point was he offside? Or was it a use of a hand that England were complaining about?’

Quicker off the mark, however, was the most famous narration of the ‘Argentinian’ side of the game, which actually came from a Uruguayan, Victor Hugo Morales. Morales quickly realises what has happened and instinctively takes the side of the Argentines, or perhaps more accurately is against the colonial nation. Morales at least acknowledges that his stance is on dodgy moral ground, pleading for the forgiveness of God for what he has said:

‘Ahí tiene la pelota Argentina y el partido, ¿para cuando Argentina y el gol?, Vamos muchachos..La pelota viene para Batista, Batista para Henrique, Henrique cambia para el vasco, allá vino para Olarticoechea, que lo tiene a Diego como número diez, a Giusti como número nueve, a Burruchaga de ocho y Valdano de siete. La pelota va para Maradona, Maradona. Puede tocar para Henrique, siempre Maradona y su dribbling ,se va, se va entre tres siempre Diego, Genial Genial! Toco Para Valdano! Entró Maradona, Saltó frente a Shilton… Cabeceoooó… mano… Goooooool, goooooool, goooooool, goooooool, arrrrrrgentino. Diego, Diego Armando Maradona, entro a buscar después de una jugada maravillosa. Un rechazo para atrás. Saltó con la mano, para mí. Para convertir el gol, mandando la pelota por arriba de Peter Shilton. El línea no lo advirtió, el árbitro lo miró desesperadamente, mientras los ingleses entregaban todo tipo de justificadas protestas, para mí. El gol fue con la mano, lo grito con el alma, pero tengo que decirles lo que pienso. Solo espero que me digan de Buenos Aires, si están mirando el partido en televisión ahora mismo, por favor, si fue válido el gol de Maradona, aunque el árbitro lo dio. Argentina está ganando por uno a cero. Que Dios me perdone lo que voy a decir: contra Inglaterra, hoy, aún así, con un gol con la mano, que quiere que le diga.’

‘Argentina have the ball, and in this match, when will the goal come? Come on boys! The ball comes to Batista, Batista to Enrique, Enrique to the Basque, then on to Olarticoechea, who has Maradona the number 10, Giusti wearing 9, Burrachaga 8 and Valdano 7. The ball goes to Maradona. He could give it to Enrique, still Maradona and his running, he goes on, he goes on past three, incredible, incredible, touches it for Valdano, Maradona goes on, he jumps with Shilton, he heads…..handball! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal for Argentina! Diego, Diego Armando Maradona, went in after a fantastic piece of play. A backpass and he led with a hand for me, to score the goal, sending the ball above Peter Shilton. The linesman didn’t spot it, the referee looks desperately at him, while the English make their justified (for me) protests known. The goal was scored using a hand, I celebrate it with all my soul, but I must say what I think. I hope you tell me, from Buenos Aires, if you’re watching the game, if the goal was fair, though the referee has given it. Argentina are leading 1-0. God forgive me for what I’m going to say: against England today, even like this, with a goal scored with the hand, what do you want me to say?’

The inquest, and analysis of the incident, are still going on of course, with sporadic bursts of bile and bitterness from the English side and occasional exaggerated and absurd invocations of otherworldly intervention from the Argentine side.

Indeed the bloody personification of the English Corinthian spirit, Singapore-born Terry Butcher suggested that he would love to see Maradona again in order to ‘stick one on him’. Presented with two opportunities to do so (at friendly and testimonial games) Butcher did nothing, presumably too busy foaming at the mouth with self-righteous indignation.

The narrative of the ‘darker arts of Southern Cone’ football only tell half the story of course. Coach Carlos Bilardo set the tone for the way the 1986 team played. Whether the Cesar Luis Menotti team of 1978 would have approached the game in the same way. Regardless of this, the ‘good-bad’ dichotomy which the previous comment suggests and the whole Menotti-Bilardo debate is often presented as, is surely a gross oversimplification of many complex issues, and therein lies the problem.

The infamous incident was best captured by Mexican photographer Alejandro Ojeda Carvajal, who perfectly caught the moment Maradona ‘beats’ Shilton to the ball. Worse was to come for England of course. Just a few minutes later, still reeling from the first goal, they were beaten by a goal more fitting of comparison with higher powers.

Accounts of Victor Hugo Morales Spanish language commentary for this goal, uncannily, are much easier to find, as the goal provides a perfect example of the emotion that the game can bring at its best. The once in a lifetime moment was described like this:

“Ahí la tiene Maradona, lo marcan dos, pisa la pelota, Maradona, arranca por la derecha el genio del fútbol mundial. Y deja el tercero, puede tocar para Burruchaga… siempre Maradona. ¡Genio, genio, genio! Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta … ¡Gooooooool gooooooool! ¡Quiero llorar! ¡Dios santo, viva el fútbol, golaaaazo! ¡Diegoooool!!! Maradona! Es para llorar, perdónenme. Maradona, en una corrida memorable, en la jugada de todos los tiempos, barrilete cósmico, ¿de qué planeta viniste para dejar en el camino a tanto inglés?, para que el país sea un puño apretado gritando por Argentina. Argentina 2 – Inglaterra 0. ¡Diegol, Diegol!, Diego Armando Maradona. Gracias, Dios, por el fútbol, por Maradona, por estas lágrimas, por este Argentina 2 – Inglaterra 0.”

‘Maradona on the ball now. Two closing him down. Maradona rolls his foot over the ball and breaks away down the right, the genius of world football. He goes past a third, looks for Burruchaga. Maradona forever! Genius! Genius! Genius! He’s still going… Gooooal! Sorry, I want to cry! Good God! Long live football! What a goal! A memorable run from Maradona. The greatest solo goal of all time. Cosmic Kite, which planet did you come from leaving so many English players behind, and in this process turning the country into a clenched fist shouting for Argentina! Argentina 2 England 0. Diego Diego! Diego Armando Maradona! Thank you God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears and for this scoreline: Argentina 2 England 0.’

The goal is immortalised and always referred to on the other side of the ocean as ‘barrilete cósmico’, the spontaneous reaction of Victor Hugo Morales that day, who explains his comment by saying that at that time he had taken an interest in cosmology and often used its imagery to describe otherworldly moments. The words alone do the commentary little justice, it’s worth a listen just to hear the primal scream of joy at bearing witness one of football’s seminal moments.

A goal of similar quality is not beyond the realms of possibility, but to produce it at a crucial moment in a World Cup Quarter Final against high-quality opposition seems less likely. It is also noteworthy that a couple of opportunities to bring Maradona down were passed up. In the name of the Corinthian spirit and being committed to trying to win the ball cleanly, the English players mentality was not given to simply chopping the player as a recourse within the games rules and regrouping. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it does seem inconceivable that a more pragmatic nation would concede the same goal.

Amongst a plethora of analysis for the goal comes a bit of humour (that could almost be English) from Hector Enrique, one of the many anonymous mere mortals who shared a pitch with Maradona in 1986. Enrique deadpanned the following:

‘Con el pase que le di a Maradona, si no hacía gol era para matarlo’  (‘With the pass that I gave Maradona, we’d have killed him if he didn’t score’)

Stunned by the stellar events of the few minutes after half time, belatedly Bobby Robson tweaked his line up bringing on Chris Waddle for Peter Reid on 65 minutes and unleashing John Barnes in place of Trevor Steven. The width of Barnes, who produced a fleeting glimpse in an England shirt of what he would go on to produce so often in the red of Liverpool, made for a great finale to the game as he carved out a stereotypically English goal for Lineker. Indeed with a carbon copy cross from Barnes minutes later Lineker came desperately close to making it 2-2. Rumours abound that Barnes was unable to produce his club form as Bobby Robson insisted he remain closer to his full-back fulfilling a defensive role. The truth of this, and whether it was necessary to be more cautious at international level, could long be debated.

Returning to the significance of the game, and the strong link between football and national identity in the popular mind-set, years later the Argentine sociologist Eduardo Archetti recalls a chant steeped in the pervasive machismo of Latin American society that became popular in Argentina in the aftermath of the game ‘Thatcher, Thatcher donde estas? Maradona, Maradona te anda buscando, para metertela por detras!’ (Thatcher, Thatcher where are you? Maradona is looking for you to screw you from behind!’) Aside from its rather unsubtle but entertaining imagery, the chant neatly ties together the importance of football to national pride and the link Argentine fans saw between the game and real life.

On a slightly more serious level, perhaps the most meaningful analysis of the game, and its larger symbolic meaning, came from a player Maradona was not especially fond of, Jorge Valdano.

‘En un partido de un grandísimo valor simbólico, Maradona mostró las dos formas de ser del argentino. En el primer gol muestra la trampa, la picardía criolla o la viveza. Argentina es un país donde el engaño tiene más prestigio que la honradez. Pero también tiene otra cara. Es la del virtuosismo y la habilidad. En el segundo gol Maradona corona el partido con una obra de arte. Es la habilidad, la gambeta, la nuestra’

‘It’s a game which has huge symbolic value, Maradona showed the two sides of being an Argentine. The first goal shows the deceit, the creole cunning and the sharpness. Argentina is a place where deceit has more prestige than honesty. But it also has another face and that is one of virtue and ability. With the second goal Maradona crowns the match as a work of art. It is flair, the gambeta (Latin American style dribbling), our style)

Valdano touches upon the great dichotomy in Argentine football which differentiates between the style exemplified by Argentina’s two World Cup winning coaches Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo. Menotti, the chain-smoking left-wing bon vivante favours an artful, high-tempo interpretation of the Argentine passing game, with a strong emphasis on entertaining and playing the game the ‘right’ way whereas Bilardo shamelessly draws heavily on the darker arts of the game privileging victory above all else. For further information on these two please seeFutebol Forca vs Futebol Arte.

The conclusion that Argentina is a country where deceit holds more prestige than honesty is backed up by the man himself – Diego. Maradona speaks of his pride on having put one over on the English in this way. The idea of resorting to cunning to put one over on the oppressor is deep rooted in the mentality of the downtrodden Latin American underclass.

‘A veces siento que me gustó más el de la mano, el primero. Ahora sí puedo contar lo que en aquel momento no podía, lo que en aquel momento definí como La mano de Dios…qué mano de Dios, ¡fue la mano del Diego! Y fue como robarle la billetera a los ingleses, también’ (At times, I feel like I liked the goal with the hand more. Now I can tell you what I couldn’t at that time, what I defined as the hand of God: what hand of God? It was the hand of Diego, and it was like pickpocketing the English too)

Maradona’s visceral description of the moment sat well with Uruguayan romantic poet Mario Benedetti, who felt fit to chip in with the following observation:

‘Aquel gol que le hizo Maradona a los ingleses con la ayuda de la mano divina, es por ahora la única prueba fiable de la existencia de Dios’ Mario Benedetti (‘that goal that Maradona scored against the English with the Hand of God is, for now, the only conclusive proof of the existence of God’)

Even in Europe, one of Italy’s greatest ever strikers Silvio Piola felt that all was fair in love and war, saying that he too had scored with his hand against England, whilst representing Italy, and celebrated the goal. Piola suggested that Italian fans should remember this when Maradona returned to Italy after the World Cup.

The essentialisation of such national characteristics, of course, is foolish and misleading. The likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli for example, are unlikely to have taken such pride at having ‘pickpocketed’ the opponent. The common belief that a sense of fairness is an innate characteristic unique to the Corinthian spirit of the English, which other nations are unable to comprehend, is one that surely holds us back.

Argentina, of course, would go on to defeat Belgium in the Semi-Final and finally West Germany in a memorable final. The last truly great World Cup ended with Burrachaga slipping the ball past Bodo Illgner to trigger a wave of celebration across Argentina, and who knows, maybe even elsewhere in South America.

Of course, not all were pleased to see Argentina lift the trophy in 1986. In fact a couple of decades later, still boiling with rage and jealousy, Pelé acerbically observed that ‘O único gol de cabeça importante que marcou foi com a mão’ (the only important header he scored was with his hand). The petty feud between two of the world’s greatest ever players (notice the word order – not THE two greatest) does neither player any credit, but is symptomatic of the violent emotions which football unleashes.

George Orwell was quick to dismiss the game offering the following analysis ‘Football has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’

Whilst part of his statement is hyperbolic and rather contentious, one could argue that the idea of football being war minus the shooting could equally be used to defend the game. Even the most partisan football fan tends to accept things for what they are after a time. (Almost) no English fan disputes the genius of Maradona’s second goal; even the man himself owned up to his misdemeanour and generally speaks positively of English football. Many subjective debates rage on in football, but surely in a generally harmless and innocuous way.

History is nearly always written by the victors, giving rise to dominant epistemologies of meaning, which define our understanding of our surroundings in terms dictated by those who emerge victorious. Argentine anthropologist Walter Mignolo underlines this in his ‘Idea of Latin America’ text, which brings into question our geo-political understanding of the world.

In footballing terms, a game which exemplifies the way different narratives are conveniently produced to represent historic events, it would be Argentina’s 1986 victory over England, which to this day feeds into our historic understanding of what is to be expected from a football team from both nations. The English understanding of the game cultivates and feeds into our holier-than-thou moralism along with the accompanying assumptions that good honesty industry will win out. Alf Ramsey’s ‘animals’ remark and the much-talked about first goal also nourish the xenophobic notion of ‘dirty Argies’ and/or countries of less moral fibre than the British. Of course the Argentine perspective, as represented by a Uruguayan commentator, is also highly subjective and is steeped in its own historical prejudice and/or a persecution complex. Football, at least, provides an arena to debate and understand these partialities and prejudices however, and surely isn’t as bad for international relations as George Orwell suggests.

By Mark Biram

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona