From The Vault: The Hand Of God

  • 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Sports

A warm welcome to you all to a new series, where I will be taking the readers down memory lane to some of the most memorable matches from the history books of cricket/football. These are the contests that became instant classics and have lingered long in the memories of sports enthusiasts.
“A little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.”
In the quarter-final clash of the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, Diego Maradona's cryptic explanation regarding his controversial opening goal against England is etched in the annals of football history, standing alongside the goal itself and his mesmerising second score just four minutes later. The encounter at Mexico City's Estadio Azteca on June 22, 1986, has become a lasting memory marked by Maradona's strategic maneuver and a burst of sheer brilliance, offering a glimpse into the career and life of one of the greatest players within a mere 300 seconds.
Decades later, many of the English players, whose World Cup aspirations were shattered by the then 25-year-old, harbor lingering frustration, perceiving themselves as 'cheated' out of the tournament. However, there remains a reluctant admiration for the man responsible. Striker Gary Lineker, whose 81st-minute goal in that quarter-final contributed to his Golden Boot accolade, conveyed his sentiments: “I don’t have rage in me. I just felt gutted. Absolutely gutted. I like Diego, I have to confess. He cheated us, but I’ve forgiven him. Maradona was the greatest player of our era. The things he did on the pitch were magical.”
Set against the backdrop of the post-1982 Falklands conflict, the media sought to ascribe a deeper diplomatic and political significance to the match. However, those directly involved were not inclined to embrace this narrative. In an interview preceding the game, Maradona addressed a gathering of reporters, expressing his perspective, “No, no, no. It’s only football.” In the subsequent events on the field, Maradona found himself both, justified and mistaken.
In the 51st minute, Maradona initiated a characteristic, elusive run within the England half, eventually passing the ball towards Jorge Valdano at the edge of England’s 18-yard box, with Steve Hodge closely tracking. What appeared to be a poorly executed clearance from Hodge, but according to him, a deliberately calculated back-pass, soared back into the area. As Peter Shilton advanced to collect, the petite Maradona leaped for the ball, elevating his left arm above his head and directing it past the goalkeeper into the unguarded net. The English team was furious. As Argentina’s players hurried to their captain for celebrations, their adversaries confronted Tunisian referee Ali Bennaceur and his assistant Bogdan Dochev, who was patrolling the line in the England half.
In the present age of Video Assistant Referees and ultra-high-definition television coverage, allowing such a goal to stand is inconceivable. However, in 1986, the match officials didn’t benefit from such technological support. A significant po’tion of England’s lingering resentment is directed towards Bennaceur and Dochev, even though several of Bobby Robson’s players have since acknowledged they hadn’t observed the incident in real-time.
Midfielder Hodge, drafted into the lineup after captain Bryan Robson suffered a shoulder injury in the group stage, reminisced, “It came at a nice height. I’ve got a good left foot, I flicked it back and I caught the contact spot-on. In those days, the keeper can come out, he can catch the ball and off we go. It was my back-pass, I was five yards away, and I’d not seen a thing. Not a thing. To this day, I’ll always blame that linesman, and the referee. But saying that, I was five yards away, and I didn’t see it.”
Central defender Terry Butcher, who adopted a no-nonsense pre-match strategy to contain Argentina’s most potent attacking talent, shared a stance similar to Hodge’s. However, he maintained that the match officials should have detected what transpired. He stated, “We thought if we could stop Maradona, then we could win the game. I think the consensus was that the only way we’re going to stop him is to try and kick him, but that’s easier said than done.” Butcher acknowledged, “I never saw him handle it. I honestly never saw him handle it. It was a brilliant piece of gamesmanship. I blame the assistants for not seeing that. I think it was pretty clear. I think in a World Cup quarter-final that is an utter disgrace that he’s been allowed to get away with that.”
Bennaceur, who never officiated in any subsequent World Cup matches in his career, suggested in 2001 that he was anticipating a signal from his assistant when he remarked, “The linesman was better placed than me – I decided to trust his judgement.” Yet, Bulgaria’s Dochov countered six years later, shifting the responsibility for the decision back to the man in the middle, and stated, “With the referee having said the goal was valid, I couldn’t have waved my flag and told him the goal wasn’t good.” With barely enough time for players, supporters, and the global TV audience to catch their breath, Maradona once again had the world on its feet. This time, however, they were universally captivated after witnessing what would later be hailed as FIFA’s World Cup Goal of the Century.
The legendary No. 10 received the ball within his own half, with Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid in close pursuit. In the blink of an eye, he eluded both, gracefully turning into space and gaining momentum as he surged deeper into England territory. Maradona maneuvered past Butcher, danced around fellow center-back Terry Fenwick on the edge of the box, skillfully evaded Shilton as he advanced from his line, and slid the ball home amidst last-ditch pressure. Lineker remains captivated to this day and admitted, “That is some goal. That is the best goal ever. I felt like I should applaud after that.” Glenn Hoddle, no stranger to his own moments of artistry on the field, recognised that he was in the presence of greatness. He added, “He’s conned the referee and the officials with a handball, but then he scored what is going to be probably the best-ever World Cup goal in history. I’ve always thought he was the best player in the world, and still is the best player that’s ever hit the planet”.
Butcher, however, was somewhat less generous, commenting on the second goal, “I’ve gone through this countless times in my mind about what I should have done. I know what I should have done, I should have just smashed him on the halfway line.” Fate would bring the England defender and his nemesis together once more in the post-match drugs test, where Butcher questioned the match-winner about the first goal. Pointing to his head and then his hand, Butcher said, “I just went ‘that’ or ‘that’? And he went ‘that’ (indicating his hand). It’s probably the best thing he ever did, because I would have killed him if he hadn’t!”
In 2022, another chapter unfolded in the aftermath of the match when Hodge, who had exchanged shirts with Maradona post-match, maintaining his unawareness of how the first goal transpired, decided to auction the iconic jersey. Initially valued at around £300,000 in 2016, the passing of the global great in 2020 at the age of 60 dramatically increased the pre-sale estimate to £4 million. The final hammer price for the shirt reached an astonishing figure of £7,142,500 (just under $9 million).
As England grappled with their disappointment and returned home, Maradona and his team were back in the spotlight as they went past West Germany at same venue and were crowned champions of the world for the second time. It is fitting to let those who played alongside him articulate the extraordinary talent of the legendary Albiceleste skipper and how he inspired those around him every time he stepped onto the field. Valdano expressed, “We were in the presence of a genius. He was playing a different game to the rest of us.” And midfielder Hector Enrique added, “When I’m asked about playing with Maradona, I say it’s like when you’re at home having a meal with your family. Then all of a sudden Jesus appears and comes down to join you.”

About the writer
Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]