By Nathan Tucker
While sports enthusiasts wait patiently to flood back into stadiums, arenas, little league ballfields and recreational basketball courts again, now is as good a time as any to look back on the rich tapestry of sports history that weaves the world sports fans live in today.
Soccer, ubiquitous around the globe, has produced a number of amazing moments and largely defines the way sports are viewed by billions. For all of the games, all of the players, and all of the goals scored in the sport, one game created two that have lived on in infamy since.
The stage is Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, a monument to the sport itself. The date, June 22, 1986. The game was one of four quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup, where Diego Maradona’s Argentina squared off against England in a highly anticipated clash.
The England and Argentina rivalry dates back to the 1966 World Cup, primarily to a game between the two at Wembley Stadium in London. The English manager at the time called the Argentinian players “animals” following a rather contentious match, and many Argentine players and fans took these comments as a racist attack.
Outside of the game itself, tensions between the two nations rose over the Falkland Islands, an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, that both nations laid claim to. While the conflict in the Falklands never escalated to a war, 258 British and 655 Argentinian lives were lost in battle.
Supporters of both teams clashed outside the Azteca Stadium prior to the game as tensions came to blows. English fans were hospitalized following the clashes, and Argentine barrabravas, a nicer sounding word for what would be Argentine soccer hooligans, stole English flags for display as trophies, which was common among soccer “ultra” groups at the time.
The game inside the stadium following the madness outside largely failed to live up to the occasion. It was a hot summer’s day in Mexico City, and the hot sun was beating down on the 22 players running around as well as the 90 thousand packed into the Azteca. Those in attendance often were left doing the wave to entertain themselves in the first half.
The grass on the field was taking a beating from the sun as well. With a hot, dry and unforgiving pitch, players on both teams were hesitant to be too creative with their passing. The dry grass can hold up a ball from rolling with friction, which slows the whole game down.
For the same reasons Major League Baseball teams water the grass infield prior to a game, a certain amount of water relieves that tension and allows a ball to skid across the grass surface. The Azteca pitch could have used some water, but with temperatures soaring above 90 degrees fahrenheit, it might not have made a difference.
The first half ends without a goal by either side, and those sweating it out from the stands start to wonder if they suffered through the heat for a goalless World Cup draw. Luckily for the Argentina supporters in attendance, Diego Maradona would wake up at halftime and create soccer history.
Just six minutes into the second half, Maradona scores the first goal of the game, the infamous “Hand Of God” goal. Available via somewhat blurry YouTube file footage here.
At first glance, the goal seems like yet another Diego Maradona master class. One of the best players in the history of the sport, Maradona runs right at the England defense, who absolutely cower in his presence. Maradona passes a number of defenders before passing it onto a teammate who mishandles his pass.
An English defender attempts a clearance that actually goes backward, and it looks on blurry video like a flicked header that beats the England star goalkeeper Peter Shilton’s outstretched arm. Upon replay however, you can see that Maradona’s left arm rises to meet the ball first, and he volleys the ball into a gaping net.
In a modern world of sport with replays dictating rules and play, the “Hand of God” would be immediately ruled a handball, and no goal allowed, and the game would go on 0-0. In this world before needing to get every call right, the goal stands, and for years England fans wondered what would have been if the right call had been made.
There would be absolutely no doubt about Maradona’s second goal of the day, scored just minutes later. With England defenders still in a fog of rage from the first goal being allowed, Diego Maradona made what is likely the greatest play in the history of the sport.
In 2002, Maradona’s second goal was voted “Goal of the Century” by fans, as the greatest goal to ever be scored at a World Cup. The goal is available here with the great Victor Hugo Morales on the call.
Maradona gained control of the ball in the Argentine half of the field, around the center circle. He is immediately closed down by two England midfielders, but dances away from them into open space down the right flank of the pitch.
A third English player gives a go at stopping Maradona, now in full flight down the right wing, but never catches up. A fourth tries to cross in front of Maradona’s path, but flails a leg out and misses with his tackle. A fifth English defender thinks he has the beat on Maradona, until “the Little Man” drops a shoulder and shimmies right by him. Only the keeper Peter Shilton to beat, and he blows by him and slots in the corner of the net, as chasing English defenders can only look on.
England would steal a goal back late through a Gary Lineker header, which threw the “Hand of God” into further scrutiny. England fans largely believe that their team could have mounted the comeback and won without it, potentially forcing a tired Argentinian side into extra time in the Azteca sun.
Unfortunately for those dreamers, England was second best all day, and would have been hard pressed to win in extra time. When the game was dull, it was still Argentina dominating possession and tempo. Even right after England’s goal, Argentine forward Carlos Tapia hit the post with a shot, and almost put the game out of doubt entirely.
While the whole 90 minutes might not be the best watch, reliving this game is to relive one of the sport’s most infamous days, most infamous talents in Diego Maradona and most infamous rivalries between two nations that were in physical conflict with each other.
“Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the war,” Maradona said postgame, “we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”