While Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi rule the soccer world today, if you were to ask historians who the greatest soccer player of all time is, you would probably get two answers. For many, the majestic and magical Pele’ may be their answer. To others though it would be the great Diego Maradona. While in today’s soccer world athleticism and speed is a huge tool for players like Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, Pele’ and Maradona used their ball handling skills and imagination to delight the world of soccer. They were more than soccer greats, they were artists.
The 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico between Argentina and England had a deep rooted meaning of anger and bitterness. In 1982 the Falkland War between Argentina and the UK had begun. It was a 3 month war that created extreme friction between the two countries. This game meant so much to both teams.
Maradona had electrified crowds with his vision, cunning, and amazing ball handling and playmaking skills. Listed at 5′ 7″ tall, in reality he was only 5′ 5″ tall but he had a strong, stocky build with muscular legs. He led Argentina into the quarterfinals with dominating expertise on the pitch.
The talented England squad had a lot of expectations. They had their only World Cup win in 1966 when they were the host country. England and Argentina were both soccer crazy countries and if you add the Falkland War into the mix, this game meant much more than a World Cup semi final birth.
On June 22, 1986, Estadio Azteca in Mexico City was magical. The place was rocking with an amazing 105,000 people jammed into the stadium. Chants, songs, and every noise device known on earth were in full effect from the fans. On a warm, sunny day the electricity in the crowd along with all the beautiful colors would create a once in a lifetime experience. Half Wizard of Oz, half religious experience, this game would be one for the ages.
The first half was a feeling out period for the most part. Both sides being wary of the scoring talents of the other. England’s star Gary Lineker was watched closely by Argentina. Lineker would later win the Golden Shoe award for the highest scorer in the World Cup.
In the second half Argentina came out more aggressive. In the 51st minute, Maradona went on one of his patented drives. As he entered the goal box, he attempted a give and go move to his teammate. The English defender intercepted the pass but kicked the ball toward the English goalie. Maradona; who had kept going in the hopes of getting a return pass; jumped up in front of the goalie and hit the ball. GOAL! But was it? The England team protested wildly saying that he had hit the ball with his hand. The referee said he did not see that and allowed the goal.
Later when he was interviewed and asked about the goal, the Argentine star said that the goal was scored, “A bit with the head of Maradona and another bit with the hand of God”. From then on in sports lore, this goal was known as the “Hand of God” goal.
Diego Maradona had just started. Three minutes later he took a simple pass on Argentina’s side of the field. Maradona then took off like a jet and dribbled through 5 English defenders and went the length of the field. English goal keeper Peter Shilton could do nothing as a rocket shot went past him. The Argentina crowd went crazy and the stadium was electrified. Famous Spanish Speaking announcer from Argentina, Victor Hugo Morales, was going nuts actually thanking God for seeing such a goal. Immediately people knew they had seen something special. In 2002 FIFA and the soccer world voted this goal as the goal of the century and the greatest goal ever scored.
Argentina was up 2-0 now but England was not going to go away quietly. At the 70th minute England substituted in John Barnes. Immediately his energy and passing skills changed everything. Barnes began to pound the goal area with crosses. England looked like a different team and in the 81st minute a cross was put in the goal by Lineker. It wasn’t over yet. At the 87th minute with the crowd on their feet, another great Barnes cross was sent over the middle to an open Lineker but it was inches out of his reach. A few minutes later the crowd roared when the three whistles of the referee marked the end of the game. The game meant so much that many in Argentina felt this was partial revenge for the bitter military conflict between the two countries.
After the game the media and the soccer world was buzzing. People knew they had seen something special, and the charismatic Maradona fueled that fire on and off the field.
To this day Maradona is celebrated by most fans, especially in Argentina where he has icon status. For Americans to understand what a star Maradona is; especially during his heyday; think Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth; COMBINED. And that isn’t an overstatement.
Some fans though are also disappointed and embarrassed by his lifestyle and mistakes. He was suspended for 15 months in the Italian league in 1991 when he tested positive for cocaine and he was also sent home from the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. for testing positive for stimulants. He owes millions in back taxes in Italy and has had more than a few run ins with the law, the press, and even soccer officials in his own country.
For all the turmoil Maradona has created in his life, the 1986 World Cup will always be his shining moment. To this day just the sound of his name brings back great memories to Argentina and the soccer world. And in a 3 minute span, he created sports history that will be talked about forever.