FIRST PUBLISHED: The Times, June 5, 2006
By Chris Hunt, extracted from his book 'World Cup Stories'


When England met Argentina in the Azteca Stadium in 1986, it was their third World Cup encounter, the English having won both previous games. But this time history had conspired to add tension to the pre-match build-up. It was the first time the teams had met since the Falklands War, and while the participants wanted to play this down, it gave the press plenty to write about.


“Everybody in that squad knew of someone who had been sent to fight for the country and each one of us had our own feelings,” says Argentine sweeper José Luis Brown. “But because it was the World Cup, we never thought of it as a revenge for events in the Falklands, because I believe that if leaders at the time were not smart enough to solve it by talking, we could not solve it with a game of football.”


In the build up to the game, Bobby Robson had pondered the best way to eliminate the threat of Maradona. He knew full well that this one player made the difference between Argentina being a good team and a great team, but after discussing the possibilities with his players, he decided that he did not want to interrupt England’s rhythm by assigning just one man to mark the Argentine Number 10. “The nearest man goes to Maradona, kills him, and if he doesn’t, the next one does, simple as that,” were his instructions for the game.


When the football match kicked off there were few chances on goal in a cagey first half, but in the 51st minute Steve Hodge played a slightly reckless lobbed backpass to Peter Shilton, only for Diego Maradona to jump for the ball, intercepting it by any means necessary.


On the touchline Bobby Robson wasn’t immediately in a state of panic. From where he was standing, the handball had been so obvious that he was certain that the goal would be overruled. “Where I was at pitch level, it was clear as a bell that Maradona couldn’t reach it with his head and beat Shilton to the punch with his left hand,” he says. But the inexperienced Tunisian referee, Ali Ben Naceur, gave the goal, ignoring the protests of Terry Fenwick and Glenn Hoddle who chased him back to the centre-circle, angrily indicating a handball. Maradona would remain unrepentant about the goal, only admitting to the crime nearly 20 years later and coyly referring to it at the time as being, “A little of the hand of God, and a little of the head of Maradona”.


“If I’d have gone up and it had hit my hand and gone in, would I have turned to the referee and said something?” ponders Gary Lineker. “I don’t know, but whether I would have tried it in the first place is a completely different matter. I’m not sure it’s in my psyche to do that, but I’ve seen it happen lots of times.”


For all Argentinians – on and off the pitch – pickpocketing the English in this way was a deeply satisfying experience, even affecting the television commentary of Victor Hugo Morales. “I ended up saying something not very professional,” he recalls. “I was on high with emotions the war might have set off and I said, ‘What can I say against the English, we even use the hand’.”


“Of course I celebrated it,” says Argentine striker and ‘Philosopher of Football’, Jorge Valdano. “There isn’t a single Argentinian willing to go and say to the referee, ‘Look it wasn’t a goal’. We have been brought up to celebrate cheekiness and cunning.

“For us this was just another way of playing. For the Argentinian it is viveza [taking the short cut to success]. I want you to understand that I am not telling you this with any sort of personal pride. Perhaps many of the social and economic problems we’ve had in Argentina would have been solved if we could understand that what we call viveza is in other countries regarded as crime. Viveza is deeply rooted in the average Argentinian, and when you get away with it, you celebrate: you are ‘smartest’ compared to others.”


For Bobby Robson, no amount of rationalising the goal in the context of Argentine cultural mores would make it any more acceptable. “They wouldn’t think about the sporting aspect of the game,” says Bobby Robson. “If it gives them a chance of winning and it’s illegal, who cares. Maradona didn’t care. He’d actually gone to the crowd for adulation and raised his fists as a superstar, but he was a cheat.”


The ‘Hand of God’ only served to inspire, Maradona’s second goal, a fantastic solo effort six minutes later that put the quarter-final beyond doubt. Throughout the game Maradona had been trying to unlock the English defence using the trick he had learned as a boy, the Argentine art of dribbling, known as the Gambetta. One particular Gambetta created a path directly to Peter Shilton and the English goal.


“When he finishes the goal and goes to the corner flag I was the first one to reach him,” says Argentine midfielder Jorge Burruchaga. “I was happy, shouting, joyous, and then I said to him, ‘It’s impossible what you’ve just done, you son of a bitch’.”


At the other end of the pitch, his opposite number, Gary Lineker watched in amazement. “The second goal was, and still remains, the best goal ever scored. You have to take into account the significance of the football match and the conditions, as it was unbelievably hot and we were playing on a pitch that moved with you every time you put your foot down to go the other way. It was pretty unplayable. To do what he did was just extraordinary. I have to say I just stood there on the halfway line and thought, ‘Wow’. That could have meant we were out of the World Cup, but it was just breathtaking.”


“The second goal was a great bit of skill by Maradona,” agrees Peter Shilton, “but it’s very difficult to explain how you feel when you know you’ve been cheated with the first goal of such an important game. Maradona was a great player, but it disguised the fact that we helped him on that second goal by our lack of concentration, due to it happening so quickly after the ‘Hand of God’ goal.”


According to Jorge Valdano, the goal was inspired by Maradona’s performance at Wembley in 1980. “In the shower after the match he told me that when he reached the goalkeeper he thought he would shoot to the far post, but then he recalled a similar move in England, some years before, when he finished that way and his brother had told him that he should have Gambeteado the goalkeeper as well. So, as a flash, he also went past the goalkeeper. This is very interesting because those flashes go through the mind of a genius during a move and it helps understand the process of a genius in action.”


A late flurry yielded Gary Lineker’s sixth goal of the tournament, earning him the Golden Boot. But Maradona’s performance, in equal measures genius and pickpocket, left the English with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction that would build on the historic enmity between the two nations that dated back to Antonio Rattín’s histrionics at Wembley 20 years earlier. For Rattín himself, covering the tournament for Argentine television, the victory meant more to him than mere revenge. “I’m not the sort of person who is after revenge,” he says. “I was happy Argentina won because it was on its way to winning the World Cup, but not because I wanted to defeat England.”


In 30 seconds of football, Maradona’s perfect balance of strength and beauty transformed this glorious piece of dribbling, this Gambetta, into a metaphor for Argentine life. “It’s another kind of tango,” says Valdano. “It’s the pleasure of adding those extra flourishes, those twists and turns. There are two elements in the Gambetta. The first is skill to show that I with my foot have the skill to do anything – this gives a person dignity. The second is deceit. You have to fool the defender into believing exactly the opposite of what you are actually going to do. This taste for deceit is also very Argentinian. When you combine these two traits, then you have the most celebrated football move in Argentina, the Gambetta.”



© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007