When England met Argentina at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, no-one could have foreseen that Argentinian captain Diego Maradona’s famous “hand of god” goal would still be a talking point, almost four decades later. The incident became one of the biggest football controversies in history after Argentina eventually won 2-1, due to handball.
It was something many England fans never forgot, as they felt they had been robbed of a possible victory in the quarter-finals. After England went crashing out of the tournament, the national press was full of pictures of the now symbolic image of Maradona apparently punching the ball into the back of the net.
Even though he was one of the greatest football players who ever lived, with skills that other footballers could only dream of, sadly, he will always be remembered for his momentary lapse. After the match, in a famous quote, he claimed, “The goal was scored a little bit by the hand of God, a little by the head of Maradona!”
In his autobiography, I am El Diego, published in 2000, the late footballing legend linked Argentina’s match with England to the Falklands War.
Many football fans today weren’t even born in the 1980s, so the Falklands War of 1982 is something they have only read about. The strength of animosity caused by the conflict unfortunately carried over on to the football pitch four years later.
The ten-week military conflict began on 2nd April 1982 over two British territories, the Falkland Islands and its territorial dependency, the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia. There had been a dispute over the islands for decades, with Argentina calling them the Islas Malvinas and trying to claim sovereignty.
The British forces engaged in battle with the Argentinian navy and air force and then made an amphibious assault on the islands. During the 74-day conflict, sadly, 255 British military personnel, 649 Argentinian troops and three local residents died. Eventually, Argentina surrendered on 14th June 1982 and the Falklands were returned to British sovereignty.
Politics and sport
There had always been intense rivalry between England and Argentina on the football pitch since their first meeting on 9th May 1951, when England won 2-1. They had not met at a World Cup since 1966, when England beat their arch-rivals and went on to win the tournament.
On that occasion, Argentina disputed the Geoff Hurst goal, claiming it was offside. This was to start the intense rivalry between the two national teams, as Argentina’s captain, Antonio Rattín, received two yellow cards and was sent off. The squad considered it unfair and eventually, the police had to escort Rattín off the pitch.
The 1986 World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina involved more than just rivalry on the pitch. In Maradona’s autobiography, he described the match as a chance to avenge the military defeat of 1982. He wrote, “It was like beating a country, not a football team.”
Prior to the match, the Argentinian team had said publicly that football “had nothing to do with the Malvinas War”. However, Maradona’s autobiography told a different story, as he admitted, “That was a lie.”
He claimed “a lot of Argentine kids” had died in the Falklands war, adding, “This was our revenge…we didn’t think of anything except that.”
At the time of the 1986 World Cup, Maradona was at the height of his footballing career. Born to an impoverished family in Lanús, Buenos Aires Province, in October 1960, he was raised in the shantytown of Villa Fiorito.
His footballing skills led to him having trials for Argentinos Juniors. Francisco Cornejo, the youth coach who discovered Maradona, said afterwards he couldn’t believe he was so talented at eight years old. He even asked for Maradona’s ID card to check, because he played like an adult.
After signing Maradona, the club devoted much of its resources to training him and nurturing his skills. He made his professional debut for Argentinos Juniors on 20th October 1976, ten days before his 16th birthday. He then signed a contract with Boca Juniors on 20th February 1981, helping them to win the league title.
In June 1982, Maradona signed for Spanish giants Barcelona for a then-world record price tag of £5 million. He had a stormy time there, due to controversial incidents on the pitch and suffering a broken ankle in September 1983. Despite ongoing injuries during his two seasons there, he scored 38 goals in 58 matches.
He signed for Napoli on 5th July 1984 and soon inherited the captain’s armband. His league club was Napoli when he played for his country at the 1986 World Cup.
England v Argentina 1986
The World Cup match between England and Argentina showed all the signs of being a heated affair, due to earlier events off the pitch. Argentina dominated in the first half, with England goalkeeper Peter Shilton having to make several good saves. The score was 0-0 at half-time.
In the second-half, various incidents occurred – the ones people always remember! Six minutes in, Maradona played a low pass to the edge of the area to his teammate, Jorge Valdano. However, the pass was slightly behind Valdano. Maradona continued his run, anticipating a one-two movement, but the ball reached England’s left midfielder, Steve Hodge, instead. He tried to clear it, but miskicked, sending the ball looping off his foot and into the penalty area.
Maradona continued running towards the ball, while Shilton came out of his goal to try and punch it clear. Maradona, eight inches shorter than 6ft 1in Shilton, leapt into the air and appeared to smash the ball into the back of the net with his left hand.
The referee, Ali Bin Nasser, of Tunisia, allowed the goal, to the fury of the England camp. Afterwards, Maradona said he was waiting for his teammates to congratulate him, but no-one did. Apparently realising right away how lucky he had been, he urged his teammates to hug him, amid fears the referee might disallow the goal.
Four minutes later, Maradona scored what was later called the “goal of the century”, from a pass by midfielder Héctor Enrique. Maradona began a 60-yard run, passing four England players – Peter Reid, Peter Beardsley, Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick.
He finished the move by slotting the ball into the net, leaving Shilton on the floor, making it 2–0 to Argentina. In 2002, as part of the build-up to the FIFA World Cup, the goal was voted goal of the century on the FIFA website.
England tried to get back into the game, with John Barnes and Glenn Hoddle creating chances. Gary Lineker scored in the 81st minute, but England couldn’t recover from a two-goal deficit and Argentina won.
Argentina won the 1986 FIFA World Cup, beating West Germany in the final. Maradona had scored or assisted 10 of Argentina’s 14 goals, including an assist for the winning goal against West Germany.
Winning the World Cup, and beating England in particular, boosted Maradona’s status in Argentina, where he became a national hero. The former Argentine international, Roberto Perfumo, said winning the match against England was the team’s real aim, with winning the World Cup being “secondary” for the squad.
Maradona went on to play in the 1990 and 1994 World Cup tournaments, before retiring in 1997. In 2000, he was voted FIFA Player of the Century, winning 53.6% of the online public vote. He went into football management, eventually being in charge of the Argentinian national squad from November 2008 until 2010.
While Maradona was revered as a hero in Argentina, Shilton never got over the “hand of god” goal. The legendary England goalkeeper said they had never made their peace. It still galled Shilton that the Argentinian never apologised and always stuck with the “hand of god line”.
However, his teammate Gary Lineker spoke fondly of Maradona, after the old adversaries saw each other at the 2018 World Cup final draw in Moscow. They had a friendly chat and there were no hard feelings. Lineker said Maradona’s skills on the football pitch were “truly extraordinary”.
Maradona died at the age of 60 on 25th November 2020. His sudden and untimely death triggered mourning around the world, but especially in Argentina, where they had lost their national hero.
Some meetings will never be forgotten and the meeting of England and Argentina in 1986 certainly won’t be.