Captain, icon, legend, leader, hero, cheat... Diego Armando Maradona’s football career witnessed plenty of highs and lows as both player and manager. But if there was one tournament that sealed his legacy as one of the greatest footballers of all time, it was the Fifa 1986 World Cup. Very few players have dominated a World Cup as much as Maradona did during Argentina’s second World Cup triumph in 1986.
While the Le Albiceleste weren’t a one-man side in Mexico, Maradona had a telling contribution – being involved in 10 out 14 goals his side scored at the tournament, providing five goals and five assists.
The quarter-final match against England was one such instance where Maradona showed the kind of impact he can have on the game. In that match, he first scored one of the most controversial and infamous goals, which Maradona later dubbed as the ‘Hand of God’ and then followed it up with one of the most stunning goals in World Cup history – voted Goal of the Century by Fifa in 2002.
Argentina went all the way to win the trophy and Maradona racked the Golden Boot award alongside being named the tournament MVP.
Dejection at 1982 World Cup
After failing to secure a place in Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning squad as a teenager, Maradona made his debut appearance at the following edition in 1982 that was held in Spain. The world was aware of his talent and Maradona showed glimpses of it during the tournament but it ended in a bitter note for him after being sent off in Argentina’s final match against Brazil during the knockout stages. A 3-1 defeat to their South American neighbours eventually confirmed their exit.
By the time the 1986 World Cup came by, there was pressure on Maradona. At 25 years of age, he was nearly entering the peak of his career. In 1984, he was the biggest world-record signing at that time after joining Napoli from FC Barcelona for a reported fee of £6.9 million. During his arrival at Naples, there was a lot of buzz and excitement surrounding his transfer.
It was clear that Maradona had the talent but to achieve the same status among the World Cup’s all-time greats as Brazil’s Pele or Garrincha did during that time, winning the World Cup was paramount.
Maradona runs the show
Captain of the team, Maradona hit the ground running as he supplied three assists during Argentina’s dominant victory against South Korea in the opener. Wins against Italy and Uruguay later set-up a tricky quarter-final clash against England.
There was tension in the build-up to the game as this was the first meeting between Argentina and England since the 1982 Falklands War. Then came Maradona’s moment.
After the scoreline remained goalless in the first half, Maradona opened the scoring early in the second half. The No. 10 ran through the heart of the English defence and laid a pass for a teammate just outside the box on the right flank which was intercepted by England defender Steve Hodge, who flicked the ball over to goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Maradona, already in the box by then, leapt high and reached the ball before the keeper, punching it to score Argentina’s opener.
Four minutes later, Maradona scored a stunning solo goal to notch his brace where he beat five defenders but despite England managing to stage a late fightback and scoring through Gary Lineker, Argentina pulled off a win for the ages.
Reactions to “Hand of God”
Nor did the 100,000 fans at the Azteca Stadium or millions of people watching on their television screens could make out what actually had happened on field. Even the referees. Replays on television, video clips and photographs had displayed that El Diego touched the ball.
TV images showed referee Ali Bin Nasser running backwards towards the centre of the pitch and looking at linesman Bodgan Dochev to give him a hint. Bulgarian Dochev decided to not raise his flag as the goal was counted.
Years later during an interview on ‘Detras de Escena’ (Behind the Scene) on Argentine streaming platform AFA Play, Maradona revealed that even his teammates did not believe what had happened but he convinced them to celebrate.
He said: “I looked back and I saw it was in the net. I start yelling ‘goal, goal!’ Then (Sergio Batista) ‘Checho”, the dumb***, told me ‘but you scored it with your hand’.
I told him ‘Shut up idiot and give me a hug!’ Then everyone started hugging me. (Jorge) Valdano then told me ‘Don’t tell me you scored it with your hand.’
I just told him: I will tell you later Valdano. Stop busting my b****.”
Meanwhile, Dochev regretted his decision, saying the incident “ruined his life”.
“Although I felt immediately there was something irregular, back in that time Fifa didn’t allow the assistants to discuss the decisions with the referee,” Dochev was quoted by the Bulgarian media.
“If Fifa had put a referee from Europe in charge of such an important game, the first goal of Maradona would have been disallowed.”
However, Tunisian Bin Nassir offered a different take and blamed Dochev.
“I was waiting for Dochev to give me a hint of what exactly happened but he didn’t signal for a handball,” he said.
“The instructions Fifa gave us before the game were clear - if a colleague was in a better position than mine, I should respect his view.”
Argentina’s road to glory
Despite the controversy surrounding the match, Argentina’s victory was a sign of things to come. Maradona would go onto score a brace in their 2-0 win over Belgium in the semi-final. West Germany defeated France by an identical scoreline in the other semi-final clash to book their place in the final.
In the summit clash, Germany manager Franz Beckenbauer entrusted defender Lothar Matthaus with the responsibility to man-mark Maradona and on paper, it worked. Maradona never managed to score a goal but had a big role to play in Argentina’s comeback 3-2 win.
He won the free-kick through which Jose Luis Brown headed to give Argentina the lead. And moments later, played an important role in their build-up for Valdano’s goal which had the West Germany defence ripped apart on a counter-attack.
Germany rallied back through goals from Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Rudi Voller, both coming from corners but then came the moment of reckoning for Argentina.
With the game nearing extra-time, Maradona received a ball near the half-line despite three defenders closing him down and put Jorge Burruchaga through on goal. The forward burst forward and glided past keeper Harald Schumacher to score a late winner.
Argentina were world champions again and thus, in the process, Maradona scripted his place among the all-time greats in history. His heroics at the 1986 edition are still talked about today and so is the “Hand of God” moment.