A moment of undisputed sporting genius is a rare thing. Rarer still is one that encapsulates everything that defines the genius who created it. And for it to come barely 200 seconds after a momentously disputable moment makes it a sporting trifecta we are likely to never witness again.
That is exactly how the stars aligned on the 22nd of June 1986 at the Estadio Azteca in the sweltering summertime heat of Mexico City. The scorecard will record that Argentina scored in the 51st and 55th minute of the World Cup quarterfinal to defeat England 2-1. And it will record the scorer of those goals as Diego Maradona.
And while numbers and dry facts sadly don’t possess even a pixel of imagination, the preternatural Argentine had captured the world’s with what he did with that second goal.
The first goal was the infamous ‘Hand of God’ strike, when England goalie Peter Shilton and Maradona leapt for the same aerial ball and the Argentinian managed to punch it past him for a goal that Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser shockingly allowed to stand despite protestations from the English.
As England tried to wrest their way back in the game, at the stroke of the 55th minute, Peter Beardsley, under pressure from Jose Luis Cuciuffo, gave the ball carelessly away in the Argentine half. Two passes later it had found its way on to the feet of Diego Maradona.
The diminutive playmaker was hovering just inside his own half, and the moment the ball landed at his feet, it’s as if a switch had been flipped. Gary Stevens took a swipe at him, and Maradona pivoted and pirouetted like a ballerina to avoid him, ball glued at his feet. Terry Butcher had his sense of direction and understanding of physics decimated in a split second as Maradona effortlessly transferred the ball from his right foot to his favoured left and set off on a sortie that was to eventually become a legendary adventure.
Terry Fenwick (already on a yellow card) tried to offer some resistance but it proved woefully inadequate to stop a galloping Maradona.
On Argentine radio, Victor Hugo Morales, whose commentary of these moments would become as immortal as the goal itself was already screaming “Genius! Genius! Genius!”
Now, Maradona only had Peter Shilton in front of him, and the warp speed chess that is the mind game between a goalie and an attacker sizing each other up one-on-one was on.
Maradona pressed on trying to get as close to the goal as possible, the delay only allowing Terry Butcher to be humiliated a second time when he tried to slip in a challenge after Maradona had scooted past Shilton, but it came in too late as the ball had already been slipped through to goal by a stumbling Maradona who somehow lost neither sight nor control of the ball even for a fleeting moment.
The man himself had once proclaimed that “to see the ball, to run after it, makes me the happiest man in the world.” On that June afternoon, it had made millions of others positively ecstatic.
Twenty-one players on the pitch had been practically reduced to spectators, ringside seat owners to watch genius unfold in real-time.
Jorge Valdano was running alongside Maradona as reinforcement, there to his left if he needed someone to pass to, but as he recalled later “At first I went along with him out of a sense of responsibility, but then I realised I was just one more spectator.”
Meanwhile, Morales’ commentary at that moment came from someone in the throes of a divine experience. “Sorry! I want to cry! Good God! Long live football! What a goal! Diego! Maradona! I have to scream, forgive me…Maradona in a memorable run, in the best play ever…Cosmic kite! What planet did you come from…to leave in your wake so many Englishmen so that the country can become a clenched fist screaming for Argentina?”
Outside Argentina, no one heard those words at that time. But, when the recording, thanks to the internet, was finally widely circulated years later, it touched a nerve.
Seeing Maradona score that exquisite goal and that scenery bejewelled with these poetic words provided every football fan an articulation of that adrenaline rush they felt when they watched the goal for the first time. And that’s what Maradona was – a shot of pure adrenaline, no matter where your footballing loyalties lie, capable of acts of nonchalant genius that no one will ever emulate.
The venerable Brian Glanville had called the goal “astounding, a goal so unusual, almost romantic, that it might have been scored by some schoolboy hero, or some remote Corinthian from the days when dribbling was the vogue.”
It’s an undeniably beautiful goal made even more memorable by the circumstances, but even if you were to strip those circumstances away, its pure beauty stands on its own as a Horcrux that will forever contain a part of football’s soul.