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12 World Cup recalls: Maradona’s 12-second classic that will last an eternity

Which football lover cannot instantly put the following 45 words into context? None worthy of the tag. 

Rushing off his line intent on claiming the descending ball, England’s Peter Shilton got to it before Maradona’s head. But not first, not before Dieguito’s fist. The gifted midfielder’s hand went up, striking the ball into the unprotected goal.

And the linesman’s flag stayed down 

Photo: Argentina star Diego Maradona (second from right) uses his hand to beat England goalkeeper Peter Shilton (far right) to the ball to score one of the most controversial World Cup goals of all time in the 1986 quarterfinals.

Which football lover does not know the extent to which Diego Maradona dominated the Mexico 1986 finals? None worthy of the tag. The then-25-year-old scored five goals and almost single-handedly drove Argentina to their second Fifa World Cup triumph. 

But how many football lovers really know how close the rampaging Diego and his supporting cast came to grief in that epic quarterfinal clash with England?

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Even today’s Messi and CR7 worshippers acknowledge, albeit grudgingly, that Maradona’s wonder strike in that game remains the greatest ever individual goal in the 92-year history of the tournament.

But it is a sad irony that many of those who virtually live on the information-rich Internet remain largely ignorant of the amazing details and sub-plots in the World Cup’s rich history. Having missed the golden era of Fifa’s showpiece, they content themselves with the sanitised versions and largely ignore the back stories.

Photo: Argentina captain and star Diego Maradona, one of the greatest footballers of all times, glare at his English opponents before kick-off in the 1986 World Cup tournament.

So this series begins with England’s clash with Argentina. What better story to demonstrate the fine margins on which the World Cup turns? What better event to tell the important story of how a split-second decision, a tactical change or an official’s error can determine who survives and who does not in what is arguably the greatest sporting spectacle the world has known?

Touted as the new Pelé, Diego Armando Maradona—Barcelona’s record 1982 signing—had done little at the Nou Camp to justify the epithet. A broken leg, courtesy Andoni “Butcher of Bilbao” Goikoetxea, had brutally truncated that misadventure. But now 25, he had rebounded to inspire traditional strugglers Napoli to third in the Scudetto in Italy.

After a disgraceful exit four years earlier in Spain, Maradona saw Mexico ’86 as offering a chance to prove his matchless ability and simultaneously atone for España ’82. With the defending champions down 0-3 to Brazil and mere minutes away from elimination, the then-21-year-old had bowed to frustration, kicking Brazil’s Batista in his nether regions.

Photo: Italian hardman Claudio Gentile (right) stays close to Argentina star Diego Maradona during the 1982 World Cup.

Argentinians may have forgiven—they certainly had not forgotten.

For England, in contrast, the main driving force was collective. Mexico marked 20 years of futile attempts to prove that their 1966 home win had been no fluke. 

Bitter memories of the recent fierce fight over the Falkland Islands ensured that, in Argentina, they would face a formidable foe.

A 1-1 draw with Italy meant Argentina had dropped just one point in topping their group, before battling past a typically tough Uruguay 1-0 to reach the last eight. England had suffered an opening loss to Portugal and a 0-0 draw with Morocco. Gary Lineker notched a hat-trick against Poland to get them out of the group and then a brace to brush aside Paraguay 3-0 and book their showdown with the South Americans.

Photo: England forward Gary Lineker led all scorers at the 1986 World Cup.

An enthralling quarter-final, the pundits predicted, was in prospect. And right from the kick-off, it exploded into a fast-paced, end-to-end, no-holds-barred battle at the Azteca Stadium.

Maradona sought to impose his will and take over the game; England’s midfield and defence were taking no prisoners. Back from suspension after two yellow cards, centre-back Terry Fenwick was booked inside the opening 10 minutes for a slashing swipe at Diego’s legs. 

Much later, off the ball, an England defender smashed an elbow into his face. Without VAR, the misdeed went unpunished. It would not be the only offence the officials missed on the day.

Photo: Argentina star Diego Maradona (second from right) is chopped down by England defender Terry Fenwick (second from left) during the 1986 World Cup.
(Copyright Getty Images)

The best chance of the first half fell to England’s Peter Beardsley who, with Argentina’s Pumpido well out of his goal, missed from a sharp angle. But spearheaded by Maradona’s numerous penetrating runs from midfield, the South Americans repeatedly tested their opponents. The contest had all the makings of a classic and only Argentina’s stumbles and slip-ups near goal allowed the goalless stalemate to endure to the interval.

Resuming with the same intensity after the break, the game descended into notoriety just six minutes on. Jinking from left to right, Maradona took the ball diagonally across the England half and, under pressure, contrived to find Jorge Valdano on the right side of the box.

With his back to goal, Valdano flicked the ball inside to where Diego had continued his run. His ball-gazing marker had not followed him.

Photo: The iconic Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup.

Rushing off his line intent on claiming the descending ball, England’s Peter Shilton got to it before Maradona’s head. But not first, not before Dieguito’s fist. Raised heavenwards, the gifted midfielder’s hand deflected the ball into the unprotected goal.

Incredibly, the linesman’s flag stayed down. 

Diego would later boast that he urged his teammates to join in the celebrations before referee Ali Bin Nasser could think about it. And inexplicably, the Tunisian concluded that the 5’5” midfielder had out-leapt the 6’1” Shilton—upraised arms and all! 

Ignoring England’s angry, strident protests, Bin Nasser pointed to the centre circle. 

Argentina 1, England 0.

Photo: Argentina star Diego Maradona (left) celebrates his controversial handled goal against England at the 1986 World Cup.

Incredulous at first, England’s players quickly became incensed. Had the handball been called, Maradona would have been booked and the match would still have been anyone’s to win.

What followed still defies adequate description. I suspect that somehow Diego belatedly understood what would happen when the replays were aired around the world that evening. There would be the devil to pay. He needed something to head off the inevitable firestorm he would face.

Collecting a short pass from Luis Enrique about 15 metres inside his own half, he beat Beardsley’s challenge by moving towards his own goal. Then, making a half circle to elude Steve Hodge, he burst into the space thus created on the right flank. 

To his left, Ray Wilkins’ laboured jog offered no threat. Centre-back Terry Butcher’s outstretched right foot mowed only grass as Diego shaped to go right but never did. Maradona blew right past Fenwick waiting atop the penalty as if he simply were not there. 

Photo: Argentina legend Diego Maradona (centre) is about to drag the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton (right) while defenders Terry Butcher (far left) and Terry Fenwick (second from left) look on during the 1986 World Cup.
(Copyright AFP 2014)

Advancing to narrow the angle, Shilton confronted the one-man infantry outside the six-yard box. The deftest of touches left him grasping at air before Maradona tapped into the goal with his left foot.

Since the Enrique pass, the ball had not touched his right foot. Or either of anyone else’s.

Four minutes after a decidedly devilish deed, he had needed just 12 seconds to leave six players in his wake and score one unforgettable goal unsurpassed in its excellence. A goal indelibly etched in all of football’s memory, not just in England’s or in Argentina’s. 

In England’s 22-man squad, there were only two Black players, defender Viv Anderson and John Barnes, son of a Jamaican father and a Trinidadian mother. Until the quarterfinal, England had not had no berth for the gifted Watford County winger. 

Photo: England winger John Barnes (left) runs at the Argentina defence during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal.

Only 16 minutes of normal time were left when that changed. The England rally had already begun. A Glen Hoddle free kick had forced a brilliant flying save from Pumpido. 

But all still somehow seemed lost when England manager Bobby Robson replaced midfielder Trevor Steven with the left-winger. He needed only seven minutes to make an impact. 

Collecting the ball just outside Argentina’s penalty area, he drove past two defenders and dropped an accurate left-footed cross a metre from the by-line. Waiting between two defenders on the far post, Lineker headed home.

Argentina 2, England 1.

Photo: England forward Gary Lineker (second from left) heads past Argentina goalkeeper Nery Pumpido during the 1986 World Cup.

Recognising the danger, Argentina began assigning two markers to Barnes. Not enough.  With two minutes left, he cut in from the touchline, bursting past midfielder Hector Enrique and centre-back José Luis Cuciuffo. His deep, far-post cross gave Lineker half a chance. Wriggling between his two markers, the striker got his head on the ball. 

Inches wide!

Argentina had not been out of it, though. Substitute Carlos Tapia smashed a fearsome shot against Shilton’s right-hand post at one point. Then although Valdano swerved to avoid Fenwick, he could not escape the defender’s late challenge. The loose ball rolled into the box as the attacker tumbled forward after it.

Penalty? No. But the indisputably merited second card would have seen the defender off.

Nothing of note occurred in the added on time the officials surprisingly restricted to just one minute, leaving Argentina winners.

Photo: Argentina star Diego Maradona’s iconic goal against England was voted as the Fifa Goal of the Century by football fans.
England players (from right) Peter Shilton, Terry Butcher and Gary Stevens were among a half dozen players left in Maradona’s wake.
(Copyright Action Images)

Maradona scored two to steer his team to their semi-final win over Belgium and they got three to West Germany’s 2 to earn victory over West Germany in the final. 

From Diego’s lips came the enduring descriptor for his disputed opener in the game, dubbed “the Hand of God.” 

For his brilliant 12-second run-60-metres-and-score second, Fifa did the honours, proclaiming it to universal acclaim the “Goal of the Century”.

About Ashford Jackman

Ashford Jackman spent 29 of his 38 years in journalism at Trinidad and Tobago Television where he was sports editor, anchor and producer. He owns and draws from a considerable collection of books on the World Cup and, in his teens, studied every film in TTT’s library on the subject. His 12 W/C Recalls series seeks to bring to life the golden years of football, its drama and the players who made the World Cup the greatest sporting event the world has known.

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