Mention the name Maradona to any football fan and it has a certain, authentic echo to it. The ghosts of football past: Puskás, Pelé, Cruyff, Best and the little wizard himself. He’s certainly part of a unique band of players who can’t be explained away. A grand alchemist who inspired and excited, no matter which part of the world you came from.
In Argentina, however, he’s always had a different sort of resonance. Maradona is one of their own, a player who came from an impoverished area to give people hope. He was formed during a politically savage time in Argentina. From 1976-1983 they would suffer under one of the most heinous regimes of recent history. An estimated 30,000 citizens were “disappeared,” after being arrested for alleged left-wing activities. In the midst of this “Dirty War” two disparate beacons of faith formed for citizens in a country constantly teetering on the edge – religion and football. It would be the latter and a homegrown World Cup win that would provide a brief respite, and further down the line, a creative genius would become the undisputed saviour for his country.
Unfortunately the 1978 World Cup would actually come too soon for Maradona. Despite already showing his prodigious talent for Argentinos Juniors, it was felt that the tournament was a bit too much for a seventeen-year-old. In many ways it was a good call. With the ‘dirty war’ still raging in the shadows, the so-called festival of football was steeped in controversy. Many felt it was hypocritical to hold the event at all with the atrocities that were being uncovered on a daily basis. There were alleged prisoner of war camps nearby to the stadiums and the Dutch side even considered pulling out on ethical grounds. It gave the home nation games a strange, politicised edge.
There was little joy etched on the fans at the tournament. As one reporting journalist at the time put it: “the rows of almost hysterical Argentinian faces seem forced and tight, as if there are invisible hot knives being pressed firmly into their spines.” Even an eventual home win didn’t seem to appease the feeling of unease. The biggest story of the ’78 finals, in fact, wouldn’t be of football triumph over political adversity. It would be of corruption and a strange, lopsided Argentinian win over Peru. A 6-0 score line and heavy rumours of a huge debt being wiped out between the two countries because of it.
For Maradona, such espionage must have seemed secondary. The disappointment of not appearing at the ’78 World Cup simply acted as a fire to kick on and show the world his undoubted talents. By the time the tournament had moved on to Spain four years later, he had progressed from being a prodigiously talented teenager to a bonafide world star. His arrival at Barcelona prior to the finals meant all eyes and camera lenses were on the attacking genius. Opposing players however were only too aware of his talents and the imperative need to stop him.
Maradona would be a marked man through the group games and emerged a bruised and battered one. Football in the early 80s was still governed by practitioners of the dark arts on the pitch and a win at all costs philosophy that went way beyond the rules of the game. The nihilistic treatment of Maradona at Spain ’82 would peak with a match against Brazil. Physically man handled and kicked throughout, his temperament would finally snap towards the end of the match when he would lash out against Brazil’s Batista and be subsequently sent off. It confirmed Argentina’s exit from a tournament that had been a huge disappointment for the holders and Maradona. His expected influence had failed to ignite. Although there would be other World Cups for the star, Spain, his new footballing home, would prove to be an unhappy hunting ground for him.
With their hopes of retaining the trophy crushed, the Argentine public had little to hold on to after a torrid 12 months in 1982. The Falklands/Malvinas war ended in bloody defeat, with more than 600 Argentinian soldiers killed in the two-month conflict. It left a bitter aftertaste between the two countries that would go on for decades. In his March 2018 article about Argentinian football for GQ magazine, writer Andy Mitten revealed how bitter the Argentinian public remained over the conflict, discussing how football writers often pretended to be Scottish when visiting the country for fear of reprisals and how anti-English chants were commonplace in Buenos Aries, over thirty years after the end of the war.
For a while, on the pitch anyway, there had been no great rivalry between the two countries. Leading up to the 1986 World Cup in fact, the two sides had only faced each other twice with England recording victories in both games. The Mexico ’86 quarter-final match-up though was always going to be stained with political rhetoric. It was also a talented Argentinian side England were facing this time too. With Maradona in full pomp and in the midst of his magical Napoli period, his displays in the tournament finally validated his superstar status. It promised to be a long ninety minutes for the men in white if they wanted to progress to their best finish in the finals for 20 years.
Things, however, would pan out perfectly for England in a stalemate of a first half. The reticent tactics employed by manager Bobby Robson worked to restrict the free-flowing Argentinians to a series of half chances. What no one knew was what lay around the corner, a salacious piece of trickery becoming one of the most infamous incidents in World Cup history. It would occur in the 51st minute when from nowhere, an under hit and unnecessary chip back to his goalkeeper by Steve Hodge landed in no man’s land in the England box. As the ball span perilously in the air, it was left between Maradona and Peter Shilton to have a personal duel as to who could reach it first. Impressively, despite his diminutive stature, it would be the Argentinian that would prevail, heading the ball past the despairing hands of England’s goalkeeper for the game’s opening goal.
Only he hadn’t. As various England players protested furiously to referee Ali Bin Nasser and millions around the world watched the television replays, it suddenly dawned on everyone but the referee that Maradona had used his hand. Worse still, as Bobby Robson and his coaching staff looked on in disbelief on the sidelines, he’d gotten away with it. Bin Nasser refused to rule out the goal and one of football’s great modern rivalries was cemented. Not borne out of the Falklands/Malvinas war, or a karmic need for political revenge, but something a great deal simpler: a piece of brazen sporting vandalism and an unrepentant villain refusing to accept his role in it.
It would even overshadow one of the greatest goals in football history, a gravity defying run that took Maradona past nearly every England player on the pitch. It was a thing of bedrock beauty that even viewed today is still wonderful to behold. That was always the contradictory nature of the little man though: light and shade. Patriot and conspirator. Genius and jester. Anything else and it just wouldn’t be Diego Maradona.