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The Thief's Masterpiece

By March 4, 2014 Issue 01

The most riveting 300 seconds of football ever played includes one of the most controversial and one of the best goals ever scored in the world cup.

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

It’s just 10 seconds from the moment he first touches the ball to the instant it punches the back of the English net. In that short time, he covers roughly 60 yards of baking turf, evades the attempted interventions of five English defenders, and survives a last-ditch lunge to prize the ball from his seemingly magnetic left foot. It can be no other player than Diego Maradona and no other match than the Argentina-England World Cup quarterfinal at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City on June 22, 1986.

Those who saw this goal 27 years ago still feel a shiver of disbelief. It seemed to come from nowhere, a thing of beauty just five minutes after his cynical first goal, forever known as the Hand of God, blew up England’s tactical plan. In those five minutes, England fans around the world cursed him.

Trying to analyze that second goal can sound almost as pretentious as dissecting a master painting—how can one put beauty into words? But we must try. In the top-right-hand corner of the canvas, there is a moment of stillness as an England attack is broken up and players on both sides, casting tiny shadows under the roasting sun, seem unsure of what to do. Midfielder Héctor Enrique spots Maradona back inside his own half and instinctively gives the ball to his captain.

There are three England players in the frame as Maradona receives the ball: Peter Beardsley, the deep-lying forward; Peter Reid, who has tracked Maradona relentlessly all day and wonders whether to risk a tackle or drop off and block; and Steve Hodge, who has turned back from the attack. All three probably sense no immediate threat from Maradona. He is too far from their goal. He has his back to the play. Surely he will just lay the ball off and make a run.

But Maradona has seen that England’s left side is undefended, with Hodge and Kenny Sansom stranded. His natural move would be to turn inside, but Beardsley is there and Reid is closing. Maradona sees mobile casino a way out: he fakes inside then drags the ball back, and goes outside. Reid is lost, Beardsley is isolated and Hodge is left flat-footed.

Reid gives chase as Maradona advances, but the squat Evertonian has no pace. Sensing the danger, center back Terry Butcher charges out to deal with Maradona’s thrust, to force him wide. But Maradona knows Butcher is weaker on the right and skips past him on the inside, and as Terry Fenwick rushes to fill the gap, Maradona takes the ball around Fenwick’s weaker left side. Keeper Peter Shilton, still seething about the hand-ball goal, threatens to barrel Maradona over but is left grabbing at the air. Butcher, recovering gallantly, makes a desperate challenge, but in the instant before contact, Maradona pings the ball into the empty net. England’s players stand like still-life figures of despair. Maradona’s masterpiece is complete.

“It was the best goal I ever saw scored against a team I was playing in,” says Gary Lineker, who had a view of events from upfield. I once asked Lineker, in faint hope, if Butcher got a last touch. “I thought that too,” he confessed, “but Terry said he didn’t get a foot on it.”

It was later voted the century’s best goal in a FIFA poll. Surprisingly, Maradona preferred his first effort, the profane hand ball, “because it felt like stealing from England’s wallet,” his small revenge for the Falklands War defeat in 1982. His post-match comment that the goal involved “a little bit the head of Maradona, a little bit the hand of God,” fooled nobody. It was all hand, all ruthless opportunism. “I knew it wasn’t a goal the instant he did it,” says Shilton, “and when I saw the officials running back, I felt sick.”

People wonder how such ugliness could co-exist with the sublime elegance of Maradona’s second goal. They think that the latter was some form of atonement for offending the spirit of football. But Maradona saw no paradox. Just as he knew there was a fatal hole in England’s defense before that second goal, he instinctively knew that he couldn’t reach Hodge’s sliced clearance with his head. Maradona was a creation of the street football that gave hope to the urchins in the wretched area of Buenos Aires where he was raised. He learned his football skills and its darker arts on a dusty wasteland.

He also learned to entertain, juggling tennis balls on his precocious left foot at halftime in senior games. By 11, he was regarded a prodigy. Wise heads kept him out of the 1978 tournament in Argentina that reeked from the corpses of the thousands of the military junta’s opponents … and the squad’s blatant “deal” with a Peruvian goalkeeper to concede six goals. What innocence Maradona had was preserved, briefly. But by 1982, the World Cup in Spain was expected to be his to seize.

Instead, he was gone after three games—mass marked by Belgium in the opener, smothered by a one-man crowd named Claudio Gentile against Italy, then red-carded against Brazil for a thigh-high lunge. His move to Barcelona offered him a chance to mature, but he largely failed. And he was not helped by the Butcher of Bilbao, Andoni Goikoetxea, rupturing his ankle ligaments in 1983. Only in the late 1980s, in a Naples steaming with passion, did Maradona find a fulfilling club.

After his 1986 triumph, Maradona’s Argentina bootlegged their way to the 1990 World Cup final, had two men sent off, and lost drably. His international swan song, in America in 1994, embraced every element of his football life—a brilliant goal against Greece followed by a crazed yelp into a TV camera and finally a failed drug test. Obesity and cocaine addiction took a heavy toll.

But whatever the man’s personal failings, that goal will always be one of football’s most electrifying moments.

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Hal Johnson says:

    Another flowery mischaracterization of that goal. Most people, unfamiliar with the sport, see a player dribbling past opponents and scoring. Fewer people, ones who understand that a match is made of twenty-two players playing for ninety minutes, see a cheated team risking more than it should have needed to, first by putting too many players forward and second by diving in to win back the ball. The famous second goal would not have occurred had Maradona not famously cheated on the first. Cheating is not a “darker art,” it’s just cheating.

  • MJ says:

    Easy to tell when an anglophile is weighing in (I’ll give credit to real Englishmen for appreciating “football” artistry). Maradona had his baggage, but he was one of the rare geniuses in the history of the sport, and his second goal was symbolic of the Latin world’s longstanding ownership of England in the international game. Sorry some people missed that; credit to the author for not being among those.

  • Zane Stowe says:

    The article makes a great case for the infamous duality of the genius that was Maradona at the pinnacle of his career. But to say the first goal being allowed helped cause the second one is just illustrating the sour grapes syndrome. Notice how Reid gives up on the play thinking his defense will handle the threat. Reid is the player who let England down on the second goal he certainly isn’t putting in enough effort to help squeeze Maradona and prevent him from taking Butcher inside. Then he totally gives up the chase. Maradona capitalized on Reid “cheating” on his teammates by not putting in more work to snuff out the threat. Remember this is the first half. Genius was Maradona’s ability to recognize an slim opportunity and fully capitalize with the maximum result of a goal from it. His “Genius” put Brazil to the sword in the 1990 World Cup when he assisted in the goal scored by Claudio Cannigia that ended their hopes in that World Cup. He was also lucky on that assist as his through pass goes fortunately for him between the legs of one of the last defenders and finds Cannigia! His “Genius” illustrated here again by recognizing and taking advantage of the one opportunity he was able to exploit in this game. Up til that moment Brazil were threatening to seriously hammer Argentina. That was the only clear cut chance that had created to that point. All down to “Genius”.

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