In the same way that Americans can remember where they were when they heard of President Kennedy’s assassination, most Englishmen can remember where they were when Argentina knocked England out of the 1986 World Cup.
Occurring only four years after the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, the game was inevitably charged with significance, bristling with jingoism on both sides. For Argentina, it was seen as an opportunity to avenge the Belgrano sinking. For England, the possibility of reminding Argentina of their place. Journalism and nationalism at their worst.
The game was broadcast live in the UK and everywhere people gathered to watch. Nil-nil at half-time, the game erupted into life in five short minutes not long after the break. Two goals by Diego Maradona, the genius of South American football, seemed to epitomise the opposing faces of the man. The first, a deliberate handball on this largest of all stages, somehow went unnoticed, despite vigourous protests from the England players and fans. But the second, well that was a different matter. Picking up the ball (this time only figuratively) around the halfway line, Maradona dodged and weaved between the starstruck England midfield and defence, sometimes seeming almost to glide, before slipping the ball past the advancing Peter Shilton. If the first goal had been a punch, the second was a pickpocketing. Gary Lineker said it was the only time in his life he had felt like applauding an opposition player, such was the magic of that goal.
England pulled one back late in the game but there was never any doubt over the result. Argentina were leagues better than England. The final score 2-1 flattered England, reflecting a valiant but ultimately toothless performance. Maradona was the hero of the day. A week later he was lifting the World Cup after eliminating Belgium 2-0 in the semifinals and West Germany 3-2 in the final.
Maradona was the face of that World Cup, captaining his side to what it saw as its destiny. And if anybody was unaware of Maradona before the World Cup, they certainly weren’t afterwards. He was on every magazine cover, in every newspaper and every television programme. The little man with his curly black hair and mesmeric feet was a cult.
But on 22 August, everyone was watching Argentina play England. Everyone except me.
Because I was in America, doing postdoctoral research at Indiana University. And if that wasn’t remote enough from world football, on that particular weekend I was in Kansas, at Lawrence, giving a talk on fast cyclic voltammetry at carbon fibre microelectrodes. This was my former life before Parkinson’s and redundancy put paid to it.
America was not big on football (or soccer as they persist in calling it) in those days. The World Cup typically featured on the sports news in a five-minute segment after the baseball, basketball, gridiron, beach volleyball and miniature golf. Of the 300 million people watching the World Cup worldwide, none were doing so in America. It simply passed them by. For the most part I think it still does. It’s a pity really because, if nothing else, America knows how to treat its sporting idols. And few came bigger than Diego Maradona.
And for another decade, he dazzled crowds in Europe and beyond with his breathtaking footwork and simple star quality. Often in and out of trouble, wilfully controversial, you can’t escape the fact that he was a supremely talented footballer. I never saw him in the flesh but I’ve seen enough of him on the screen to salute him.
In England, praise of the man’s ability is often set against that single handball goal rather than the magic of his second goal. But, like I said, I never saw the first goal. So my picture of Maradona is that of the miraculous second goal. And I’m glad of that. For me, he will always be one of the greats of the game. Call him flawed if you must. But frankly it’s time to get over that. He was a genius. Have the grace to recognise that.