Maradona: Football’s (Hand of) God

Sometimes our legacy isn’t exactly what we want it to be. And that isn’t a bad thing, especially if people love us regardless of how we are defined. One of life’s ironies is we don’t get to choose how we’re remembered, regardless how much we put into that life. Diego Maradona will forever be known as one of soccer’s greatest. But he will also be remembered as the sport’s ultimate flawed genius, and for literally having a hand in one of the World Cup’s most notorious histories.

Maradona with the trophy that Argentina won after beating West Germany 3-2 in the World Cup final match in Mexico City in 1986. (Associated Press)

It happened  on June 22, 1986, in front of 114,500 souls at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium. Maradona’s Argentina faced England in the quarterfinal. Tension from the Falklands war between the two countries, four years earlier, still lingered.

Six minutes into the second half of a scoreless match, Maradona plunged into the English defense and slid a short pass to a teammate. The ball ended up on the foot of the English midfielder Steve Hodge, who looped a pass back toward his goalkeeper, Peter Shilton, only to see the predatory Maradona intercede. Though he was only 5 feet 5 inches tall, Maradona jumped high into the air and punched the ball into the net.

He did not use his head, as it first appeared, but rather his left fist, a maneuver not allowed by any soccer player but the goalkeeper. The Tunisian referee should have waved off the goal but, perhaps having not seen the offense, did not.

Maradona later gave conflicting accounts of what had happened. At first he said he had never touched the ball with his fist; then he said he had done so accidentally; then he attributed the goal to divine intervention, to “the hand of God.”

Maradona, center, in 1986 scoring a controversial goal that he attributed to divine intervention, calling it “the hand of God.” (Getty Images)

This infuriated the English.

“Brazen and shameless, Maradona was all mock innocence, talking about the ‘hand of God,’” Brian Glanville wrote in his book “The History of the World Cup.” “For England, rather, it was the hand of the devil.”

Diego Maradona kissing the World Cup won by Argentina in 1986

Four minutes later, Maradona scored again, eventually giving Argentina a 2-1 victory. His second goal came after a dribble of 70 yards through five English players and a final feint past Shilton to power the ball into an empty net. Deftly, he changed directions like a slalom skier slashing from one gate to another.

In his book “The Simplest Game,” Paul Gardner described the run as “10 seconds of pure, unimaginable soccer skill to score one of the greatest goals in the history of the World Cup.”

As massive as Maradona’s on-field legacy was —  including titles in three different countries, captaining Argentina to victory in that 1986 World Cup was perhaps his greatest ever.

His rich and fully-lived life of six decades ended with his death from heart attack on Nov. 25, 2020. Listening to the eulogies that poured in from across the world will perhaps enable one to understand why he meant so much to so many. And why, as Lionel Messi — his fellow Argentine and universal GOAT contender alongside Pele and Cristiano Ronaldo — put it, “He is gone, but he will be with us for eternity.”

Maradona playing his favorite vinyl records in the 1980s. Right: Former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson tweeted a picture of him playfully joisting Maradona. Tyson said in the tweet: “The Hand of God, Maradona has left us. In 86 we both won our championships. They use to compare the two of us. He was one of my hero’s and a friend. I respected him so much. He will be greatly missed.”

Accolades aside, Madarona’s brazen living up to the fouls he got away with shaped as much of his legacy as the brilliance of his play, which won him millions of fans across the world and Football Godhood in Argentina, where he was easily more popular than the president. And the “Hand of God” became as part of his history as one of World Cup’s greatest shams. 

And Maradona shamelessly embraced the notoriety The underdog tale always suited him. He left Barcelona for Napoli in 1984 in a world-record transfer that left many tut-tutting. This was an impoverished city on the wrong side of the country’s north-south divide, this was a team that had never won a league title. It was “bread and circuses,” the art of feeding the masses an impossible dream and doing so at great expense.

Except Maradona made the impossible possible. He delivered two league titles to the city of Naples, beating out the wealthier blue bloods from northern Italy. And he didn’t do it quietly. No, sir: He did nothing quietly. He did it while immersing himself into the city and the fan base, railing against the powers-that-be when things didn’t go his way.

In that sense, Maradona was the eternal teenager. He spoke his mind, sometimes valiantly — taking stands against war and poverty — sometimes petulantly, happily playing the victim card when things didn’t go his way and, over the years, attacking everyone from Pele to FIFA, with wanton abandon.

Maradona tangled with West Germany’s Guido Buchwald during the World Cup final in Rome in 1990. The Germans won 1-0. (Associated Press)

Was he playing to a crowd? Sometimes, sure. But it’s not lost on anybody that he eventually made up with virtually all of his adversaries. He didn’t seek their forgiveness; he simply made it impossible for most to stay angry at him. The fact that to a man, virtually every player he has ever played with remembers him fondly, tells its own story. Yes, he was different, he trained when he wanted to, sometimes not training at all. But if you were close to him, you couldn’t resent him. You fed off his greatness.

He lived a life of excess, very much in the public eye. Stories of drugs, prostitution, paternity suits, evenings spent in hot tubs with mobsters — you’ve likely heard them all, and they’re probably all true. He sucked the marrow out of life. He ascended as high as you can without losing the surly bounds of Earth, and he also spent more time crawling in the gutter than most.

Little Maradona (ESPN video image)

Maradona did it all, and what’s more, he paid for his transgressions. That moment at the Azteca was one of the few instances when he got away with something. Health issues (both emotional and physical), a sense that high-level football passed him by (witness his disastrous stint as Argentina manager at the 2010 World Cup), the realisation that his achievements on the field could never be matched by anything he did off it … he took all the blows.

One should leave comparisons with other GOAT (Greatest of All Time) candidates to the side. Different eras, different games. (For a start, he might have starred in the original viral video; if somebody attempted it today, you’d imagine it would be slicker and decidedly less organic.) But if you do get drawn into the most pointless of debates, please note that he achieved greatness on two different continents. Please note that he never received the protection from vicious fouls that are part of the game today. Please note that he played on cut-up, divot-heavy pitches, not the putting greens of modern soccer. Please note that there were limits on the number of foreigners each team could field, and therefore he never enjoyed the stellar supporting cast (or the cannon-fodder opposition) today’s stars enjoy. And please remind yourself of what he did to his body along the way.

In 1998, an hour before the World Cup final, a group of 20 or 30 reporters huddled around Pele in the bowels of the Stade de France. Pele, the only other GOAT candidate at the time — Messi and Ronaldo were children back then — was holding court about the upcoming clash between Brazil and France. Suddenly, there was a commotion down the concourse. Within seconds, the media disappeared, racing away, cameras and notebooks in hand.

“What’s going on?” Pele asked.

“I think … I think Maradona has just arrived …” replied one of his aides.

Pele shook his head and smiled wryly.

One day, there might be another Pele or another Messi or another Ronaldo. One day, somebody might come along and do everything they’d done on the pitch, except do it better. But even if someone manages to emulate and surpass Maradona on the pitch, there is no way they will do it while emulating him off it. (And maybe that’s no bad thing.) It’s simply hard to imagine another Maradona. Ever.

There won’t be one. There can’t be one.

Maradona was at once what we dream of being and what we say we abhor, perhaps because we see it inside of us. He rode his strengths and he failed to tame his weaknesses. But maybe that’s precisely what made him human, balancing out his otherworldly genius and making him as fallible a sporting icon as you’ll find.

* Adapted from tributes by ESPN and New York Times 

* Banner image:  Diego Maradona in 1986, the year he led Argentina to soccer’s world championship (Agence France-Presse)

Maradona coaching Argentina’s Lionel Messi during the 2010 World Cup round of 16 match between Argentina and Mexico in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Associated Press)

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