The controversy and the genius. The Hand of God and the Goal of the Century.
The Argentina maestro called the tune at the 1986 World Cup. Took hold of the competition and willed it in his country’s favour; inspiring his team-mates around him.
The standout star of Argentina’s cruise through the group phase. The difference-maker in the knockout stages. And the icon holding the trophy aloft at the end of it all.
The 1986 World Cup belonged to Diego.
But it is the quarter-final with England on Sunday, June 22 which remains the defining moment of his career. In particular, those four fateful minutes when the legend was enhanced for eternity.
The heat was intense in Mexico City. In the build-up to the quarter-final with England, Argentina staff had hurriedly scoured local stores for lighter, more comfortable shirts the team could wear. The June sun baked the Estadio Azteca.
There was heat of a different kind, too.
Fighting broke out between fans around the ground and inside the venue. Four years on from the Falklands War, this fixture had stirred emotion. The Argentina players felt it, too.
“Without a doubt it had a different meaning,” Jorge Luis Burruchaga later told CNN. “We were aware we wouldn’t bring back the dead of the Falklands War but we were aware we would bring some happiness.”
“This was revenge,” Maradona later wrote in his autobiography.
There was footballing history, too. In 1966, Argentina felt robbed by their 1-0 quarter-final defeat to England at Wembley.
Geoff Hurst’s winner was, they claimed, offside. And why was Argentina captain Antonio Rattin sent off? Protesting, he was eventually escorted from the pitch by police, while England boss Alf Ramsey later branded Rattin’s team “animals”.
The Theft of the Century. That’s what the Argentinian press called it.
Twenty years later, Argentina had their revenge. And the Goal of the Century.
There were 114,000 fans at the Estadio Azteca for the match. They were captivated by an engrossing – but goalless – first half. Peter Beardsley passed up an early opening for Bobby Robson’s side. Maradona tested Peter Shilton.
Six minutes into the second half, all those eyes were once again trained on Maradona as he ran and then leapt towards a loose ball, as it deflected up into the air in the England box. In a flash, it was past Shilton and the ball was in the net.
Referee Ali Bin Nasser had missed it. His linesman, too. The handball. The punch from Maradona’s fist as he diverted the ball past the England goalkeeper.
The Hand of God, Maradona called it after the match. But this was no divine intervention.
England were incensed. It was a feeling that barely relented over the years which followed.
“He cheated. He didn’t show any remorse.”
“He didn’t out-jump me. He cheated,” said Shilton in an interview with the Guardian in January 2020. “The whole England team suffered because he cheated. He didn’t show any remorse.”
Maradona revelled in it unapologetically. Just five years ago he visited Bin Nasser in Tunisia and gave him an Argentina shirt and described the official as, “My eternal friend”.
It summed up the mischievous devilment in Maradona’s game.
Just four minutes later he presented his other side to the world. The majesty.
Glenn Hoddle threw both arms up in the air. Sergio Batista’s lunge was late and took down England’s playmaker right under the nose of referee Bin Nasser. No foul. No free-kick. Play on.
The ball is rolled to Hector Enrique who steps away from his marker and plays it into Maradona, eight yards inside the Argentina half. “With a pass like that, he could hardly miss,” Enrique would later joke.
With the infamous spidery shadow of the Estadio Azteca’s PA system cast on the floor behind him, Maradona receives the ball with a punch of his left foot to evade the instant attempt from Beardsley to rob the ball off him. A drag back with the same foot and pirouette take him and the ball away, with Peter Reid snapping at his heels.
And with that punch and pirouette, Maradona is off. There’s no catching him now.
With empty grass ahead of him, his short, muscular legs pump to power his short, muscular body up to speed.
His arms pump too; the left carrying the white captain’s armband he was given ahead of the team’s former leader Daniel Passarella for this tournament.
Reid loses ground with every one of his longer, more sluggish strides.
Suddenly Maradona looks up. Slows. And after a deft touch with the outside of his left boot to calm the ball, he then slaloms sharply infield and past the challenge of Terry Butcher.
This dribbling has brought Maradona to within 20 yards of England’s goal. But there, on the edge of the penalty box, is Terry Fenwick. Like a guardian of the area, he stands tall and tries to square Maradona up.
It’s no use. Maradona is too quick, too slick, too agile. Another touch with that left boot knocks the ball past Fenwick and Maradona bundles by, too.
Into the area now. Shilton advances. England’s last line of defence.
The ball is on Maradona’s favoured side.
He opens up his body, shaping in preparation to clip it into the far corner.
Shilton commits… He’s bought it.
Maradona caresses the ball once more with that left foot and almost drags it past the floored goalkeeper. High-speed thought, high-speed skill.
Then, just as the recovering Butcher catches up with him, Maradona angles his body and slots the ball into the unguarded net as he collapses to the turf.
“Genio! Genio! Genio! Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta y Gooooooool… Golaaaazoooo!” Victor Hugo Morales’ Radio Argentina commentary is the perfect soundtrack.
Lung-busting, leg-burning athleticism. Refined – revered – skill and subtlety of touch.
Maradona is up instantly. Rushing to the corner flag to celebrate with Jorge Burruchaga. Argentina’s No7 had the best seat in the house, running alongside Maradona for those incredible 11 seconds.
“Thank you, God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for this: Argentina 2, England 0,” continues Morales.
“That was just pure football genius,” says Barry Davies on British TV.
“Whenever I see it again I can’t believe I managed it,” Maradona will later reflect. “Not because I scored but because it seems like a goal that just isn’t possible, a goal that you could dream of but never actually score.”
There was no way back. Gary Lineker scored with nine minutes to play and England pushed until the end for an equaliser. But there was none. Argentina had their revenge.
The England striker took the golden boot with that sixth strike of the tournament but the golden ball, awarded to the World Cup’s best player, was only going to one man.
Maradona followed up his dazzling goal against England with another wonderful effort against Belgium in the semi-finals.
In the final, against West Germany, the great Lothar Matthaus was man-to-man on Maradona for the whole match. But he couldn’t prevent the Argentina ace teeing up Burruchaga for the winning goal four minutes from time.
Argentina were champions and Maradona led the singing after the final whistle. A nation’s hero.
His second goal against England was named the Goal of the Century in a FIFA vote ahead of the 2002 World Cup.
The brilliance of that goal, contrasted with the cunning of his first four minutes earlier, is a fitting reminder of Maradona’s light and dark.
Four minutes. Two moments. One legendary Diego Maradona.