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Classic Matches

1986: Argentina - England

22 June 1986: Argentina - England 2-1

The expressions “hand of God” and “goal of the century” are part of football folklore, and for most fans conjure up memories of one epic encounter. The year was 1986 and Argentina were taking on England in the FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final. History was about to be made in a match that pitted opposing styles and mentalities against each other in the stifling heat of the legendary Aztec stadium in Mexico City.

The game should first be placed in its historical context. The Falklands War was still fresh in the collective memory, and footballing rivalry between the teams dated back to their stormy encounter at the 1966 FIFA World Cup™ in England. Ever since, for one reason or another, Argentina-England games had never failed to excite - and this one was to prove no exception to the rule. The English relied on a typical no-nonsense style in defence and a cutting-edge up front. The South Americans, meanwhile, compensated for their physical disadvantage with their usual faultless technique. The game already had all the makings of a classic, but the fact that it was taken to another level entirely can be put down to the genius of one man - Diego Maradona.

Argentina had enjoyed an easy ride in the competition thus far, and took to the pitch in confident mood. Led out by the best player in the world, Diego Maradona, they were determined to go all the way and win back the trophy they had first lifted on home soil in 1978.

Robbo and Wilkins out for England

England’s glory days of 1966 were long gone, but after a disappointing start to this FIFA World Cup campaign (they were almost knocked out at the group stage), their attack was now firing on all cylinders. Gary Lineker, soon to join Barcelona from Everton, had followed up on his hat-trick against Poland with a brace against Paraguay. Glenn Hoddle was elegantly orchestrating the midfield, and the experienced defensive pairing of Terry Butcher and Kenny Samson was providing excellent cover for the evergreen Peter Shilton. Were those glory days about to return? If so, it would be without their injured midfield generals, Bryan Robson and Ray “Butch” Wilkins.

Slow, slow, quick quick slow

Following the opening exchanges, Terry Fenwick was first to get a shot on goal, but his effort in the sixth minute sailed over. Argentina, meanwhile, wasted no time in getting their typically South American fast, short passing game going. The tone was set for the rest of the encounter with their very first attack on goal, as Maradona burst through the English lines before being brought down by Fenwick thirty yards from goal (8’). Shilton did well to turn the resulting deflected free-kick round the post.

England, though, then came even closer to scoring when Hoddle’s defence-splitting pass and a Nery Pumpido slip let Peter Beardsley in with a sight on goal, but his shot ended up in the side netting (12’).

“Pibe de Oro” starts pulling the strings

Carlos Bilardo’s men refused to be thrown by this let-off and immediately picked up the pace. Maradona began tormenting the English back line with his mazy dribbling, winning a series of dangerous free-kicks around the edge of the box. From one of these, some 25 yards out, Maradona curled in a shot that Shilton was relieved to see shave the post. (31’).

The “Hand of God”

By now Argentina were running the show, much to the annoyance of some of the English defenders. Maradona was felled by an elbow in the face from Butcher (40’), but if the Ipswich man thought he could put the great man off his game he was to be disappointed. The midfield maestro picked himself up, dusted himself down and exacted revenge – in the most controversial fashion possible.

Another dart through the centre of the English rearguard ended in a one-two with Jorge Valdano. The latter’s mis-hit return pass landed at the feet of Steve Hodge, however, whose sliced clearance ballooned up into the air. Maradona, who was never one to give up on a lost cause, continued his run, leapt up and palmed the ball over Shilton who had come dashing from his line. (1-0, 51’) ! Butcher’s protests were in vain as Tunisian referee Mr Bennaceur awarded the goal, convinced Maradona had got his head to the ball. Unbelievable!

The “Goal of the Century”

The “hand of God”, in Maradona’s words, unquestionably turned the game. But as if to make amends, “Dieguito” then went on to score what is often described as the “goal of the century”. This one owed absolutely nothing to chance, as he won the ball in his own half and set off down the right, escaping the attentions of Beardsley and Peter Reid. The 115,000 fans at the Azteca stadium looked on in a trance as he headed straight for goal, glided past two more England defenders, Fenwick and Butcher, before dummying and rounding Shilton to make it 2-0 with 55 minutes on the clock. It was a goal in a million by a football genius.

Diego explained later he had made the same “rush” for goal at Wembley in a 1981 friendly against England, but had shot wide before going around the England keeper Ray Clemence. His brother had called him after that game to say he should have rounded the ‘keeper. So Diego was merely putting his brother’s advice into practice, but the question lingers - would he have attempted something quite so audacious with the score at 0-0? In any case, Bobby Robson’s men were reeling at 2-0, with the Albiceleste imperiously stroking the ball around in midfield.

Hoddle sounds the rallying cry

The English were not out of it yet though. They drew on all their traditional reserves of fighting spirit to find a way back into the game. Hoddle, the best English performer, was the first to light the blue touch paper. The Tottenham midfielder’s 25-yard dipping free kick had Pumpido back-pedalling (68’), and also had the merit of waking up his team-mates. Robson’s decision to send on Chris Waddle and John Barnes in particular on the left flank also brought more consistency to the English attack.

The athletic winger began to feature heavily, and it was he who got to the byeline to cross for Lineker to notch up his sixth goal of the competition (2-1, 78’). Hope sprang anew in English hearts, even though the Argentinians came within a whisker of extinguishing it at the restart. Yet another burst and exceptional double drag-back from Maradona followed by a double one-two with substitute Carlos Tapia. The Boca Juniors midfielder sidestepped Sansom before releasing a powerful shot that cannoned off the foot of the post (79’).

England’s last stand

England fought to the very end. In a final throw of the dice Barnes broke free down the left in a carbon copy of the move that had led to the English reducing the deficit. Lineker once again got on the end of the cross and must have thought he’d equalised, but with a desperate lunge, Julio Olarticoechea managed to block the tournament’s leading striker and deflect the ball for a corner (88’).

Now the result was beyond doubt: Argentina were through to the semi-final. The explosion of joy among the Albiceleste staff at the final whistle proved its significance transcended mere sport. Maradona himself declared after the triumph, “that was a final for us. Much more than winning a match, it was about knocking out the English. I will never forget this game”. Such was the winning frame of mind of the “Golden Boy”, which combined with his unrivalled talent would carry his countrymen all the way to the ultimate prize.