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Handle with dare: World Cup 1986 ~ Argentina versus England

July 6, 2010

Cheat it: Diego Maradonna’s moves were even better than Michael Jackson’s, but when talent failed, cheating sufficed – no surprise as what was really on Argentina’s mind was revenge

Ah, 1986. The year when ill-starred Royal couple Andrew and Fergie married, when Crocodile Dundee showed New York lowlifes what a real knife was, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in mid-air, and when the 13th World Cup took place in Mexico. The 13th? Yes, that’s right, this tournament – and especially its most memorable match (around which this sixth World Cup special here at George’s Journal will pivot) – certainly proved to be lucky for some, unlucky for others.

However, the all-important need-to-know background to this competition and, in particular, this match dates back another five years, to 1981. And, in part, it involves a figure familiar to followers of a past World Cup blog from yours truly. Yes, our old ‘friend’, General Jorge Videla, self appointed tyrant of Argentina; but don’t worry, it genuinely only involves him in part. That’s because it was in 1981 that the Argentine power at the top switched from Videla to another general, Roberto Viola, and, in turn, later in the year, the military junta that ruled the country was replaced with another, resulting in its third army dictator in succession, General Leopoldi Galtieri. Unfortunately, though, Galtieri was quick to become as infamous on the world stage as Videla. And it was all because he turned his attention to a small group of islands in the South Atlantic.

Economically depressed and suffering from civic unrest, Argentina was under the kosh in the early ’80s and this latest ruling junta was feeling the pressure. So, well aware of its country’s longstanding claim of sovereignty over the nearby Falklands Islands, South Georgia and Sandwich Islands, in spring ’82 the Galtieri government took the decision to invade the islands – first with civilians, then with soldiers – and raise the Argentine flag on South Georgia. This it decided, although potentially leading to war with the the UK (not only owner of the islands, but internationally recognised as such), would stoke up patriotism among the Argentine population, turning its head away from the nation’s domestic problems and lend legitimacy and room for manoeuvre to the new junta. It was an interesting and, ultimately, doomed gamble. For what Galtieri and his cohorts had not counted on was the fortitude and resilience of Britain’s leader, PM Margaret Thatcher.

Relatively new to power herself, Maggie was not yet the immoveable object, let alone the ‘Iron Lady’, political legend has since cast her as. With her deeply unpopular and drastic economic policies beginning to take effect on the UK (tackling inflation, but raising already high unemployment levels), the majority of Britons’ verdict on Thatcher was out; she was far from assured a second term as leader when she would go to the polls – in either ’83 or ’84. However, the Falklands War changed all that.

In love and war: the Mexico ’86 logo (left); Pique, the funky World Cup mascot I adored when I was six years-old (centre); and the Falklands War – serious business back in ’82 (right)

Seizing her opportunity, as the great opportunist she was, she threw all the British armed forces had at the Argentines (army, navy, air force and the SAS) and won the thing within 74 days. Despite 257 losses, Britain’s victory was comprehensive (there were 649 Argentine losses – including 321 on the sunken Belgrano ship alone) and her status as perma-strong, patriot leader was established and her re-election the following year assured – she received a landslide vote. Galtieri and co. were less lucky. Fallout from the Falklands defeat in Argentina saw his junta toppled and, mercifully, democracy swept in to fill the void. Yet, this was still a nation that had lost a war; its national pride had taken a fall. At the hands of the British then, a new wound had been opened in Argentina and the country was hurting…

Four years later in June ’86, though, and it was all smiles. Following South America’s Colombia having to pull out as host, the latest World Cup had instead kicked off up in sunny Mexico, which had been the stage for the classic 1970 tournament – surely a good omen. The world, then, awaited yet another fun-filled festival of football. Well, not just the world, but me too. Yes, at the tender age of six, as I was, this was the first World Cup of which I was aware. Now, I’ll admit, at this blissfully innocent and wonderful point in life I was more interested in catching The Flintstones each evening after the children’s telly had finished on BBC1 (Neighbours wouldn’t fill this slot until later that summer), than I was in keeping abreast of what was going on in the greatest sport on earth’s greatest and latest competition. However, when one day I happened to turn over to ITV instead of watching The Flintstones, I was faced by those two former cornerstones of TV football, Liverpool legend Ian St. John and Spurs supremo Jimmy Greaves, otherwise known as Saint and Greavsie, as they presented their early-evening report on that day’s World Cup goings-on – and thus my introduction to televisual football took place.

Not to say footy on telly and me were a perfect fit immediately, though. This sport seemed a very grown-up and rather rough and tough entity, quite the intoxicating thing to my young mind – a bit like pubs. Not surprising perhaps, considering this was the era of hooliganism; football was some way from the family-fiendly status it’s enjoyed in modern times. In short, I couldn’t quite fathom it. Yet, at the same time I totally grasped the inherent appeal of it – as do many when they first encounter football at the time of a World Cup. Unquestionably then, footy had lit some sort of flame in me; and, no doubt, that had something to do with the fact that, once again, England were taking part.

Setting the pace: the Danes (left) and the Soviets (right) show exciting, surprising early form

Unlike in the previous tournament, but like so many before and since, the English got off to a far from auspicious start. Their first group game against Portugal resulted in a 1-0 loss, their second against Morocco was arguably just as bad, ending 0-0 – yes, they may have gained a draw from it and therefore a point, but through it they lost to a dislocated shoulder their now captain, the utterly rambunctious Bryan Robson, and to a silly red card their vice-captain Ray Wilkins. Looking a busted flush already, former Ipswich manager Bobby Robson’s side required a re-shape… and a miracle.

“We were getting pilloried back home, which is the norm when England don’t start particularly well. But we weren’t really aware of it at the time. We were cocooned in our hotel without any TV that was watchable or even a landline back to the UK, so we were able to focus on our final match. We knew what we had to do – beat Poland to go through,” remembered an England squad member, one Gary Lineker. Aged 26 and top scorer in the First Division the previous season with a brilliant 40 goals for Everton, Lineker had developed a reputation as a great poacher and, leading up to this tournament, England’s most dependable striker. Could he be the one to deliver a miracle in the final group match against old on-the-pitch sparring partner Poland? The answer was emphatic.

Wearing a plaster-cast owing to a broken wrist, as well as the esteemed number 10 shirt, and thanks to his intuitive positional awareness and some decisive attacking football from his team, Lineker struck in the ninth minute, then the 14th, and then the 34th. A first-hat-trick. And an absolutely electric one at that. From being no-hopers that hadn’t mustered a single goal, England – with Lineker lethally leading the line – suddenly looked a dangerous foe for anyone in the second round.

Gratiously, this was the first World Cup in four in which the second round wasn’t a second group stage, but the beginning of the knock-out tournament proper – as it sensibly and entertainingly has been ever since. And joining England there were all the usual suspects. Holders Italy and the impressive looking Argentina qualified from the same group – Italy drawing two matches and winning one; Argentina winning one 2-0 (against Bulgaria) and another 3-1 (against South Korea, in which Italy-based star turn and captain Diego Maradonna grabbed a brace). Brazil made it through with three group victories (and packing stars from four years before Sócrates, Zico and Falcão), dismissing among others a Northern Ireland side sadly unable to match their achievements of ’82. France, who had been a fine side in the last World Cup and were scintillating winners of 1984’s European Championships, were surprisingly outshone in their group by a very attacking Soviet Union (who beat Hungary 6-0), yet they qualified for the next round in a comfortable second place. The two drew 1-1 against each other in a match memorable for a 40-yard screamer scored by the Soviet Vasyl Rats past the French keeper Joel Bats. Rats versus Bats? Yes, you couldn’t make it up.

This tournament – as so many seem to – also featured a ‘group of death’. Who did it contain? Why, West Germany, Denmark, Uruguay and Scotland, of course. Yes, I kid you not, in 1986 this was considered a groupe de mort. Mind you, it proved to be a stonker, not least because Denmark, not West Germany, progressed from it with a 100 percent record. The dynamic Danes beat Scotland 1-0, the Germans 2-0 and routed Uruguay 6-1. Impressive stuff and no mistake. For their part, the Scots gave it a go, what with spunky little midfielder Gordon Strachan opening the scoring against West Germany (the latter eventually winning 2-1), but not managing to win a game, it was they who went home early and the Germans who happily went through in second place behind Denmark.

What the football gods had given the Danes in their first three matches, they took away in their fourth, however. Yup, they crashed out – and, believe it or not, to those perennial World Cup under-performers Spain, with Real Madrid star Emilio Butragueño grabbing four goals in a 5-1 win. Elsewhere, in an absolute cracker, Belgium shocked everyone by defeating the Soviet Union 4-3 after extra-time – Soviet striker Ihor Belanov scored a hat-trick, but conspired to end up on the losing side – while Brazil beat Poland 4-0; France knocked out Italy 2-0; Argentina defeated Uruguay 1-0; and the Three Lions roared again, marching past Paraguay 3-0, with Lineker getting another two goals and his front-line partner, Liverpool’s skillful Peter Beardsley, the other. For many, though, the highlight of the round was host Mexico’s 2-0 victory over Bulgaria, thanks to an unforgettable goal scored via a scissor-kick from Manuel Negrete Arias.

Spitting image: ITV’s fun football pundits Saint and Greavsie were in their prime during Mexico ’86 (left), just as was France ace – and present UEFA chief – Michel Platini (right)

For the most part, the next round, the quarter finals, weren’t the most exciting – certainly in terms of goals. Three of the four matches ended in draws and had to be settled by penalties. Germany versus Mexico finished scoreless, with the former winning the shoot-out; Spain equalized against Belgium on 85 minutes, but lost 5-4 on spot-kicks; while, in an admittedly entertaining match, the brilliant Zico missed an easy chance and had a penalty in normal-time saved, as his side drew 1-1 against France. The latter’s goal came from their talismanic captain Michel Platini, on his birthday, and he too missed a penalty, this time in the shoot-out. Yet, with another miss during the old 18-yard box lottery from Brazilian Sócrates, it was the French who finally did the business, by four penalties to three.

The fourth quarter final, however, was a match unlike the others. In fact, it was unlike any match in this World Cup – and unlike many matches in any World Cup. Indeed, it was the game that, come the end, this entire tournament seemed to revolve around. At the tender age I was then, I guess it was the first football match I ever actually watched – and, given it was England against Argentina, The Flintstones it was not.

Thanks to the notoriously ill-tempered match between the two in the ’66 World Cup, sporting bad-blood already existed between England and Argentina. However, the hostilities, casualties and result of the Falklands War lent this fixture another dynamite dimension. It was four years since the war and, of course, the English public had far from forgotten it, but as a country beginning to be bouyed by a resurgent economy driven by the City of London and as the victors of the aforementioned conflict, this footballing clash was more about extra spice than some sort of a re-match. For the Argentine public, however, anticipation for the game was different – it was more like awaiting an Olympic meeting contested by the USA or the USSR at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, following the match, Diego Maradonna commented: “Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas [Falklands] War, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was [about] revenge”.

Magic moment: Maradonna on his way to scoring his sensational second against England

The two teams went off at half-time even-steven – Argentina had had the better of it, but hadn’t managed to breach England’s defence. All was to change in the second-half, though. And on 51 minutes, the first of two utterly unforgettable moments occurred. Having started a move, Maradonna ran on deep into the England half, expecting a one-two from striker Jorge Valdano. The ball, however, came back to him from a skewed clearance from England midfielder Steve Hodge, looping up ahead of the diminutive player. England’s 6′ 1″ goalkeeper – and captain for the match – Peter Shilton rose to punch the ball clear, while the 5′ 5″ Maradonna jumped towards it too. Surely the latter’s jump was in vain? Apparently not. The ball bounced away from the two of them and into the England net. The referee, Tunisian Ali Bin Nasser, blew his whistle and awarded the goal. 1-0 to Argentina. But, suddenly, Shilton raced towards him, tapping his arm, flagrently indicating that his opponent had, in fact, handled the ball and that the goal shouldn’t stand. Quickly catching wind of what Shilton was saying, other England players began to crowd around the referee and claim the same. Yet, the referee – and his relevant linesman – hadn’t seen the infringement and so would hear nothing of it: the goal stood. Instant TV replays from a reverse angle backed up England’s cause – with bells on. Maradonna had deliberately – and cutely – fisted the ball a split-second before Shilton could reach it.

Four minutes later, though, the Argentina number 10 created another incredible moment – this time one of utter magic. Picking up the ball in his own half, he went on a 10-second, 60-metre run, beating four England players as he did, and finished it off by placing it past Shilton and putting his side two goals clear. In the years since, many observers have claimed this to be the ‘goal of the century’ or, plainly, the best ever scored. It may be. Such a thing is very difficult to quantify to my mind. What is undeniable, though, is that it was a piece of otherworldly skill – and, ironically and bittersweetly, in direct contrast to the moment that directly preceded it.

After two such extraordinary moments, one would be forgiven for thinking that Argentina were now out of sight, that England were dead and buried. Were they ever, though. Showing the smart and tactically-aware manager he was, Bobby Robson made a double substitution and brought on two exciting players in the shape of Chris Waddle and Liverpool superstar John Barnes. Sparked into life by this change, England gave it a real go and started to press and attack themselves – midfielder Glenn Hoddle soon went close with a free-kick. Then, in the 80th minute, John Barnes rampaged down the left and delivered an acute cross into the penalty area that Lineker deftly headed in – it was his sixth goal of the tournament. Another Barnes cross seven minutes later caused further panic for the Argentines when Lineker nearly reached it again, but this time it was not to be. And, in the end, so proved the match for England. They lost 2-1 – that late goal, though they were beaten, ensuring Maradonna’s moment of blatant cheating had proved critical; his brilliant goal would not alone have been enough to defeat them.

“Un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“A little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”) ~ Diego Maradonna shares with the world how his cheating goal against England was scored, and so the ‘Hand of God’ reference is born

Immediately following the game, England defender Terry Butcher was required to give a urine example for routine drug-testing, along with Maradonna. Meeting the man during the process, he asked him whether he’d used his head or hand to score the first goal; the reply being the head. Butcher, an ardently competitive and patriotic sportsman, has since claimed that if Maradonna had admitted to him he’d cheated, he’s not sure what he would have done to him. And, somewhat less courageously, that’s exactly what the Argentine admitted to the world’s media minutes later – suggesting the ‘hand of God’ had been involved in the scoring of the goal. Bobby Robson knew his mind all right, though, claiming instead it was the ‘hand of a rascal’ what had scored it. Maradonna has also since admitted that immeditaly following the hand-ball he urged his teammates to hug him, otherwise the referee may not have allowed it.

All the same, there was no getting away from it, a decent England team – the first since the defending champions of 1970 – were out; the Argentines were through to the semi-finals. Less controversially, they beat Belgium 2-0 there (Maradonna scoring another outstanding goal in that match) and West Germany, the efficient, well-oiled machine of this era they were, beat the star-studded French 2-0 as well. And so to the final, and quite the exciting match it was too. Argentina took the lead after just nine minutes through defender José Brown, and Valdano added another in the 55th. However, the Germans had other ideas, what with veteran midfield powerhouse Karl-Heinz Rummenige scoring in the 74th minute and striker Rudi Völler grabbing an equalizer on 80 minutes. Yet just three minutes later, and thanks to a pass from the ubiquitous Maradonna, Jorge Burruchaga sealed the deal and got the winner. For the second time in their history then – in fact, the second time in three World Cups – Argentina were champions.

It’s little surprise that in the years since, this  World Cup has generated much debate – all of it, seemingly, pivoting around that England-Argentina match and those two moments from Maradonna. To my mind, his performance in Mexico ’86 and, especially, his second goal in that game has ensured he must be considered one of the greatest footballers ever to have played the game (perhaps he’s even second only to Pelé himself). Yet, that’s only one side of the coin and can only ever be viewed as such. Maradonna had dark moments in his career both at international and club level following this World Cup, but just on its own his first goal in that match in question tempers all else he achieved in that tournament. All these years later, I’ve never been able to get away from the conclusion I came to as a six year-old at the time – for all his God-given talent, Diego the little devil was a plain and simple cheat.

Golden boy: England’s six-goal hero and new national treasure, the one and only Gary Lineker lifts a paper – if not World – cup following his hat-trick against Poland

Overall though, this World Cup probably wasn’t a bad ‘un, it’s only fair to say – not the classic of 1970 that Mexico also staged, but it was never going to match that one, surely? And it did offer a couple of silver linings too. Not only did Belgium pull off the incredible coup of finishing fourth (when are they next going to repeat that feat, honestly?), but England’s Lineker proved himself Gary the Great and the nation’s favourite son by finishing the tournament’s top scorer and thereby winning its Golden Boot – the first, and so far, only Englishman to have done so in a World Cup.

But after all my thoughts and words, what is the take on this World Cup by its winners? Well, you may be a little surprised, because according to former player Roberto Perfumo (whose international career ended in 1974): “In 1986, winning that game against England was enough. Winning the World Cup was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim”. Things that occur in World Cups often make you think, but surely that opinion offers a huge chop of Argentine-beef food for thought…

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