Golden Goal: Stories of Soccer Legends

Golden Goal #9: Maradona

Brandon Kelley

Just the name “Maradona” is enough to conjure joy, delight, and pain in the people that watched his rise and fall. The king of excess, Maradona’s ascent to become the best player in the world, and perhaps the best player to ever play, was full of breathtaking moments. His dribbles and runs were artfully constructed, dazzling to watch. His fall from grace was equally as steep, as the world watched a genius player implode in on himself, caught under the weight of addiction and self-importance.

For a brief, fleeting moment, however, those two sides of Diego Maradona seemed to meet. All of the brilliance, all of the excess, all of the things that made Maradona the person and player that he was, came together one afternoon, at the World Cup, of all places. June 22nd, 1986. Argentina vs. England. Maradona vs. Everybody. And Maradona came out on top.

(Maradona Cheers in Spanish)

I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them.

By the time the 1986 World Cup rolled around, Maradona had established himself as one of the world’s best players. He broke the world record transfer fee for a player twice, first when Barcelona bought him in 1982, then again when he joined Napoli in 1984. His presence on the field was as large as he was small: standing at only five foot, five inches tall, at least one inch shorter than his countryman Lionel Messi, Maradona was known for jaw-dropping dribbling ability and a flair for the dramatic. One such example was his goal for Barcelona against Real Madrid in El Clasico: after beating Real Madrid’s goalkeeper and retaining the ball, all that was left to do for Maradona was finish it into an open net. Instead, Maradona elected to stop on a dime, sending the chasing Madrid defender sliding and sprawling past him while Maradona calmly waited for him to pass, before lightly tapping the ball into the goal. It was a move so impressive that even Real Madrid fans applauded the player, a gesture rarely given to players from Barcelona, their bitter rival.

However, he also courted controversy in Barcelona. His tenure there ended with a massive brawl, sparked by a particularly nasty game with Athletic Bilbao, full of physical challenges and taunts. Maradona punched, kneed, kicked, and did whatever else he could to exact revenge, but Barcelona realized his time with the club was over after the fight.

He was still the best player in the world, however, and things got better for Maradona in Italy, where he helped Napoli win the league for the first time ever. One newspaper wrote that, despite not having a “mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona.” He was revered as a god to the people in Napoli, and he helped the team to unprecedented success.

It made sense, then, when Maradona was made captain of the Argentine squad for the 1986 World Cup. The previous World Cup had been a major disappointment for Argentina, losing to rivals Brazil despite having won the tournament in 1978. In 1986, the World Cup was once again hosted in the Western Hemisphere once again, although this time in Mexico, only the second time the tournament had been held anywhere outside of South America or Europe. Mexico was considered a good side, but not a very legitimate threat to lift the World Cup trophy, meaning Argentina were again afforded a great opportunity to win the Cup. They marched through the group stage and past Uruguay in the second round of the tournament. And that set the stage for Maradona’s most famous game, the match where two of soccer’s most famous goals ever were scored: Argentina vs. England.

Tensions between the two nations were already high thanks to the Falklands War just a couple years before, a short, messy conflict between Argentina and England over a chain of islands England laid claim to just South of Argentina. Despite its short length, nearly 1,000 people died in the conflict, and the War remains a point of contention to this day. Add that to a World Cup quarterfinal match, and you’ve got plenty of motivation for both sides. That showed throughout the first half, a tightly-contested affair filled with crunching tackles, and no goals.

The first of Maradona’s moments came in the second half, when Maradona squeezed through the heart of the English midfield, before laying the ball off. He waited at the edge of box, watching his pass ricochet off a teammate’s foot, bouncing into the air, and then looping backwards, as English midfielder Steve Hodge swung his foot under it, trying desperately to clear the danger. Instead, he accidentally sent the ball back into his own box. Maradona pounced, rushing back to the ball with the keeper coming out to meet him. The tiny attacker leaped into the air... and punched the ball into the back of the net. Or did he use his head?

Maradona just walked away from...Maradona...they’re appealing for offsides, the ball came back off the foot of Steve Hodge...and Maradona gives Argentina the lead.

The referees didn’t see anything amiss, as they allowed the goal to stand, to the fury of the English players. Maradona had indeed stretched the limits of his tiny frame by using his hand to get the ball into the net, but the play had happened so quickly and his hand was so close to his head, no one enforcing the rules had bothered to see it. Argentina were up 1-0. And Maradona would seal England’s fate a few minutes later. But this time, instead of an illegal goal, stretching the rules, he scored what many call the Goal of the Century. Receiving the ball in his own half, Maradona twisted and turned away from two English midfielders attempting to close him down, turning so quickly he found himself in acres of space. He streaked upfield, racing past defender after defender, seemingly taking on the entire English midfield, and defense, before finally racing past goalkeeper Peter Shilton and slotting the ball home.

Spanish broadcast of goal.

It was one of the most devastating dribbles in history. No one on the English side could touch him, as he danced past their tackles.

English forward Gary Lineker managed to grab a consolation goal for England, but it was too late. Argentina were through to the semifinals. And indeed, Argentina would go on to win the entire tournament, Maradona himself winning the Golden Ball as the best player at the World Cup that year.

When asked about his handball goal after the game, Maradona delivered his immortal answer: “I scored a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” He admitted that he wasn’t sure the goal would be allowed, telling his teammates to celebrate with him so the referee wouldn’t think anything wasn’t amiss. Famously, Maradona refused to apologize for scoring in such an illegal manner, and it’s made “The Hand of God” goal just as famous as his incredible run through the English team, if not more so.

Maradona’s time at the top of the game was as brilliant as it was short-lived. His cocaine addiction began to take a heavy toll on his abilities into the ‘90s, and in 1994, he exited the international game ignominiously, as he was kicked out of the World Cup for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. But for many in the mid-to-late ‘80s, Maradona wasn’t simply a great player: he was a god, who seemed to be able to do anything. Or maybe he was an Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Either way, that quarterfinal against England in 1986 provided Maradona with not one, but two moments that cemented his legacy in the soccer world forever. What else would you expect from the king of excess?