"They were quite timid. They came over to embrace me but it was as if they were saying: 'We've robbed them.' But I said to them: 'Whoever robs a thief gets a 100-year pardon.'"
Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, 1986-06-22
Great and not so great sporting moments: Nickname for an (in)famous goal scored by Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Football and the World Cup have seen many legendary performances and many famous goals. It's seen its fair share of gentlemen and cheats. But no single player managed to cram the epitome of both fame and infamy into a single match like Argentine legend Diego Maradona did.
Argentina were playing England in the quarter-finals. The first half of the match had ended scoreless. Both sides fought valiantly in the summer heat and altitude of Mexico City. At stake was a precious spot in the semi-finals. Both teams had the potential to reach the final and win the cup but fate had ordained that they would meet before that and one of them would have to go home early. National pride was an enormous factor in that match since it was the first encounter between the two countries since the Falklands War and there was little love lost.
Five minutes into the second half, the attacking Maradona lost the ball to Steve Hodge who tried to lob it back to his keeper Peter Shilton. Maradona sprinted into the penalty box after the high ball. He was fast enough to catch up with it but also too short to be much of a high ball player. He jumped into the ball's path but wasn't quite tall enough to make it. Unless...
Maradona reached up with his left arm close to his head and lifted the ball over the advancing Shilton. Everyone stopped, expecting the foul to be called but Maradona turned as the ball flew over Shilton's outstretched hands and jubilantly began celebrating a goal. The ball went into the net. 114,580 spectators and a nine-digit number of television viewers saw the back of Maradona's hand flick the ball over the 'keeper. I certainly did. Tunisian referee Ali Bennaceur, having a poor view from where he was standing, did not, and, for reasons unknown, neither did his linesman. The goal counted. Howls of protest rose from the England players, led by team captain Shilton. It was a clear case of one lousy dog and a lot of mad Englishmen. It was also the beginning of the end for England's World Cup challenge.
Maradona's teammates played along and some encouraged the theatrics:
"All the English were protesting to the referee and Valdano, who had passed me the ball, put his finger to his mouth, saying 'ssshhh' as if he were a nurse in a hospital." --D.M.
Four minutes later in the same game Diego Maradona followed up the lowest of the low with the best of the best and worked his way over 60 metres of the pitch and past six England players to score one of the most brilliantly executed goals ever seen and the one that the player himself considers the best of his career, a goal which put his team 2-0 in the lead and practically sealed England's fate. The match ended 2-1 for Argentina and Argentina, with Maradona wearing the captain's armband, went on to beat Belgium and Germany and win the World Cup. The English only got to watch the final on TV, fuming over the fact that they had been robbed of their fair chance of a place in it.
Although anyone who cared had the opportunity to clearly see the crime on video for themselves for almost twenty years, it took Maradona until 2005 to publicly admit to using his hand in scoring the first goal. For years he maintained that he was "unsure" of how he "outjumped" and scored against Shilton. His response when challenged, and the quote that went down in history, was the, shall we say slightly blasphemous, suggestion that there was a hand involved, just not his:
"It was a little bit of Maradona... and a little bit the hand of God." --D.M.
Maradona, one the greatest players the game has ever seen, for many the greatest, was also one of its proverbial bad boys. The "Hand of God" was followed by a career of brilliant football, drug abuse, vice and hints of organized crime. He ended his World Cup career in more infamy in 1994 when he was kicked out of the tournament for failing a drug test and went down in history not as the World Cup's greatest ever player like his talent may have deserved, leaving that title in the hands of Pelé, but as its greatest cheat. And, while Argentinians can smile wryly about the whole affair and point to their national team's silverware cabinet, the English are still quite unamused.
In his autobiography, Maradona names Peter Shilton as one of the best goalkeepers he ever faced. He also claims to have been disappointed when they failed to invite him to Shilton's testimonial match. Let me guess...
An emboldened Maradona never did learn to keep his hands to himself and palmed a homebound ball off his team's goal line while playing the USSR at the next World Cup.
Act II: Le main de Dieu
Nobody came close to Maradona's questionable high-stakes sportsmanship until November 18, 2009, when France superstar Thierry Henry was the man who took things in hand in breaking a tie with a Republic of Ireland team that had been playing the football of a lifetime in reversing a 0-1 home defeat. This happened in extra time of the second leg of a qualification play-off and sent France to the 2010 World Cup at the expense of the Irish.
Unlike Maradona, Henry was quite candid about this event. He squarely and unashamedly placed the blame where it really belonged: on the Swedish referee for not seeing him double-palm the ball (which someone pointed out would have been a foul even in volleyball) in the keeper's box before passing it to William Gallas, who levelled the score for a 2-1 aggregate win. Off the pitch, many French were relieved but also too embarrassed to celebrate. Travelling Irish fans apparently got apologies left and right from people in the hospitality and transport industries, while their newspapers were quick to dub the incident the Hand of Frog. The Irish never got more than apologies but must have felt a sense of vindication in witnessing the grand debacle that the French presence at the World Cup turned into.
Act III: The Pretender
At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez decided to take one for the team so Uruguay could emulate their bigger and badder neighbours in the controversy sweepstakes and one-up them in the World Cup itself. After 120 minutes of quarter-final play, Uruguay's Ghanaian opponents were destined to score from a rebound that left the keeper out of action. Suarez, who "plays goalie in practice", expertly punched the ball off his goal line. Had he tried to head the ball away, his position and stance suggested that it would have crossed the line.
Incredibly, star striker Asamoah Gyan sent the ball bouncing off the crossbar on the ensuing penalty kick, which was also the last play of the game. No refereeing controversy here. Suarez saw the kick while taking the walk of shame for his action. You have never seen a man who just saw the referee's red card bounce into the dressing room cheering like he did. Uruguay won the penalty shoot-out to become the last South American team standing. Suarez laid claim to the "Hand of God" name in a subsequent interview. Which doesn't leave us with any moral except, if you have to be sent off, make it count. And that's exactly what he did.