Monday, March 01, 2010

Greatest World Cup Matches: Argentina-England (1986)

The quarterfinal of the 1986 World Cup between Argentina and England was immersed in a bitter football and political rivalry between the two countries. In football terms, the rivalry had started in the 1966 World Cup where the English coach Sir Alf Ramsey had called the Argentinean animals. In political terms, the two countries had only three years before ended a short but bloody war over the Falklands Islands in the southern Atlantic.
Although the players denied that the political situation had any influence on the match, the coaches of both teams, Carlos Bilardo and Bobby Robson, told the players not to mention the Falklands, and only talk about football. However, specially the Argentineans could not take the war off their mind, and Maradona later said: "Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there (…). And this was revenge."
The mid 1980s were a period of crisis for English football, not least for their violent followers, who in 1985 for the European Champions Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus at Heysel had caused the death of 85 fans. This had led to English clubs being banned from international competition, but their national team still competed, albeit under very strict security measures.
England had not started the tournament well, losing to Portugal 0-1 and playing 0-0 with Morocco before securing the second place in their group (behind Morocco) with a 3-0 victory over Poland, in a match where the Everton striker Gary Lineker had scored all three goals.
In the last-16 the English had faced Paraguay, and had won 3-0 on two more goals by Gary Lineker and one by the little Liverpoool star Peter Beardsley.
Argentina had started the tournament very well: a very strong defense and the world’s best footballer, Diego Maradona, had helped them to win their first round group after tying 1-1 with Italy’s defending world champions, and defeating Bulgaria and South Corea. In the last-16 the Argentineans defeated their arch-rivals from Uruguay 1-0, and were now to play England in what became a hugely anticipated match.
Both teams seemed nervous at its importance as the match got underway in the monumental Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The English perhaps had too little respect for the Argentinean side, and notably Maradona, as the Argentineans slowly started dominating, and had some good chances for bringing themselves ahead, although Peter Beardsley had a god chance when the Argentinean goalkeeper Neri Pumpido made a mistake.
Still, the score was 0-0 at half-time.
Six minutes into the second half came one of the most controversial and infamous moments in World Cup history: Maradona and Valdano were attempting a combination outside the English area, but the Aston Villa defender, Steve Hodge, blocked the pass. However, Hodge hit the ball completely wrong, and it flew backwards high into the English penalty area. Maradona continued his run into the area, against goalkeeper Peter Shilton, and they both jumped for the ball coming down. Maradona, significantly smaller than Peter Shilton, reached the ball with his left hand, and it sailed above Shilton into the English goal.
The English immediately protested to the Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser, while the Argentineans celebrated the goal. As the entire world saw the hand on replays on TV while the English players protested, Bin Nasser was surely the only person in the world that had not seen Maradona’s hand. But he was the one who had to make the decision.
Argentina was ahead 1-0, and the English felt cheated, while Maradona famously and ironically said after the match that it had been with a little help from “the hand of God”, something that greatly angered many of the normally so satirically humoured Englishmen.
Maradona had cunningly humilliated England, and that is how all Argentina fans (including myself, who living in Argentina then, was and is an unrepentant Argentina and Maradona fan!) still see that goal in spite of the controversy it arises.
In any case, Argentina was now ahead because of the world’s best footballer’s cheat, but only three minutes later Maradona showed that he was unique, when scoring what has been considered the goal of the century. Receiving the ball from River Plate’s Hector Enrique (who after the match joked that Maradona could not avoid scoring on such a great pass!) in his own half, Maradona made the most stunning rush of 60 meters, past six English players, including Peter Shilton, to score a second for Argentina.
All over the world the goal is legendary. Jorge Valdano has called it another way of tango - of beauty. The Argentinean commentator Victor Hugo Morales perhaps symbolized the sensation for Argentineans as his emotive screams of goals, and his “…Thank you God, for football! For Maradona! For... for these tears…. For this... Argentina 2, England 0.
Even the English, in spite of bitterness of the first goal, had to recognise the pure genious of the second goal, as the great Gary Lineker later recalled: "The second goal was, and still is, the best goal ever scored. You have to take into account the significance of the football match and the conditions, as it was unbelievably hot and we were playing on a pitch that moved every time you put your foot down. It was pretty unplayable. To do what he did was just extraordinary. I have to say I just stood there on the halfway line and thought, 'Wow'."
England now had to push forward, and suddenly began playing less timidly. The entrance of Liverpool’s John Barnes, helped the Islanders to create some chances against the otherwise very strong Argentinean defense, but it was only nine minutes before the end of the match when Gary Lineker scored his sixth goal of the tournament (making him the most scoring player of the tournament) on a cross from Peter Beardsley.
But it was not enough. The ever-dangerous Argentineans even hit the post a few minutes later on some of the counter-attacks that they were so brilliant at.
Argentina had won 2-1, and went on to win the World Cup by defeating Belgium and West Germany in the following two matches. However, for many people, this was the real final, where the controversy and genious of Maradona reached its pinnacle.
England and Argentina are two of the greatest footballing nations in the world. Perhaps in no other nation the passion about football is as deep-seated as in these two countries.
After this match in particular, they now have the greatest rivalry in international football (the only cross-continental rivalry) and the matches between them are considered a classic in international football.

Match Stats:
  • 22nd June 1986, Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
  • Attendance: 115,000
  • Referee: Ali Bin Nasser (Tunisia)
Argentina-England 2-1
Goals: 1-0 Maradona (51), 2-0 Maradona (54), 2-1 Lineker (81)

Pumpido; Ruggeri, Batista, Brown, Burruchaga (Tapia), Olarticoechea, Cuciuffo, Enrique Giusti, Maradona, Valdano
England: Shilton; Stevens, Sansom, Hoddle, Butcher, Lineker, Fenwick, Reid (Waddle), Steven (Barnes), Hodge, Beardsley

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