The death of soccer god and social rebel Diego Maradona has provoked an outpouring of remembrances. Last week, I wrote about his various political stances, and how he always stood in solidarity with the Global South and against Yanqui imperialism. Yet there is another part of Maradona’s political history that demands examination. That is the way his politics were reflected in his play. This is not uncommon in international soccer, where the political language of nationalism runs through the game, but in the annals of the history of the sport there are few rivals to the 1986 World Cup, when a 25-year-old Maradona put the country of Argentina on his back to defeat England in the quarterfinals.
Maradona was the star of this World Cup, from which Argentina emerged as victor. He scored five goals and created five more for teammates. It was at that quarterfinal match against England on June 22, 1986, that Maradona etched his legend in stone. Argentina won 2-1 in front of 114,000 people in Mexico City, with Maradona scoring both goals. The first, scored in the 51st minute, was the infamous “hand of God” goal, where the ball caromed off Maradona’s left hand, going into the net. The blatant infraction was missed by the referee. Maradona said afterward, “I was waiting for my teammates to embrace me, and no one came.… I told them, ‘Come hug me, or the referee isn’t going to allow it.’”
After the match, Maradona told the press that the goal was achieved “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with Maradona’s head and a little with the hand of God”). Thus the goal became stamped throughout the ages as “the hand of God.” England still hasn’t forgiven either the referee or even Maradona himself, who, even in the aftermath of his recent death, was lambasted on social media by English fans.
Then, a mere four minutes after the hand of God, Maradona scored what has been both called and widely acknowledged as “the Goal of the Century.” This was an unfathomable 60-yard, 10-second jaunt that started inside his own half, required him to elude four of England’s players, and ended leaving England’s goaltender Peter Shilton on his ass and Maradona with a goal for the ages.
This triumph of both talent and trickery came at a time when Argentina was still reeling from its defeat in the Falkland Islands—known in Argentina as Las Islas Malvinas—at the hands of Great Britain. The battle—never officially proclaimed a war—came when the Argentine armed forces, invaded the island, which they believed to be their territory. Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain, which had been overseeing the islands as part of its own imperial portfolio, sent its navy to take them back. The resulting battle killed 900 people, most of them Argentinian. This recent memory supercharged the contest. (It must be noted that Maradona had no love for the military junta, but still felt the pain of Argentina’s defeat.) As Maradona commented in his 2000 biography,
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, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge. It was something bigger than us: We were defending our flag.
Maradona also linked his hand of God goal to the Falklands defeat, saying,
We, as Argentinians, didn’t know what the military was up to. They told us that we were winning the war. But in reality, England was winning 20–0. It was tough. The hype [for the soccer game] made it seem like we were going to play out another war. I knew it was my hand. It wasn’t my plan but the action happened so fast that the linesman didn’t see me putting my hand in. The referee looked at me and he said: “Goal.” It was a nice feeling like some sort of symbolic revenge against the English.
Maradona pointed to the memory of the Falklands to explain why he would never apologize to England for the hand of God goal. The feeling that it was a slap against Thatcher and the Falklands War continues to this day. French President Emmanuel Macron was roasted in the British press for praising Maradona upon his death for his defeat of “Thatcher’s England” in what Macron called the “most geopolitical match in football history.”
Maradona’s iconic match against England should remind us that, while there are always efforts to “keep politics out of sports,” it is just a stubborn fact that sports is life and life is political. Maradona was a political icon not only because he stood with the voiceless of the Global South. He was political because in 1986 he put a nation on his back and, with that devilish left hand, wrote his own chapter in a history with a reach well beyond the world of sports.