Who were the real cheats when Maradona beat the English?

U.S. soccer fans used to tell me how hard it was finding information about the global game back in the 1970s and 80s. I could count down the seconds until they brought up Toby Charles  and the "Soccer Made in Germany" Bundesliga show that he hosted, and how they had to drive 50 miles to a news kiosk to get their hands on a European soccer publication. In truth, it wasn't that different in the UK. TV highlights were selective, and the only live domestic game was the FA Cup final. As for the game beyond British shores, I relied on World Soccer magazine, which at that time was a compendium of exotica for a lad being reared on agricultural fourth division soccer in the rural east Midlands.

It was thanks to World Soccer that I heard about the striker Paolo Rossi years before I saw his goals that won Italy the 1982 World Cup. In the same magazine I read effusive words about a young Argentine phenomenon called Diego Maradona. Without having seen a second's evidence of his ability to swerve, dribble and score, I began to imitate him in the school yard during lunch breaks, while loudly commentating any successful strikes between my opponent's improvised goalposts. In South America, a journalist had been impressed enough by the young playmaker to write about him in a way that prompted boundless idolatry on a muddy school playing field several thousand miles away.

Pelé had just retired, so Maradona's emergence as the next sensation made it seem like a natural process was at play. The first time I saw him in action was at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. The stats show that he didn't have a particularly impressive tournament, ending up with a red card in Argentina's final match. Yet I remember already being mesmerised by his touch, balance and effortless control of the ball. You couldn't see players like this at Lincoln City or Grimsby Town. You couldn't even see players like this at Liverpool or Nottingham Forest, the two dominant English clubs at the time. Those teams played good soccer, but they rarely looked super-human.

In England, there's a widespread notion of Maradona as a cheat and a drug addict. On the latter score, there's no debate -- the star himself wondered later how much more he might have achieved if he hadn't succumbed to cocaine. The charge of cheating is much more problematic. It stems, of course, from a single famous incident in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico City, when Maradona scored against England by using his hand. The Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser and his Bulgarian linesman somehow failed to see Maradona out-jump Peter Shilton, and then punch the ball in to give Argentina a 1-0 lead.

I watched that game in its entirety this past weekend (it definitely beat watching live games with no spectators). It took me right back to that wonderful summer in the throes of my youth, when I was far from the only person watching who wanted Maradona to receive the ball, all the time, 90 minutes long. You can hear the hum of excitement in the Azteca Stadium every time he's involved in play. The first half is dire, except for Maradona's touches (England's top scorer Gary Lineker barely comes close to the ball for the entire 45 minutes). England deals with his skill by flattening him. They use their feet, elbows and full body checks. Whatever it takes to slow down his game and crush his creativity. But that's not cheating, right? That's just part of the English game.

The worst player on the England team, center back Terry Fenwick, is booked for up-ending Maradona in the ninth minute. The theatrical bin Nasser is clearly trying to stamp his authority on the game. Fenwick had already been suspended from the previous round's game against Paraguay for two yellow cards during group play. Yet none of this stops him from continuing to foul Maradona for the rest of the game, with impunity. It's almost as if the first yellow card is protecting him from a second. (Fenwick's yellow remained England's only caution of the game.)

Maradona is elbowed in the face, clobbered around the head, shoved to the ground, and repeatedly tripped with intent to injure. Only twice do the English players successfully dispossess him. Maradona's sole significant infringement of the rules is a single handball offense in the 51st. minute. Bad luck for England that the officials fail to spot it, and that it ends up in the net. So who were the biggest cheats that afternoon? Maradona, for a piece of crafty, illegal play that endangered no one's health? Or the leaden-footed English, who frequently take the moral high ground claiming to be the historical progenitors of Fair Play, but who on this day set out to cynically kick the world's greatest player off the park?

We all know what followed Maradona's handball goal just four minutes later -- a run so dazzling and dangerous that five successive flailing English players could not lay a finger, let alone a foot, on the darting, golden-toed genius. Let's put aside the issues of insidious nationalism and phoney religious claims. Maradona's second goal was a victory of flair, improvisation and beauty over sullen, deliberate brutality. It was so good that it deserved to count twice, rendering the handball goal irrelevant.

I am not from Buenos Aires or Napoli, so Maradona's death did not make me cry. It did, though, prompt me to ravage the archives and determine that there's never been a footballer close to his class. It's not just the passing of players and time that renders you melancholy. It's the feeling that when Maradona's career was over -- unlike with Pelé -- there was no successor. Then again, how could there be?

10 comments about "Who were the real cheats when Maradona beat the English?".
  1. Mark Landefeld, November 30, 2020 at 6:21 p.m.

    I happily acknowledge the greatness of Maradona, though the discussion of "Who did it better?" vs Pele require an audience and an adult beverage in front of us.

    But the description of the circumstances surrounding his play as described above, yields "a pox on both their houses" reaction from me.  The cynical play on both sides draws no appreciation from me.  England was brutal and other-than-sporting.  Maradona cheated.  Don't ask me to elevate one because of the other.

    I will remember his 2nd goal, amazing for the number of opponents beaten, executed at a mile altitude on a hot summer day. 

    BTW Wikipedia entries quote Maradona saluting the sportsmanship of the English -- ""I don't think I could have done it against any other team because they all used to knock you down; they are probably the noblest in the world"

    Is there a context of sarcasm to be provided for these comments?

  2. James Madison, November 30, 2020 at 6:51 p.m.

    Bravo, Ian!!  The World Cup match against England is not the only match in which Maradona was fouled repeatedly and brutally without protection from the CR. 

  3. Kent Pothast, November 30, 2020 at 8:03 p.m.

    During the 2006 World Cup in Germany I stayed at hotel in Mainz along with an American ref who claimed to be a friend of linesman at Hand of God Game. He said that linesman signaled for handball but the ref ignored him. 

  4. Dave Wasser, November 30, 2020 at 8:33 p.m.

    Great column, Ian!

  5. Dick Burns, November 30, 2020 at 8:37 p.m.

    Well said. My growth is soccer was assied by soccer made in Germany with Toby Charles " High wide and not so hansome" I had a chance to be an Linesman on a friendly between England and South Korea in Colorado Springs when England, Canada and South Korea were traing at altitude (6500 ft) before moving on to Mexico. ou know that the English likes the "Hard Game". AS an AR, I did flag a foul on England. Two players runnig down the touch line side by side when an English elbow to the ribs slowed the SK player slowed him down THIER BACKS WERE TO THE REFEREE.  Some good if not great players like Gary Liniker and Peter Shilton but don't turn your back or exhibit to much skill.  I don't know how you can count a goal as two but Argetina deserved to win. I had the great fortune to be in Azteca for the final v West Germany. 

  6. R2 Dad, November 30, 2020 at 9:15 p.m.

    Ian's comments are really directed towards FIFA for their poor implementation of the LOTG. Truly, before 2000 it was really a toss-up on the officiating. Offside calls were sporadic. Foul determinaton seemed random. I have no idea how the men in the middle justified their paychecks at the end of the day. Maradona getting crushed just seemed an accepted part of the game, though it never needed to be. The holdover from this time period is the hall pass keepers get when coming for the ball--that needs to change.

  7. frank schoon, December 1, 2020 at 9:35 a.m.

    Good story Ian. Memories starting to come back about those days...I subscribed to World Soccer mag. for a few years off and on beginning during the late 60's, for that was the only info on international soccer. I stopped about 1980 for I began to realize that journalists from English soccer mags like US soccer mags, like their commentators, don't give you much insight or prone to give any insightful info about the game; it is very superficial stuff, you don't learn anything coming away having read these types of magazines. Soccer World was the only game in town at that time and then began to read only their classified section where I could find or tapes or movies about games

    In 1982, Johan Cruyff began writing a column in a dutch newspapers , I drove every Monday  20miles  to DC to a store that carried the 'Telegraaf' newspaper. I paid $4 or $5 for the newspaper just so I could read Cruyff's column. It was worth every cent of it, for after reading Cruyff's column, you realize how bad the state of soccer journalism really was and still is. Soccer Journalists were more interested in discussing things surrounding the game and nothing about the game that could make the reader more educated.

    It opened my eyes and realized that if you want to acquire more insight about the game, then read player biographies or interviews, not soccer books about how to teach or coach soccer. And furthermore, I learned that  journalists from countries  like England , Belgium, Germany, like the US were ,likewise, not very good. Fortunately, the Dutch journalists were excellent when it came to writing about soccer , inside baseball stuff, and obvously went deeper into the material for Johan Cruyff's column set the standard for Dutch soccer journalism to be better ;therefore I was very fortunate and kept all the interviews of the past 40years by these columnist who gave the reading public excellent info about the game.

    I didn't realize the referee was from Tunis, which in itself was a big mistake. Fifa should have chosen a ref from a MAJOR country to call that game. You don't bring in a ref from a 3rd world continent where the state of  soccer , the organization, everything was second class but I guess Fifa was trying to be PC. Instead, for an important game involving such high class teams, you need a high class refs...period...

    Yes, England in those days from the 60's to the 90's lived in a bubble, thinking their soccer was the greatest. The English were not interested in continental soccer and knew very little about soccer outside of the UK. I guess they hadn't learned their lesson about getting pounded by the Hungarians back in the 50's. 

  8. beautiful game, December 1, 2020 at 12:17 p.m.

    As great a player Maradona was, and as scintilating as his goal on that solo run; the "hand of god" goal is poetic justice to the incompetent referees on the pitch that condoned his deliberate hackings instead of enforcing LOTG. Yet, Maradona branded that goal as a spiritual intervention which for me it wasn't. 

  9. Kent James, December 1, 2020 at 2:07 p.m.

    Ian, thanks for reminding me of "Oh, he could have done more with that one!" Toby Charles.  Since I was just learning, I thought this common critique was a bit harsh (at the time, I thought any ball struck cleanly towards the goal counted as a good shot), but in retrospect, it was probably a pretty civilized assessment...

    Soccer made in Germany (and the Pele Pepsi film) were the only source of soccer I had until college (when I found Soccer America and my world changed).  

    Maradona was a great player, but I don't think he was even the best player from Argentina...(Messi is from a different planet), but maybe I just didn't get to see Maradona enough when he played....

    As for the England game, I think your "his other goal was worth 2" is the only rational assessment of that game.  And England has to be on record as having the ugliest WC uniforms ever to make it to the finals...

  10. Bob Ashpole, December 3, 2020 at 2:50 a.m.

    Great article Ian.

    I relied on Soccer America, when I could find it at a newstand. I had a subscription for a while in the early 90s, but over half of the issues were "lost" in the mail. (I don't remember if I subscribed earlier or not. I did subscribe later.) Other issues were delayed apparently while being read. World Soccer was available here too, but wasn't my first choice.

    It was difficult to avoid being a Bayern and German soccer fan due to PBS. The internet has certainly changed our access to information.

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