30 years on, the Hand of God still defines the legend of Diego Maradona

Perhaps the most infamous game in Maradona's incredible career summed up the two contrasting sides to his genius

Maradona, hand of god, Argentina,

Image: ©INPHO/Getty

Few players can say that their career can be summed up in one game; everything that made them special and unique encapsulated in one performance. 

One of those players is Diego Armando Maradona, whose manifold achievements are perhaps defined by a match on the biggest stage against England in the 1986 World Cup. 

There was an intense footballing rivalry on the pitch, and off it there were increased tensions between the two countries as a result of the Falklands or Malvinas War. The conflict, described by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges as "two bald men fighting over a comb", started and ended in 1982, but its toll on the people of the two countries lasted much longer. Nearly 650 Argentine soldiers lost their lives, along with over 250 English military personnel, as well as a number of residents of the islands themselves. 

In his poem 'Juan López and John Ward', which looked at the contrasting but intersecting paths of two soldiers on either side of the divide, Borges wrote that "they could have been friends, but they only saw each other once face to face [...] each one of them Cain, and each one Abel."

On that sweltering afternoon in the Estadio Azteca, Maradona played the role of Cain and Peter Shilton was Abel, sacrificed by the hand of the Argentine. 

Image: © INPHO/Billy Stickland 

Setting off on a run towards the English box, Maradona laid the ball off to Jorge Valdano. His poor touch, more than likely due to the surface of the pitch, caused it to bounce up and get away from him; instinctively, Steve Hodge stuck out his leg and tried to get something on it to play it back to his goalkeeper.

Unfortunately for him, Maradona had continued the run which he started and was perfectly placed to nip in and get something on the ball before Shilton could race from his goal to claim the ball. 

That something, however, was his hand, and the rest is history.

The clear replays and photographs which have since become iconic were not available to see in the moment; there was no super slow-motion to pore over in debate, but the English players were certain that the diminutive Argentine had not used his head to steer the ball into the goal. 

Despite their protests, referee Ali Bin Nasser was unmoved, but has since found it difficult to deal with the fact that neither he nor his assistant Bogdan Dotchev had spotted the now infamous hand. In fact, the two have often traded harsh words, blaming each other for the mistake.

"I was waiting for Dotchev to give me a hint of what exactly happened but he didn’t signal for a handball," Bin Nasser told The Guardian years later. "And the instructions FIFA gave us before the game were clear – if a colleague was in a better position than mine, I should respect his view."

"Although I felt immediately there was something irregular, back in that time FIFA didn’t allow the assistants to discuss the decisions with the referee," responded Dotchev. "If FIFA had put a referee from Europe in charge of such an important game, the first goal of Maradona would have been disallowed."

Image: Argentina's Diego Maradona (r) flies past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton (l) after using his fist to score the opening goal, the infamous 'Hand of God' goal

Maradona himself helped to christen it for the media by stating afterwards that the goal had been scored "a little bit with the head of Maradona, and the other bit with the hand of God."

Speaking on Argentine television, Maradona explained that it was something that simply came to him as he assessed his odds of being able to make contact with the ball against the significantly taller figure of Peter Shilton.

"Shilton was 6'1" and I was 5'7" so it was impossible to compete with him. He was able to go for it with both hands and I couldn't. I wasn't going to reach it with my head, so I stuck my left fist up and flicked my head back to see what would happen."

As he tore off in celebration, he recalls that he saw Dotchev running back towards the halfway line, and knew that they were going to get away with it. Gesturing for his team-mates to come running and join in the celebrations, he noted that there was an air of contrition about their celebrations, as they told him "this is a robbery."

If they felt justifiably wronged by the first goal, England could only but feel dumbfounded and awestruck by his second. Commonly referred to as the 'Goal of the Century', Maradona received the ball inside his own half and set off on a run that was so graceful and mesmerising it caused commentator and author Victor Hugo Morales to burst into tears as he attempted to describe the beauty of what he had just witnessed.

Argentina went 2-0 up, and while England did manage to pull one back to make it 2-1 at the final whistle, el pibe de oro's incredible run and finish was a stunning moment worthy of winning any match.

Argentina went on to win that World Cup, beating Belgium in the next round and overcoming West Germany in the final, but the tournament as a whole will be remembered for the two moments of magic that Maradona produced in that quarter-final clash. 

Two drastically different goals displayed the contrasting sides to his character; the impeccable improvisation that made his long run so unpredictable was also what drove his decision to reach up for that ball with his hand and guide it into the English net. 

As Borges himself may have said, when it came to Maradona's uniquely Argentine genius, the darkness and the light were two sides of the same coin.