Legacy – the concept that’s devoured people whole. It’s the longest standing question to which each millennium has given its own theme. Greek philosophers sat on rocks pondering what would remain after they transcend into the metaphysical, Roman legions tramped mountains to plains in bid of being part of a greater whole, and adventurers sailed the endless seas to set foot on unseen lands.
Time’s progression and the bottomless historical records that grow with it have helped the individual lay claim to a personal legacy. The brilliant scientists that expanded our collective knowledge have their accomplishments and efforts discussed in every textbook. Even villainous tycoons are not forgotten, but reinvented in Netflix series. Be it infamy or brilliance, tales of wonder will forever be retold as their authors fade out into silhouettes.
Football is no different. Some players are too grand to be forgotten and some matches are simply too big for 90 minutes, none more so then when Diego Armando Maradona stepped onto the grass. His performance versus England at the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup is perhaps the most famous match in football history.
Argentina and England had two styles of football that were not too dissimilar. England often went directly forward, hoping for a favourable knockdown or bounce to send them even further outfield. Argentina played a three-back formation. Maradona and Valdano the attacking duo and a midfield trio of Burruchaga, Enrique, and Batista set behind them. All creativity stemmed from Maradona, the undisputed heartbeat of the team.
England tried complicating life for the Argentians that day. They began the match as the better side, and were aggressively marking and tackling Argentina’s two forwards. But as the game went on, the right hand side became a den of mystic trickery. It was Maradona’s zone. Each time he controlled a ball there, one more English defender than before would close him down. Time and time again they watched the little Argentina sprint away. Eventually the best tactic was to let Maradona run across the face of the penalty box and merely hope that his backheel pass, shot, or throughball would go wayward.
For the first half, it worked. England didn’t show much to their game past the quarter-hour mark, but Argentina’s dominance didn’t result in anything either. It was a tight, battling contest to which the referee gave just leniency. Both sides headed down the tunnel at half time with confidence to turn the tie in their favour.
The second half started out equally combative. There were plenty obstacles to pass through prior to the penalty box so when either somehow earned itself a peak at goal, the efforts were rather tame. The seated crowd was waiting for a moment of brilliance to alter the dynamic of the match.
It eventually came, but hitherto, a moment of unmatched infamy that continues to draw disgust from Englishmen. There was hardly any space to exploit out on the flanks, so when Maradona picked up the ball midway through the English half, he ran centrally towards the arc of the penalty box. He passed the ball to Valdano for a crisp one-two, but the Argentine miscontrolled it and the ball lifted slightly upwards. A poor clearance from Hodge sent the ball deeper into the penalty box where there was only Maradona from the Argentinians and goalkeeper Peter Shilton from the English. Both jumped for the ball and somehow the 1.65m tall Maradona got the slightest of touches on the ball to just narrowly chip it over Shilton.
Immediately, protests. The English players ran from official to official claiming that the goal was both offside and illegitimate. Maradona had not scored with his head, feet, nor shoulders, but with his hand – the Hand of God. When Maradona hopped up to the ball, he clenched a fist right by his head and stretched it out to knock the ball over Shilton.
All the players had seen through the facade, but not the officials. Maradona himself had checked around before peeling off for celebration. It was dirty, as dirty as it gets. But at the World Cup, any measure is considered fine as long as it gets you the result.
Six minutes into the second half, Argentina was leading. A fair result achieved by anything but. In the subsequent minutes, England looked a nation liberated. Visibly aggressed, but visibly calmer. The entirety of the 50 deadlock minutes, English players spent trembling at Maradona’s presence. There was a fear to concede when the little Argentina was on the ball, and with the 0-1 scoreline demanding the Three Lions to be braver, there were forward runs and attacking exploits once more.
That came at a price. When Maradona controlled the ball on the 55th minutes, still inside his own half and pressed by three Englishmen, he turned them effortlessly and had most of the right flank free to accelerate into and gather momentum. Another defender stepped up, Maradona breezed past him. No Englishman coulld match his speed. Maradona sidestepped from the last defender on the edge of the penalty box, and now just had Shilton to beat. Maradona rounded the keeper and slotted the ball into an open net.
A brilliant goal. Entirely legal, but perhaps more insulting than the illegal handball. Maradona embarrassed half the English team in one move. He ran past cones, not men. And when the Argentine veered off to the corner post in prideful celebrations, there was an unspoken consensus that England had been beaten not by the strength of Argentinian football, but by the wizardry, guile, and genius of Diego Maradona.
The last half saw the English last hoorah. The scrappy adventures forward hardly troubled. After several lofted balls into the Argentina box and a few poor clearances in response, the ball landed to substitute John Barnes. He sprinted to the byline and crossed the ball right onto Gary Lineker’s head. The score now 1-2, but England could not fully revert the damage in the remaining nine minutes. Argentina had won the tie.
As far as legacies go, they aren’t chosen. One could spend a lifetime working on a project, but be solely remembered for something entirely unrelated, like their sense of humour or lack thereof. Very few moments shape one’s legacy. Thus it is only apt that a match containing the most heinous and the most delightful goal is remembered as a chaotic Argentine’s finest hoorah.