June 22, 1986 is a date that will forever be etched into football folklore. The World Cup, hosted by Mexico, had reached its quarter-final stage, and England were paired with Argentina. Like many of the most fiercely-contested sporting events, there was a context to this encounter that went far beyond just a game of football – just four years earlier, the two countries were engaged in the Falklands War, which saw Britain declare ‘victory’ amid the loss of 1,000 lives.
There was definitely an undercurrent of tension when the two sides took to the pitch in Mexico City on that fateful afternoon, but nobody could have predicted the events that would unfold via the feet – and hand – of one Diego Armando Maradona.
The Hand of God, The Feet of a Genius
By the summer of 1986, Maradona was firmly established as one of the finest footballers on the planet. His performances for Boca Juniors, and heroics at the 1982 World Cup, saw Barcelona pay a then world record fee of £5 million for the Argentine, and he responded by scoring one of the all-time great El Clasico goals not long after.
But a violent brawl in the 1984 Copa del Rey final, played in front of 100,000 people including Spain’s King Juan Carlos, saw Barca cut ties with a player who, having been racially abused and targeted with heavy tackles by Athletic Bilbao players throughout, responded with a flurry of punches, kicks and headbutts to anyone within striking distance.
Naples has long had a reputation as a tough, working-class city, and Maradona was idolised in his time there as a Napoli player. He guided them to two Serie A titles – the first team from the south of Italy to win the championship – and the UEFA Cup. The Argentine playmaker was heading to World Cup 1986 at the peak of his powers.
‘A Little with the Head of Maradona, and a Little with the Hand of God’
With victories over South Korea and Bulgaria, and a draw with Italy, Argentina topped Group A of World Cup ’86 – Maradona notching the equaliser against the Italians. In the last 16, they defeated fierce rivals Uruguay 1-0. England, meanwhile, ground out second place in Group F. They lost to Portugal and drew with Morocco, and so were facing the very real possibility of being on the first flight home to Heathrow.
But a Gary Lineker hat-trick against Poland secured the Three Lions’ passage through to the last 16, where they would defeat Paraguay 3-0 with Lineker again at the double. And, to the scene was set for a battle between old foes in the quarter-finals, and Maradona – who would later speak of exacting revenge on England for the Falklands conflict – was at the heart of everything.
Even so, the deadlock would not be broken, and the two teams went into the half-time interval with the score goalless. What would follow was the most extraordinary 45 minutes of football. Just six minutes into the second half, an Argentina passing move broke down when England’s Steve Hodge intervened. However, his sliced clearance proceeded to send the ball airborne, with 5ft 5in Maradona bearing down on 6ft 1in goalkeeper, Peter Shilton.
The 114,000 people inside Estadio Azteca could not believe their eyes as Maradona rose highest to put the ball in the net. What had they just witnessed? Well, those with the benefit of TV replays would see that Maradona had actually reached up and punched the ball into the back of the net with his hand – an act that somehow went unseen by the referee and his assistants.
There was jubilation in the stands, while the England players either remonstrated with the referee, Ali Bin Nasser, or stood agog at what had just happened. Bin Nasser consulted with his linesman, who seemingly saw nothing untoward, and gave the goal.
“We all saw it,” recalled England winger, John Barnes. “All of us on the bench – the players, the coaches, the manager – we all saw it clear as day. We all knew he’d handled the ball, so we just couldn’t believe the referee hadn’t seen it.”
Maradona would later describe the goal as ‘a little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God’, which is why the audacious moment is still described as such to this day. Perhaps fearing his reputation would be tarnished, Maradona then set about restoring faith in his status as the greatest footballer on the planet. Just four minutes after the Hand of God, he collected the ball in his own and set off on a weaving, jinking run.
Ten seconds, and 60 yards, later, Maradona have left five English players trailing in his wake, sold Shilton the perfect dummy and slotted home to score what has been described as the World Cup’s ‘Goal of the Century’. Two of football’s defining moments scored four minutes apart by the same player. That was what Maradona was all about.
The Aftermath of the Hand of God
Although England pulled a goal back through Lineker, Argentina would hold on to march into the semi-finals. They downed Belgium thanks to a Maradona brace, before defeating Germany 3-2 in a classic final with Estadio Mexico packed to the rafters.
It was Argentina’s second dose of World Cup glory, but all the talk was about Maradona, who won the tournament’s Golden Ball and was second behind Lineker in the race for the Golden Boot.
Shilton, whose career would be dogged by the incident, had never forgiven Maradona, and the Argentine himself never apologised for the Hand of God. He maintained it was some kind of karmic justice for the Falklands War. “Those who steal from a thief are entitled to 100 years of forgiveness,” were his rather pragmatic words on the subject.
Lineker, meanwhile, has shown a more contemplative side when quizzed on the Hand of God. “I don’t have rage in me. I just felt gutted. Absolutely gutted,” he admitted, before revealing: “I like Diego, I have to confess.”
Incidentally, Bin Nasser would go on to blame his linesman, Bogdan Dochev, for missing the handball. “If you look at the match, you can see that Dochev was in a better position,” the Tunisian said, before claiming he had ‘doubts’ about the legality of the goal.
Raking it in from the Hand of God
In amongst the chaos, one of the players involved showed a level of poise that, had he replicated it on the pitch, the Hand of God might never have happened. Steve Hodge had the foresight to swap shirts with Maradona after the game, and he held onto it for the next 36 years, loaning it for display in the National Football Museum.
But, in 2022, he decided that the time had come to auction off one of the most famous pieces of sporting memorabilia in history, and so it went under the hammer at Sotheby’s. And, despite Shilton claiming he ‘clean his dishes with it’, the shirt was acquired by an anonymous bidder for a cool £7.1 million.
Not to be outdone, Bin Nasser decided that he too would like a slice of the action. He had picked up the match ball at the end of the game in 1986, and like Hodge decided that 2022 was the year in which he would finally cash in. And, so he auctioned the ball in England. But while a top bid of £2 million was made, that didn’t reach the reserve price.
Sadly, Maradona would lose his life to a heart attack in 2020. He will forever be known as one of the most talented footballers ever to take to the pitch, and the Hand of God has somehow added to – rather than detracted from – his mystique.