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‘22 Goals’: Diego Maradona, 1986 World Cup in Mexico

Brian Phillips’s first installment in his series chronicling the most iconic goals in the history of the World Cup belongs to soccer’s most talented and destructive genius

Daniel Zalkus

As the 22nd men’s FIFA World Cup approaches in November 2022, The Ringer introduces 22 Goals, a podcast by Brian Phillips about the most iconic goals scored in the history of the World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves two goals Diego Maradona scored in Mexico City in 1986.

1. Tasteful Seminudity: A Prologue

Why do they take off their shirts?

Do you ever wonder about this? I do. Constantly. What is it about the sound of cheering that makes elite soccer players long—that makes them pine—that makes them burn to expose the flesh of their bare torsos to the open air of European cathedral cities?

I don’t get it. Admittedly, I’m not someone who responds to moments of euphoria by stripping off layers of clothing, usually. If anything, I respond to moments of euphoria by putting on more clothing. You’re welcome, by the way. If I ever scored, like, a 95th-minute winner in a World Cup final, the camera would cut away to show my fans jumping up and down in the stands, then cut to my opponents weeping on the pitch, then cut back to me, carefully fastening the buttons of my cardigan.

I like a cozy belly button. That’s my deal.

But even for normal people, taking off your shirt after a goal is not a rational, or wise, course of action. You get penalized for doing it. Under Law 12 of FIFA’s rules of the game, you get a yellow card for it. You can get sent off. You can get suspended. Stripping partially—tastefully—nude on a soccer pitch is objectively an act of self-sabotage.

And yet. Every week, practically, a player scores a goal in a big-time soccer match—great!—and celebrates by wheeling away toward the touchline while peeling off the very garment whose sponsor logo keeps them stocked with Lamborghinis.

The only conclusion is that somewhere in the roar of the crowd there’s a place where reason stops. Where logic, self-preservation, and the desire to not get wind on you are overwhelmed by a tsunami of happiness.

On one side of that moment, you’re a sober citizen who gives a toss what FIFA’S Law 12 states about excessive celebration. On the other side of it, you are a radiant lunatic who suddenly understands that you have telegenic nipples.

And that moment? That’s the best thing in sports. As much as I like shirts. All respect to the shirt. Do not come for me, sleeve hive. But that moment after a great goal, when you feel temporarily out of your head and temporarily immortal. When you’re suddenly too ecstatic for a breathable poly blend. Or you’re sobbing on the shoulder of a stranger in the stands. Or you’re standing up on my couch because I never go anywhere. That moment of total euphoria. That’s why we love these games.

2. Joy on the Radio

If you happened to be listening to Argentinian radio on the afternoon of June 22, 1986, you were privileged to hear one of the great outbreaks of euphoria in the history of soccer. That was the day, of course, when Diego Maradona scored two of the most famous, two of the most iconic goals in the history of the World Cup, back to back, in three minutes and 49 seconds of real time.

The first of those is easily the most controversial goal of all time. We’ll talk about that. But the second, that’s the awesome goal. That’s the one where he runs through basically the entire English defense. The commentator for Radio Argentina is the legendary Victor Hugo Morales. And you can hear the exact moment when he crosses over into euphoria. He doesn’t take his shirt off—that I know of. But he stops narrating and just starts yelling “genius.” Over and over again.

And then even that gets to be too much and he starts repeating “ta.”

Genio genio genio. Ta ta ta ta ta ta.

If you’ve ever seen Diego Maradona moving with the ball, you get it.

Maradona moves with the ball like he and the ball are the only two people in the world who understand each other.

Maradona moves with the ball the way Kenny Rogers sings “Lady” to a lady.

Maradona moves with the ball like he just proposed to it in an airport.

Maradona moves with the ball the way, when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

Maradona moves with the ball like he is Heathcliff.

Maradona moves with the ball like they’re running just as fast as they can, holding onto one another’s hands, trying to get away into the night and then he puts his arms around it and they tumble to the ground and then he says he thinks they’re alone now.

Maradona moves with the ball the way you and I look at Instagram photos of a dog.

Morales watches him—and you can hear euphoria hit. Each individual word he says has a tiny shirt on and is in the act of peeling it off. It’s wonderful. It sounds like …

3. What Are We Doing Here?

I get carried away over soccer goals. I’ve been getting carried away over soccer goals for most of my adult life. Maybe you do too.

Join me! Let’s lose our heads together.

I’ll tell you what we’re doing here. For the next few months, ahead of the 2022 men’s World Cup—the 22nd World Cup—we will celebrate this truly magical recurrence of the numeral 2 by revisiting 22 of the goals that defined the tournament.

Some of them you know. Some of them you may not know. But the World Cup is the biggest stage. It’s the biggest big top in town. And by town, I mean “the universe.” It’s the tournament where the passions run highest, where the stakes are most crushing, and where a great goal has the power to transport hundreds of millions of people to another plane of existence.

And behind each great goal at the World Cup is a story, one that culminates in a moment of supreme emotion under the brightest lights on Earth.

This is not a soccer essay; this is a euphoria machine. We’re setting out on the road to joy and we won’t stop until every shirt is either dead or neatly folded in a drawer.

Welcome to 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup.

This is installment no. 1. And it belongs, like the entirety of the 1986 World Cup, to Diego Maradona.

4. Pure Ass

That’s Diego Armando Maradona, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1960. My favorite of the many legends surrounding his birth—I love this—holds that he came into the world kicking his legs and that the doctor announced to his mother, “Congratulations, you have a healthy son, and he is pure ass.”

Ass as in donkey.

Donkeys kick.

He grows up in a shantytown called Villa Fiorito, in the kind of poverty that’s not kidding around. No electricity. No running water. Dirt roads. Canals full of toxic runoff. His father, also named Diego Maradona, works in a bonemeal factory and gets paid sometimes. Life in Villa Fiorito is hard and violent and often hungry. Diego looks back on it with love and fondness his whole life. It’s complicated.

His English biographer, Jimmy Burns, tells a story about how, when Diego was a toddler, he lost his way in the dark and fell into an outdoor cesspit. An open-air sewer. Little Diego is drowning in excrement; up above his head there are stars. His uncle is trying to get down to him, and he keeps calling out, “Diegito, keep your head above the shit.” Great advice in general. Also, in his case, a prophecy. So much of Diego’s future life will be about trying, sometimes successfully, often not successfully, to keep his head above the shit.

Anyway, you know how this story goes. There’s a wasteland near the shantytown where kids play soccer. Guess who’s good at it? Diego is tiny for his age, but try to stop him with a ball at his feet; maybe you’ll have time to wonder where he went before you hear the other kids shouting “goal.” He’s got this unbelievable low center of gravity. He can change direction like he bought in at a molecular level to the NFL analytics movement circa 2014—like there’s no such thing as momentum.

He has passion. More than that he has vision. He has timing. He sees where things are going five seconds before they get there.

Adults take notice. They alert other adults. Some of these adults are coaches on high-level youth teams. Does money change hands? Yeah. Does the money go to his family? Not most of it!

By the time he’s 11, he’s humiliating 16-year-olds in organized games.

There is a question hanging over this story like a disco ball. The question is: Why do sports make you feel things? Why does watching this athlete and not that athlete make you feel as though the top of your head has been taken off? “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”; Emily Dickinson said that. But why should we feel the sensation of poetry, that dizzy feeling of shining upward out of our own faces, watching someone perform the seemingly meaningless act of kicking a ball?

There are theories; we’ll get into them at some point. What matters now is that whatever that power is, this little kid has it. Grown-ass adults who have spent their whole lives around the game of soccer watch him play, and they feel euphoria. They start sending him out to do tricks at halftime during professional soccer matches, and the crowd watches him, and the crowd feels euphoria.

Do his youth coaches lie about his age so he can help them win games against older kids? They sure do. Does anyone make sure he keeps going to school after that point? Nope!

He plays his first professional match in Argentina 10 days before his 16th birthday. He scores 116 goals in 166 games for Argentinos Juniors before he turns 21. That’s a lot of goals! Now he’s famous.

He signs his childhood best friend as his agent. That’s cool. He will later fire his childhood best friend while his childhood best friend is stranded in Mexico City after the devastating 1985 earthquake, on a trip he made on Maradona’s behalf.

That’s less cool. It’s complicated. But we’re already seeing the emergence of the mercurial Maradona we know from later years.

In 1978, Argentina hosts the World Cup. Maradona is 17. The Argentine manager, César Menotti, doesn’t pick him for the team. Menotti says he’s too young, he’s immature. Other people say it’s because Menotti doesn’t want to share the credit when Argentina wins the World Cup.

And they do win the World Cup. Without Diego. He learns the lesson every young star eventually has to face. Who do you trust? It’s complicated.

Here’s what he wrote about the World Cup snub in his autobiography—and obviously, this being sports, I use the terms “he,” “wrote,” and “autobiography” loosely:

I swore I would get my revenge. It was the biggest disappointment of my life, it marked me for ever, it defined me. I felt in my legs and in my heart and in my mind that I would show them all.

That’s what I said when the Tree Sentinel killed me in Elden Ring. He leads Argentina to the World Youth Championship, in Tokyo, in 1979. Brazilian journalists who watch him in that tournament start using a phrase that will follow him for the rest of his life. The phrase is “not since Pele.”

By the time he secures a move to his favorite club, Boca Juniors, at the age of 20, in 1981, he can’t take a walk without the sound of cameras snapping. He’s seen by millions of fans in Argentina as a figure of destiny. A chosen one. They call him El Pibe de Oro, the Golden Boy.

They believe he is fated to lead Argentina to a repeat victory at the 1982 World Cup.

They have not learned the no. 1 lesson of cheering for Diego Maradona: It’s always better when you keep your expectations a little fuzzy.

5. A Small Misunderstanding

OK. Quick aside. While the Golden Boy is busy embodying his nation’s hopes and dreams, his nation itself is getting mixed up in an international incident. A little 1982 history; I promise this will be brief. But we have to talk about a kind of minor, embarrassing misunderstanding that happens during the buildup to the World Cup in Spain.

In 1982, Argentina and England share a small war. It’s complicated.

Argentina at this time is ruled by a repressive and violent military junta. They control the media. They control the national soccer team. They use the national soccer team for propaganda in the media.

Around 300 miles off the coast of Argentina, near the northern tip of Antarctica, is an archipelago called the Falkland Islands. A few thousand people live there, mostly of British descent. The islands are British territory. Footnote one, see colonialism. Argentina maintains—and still does, to this day—that the islands belong to it. Almost everyone who lives on the islands wants to stay with the U.K. This is not a clean, or comfortable, or easy situation.

The junta, partly to ramp up patriotic fervor and shore up its own power, invades the islands. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who doesn’t not like patriotic fervor and power, sends in warships.

Britain and Argentina start blowing up each other’s ships. Argentine bombers hit British forces with bombs Argentina bought from Britain. Many of those bombs were badly made. They fail to explode.

Foolproof strategy, if you want to win a war: be an arms dealer and suck at it.

The British army mounts a counterinvasion. The Argentine military crumbles. After just 10 weeks, the British are on the cusp of taking the Falklands back.

6. Yet Another Reason to Pity the King of Spain

What’s relevant here from a Maradona-studies perspective is that when the Argentine team flies to Spain, in June 1982, for the World Cup, all they know about the Falklands War is what they’ve learned from the propaganda narrative on Argentine TV. In other words, they think Argentina is winning. In Europe, they turn on the TVs in their hotel rooms and discover to their horror that Argentina is in fact on the brink of defeat. The United States and most of the old world order have rallied around the British.

In a state of shock, they play the very first game of the tournament, which they lose 1-0 to Belgium. The next day, the Argentine military surrenders. The soccer team limps to the second round, where they lose 3-1 to Brazil.

Instead of fulfilling his destiny and leading the team to glory, Maradona goes a slightly different route: the route of kicking Brazil’s João Batista in the groin and getting a red card in the 85th minute. He’s booed—or as the English commentator John Helm says at the time, “roundly booed”—off the pitch.

That moment of disgrace, and that round booing, took place in Barcelona. Where, coincidentally, Maradona has just agreed to move. He’s transferred to FC Barcelona in 1982 for $7.6 million. That’s a number that I think it’s fair to say seems quaint today. It seems kind of cute. $7.6 million won’t buy Jadon Sancho’s shorts.

In 1982 it’s an enormous, barely conceivable, world-record transfer fee.

In Barcelona, it doesn’t go great. Maradona is a force of nature on the pitch. He plays as a classic no. 10, and at the Bernabéu, against Barcelona’s archrivals Real Madrid, he scores a goal so stunning that the Real Madrid fans give him a standing ovation. The number of times that’s happened before is never.

But he doesn’t do well with quiet. He doesn’t do well with loneliness. Downtime is not his ally. He’s just moved away from his family and everyone he knows. What do you fill the hours with? Everyone is searching for euphoria. A lot of people find it in him. Where can he find it? If you’re making a biopic, here’s your crucial scene: Maradona discovers cocaine. He discovers nightclubs. He discovers brawls in nightclubs. He feuds with club executives. He gets hurt after a brutal tackle from a player called the Butcher of Bilbao—pleasant dude—and misses a few months. He faces racist taunts from Spanish fans due to his father’s Indigenous ancestry. He’s angry. He’s bored. He’s depressed.

Just hold it in, his advisers tell him. Keep your head above the shit! But holding it in is not what Diego Maradona is good at.

In 1984, Barcelona loses 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final.

After the match, Maradona gets into a fight—starts a brawl, really—while the teams are still on the pitch. More than half the country is watching on TV. The king of Spain is watching in the stadium. Maradona’s feeling frustrated because he’s been kicked around by Bilbao players all match. Including by the Butcher of Bilbao. That guy again! So when a Bilbao player mocks him after the game, Maradona knocks him down. Some people say it was a headbutt, some people say a punch; either way, not great. He elbows another guy in the face, knees the first guy in the head; he knocks that guy unconscious.

He is 5-foot-5! That’s not the point; you can be small in stature and still lay waste to a Copa del Rey–winning soccer team. The key is believing in yourself.

The crowd starts throwing stuff. Dozens of people end up injured. The scandal is intergalactic. Won’t someone PLEASE think about the king of Spain? After two seasons, Barcelona clutches its pearls and ships Maradona off to Napoli for a fee of about $10 million. This is another unthinkable world record, and also the amount Norwich City FC spent in 2021 to buy Ben Gibson from Burnley.

If you watched Asif Kapadia’s great Maradona documentary, also called Diego Maradona, which aired on HBO in 2019, it’s the Napoli phase you’re probably most familiar with. You’re thinking about the Camorra. You’re thinking about religious images with Maradona’s face on them. You’re thinking about full-on drug-fueled rock star hedonism. You’re thinking about high narrow cobblestone alleys with giant Maradona flags flying among the laundry.

But we’re not quite there yet. Not right now. He hasn’t yet won the scudetto at Napoli. He hasn’t won anything at what you’d call the highest level.

He’s 23 years old. Will he go down in history as a case of failed potential? Is there more to Maradona than controversy?

These are the questions people are asking about him when 1986 rolls around.

7. Random Fireballs

Just a weird year, 1986. I was in third grade. Ponca City, Oklahoma. I had a teacher—I’ll never forget this—who went abroad. She went on vacation to Europe. This was a big deal because you didn’t really go on vacations to Europe if you lived in small-town Oklahoma in 1986. At least we didn’t. You went to Branson, Missouri, or if you were really cosmopolitan—if you were a sophisticate—you maybe went to Florida. So when she came back, she gathered the class around to tell us what Europe was like. And I’ll never forget what she said to us.

She said, “Children, if America went to war against every other country in the world at the same time, we would win easily.”

She was my art teacher.

She went to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and her big takeaway was my guys could beat your ass.

Later, I think it was that same year, she suffered an injury when her house was struck by lightning. The way she explained it to us, she was sitting in her living room watching TV, and lightning flew out of her television, engulfed her body, and electrocuted her.

That’s 1986 to me. Just massive late Cold War nuclear pride and random fireballs spewing out of home appliances.

Mrs. Wiley, if you’re reading, I’m sorry I drew a picture in your class of lightning coming out of your television, engulfing your body, and electrocuting you. In my defense, you told that story to a room full of 9-year-old kids. Did you really not know what would happen?

1986. At the start of 1986, in January, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated over Cape Canaveral, Florida. At the end of 1986, in December, Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” finished in seventh place on Billboard’s year-end Hot 100.

That kind of year. I’m going to throw out some words for you now. 1986 words. Chernobyl. Oprah. Top Gun. Blue Velvet. That’s not a knife, this is a knife. Run-DMC. Take these broken wings and learn to fly again. The California Raisins. Rock me, Amadeus. At any given moment in the summer of 1986, you could turn on a radio and discover the precise midpoint between Jazzercise and nuclear Armageddon.

I refer, of course, to this:

Talk about fireballs spewing out of home appliances. Ronald Reagan. Margaret Thatcher. It by Stephen King—that’s the bestselling English-language novel of 1986. Just a huge year for freak accidents, surreal spectacles, explosions in the sky, girls who want to party all the time, and clowns who are trying to kill you.

Also, a huge year if you happen to be a guy—maybe an international soccer star—who either loves all those things or is all of those things at the exact same time.

8. When You’re Slapped

1986 World Cup. Mexico City.

Here’s a sentence I think about a lot when I think about Diego Maradona. He didn’t say it. Humphrey Bogart said it, in the seminal 1941 noir film The Maltese Falcon.

In the movie, Bogart plays the iconic private detective Sam Spade. Trench coat. Fedora. Golden Gate Bridge. That’s this. Anyway, at one point, Bogart is tussling with the great actor Peter Lorre, who as usual is playing this sort of slinky, silky, treacherous, nonspecifically foreign, ineffably effeminate scoundrel, and here he’s tussling with the ultra-American hardbitten icon Humphrey Bogart.

Lorre hisses, “That’s the second time you’ve laid hands on me!” And Bogart grabs him and here’s what he says.

“When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” Unbelievable thing for a hero to say in a movie.

I think about it in part because that line, the attitude in that line, seems to express something about Maradona’s approach to being in the world.

There’s no point in sugarcoating his history. It’s not easy to talk about. But Maradona was frequently a violent person. Someone with very little impulse control. He was caught many times lashing out at others, and not only other soccer players. In 2014, he was caught on film striking his girlfriend, Rocio Oliva; 16 years earlier, in 1998, he was sentenced to two years in prison—a suspended sentence—for repeatedly firing into a group of journalists with an air rifle. Those are just two of the most famous instances.

Maradona was also someone who grew up in an environment where violence was normal—his father, whom Maradona described as the kindest man he ever knew, used to “thrash” him (his word) for wearing out his soccer shoes too fast. Maradona was also someone who struggled with drug addiction; and who, as the video archive of his public appearances amply makes clear, was simply not in his right mind for a good deal of his waking life.

Which doesn’t excuse anything, or make him a less complicated figure. It just demonstrates that the beauty Maradona was capable of creating sits uncomfortably beside, or within, a personal chaos that was often ugly, often damaging, and often tragic. And Maradona himself never seemed to acknowledge or face up to the extent of his problems. Instead, he stuck out his chin and looked at the rest of the world like he was Humphrey Bogart and it was Peter Lorre.

You know, the other reason I’ve always associated that quote with Maradona is—well, why do you think that line worked on a 1941 American moviegoing audience?

I think it’s a question of power. There’s personal power, like a famous soccer star has. Then there’s imperial power, like a country might have. It’s important that the Peter Lorre character is coded for the American audience as a slippery foreigner. His name is Joel Cairo. He’s not one of us. The question is, which side of the sentence are you on?

The 1941 imperial American public is entirely on Bogart’s side. We dispense the slaps, you take them. And you don’t even get to complain about them. You don’t even get to privately dislike receiving them.

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it” loses some of its brutalist charisma if you’re on the other side of it, the non-imperial side of it. Imagine someone saying that sentence to you. Imagine how you would resent that person, how you would long to destroy that person. This is not a baseball bat, this is a euphoria machine.

9. Mexico City at Long Last

Mexico City in the summertime. It is hot. Matches in the middle of the day so the players won’t cast shadows on TV. The ground is dry. Players compare the pitches to dried shit.

Argentina gets past Uruguay in the Round of 16. In the quarterfinals, they are drawn against—yeesh—England.

As draws go, it could probably be worse, but I can’t see how. Remember that awkward war England and Argentina had fought four years earlier? That tiny detail? Yeah. Within Argentina, the Falklands War intensified a long-standing feeling that the country has been treated as a whipping boy, as a second-class world citizen, by Britain and America and their allies. This feeling extends back at least as far as 1806 when England seized Buenos Aires during the Napoleonic Wars.

Much more recently, the England soccer manager Alf Ramsey had infamously called the Argentine players “animals” after a bad-tempered match at the 1966 World Cup. Quick bit of trivia: That was the match that led to the invention of the red-card and yellow-card system. Not a night at the ballet. Animals. England won that match 1-0 and afterward, Ramsey forbade his players from exchanging shirts with the Argentinians. When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.

So yes. When Argentina draws England in the ’86 World Cup quarterfinals, it makes for a, let’s say, charged atmosphere.

Before the match, the players all say the expected things about how sports and politics are separate. Maybe the English players mean this; the Argentine players are definitely lying. I know they are lying because Maradona will later say, and I quote, “that was a lie.”

I’ll tell you some more things he said.

The Argentine name for the Falkland Islands, by the way, is the Malvinas. Here’s Maradona:

Of course, before the match, we said that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, but we knew a lot of Argentine kids had died there, shot down like little birds. This was revenge. ... We did nothing but think about that. Bullshit, was it just another match! In a way, we blamed the English players for everything that happened, for all the suffering of the Argentine people. I know it seems like madness but truthfully at the time that was what we felt. It was stronger than us: we were defending our flag, the dead kids, the survivors. That’s why I think my goal meant so much. Actually, they both did.

10. The Hand of God

First goal. The revenge goal. The rules, what rules goal. The “by whatever means necessary” goal. The “and remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm” goal. That goal.

That’s from Deuteronomy, by the way. A book of the Bible that’s about the importance of obeying the rules. It’s complicated.

The Hand of God goal.

And listen. I get it. If you are still mad about the Hand of God in the year 2022, I won’t tell you you’re wrong. I’m not here to say you’re stupid or un-cool. Without the rules, we can’t have sports; we can’t trust sports. Who do you trust? The Hand of God is an iconic goal that cuts directly against the continued viability of the sport it’s an icon in.

Why do sports make you feel things? Sometimes they just make you mad. And that’s OK, sometimes. You do not have to celebrate this act; it is divisive for a reason.

But what if you look at it this way?

What if the system has been rigged against you, what if the rules have been rigged against you, your whole life? What if the rules, as you see them, exist to be invoked against you, to keep you down, and the people you love down, and the people you’re loyal to down, at every level, and have from the time you were born?

What if the rules meant your dad had to show up on time every day for a backbreaking job and got paid when the boss felt like it? What if the rules mean the men in charge of the game you love have been using you for their own benefit and profiting off you since you were 10 years old? What if the rules mean fans have the right to expect everything from you, and also have the right to turn on you if they don’t get it?

As a young player Maradona used to plead for basic human respect. He once told a journalist, “Maradona is not a machine for making [people] happy.” Do we take that into account, now, in how we treat him? Hm, let me th—no, we do not.

What if the rules let us say: This is not a person, this is a euphoria machine?

What if, when your country goes to war, the rules mean the whole international order mobilizes to say you’re wrong and the old-world power, the colonial power, the overseer, the kings and capitalists, are in the right?

I’m not saying this outlook is correct. I’m saying this is about a feeling, and right now it’s about the feeling that the system was not made for you. It was made for someone else, to be deployed against you. And to survive, you have to outwit it.

There’s a stock figure in Argentine culture called the pibe. The urchin. The trickster boy. This is the figure that the brilliant English soccer writer Jonathan Wilson had in mind when he called his book about Argentine soccer Angels With Dirty Faces. The pibe is a figure from the slums, a kid who looks at the rules with contempt because he knows that the people who write the rules have contempt for him. He wins by trickery. By mischief. Keep it in mind.

Tough first half. 0-0 score. Six minutes into the second half, Maradona gets the ball in the middle of the pitch. Up in heaven, God is finishing up his manicure. Maybe blowing on his nails.

Down on Earth, there’s this English midfielder called Glenn Hoddle. Doesn’t get more English than that. If it does, it’s a pudding. Glenn Hoddle. Great player. Longtime midfielder for Tottenham. Went on to become manager of the England team that lost on penalties in the second round of the 1998 World Cup … to Argentina. Fired in 1999 for appearing to say in an interview—he disputes this—that disabled people are experiencing karmic punishment for misdeeds in their past lives. If that’s true, he may be born into the next life without a mouth.

Glenn Hoddle. He’s trying to defend Maradona. This attempt lasts one-one thousandth as long as my biography of Glenn Hoddle. Maradona just sort of stutter-flicks the ball with his left foot across his body and casually perambulates past Hoddle. I’m using the word “perambulates” instead of “walks” to signify the enormous expanse of leisure time he has in which to get around Glenn Hoddle.

Now Maradona has three English defenders converging on him just outside the area. He’s right in the middle of the pitch. Two Argentine players ahead of him and five English players between him and the goal. He flicks the ball toward his teammate, the forward Jorge Valdano. He’s looking to play a little 1-2. But Valdano’s marked.

Valdano, by the way, later goes on to play an important role at Real Madrid as a player, a manager, and a sporting director, finally leaving the club in 2011 after becoming the first person ever to have trouble establishing a professional rapport with José Mourinho. To this day, that’s Mourinho’s only instance of interpersonal conflict at the workplace.

The ball gets away from Valdano, and just as Maradona is breaking toward the goal, the English midfielder Steve Hodge clears it back toward the goalkeeper, Peter Shilton.

Peter Shilton, Maradona, and the ball are now rapidly converging directly in front of the goalmouth. Peter Shilton is a phenomenal goalkeeper. Remember that for later. Probably a top-five goalkeeper in the world in 1986. Not the tallest guy. About 6 feet. Next to Maradona, he looks like Yao Ming. They both go up for the ball. The referee is about 10 yards behind them. Shilton looms over Maradona and is also allowed to use his hands. This should be an easy get. Yet somehow Maradona makes this odd sort of twisting leap, and before you see what happened the ball has gone past Shilton and bounced into the net.

England players immediately start screaming for a handball. The commentator for the Argentine side of the game, our old pal Victor Hugo Morales, immediately sees that it’s a handball. Here’s what he says.

The linesman didn’t spot it, the referee looks desperately at him, while the English make their justified (for me) protests known. The goal was scored using a hand. I celebrate it with all my soul, but I must say what I think.

Obviously it’s a handball! The replay shows clearly that it’s a handball! There are maybe three people watching the match who don’t know it’s a handball. The referee doesn’t know it. The linesman doesn’t know it. The single funniest thing about this moment is that the English commentator, Barry Davies, also doesn’t know it. He thinks the English players want an offside call.

World War I is breaking out before our eyes and my dude is telling a TV audience that he’s concerned for Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who appears to be suffering from food poisoning.

After the match, Maradona is asked about the goal, and he utters the greatest postgame line in the history of organized sports. Greatest pregame line is “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”; this is postgame. He says the goal was scored, “A little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.”

Was it cheating? Yes.

Was it poetic justice? When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it. I’m talking to the ball!

Also to the ghost of the British Empire. It is furthermore, I think, one of the funniest goals in the history of soccer. If you’re mad, I get it, but come on. You’ve got Maradona, like, half-celebrating with all these little furtive glances back at the ref to see if he’s been caught, like a kid sneaking out of the room with a cookie. You’ve got the referee practically feeling in his pocket for his glasses. You’ve got the Argentina commentator openly acknowledging the handball while the British commentator is like, “I rather fear we’ve been pipped, old bean.”

You’ve got Maradona playing coy about whether it was a handball for years after the event, then finally acknowledging it, then claiming in newspaper articles in 2008 that he’d apologized to the English, then insisting he’d been misquoted and had never apologized to the English, because, quote, “I think apologizing to the English is stupid.”

Put it on my tombstone.

Three and a half minutes later …

11. Pure Poetry

Second goal. Here we go.

Actually, one more thing about the Hand of God goal first. It is a problem that the Hand of God goal has such a cool nickname. I fear that the sheer coolness of the Hand of God nickname has prevented Maradona’s second—and first legitimate–goal of the match from being appreciated to the extent that it deserves.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been appreciated, because it has. It’s often called the greatest individual goal in the history of soccer. It was voted the Goal of the Century before the 2002 men’s World Cup. Lionel Messi paid a sort of WTF homage to it by scoring a nearly identical goal against Getafe in 2007. People know it was good.

But it doesn’t have a name. You need a name. You need a thing you can say, then point to it and go, it’s that. It’s the Phoenix Feather Cloud Dragon goal. It’s that. I don’t know. People try to call it the Goal of the Century. That’s a weak name. That’s an online poll result.

The Hand of God Goal has its own Wikipedia page; the second goal has a subheading. You think names aren’t powerful?

OK. I want you to picture Maradona getting the ball 65, 70 yards from the goal. He’s a mile from the goal. He’s on the far side of the halfway line. The whole England team is between him and the goal. You’re not even thinking about him scoring from this spot. Sixty-five yards out.

Remember the question we brought up earlier? The disco ball hanging over everything? Why do sports make us feel things? Here’s a theory. Because nothing is simple. It’s complicated. Life is hard, and messy, and clumsy, and ideas never line up with actions, and ideas never line up with other ideas, and you spill your smoothie in the car, and you wake up at three in the morning thinking about the embarrassing text you sent two years ago, and everyone you have ever loved is going to die, and your battery is on 2 percent, and you don’t even know why you told that lie. And I submit that no athlete in history has embodied the mess and confusion of being alive more consistently and more vividly than Diego Maradona.

But sometimes. Sometimes, on a soccer pitch, everything comes together in just the right way to make it look simple. Clear. Everything breaks your way for once. Everything works.

The guy who passes him the ball, by the way, is the midfielder Héctor Enrique. Totally unremarkable roll of the ball. Enrique is 60 now, and for years, when people ask him about the goal he does this great bit; he goes, “With a pass like that!”

Maradona is 65 yards from the goal. And for the next 11 seconds, in this sort of beautiful slow-fast tempo, in which he’s hurrying but also taking his time, he just takes England apart. Do you know how hard it is to dribble through an entire soccer team? You have to control the ball with your feet. You have to set up your next move and your next move and your next move. And all a defender has to do is just—pfft—bap it away from you. Just one little misstep, one guy pokes the ball with his toe, and the move is over.

And you feel this difficulty especially keenly in soccer because—well, I don’t want to get super theoretical while Maradona is making his move—but compare soccer to almost any other sport.

Almost every other popular sport does something to enhance the human body. It gives you a power you don’t normally have. You get a stick to hit the ball with. Now you can hit the ball very far. You get to play in body armor. Now you can hit another person very hard. You get a ball that bounces. Now you can control the ball like a yo-yo.

What soccer does instead is take something away from you. One of the most important things. Your hands. Easily a top-five body part! Soccer exaggerates the clumsiness and difficulty and mess of trying to do anything in this world, and then it says: OK, jackass, do it anyway. Under those conditions, to run through an entire defense and score a goal in a World Cup knockout game, with the whole world watching, against your geopolitical archnemesis … it is so breathtakingly hard. It’s almost outside the limits of possibility.

But keeping within the limits of possibility is not what Diego Maradona is good at.

He pirouettes past Trevor Steven. He breezes by Terry Butcher. He gets by Peter Beardsley. He gets by Terry Fenwick. Every single man in England in 1986 is named either Peter or Terry. The goalkeeper—whose name is Peter!—comes out to stop him and Maradona just … does nothing. He just takes an unexpected extra step before shooting, the simplest possible thing, he dummies him, and the ball rolls right by Peter Shilton, and then he just has to beat Terry Butcher and knock it into the net.

He already beat Terry Butcher once. This run lasted so long that Terry Butcher got left behind, caught up, and then got left behind again. Terry Butcher could have used the witness protection program after this goal. Maybe changed his name to Peter. He would have disappeared.

The thing I love about this goal? It’s not busy. It’s efficient. It’s all vision and timing. There’s no single moment when Maradona does something athletically astounding. He’s not dunking from the free throw line here. The miracle is the simplicity. Every move he makes has a purpose. He doesn’t do anything he doesn’t need to. It’s like watching someone checkmate a chess grandmaster in four moves. He destroys an entire defense with no wasted motion. Complete mastery of timing and tempo. Little hitches and changes of pace.

Everyone else out there is fighting gravity and physics and time, the way we’re all fighting them. Maradona is orchestrating them. They’re on his side. The components that make life chaotic and impossible just—whoosh—fall into alignment.

And that weightless thing fluttering up and away like a helium balloon? That’s the top of your head. Wave goodbye.

12. Euphoria and After

The thing about euphoria, though, is that it’s not a durable emotion. It doesn’t last.

Well. Sometimes it lasts for a little while.

Argentina beats England 2-1—Gary Lineker scores the England goal—knocks out Belgium in the semifinals, and wins the World Cup, beating West Germany in the final. Maradona becomes a quasi-religious icon in Argentina.

The next year he leads Napoli, a team that never wins Italian soccer championships, to the Italian soccer championship; he becomes a quasi-religious icon in Naples. A city that knows from religious icons.

It gets weird. I’m not talking about normal-superstar weird. I’m talking about the Neapolitan mafia gives him the first Volvo 900 ever imported into Italy weird. That weird. We don’t have to follow him now, into the post-’86 labyrinth of his life. We don’t have to talk about 1994, when he gets kicked out of his final World Cup as a player after testing positive for ephedrine. We don’t have to talk about the cocaine, and the drinking, and the heart attacks brought on by cocaine and drinking, and the endless tabloid circus, and the friendship with Fidel Castro, and the whole sad hurtful hilarious tornado of Maradona existing as himself. We’ll just say that when chaos comes back, chaos comes back hard.

That’s what makes Maradona’s moments of brilliance so moving. He exaggerates both sides of the equation—we’re watching a life more confused and hurtful and messy than any life we know break free into a clarity more beautiful than any clarity we’ve experienced.

He dies in 2020, under bad circumstances, following what’s initially reported as a successful brain surgery. Seven medical professionals responsible for caring for him are eventually charged with a form of homicide. Tens of thousands of mourners pour out onto the streets of Buenos Aires. His body lies in state in the presidential palace; mourners fight with cops; there are reports that he’s buried without his heart to prevent people from digging him up and stealing it.

It’s complicated.

But I don’t want to talk about any of that. I want to stay in 1986 with Victor Hugo Morales. I want to stay in the moment when you realize euphoria has arrived.

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