High noon, one blistering Sunday in Mexico City, and a quarter-final shootout between two arch rivals who hadn't met in a World Cup for 20 years and had grievance on their minds. Rattín's Revenge! Or, in the offices of various tabloid newspapers and the heads of the slow: Falklands II. Here are 10 things that happened during a first half everyone's long forgotten about:
1) Just before kick-off, instead of focusing on the players warming up in the oppressive sun, the Mexican television director chose to zoom in on a topless man necking the final third of a plastic cup of lager while sucking hard on a cheroot, having clearly been caught in two minds over which craving to sate first. A wonderful tableau of the relaxed atmosphere in the Azteca before kick-off, both sets of supporters in good humour, the Argentina team handing each England player their own personal pennant. A lovely touch, a small gesture of friendship, and to think everyone had been banging on about bad blood caused by the Malvinas conflict.
2) The referee and his two linesmen spent the minutes leading up to kick-off loitering in the spiral shadow covering the centre circle, wishing the woofers and tweeters in the stadium PA were a hundred times more powerful, large enough in fact to cast the entire pitch in shade. Still, keep cool while you can. Clever referee! Clever Ali Ben Nasser (Tunisia)! You'd need to get up a lot earlier than midday on a Sunday to catch Ali Ben Nasser (Tunisia) out!
3) On 13 minutes, perhaps the best snippet of individual skill in the entire 1986 tournament up to that point. Glenn Hoddle raked a long ball down the right channel for Peter Beardsley to pursue. The pass was too heavy, and out came Nery Pumpido, breezing across to gather. But the goalkeeper made the most basic of misjudgments, mistiming his run to meet the ball and slipping as he attempted to readjust. The ball clanked off his shin and out of the area. Beardsley, who had not given up the chase, was first to the loose ball. Pumpido scampered after him in hot pursuit, but was soon written out of the story as Beardo went burlesque: a sultry, slinky, bom-chicka shake of the hips, feinting left to send Pumpido skittering off towards the byline, then a smooth and sexy swish back through 180 degrees to the right, fashioning just enough time and space for a whipcracked shot towards the unguarded goal. Unluckily for England, the effort billowed the side-netting, inches away from a strike of the most stunning solo sass. You don't see that sort of skill every day. And certainly rarely more than once in a single match. Sorry for any challenging mental images we might have just left you with, by the way.
4) The game suffered a preposterous hold-up for two minutes towards the end of the half, when Diego Maradona shaped to take a corner on the right but found his path to the ball blocked by a row of corpulent photographers beached along the byline. Concluding that moving these fine gentlemen of the press would require the implementation of the biggest engineering project in Mexico City since the first shovel broke ground at the Azteca in 1961, Maradona instead whipped out the pole so he could attack the ball from another angle. Before he could take the corner, linesman - jobsworth Berny Ulloa Morera demanded he replace the pole. So Maradona replanted the pole. But the flag had fallen off the top, and Morera demanded that went back on too. Maradona balanced the material over the top of the pole - but even that wasn't good enough for Morera. So Maradona slowly and carefully resheathed the pole, in surprisingly good humour under the circumstances, given he was being pestered during the biggest match of his life by an official whose time might have been better spent ordering the photographers to move, rather than asking the greatest footballer in the world to perform several basic haberdashery tasks. In the end, Maradona got one of the snappers to shift out of the road, and with a grim inevitability, sent the set piece straight into Peter Shilton's hands. What an anticlimax. How many of the 114,580 crowd had paid to see Morera rather than Maradona was never ascertained.
5) Usherettes wandered through the stands carrying trays of up to 15 ready-poured lagers, dispensing them hither and yon. What service!
6) It wasn’t a great 45 minutes for the BBC commentary team, Barry Davies and Jimmy Hill. Davies was always a world-class commentator, and Hill a clever and imaginative pundit until he became a parody of himself at some tricky-to-define point during the 1980s. But both men had an off-day here, spending a good proportion of the first half taking pops at the expansionist politicians of Fifa for having the nerve to appoint the referee Ali Ben Nasser (Tunisia) on the grounds that he came from Tunisia. According to Davies, Tunisia was an “emerging nation”, which would have come as something of a surprise to, say, the residents of Tunis, a city founded in the fourth century BC. It has to be admitted that Ben Nasser wouldn’t enjoy his best day at the office either, but his errors would have bugger all to do with his being Tunisian. (It should also be pointed out that the BBC never once questioned the appointment of a linesman from notorious footballing hotbed Azerbaijan during the 1966 World Cup, and look what happened there. But we digress.)
7) Mind you, Davies and Hill can be partially excused for much of their first-half jabbering, as the opening 45 minutes weren’t up to much. Argentina had most of the ball but did very little with it, though Maradona looked dangerous when probing down the channels.
8) That hypnotic, hip-shaking cameo from Peter von Teese apart, England were worse than poor. There wasn't much to write home about. Terry Fenwick blootered one shot 40 yards into the blue. On 44 minutes, England's star man, Gary Lineker, touched the ball, toe-poking it out of play down the right. At one point, Steve Hodge, looking to hoof clear, sliced a high ball backwards into his own area. He'd have to stop that!
9) Fenwick in particular made a complete show of himself. He took Maradona out on nine minutes, earning a yellow card; was later sent scrabbling around on all fours as the same player zipped past him, making off with the ball and his dignity; and just before the break, crumped his left elbow in the little man’s coupon, a vicious off-the-ball assault that deserved a straight red. It should have been an end to his afternoon. But it wasn’t.
10) At half-time, news filtered through that Tele Santana, arch idealist, had resigned as coach of Brazil, who had lost a classic quarter-final to France 24 hours earlier. A symbolic moment, the last men fighting the good fight for the old-fashioned beautiful game, crushed by the wheels of modernity. Whither improvisational brilliance in international football now? We’ll never see the like again, surely.
Nil-nil at half-time, then, though the second half would deliver big style, thanks mainly to one man's absurd transgression of the laws of association football. Yep, we're talking about Fenwick again. Five minutes after the restart, Fenwick clumped Maradona on the head as the pair went up for a challenge in the centre circle. He again whacked the Argentinian's noggin on 66 minutes. And with five minutes to go, he upended the marauding Jorge Valdano with an absurd last-man slide tackle. Just in case you've lost count, and goodness knows we couldn't blame you, Fenwick could easily, on another day, have been sent off four times.
Whether Maradona was that fussed about all this dubious attention is a moot point. For a start, if you accept that deliberate and systematic fouling of talent represents the mother of all unintended compliments - the ultimate, often quite literal, stamp of approval - then this gives Maradona number one status among those in the pantheon. Consider the questionable treatment meted out to the other greats in World Cups: Pelé was shoed around Goodison Park in 1966; Johan Cruyff was the put-upon postman to Berti Vogts' pitbull-with-elastic-band-round-its-front-tail in the 1974 final; Ferenc Puskas was maimed by West Germany's Werner Liebrich's forensic strike in the 1954 groups. But Maradona has been famously worked over on the biggest stage of all not once but twice: first by Claudio Gentile in the 1982 second round, a calculating masterclass in crafty tugs, conniving pulls, cunning yanks and corrupt kicks, and then in this game four years later by the rather more remedial stylings of our man Fenwick.
Second - and with far more relevance to this particular battle - it put Maradona in the frame of mind to attempt a little rule-bending of his own. (And remember it’s only over here where folk desperately try to convince themselves that a cheeky handball is somehow much more morally repugnant than a few hard belts in the mouth, upside the head, or below the belt.) Sadly for England, their Diego proved to be much more adept at the old black magic than our Tel, and the wee magician’s sauce-ery was to tilt the balance in Argentina’s favour, six minutes after the restart.
So poor old Steve Hodge never did learn his lesson from the first half, and we all know what happened: the Aston Villa midfielder sliced a high, looping ball into the middle of his own area, it fell just in front of the penalty spot, and was met by Maradona, who with his left fist adroitly tickled the ball over the confused head of the sandbag-shoed Peter Shilton and into the empty net. Maradona raced off towards the right-hand corner flag to celebrate, stopping only a millisecond to take a quick peek back over his shoulder, just in case the referee was wise to the grift. Amid the carnage he left behind, Shilton could be seen waving his hands in the air in despair, while our old pal Fenwick was right up in the referee's grille, tinkling his pinkies in an arch mime, the pair a picture of impotent frustration.
Nobody came out of this affair looking good, not Maradona, not Shilton, not Hodge, not Fenwick. And certainly not referee Ali Ben Nasser (Tunisia), who had just presided over the biggest balls-up in World Cup history. But perhaps we should try to understand his mistake. It’s very difficult now to view the footage of the goal as it unfolds in an objective manner: we know exactly what Maradona’s about to do, and as such the larceny is as plain as day. Projecting our knowledge on to the canvas is almost unavoidable. But let’s give it a go. And perhaps the most instructive tool to help us is the aforementioned BBC commentary that accompanied the heist live, and remains an honest historical document of first impressions.
"They're appealing for offside but the ball came back off the boot of Steve Hodge," said Barry Davies, unsure as to why Shilton, Fenwick and Terry Butcher were making like a Marcel Marceau tribute act, skittering after the referee while furiously slapping their own forearms. It took another 32 seconds and two television replays before the penny began to drop that something was seriously amiss. "Now at what point was he offside?" ummed-and-aahed Davies. "Or was it a use of the hand that England are complaining about?"
Now, as we mentioned earlier, Davies might not have enjoyed the greatest of first halves. (As well as questioning the referee's nationality, he also mocked an Argentinian drummer caught on camera enjoying some downtime - "He doesn't seem to have too much to say, does he?" - as though he was somehow bringing shame on his nation by failing to metronomically riff for 45 minutes in the style of Jaki Liebezeit. ) But for all his occasional bombast, Davies was a journalist of the highest order, a class act, the Maradona of the microphone. And it was in response to this incident that his quality - as well as his humility and humanity - shone through.
Even after two replays, it wasn’t 100 per cent clear that Maradona had handled, and Davies wasn’t about to make a definitive call on live television. (This might come as a shock to a generation used to media organisations announcing celebrity deaths without making a few calls first, just because someone’s popped something up on the old Twitter, but hacks really did once act like this.) It was another two minutes before Davies reported that other members of the press box, sitting nearer to England’s goal, were pretty damn sure that Maradona handled. “They have little doubt that it was a hand that put the ball past the England goalkeeper,” Davies told the nation. All of which added up to more than 120 seconds of confusion which, if nothing else, laid bare the difficulties Ali Ben Nasser (Tunisia) faced in making a snap judgment.
But for all the rights and wrongs, the scoreline was the scoreline: Maradona 1-0 Fenwick. This is what happens when you try to kid a kidder.
The Argentina captain had, in the final analysis, been a cheeky get. This much was true. But one thing often forgotten about that goal is his stunning play in the build-up. Maradona cut inside from the left, picking up a pass from Julio Olarticoechea and danced down the channel, past Hoddle, then Peter Reid, then Fenwick. When he reached the edge of the D, he drew Butcher and Kenny Sansom towards him before flicking a pass out right to Valdano, who attempted to turn Hodge - at which point the world came crashing in on England.
That burst of skill was one thing, but Maradona was about to take it to the next level. With England still reeling, the woefully misfiring Hoddle gave the ball away cheaply in the middle of the Argentina half. It was shuttled upfield to Maradona, who faced his own goal just to the right of the centre circle. Spinning around, he dismissed Beardsley and Reid, then made off down the right, prodding the ball forward with extreme prejudice. He teased Butcher, then nipped inside as the big defender lunged.
Gathering speed, he made for the penalty area, slipping past the preposterous Fenwick, then goading Shilton off his line. The keeper spread himself well, but Maradona rounded him on the right, holding off Butcher, who had bravely come back for more, and slipped the ball into the right-hand side of the exposed net. A goal so good it instantly chalked off any moral debt, and secured his place in the pantheon at exactly the same time, just as international football needed a new improvisational hero in the bleak post-Santana landscape. Speaking of redemptions, Davies, by now thoroughly recovered from his slow start, delivered one of the greatest lines in commentary history, a magnanimous and thoroughly memorable cry of “You have to say that’s magnificent! Pure football genius.” Pure commentary genius. You have to say that’s magnificent.
The rest of the game was a rather strange affair. Argentina took their foot off the gas, but England failed to respond. Hoddle, who had been dreadful for the first hour, raised his game a wee bit, creating a half-chance for Beardsley from the right wing with an impudent low cross - Beardsley prodded straight at Pumpido - but it was only when John Barnes came on for Trevor Steven that England finally threatened. The Watford winger's insouciant stride down the left set up a goal for Lineker with nine minutes to go and, after Carlos Tapia hit England's left post straight from the restart, the pair nearly combined again with 120 seconds left on the clock. For a split second it looked like Lineker had managed to fashion a foolish miss as he tried to bundle home Barnes's left-wing teaser, but again first impressions were deceptive: Olarticoechea rather brilliantly brushed his eyebrows on the cross with the striker lurking an inch from the line.
And that was it. Argentina saw the game out, a deserved victory on both a sporting and, yes, because it wasn’t Maradona who instigated the game of silly buggers, moral level. Er, just about. England did start it, though.
So Argentina had regained their national pride in the wake of the Falklands, and taken revenge on the folk who had caused their erstwhile captain, Antonio Rattín, so much pain 20 years previously at the same stage of the same competition. With that famous 1966 stramash in mind, the 1986 version tied up the narrative in a delicious symmetry. After that glorious brouhaha at Wembley, Alf Ramsey had physically - infamously - stopped George Cohen from exchanging tops with Alberto González (who simply wandered off and got a souvenir off Ray Wilson instead). This time round, Hodge, who had teed up Maradona for his grand larceny, swapped shirts with England's tormentor-in-chief. It was, runs the old joke, the nearest Hodge got to Maradona all day. No cash prize on offer for guessing what ran through Sir Alf's mind upon witnessing that particular transaction. - Guardian Service