”Mi amigos” is how Diego Maradona is known to describe them. Ali Bin Nasser and Bogdan Dotchev are not on cordial terms with one another. Over three decades on, they still blame each other. It can probably be classed as a feud.
There was beauty, there was sleight of hand, and there was controversy. There was confusion, there was anger, and there was jubilation. Time stood still, two men dressed in all-black looked at each other, and neither of them knew the answer to the question that was asked of them. A goal was given.
Ali Bin Nasser was the referee who was unsure of what he’d just seen and Bogan Dotchev was the linesman with his flag down. They stared at one another in a prolonged manner, each in hope that the other had spotted a vaguely sensed infringement. They both ran back to the halfway line, Bin Nasser with no option but to give the goal and Dotchev having made no signal either way.
Over 30 years later and that goal is still one of the most widely discussed goals in the history of the game. It is arguably the most famous goal in the history of the game. There are numerous still photographs of the fateful moment when Diego Maradona’s clenched left hand meets the ball. It was more the clenched Fist of God than the Hand of God, perhaps.
It was, of course, the 1986 World Cup quarter-final at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, a game played out between Argentina and England. June 22, midday sun blazing high in the sky, that spidery shadow lurking ominously in the centre-circle, just inside the Argentina half and to the right of the centre-spot.
None of those still photographs successfully capture the moment of contact. Each one of them is either a split second too late, or too soon. The ball is on the way down or on the way up, Maradona’s arm is more outstretched than it was when contact is actually made. The camera does lie from time to time.
There is a misconception about just how obvious Maradona’s handling of the ball was for the opening goal of the game, which came in the 51st minute. Time has distorted the occurrence to a large extent. Many people are of the mind that it was impossible to miss; others are of the mind that beyond Bin Nasser and Dotchev, of those present within the Azteca, only the BBC’s Barry Davies missed it too. “They’re appealing for offside,” proclaimed Davies, during his initial reaction to what was unfolding. There was confusion both on and off the pitch. It took over 30 seconds for the first inkling of what had occurred to filter through and even then no-one was entirely certain.
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On the pitch, only Maradona himself, Peter Shilton and Terry Fenwick had any real certainty over what had happened. Fenwick raced to the halfway line in pursuit of Bin Nasser, protesting animatedly as he did. Glenn Hoddle belatedly joined him in protest, but with no more conviction as that of a man who had been told a first-hand account of the crime he was now trying to report, as opposed to having witnessed it himself. It wasn’t the first time during the game that Hoddle had turned up belatedly.
It all happened so quickly and it was almost out of sync with a game that was predominantly slow paced due to the baking climate. The two goals Maradona scored that day are sold as classic examples of the double-sided coin of his personality. If the second goal was a beauty, then the first one was the beast?
There was beauty within that first goal too, however. The beauty was in the build-up. From some perspectives, there is also beauty to be found in the finish.
‘He who robs a thief has a hundred years of pardon.’ It was a saying and a sentiment that hung heavy in the celebratory air in Buenos Aires in the aftermath of the final whistle of this game. Thousands of people took themselves to the streets and chanted anti-Thatcher slogans long into the night, actions that would have won the nod of approval of a great many voters in the UK at that very time. The enemies of Margaret Thatcher resided both overseas and on home shores.
The two nations at play in the Azteca had of course been at war just four years earlier. Tensions were higher off the pitch than on. In fact, apart from a small number of isolated and short-lived outbursts of pre-match aggression, tensions were higher in the press box and back home than they were in the stands.
Argentina’s players had handed each England player a personalised pennant before kick-off in a gesture of friendship – or at least in a disarming manoeuvre that had the intention of killing the opposition with kindness. The sting was taken out of the occasion before it had begun. In the stands, the atmosphere took on a more laid back aura to the tinderbox one that had been feared. Cold beer was available to drink. With the midday sun at its most fierce, it could almost have been a relaxing day at the beach. Argentines and Englishmen go out in the midday sun; 115,000 spectators were in attendance.
On the pitch, Argentina moved the ball around with ease, probing for gaps, with England almost like a fear-infused challenger in a boxing ring with the heavyweight champion of the world. The longer the punch took to land, the more England began to sleepwalk.
Ninety seconds before the first goal rolled over his line, Shilton was busy winding an imaginary spinning wheel with his right hand, in an attempt to wake his slumbering defence. He knew the signals and England were sending out regular invitations to Argentina to go for goal. Indeed, the Hand of God conceals more than it illuminates.
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Another unforced long ball out of defence from Terry Butcher was subsequently returned to the England half of the pitch, with measured Argentinian passing via Sergio Batista and Héctor Enrique, into the possession of Julio Olarticoechea. A square ball from the left-hand side of the pitch to Maradona, in line with the edge of the centre circle, was played sedately, as if the game was being played within an unspoken truce of walking pace. A burst of speed and the ball was in the England net just 10 seconds later.
For every Shilton with his arm raised, there was an oblivious Trevor Steven ambling back into place for the restart. While Fenwick argued with Bin Nasser, Peter Beardsley stood there with arms outstretched, as much in confusion over what the argument was about than joining the protest. For every Hoddle racing in to back up Fenwick, there was a Steve Hodge sheepishly blending into the background.
Maradona had picked up the ball in line with the edge of the centre circle, turned inwards and carried it to England at medium pace; he then dipped to his right to evade the advancing Hoddle. It is here when the accelerator hit the floor. The converging Peter Reid and Trevor Steven see him go past in a blur; Fenwick advanced, only to see Maradona repeat what he’d just done to Hoddle. Butcher and Kenny Sansom then closed the door to the edge of the England penalty area, yet as Maradona prodded the ball diagonally to his right towards Jorge Valdano, he continued his run, breaking past a mesmerised England defence that had now fragmented and were busy ball-watching.
Valdano flicked the ball up with his left foot, taking himself by surprise at how high it span upwards, looping over his shoulder. By now Maradona is beyond Valdano. As the ball dropped down it was beyond Valdano’s reach, but not that of Hodge. Right foot planted, leaning back, left foot stretched out and far too raised, possibly put off from heading the ball by Valdano spinning towards the ball with his elbow jutting forward. It wasn’t the first time in this game that Hodge had sent the ball backwards over his head inside his own penalty area. He also did it during the first half.
The next time the ball would make any kind of contact, it was to be with Maradona’s hand. The ball looped far into the air and landed to Maradona around seven or eight yards from the goal line. Having run at speed for around 35 to 40 yards, the first 20 yards of those with the ball at his feet, he met it at a forceful velocity, launching himself from around 10 yards short of the goal-line.
From the opposite direction, Shilton was slow off his line and there is no discernible lift off in his jump to meet the oncoming player and ball. In those still photos that don’t quite capture the moment perfectly, Shilton strikes the image of a man who has all the leaden-footed intent of a man stretching to open a window. While Maradona had momentum, Shilton had a height advantage. Use of hand or not, at eight inches taller, Shilton should never be second best in that duel for the ball.
Before the ball rolls over the line, both Shilton and Fenwick have arms aloft in protest. Within four seconds, Maradona has exited the scene of the crime, taking a quick glance over his right shoulder to see if the referee has called play back or not. Beckoning over his teammates to celebrate, his tracks have been covered and the illusion of a legitimate goal is complete. Genius is at play.
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The British sense of fair play was of course insulted. The concept of the British sense of fair play is a selective commodity, however. For the same nation that embraces the ‘getting away with it’ ideals of The Great Train Robbery and The Italian Job to be so aghast at the actions of Maradona doesn’t sit right.
One person’s cheat is another person’s opportunist. Sir Bobby Robson, Shilton, Butcher and Chris Waddle lamented long and loudly about the injustice of the event. They are complaints that are still aired to this day. Shilton has spoken of the lack of an official apology, but how can Maradona apologise for something he has no remorse for? From his perspective, he cunningly outwitted his opponents, thundering Anglo-Saxon opponents. He defeated brawn with brain.
Many newspaper reports in the days directly after the game make little of the manner of the first goal. While the tabloids made a greater purchase of it, the broadsheets were more considered. They instead focused on England’s limitations in comparison to Argentina and the physical nature of their approach to Maradona.
David Miller in The Times wrote of how England had tried to stifle their opponents rather than play to win. He contended that England’s players had been somewhat agricultural in their dealings with Maradona, concluding that: “They closed around him like a gang of farmhands gingerly trying to grapple with a bull which had slipped his pen.” Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail has since offered the opinion that the Hand of God was possibly accidental, perhaps more in hope than genuine belief.
While it’s hard to sell as an accidental incident, neither was it premeditated. Maradona didn’t set off for goal in the 51st minute with the idea in his head that he would strike forth and punch the ball into the England net. It was a spur of the moment opportunistic incident that even he has admitted to having happened in other games previously to 22 June 1986. Maradona was a man with that inbuilt drive to win at all costs, something that many British sports stars have had too.
Two years ago, Maradona was in Tunisia to film a television advert and while he was there he met up with Ali Bin Nasser. Maradona gave him a signed shirt with the personalised message ‘To my eternal friend’, while Bin Nasser in return gave him a framed picture from his wall. The picture was taken in the centre circle of the Estadio Azteca just before kick-off of the World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and England. Maradona and Shilton are shaking hands and Bin Nasser is in the background.
As for Bogdan Dotchev, the man who was classed in Bulgaria as a national traitor for his part in the Hand of God, he died in May 2017, with Maradona naturally sending on his condolences.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74