A year where every facet of Maradona was at the fore, both on the pitch and off it.

The magic and genius of one of the sport's greatest ever players would shine on the pitch, including scoring one of – if not the greatest – World Cup goal of all time.

His reputation for bending the rules, even outright breaking them, also appeared. Matches leading up to the tournament would show the other side of his game: his volatility, his petulance, his aggression; and the tournament would witness one of the most controversial goals in the history of the sport.

It was a year where perceptions of Maradona changed, from negative to positive, and were then split forevermore in one quarter-final game. In the background, events around him involving club and country made his achievements that year even more impressive.

Join us as we take a look at Maradona in the British press throughout 1986, seeing how opinions changed against the backdrop of personal and professional events.


Maradona started the year nursing a serious knee injury from the year before, but he was not yet the centre of attention in the Argentine team. Attention was on the feud between Argentina manager Carlos Bilardo and the former captain Alberto Passarella, and a possible reconciliation for the good of the national team in the Summer. Despite having taken over the captaincy, the appropriateness of Maradona in the role was being questioned: having “wrecked his teams chances [at the 1982 World Cup]”[1] by getting sent off against Brazil, his temperament suggested that trusting him with leading the team was a risk. If Maradona was the magician, Passarella would bring the necessary stability around him that would allow the magic to run free.

At the end of the month, Maradona spectacularly sacked many of his entourage, as his form for Napoli had dropped noticeably in recent months. He brought in a new accountant to sort out his finances, a job the accountant said “frightened him” due to the mess it had fallen into. It seemed Diego was taking steps to sort out his affairs and he was focused on improving his performances in the build up to the World Cup.[2]  

MARCH 1986

Eleven weeks before the start of the tournament, Maradona was one the star players battling injury. Brazil had Zico, Falcao and Socrates all recovering from injuries, hoping friendly matches against West Germany and Hungary would get them ready in time for the Summer. England were worried about the fitness of Bryan Robson, who had suffered a hamstring injury, a calf muscle injury, a twisted ankle and a dislocated shoulder all in the previous six months. Like Robson, Maradona was aiming for the World Cup, no matter what the doctors advised. Napoli would not let Maradona rest, making him play through his injury to make sure they were getting the most from their $7million transfer fee. As a result, the inconsistent performances were casting doubts over his ability to live up to previous tournaments. Referring to the previous World Cup, and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge playing through an injury that led to a sub-par performance in the final (ultimately costing West Germany the trophy), Argentina manager Bilardo would “dread finding ourselves in the same situation with Diego”.[4]

At the end of the month, eyes were on a friendly match between Argentina and France, where Maradona would be the star player on the pitch (Michel Platini was absent for France due to injury). As captain, his proficiency at leading the Argentine team could be assessed against quality opponents who they could potentially play again in the tournament.

It didn’t go well.

“He cheats himself, he attempts to cheat the referee, and he cheats our demand for performance above the norm”

After the match, some thought Maradona was already finished as an elite footballer: “The ruin of Maradona runs deep. He has, at 25…become a millionaire; but he has lived on the end of assailant’s boots, lived close to the surgeon’s scalpel, lived too long in the company of his fat agent. His very shape has changed. The cube-like body has a new portliness which tells of a whole year hiding from an operation to make his knee whole again.”[5]

How could such a temperamental, occasionally ill-disciplined, volatile youngster with a bad knee and declining athleticism light up a World Cup?

APRIL 1986

April started with revelations of large-scale corruption in the Italian league, with 80 matches to be investigated and 12 twelve arrests having been made as authorities looked into match-fixing and bribery. Discovered accidentally during phone tapping of mafia leaders, the investigation uncovered notebooks going back three years, detailing deals to fix match outcomes. As the league’s most famous player, Maradona was mentioned – but not for participating, but as a victim. Maradona had got sent off in match against Udinese after being provoked by a player who had agreed to goad the Argentine into retaliation by repeatedly fouling him.[6]

The revelation did not come as a surprise: The Economist stated “Corruption in soccer is as Italian as fettucine”, largely stemming from the legal government lottery (totocalcio) and the illegal black market lottery (totonero), where both can carry large sums of money that encourage cheating. While Maradona was a victim, his club Napoli were not clean, and their participation led to demands for them to be relegated as punishment.[7] [8]

MAY 1986

"Maradona is confident that Argentina will fare better this time." Times, 22 May 1986By the beginning of May, it had been confirmed that Maradona would captain Argentina at the tournament, much to the disdain of Alberto Passarella. The fitness doubts remained, with pundits wondering if he would “break down” during the tournament.[9] Argentina’s arrival in Mexico City did not bode well. “Angry words and punches were exchanged between soccer officials and reporters”, which was blamed on a lack of media passes for press conferences. Maradona’s presence inadvertently added to the tumult when fans and reporters had to be pushed away from him by police.[10]

Argentina were not the only team with issues. Despite the high temperaments at arrival and the lingering fitness issues, Maradona was far from the biggest concern at the tournament. Brazil’s Leandro decided not to turn up; Kenny Dalglish pulled out of the Scotland team just before the rest of the squad flew out to Mexico; Russia manager Eduard Malofeyev was sacked a fortnight before the tournament was due to start, following the news that Iraq had sacked their manager the week before.[11]

In typically maverick fashion, Diego did not address the concern over his temperament in a convincing fashion. “I’m more mature now, but I haven’t changed as a player or a person” was both a reassuring and concerning response in an interview when discussing his actions in the previous World Cup. He also--some might say prophetically--dismissed England, despite his teammate Jorge Valdono being impressed with their pre-tournament performances.[12]

“Even on one leg he has the ability to shape the destiny of any game”.

Future England manager Terry Venables was a big fan of Maradona, despite their reported hostility. Maradona had left Venables’ Barcelona team shortly after the manager’s arrival, the press speculating that Maradona did not think Venables was good enough as a coach. Maradona had actually made the decision due to his financial circumstances, and the lure of a significant pay increase at Napoli that would better help him support his family. Venables believed Maradona was the best player in the world and summed him up brilliantly:  “He has all the qualities. Skill, flair, bewitching moves, exceptional power and strength…. He has a wonderful low centre of gravity and that makes him difficult to dispossess. He has that vital element of surprise, and to top it off he is a nice lad as well”.[14]

Attention was focusing on the two outstanding players at the tournament: Maradona and Michel Platini. Captains of Argentina and France respectively, widely regarded among the best players to ever come from their countries, both playing as attacking midfielders, both expert free kick takers, both playing their club football in Italy - there were many parallels and many differences between the two. The competition would establish which style of play was the best, best exemplified by their choice of cities in Italy:


“The precise, neat, calm city of Turin houses the technological efficiency of the Fiat factories. The atmosphere seems made for Platini, the master tactician and of modern soccer, who plays with the technical proficiency of a business manager, his passes exact, his runs and dribble sharp and effective, without flourishes or thrills.

Maradona is the emotional artist, his play swirling with the colourful, muscular rhythms of a Van Gogh. Small wonder that he has been taken so lovingly to heart by the passionate, chaotic, sun-drenched city of Naples…. Platini is the team player par excellence; Maradona is more an individual genius whose play is studded with sudden moments of sheer inventive brilliance”.


While some believed Maradona would steal the show, it was not unanimous: “If comparisons there must be, then it is perhaps Platini that emerges the stronger. The fact is that Platini’s teams win”. Pele did not favour the Argentine, stating that “For me, Platini is the best”; England manager Bobby Robson was on Diego’s side.[15]

On the eve of the tournament, former Argentina legend Ossie Ardiles believed Maradona would lead Argentina to great things, making a bold prediction in an interview with the Daily Mail: “If he shows his new-found maturity and the skill that has made him the world’s greatest footballer, then I believe Argentina will join Brazil, England and Italy in the semi-finals”.[16]

The tournament started well for Argentina. In the opening match, Maradona assisted all three goals in a 3-1 win over a good South Korean team.[17] The game passed without incident for Maradona, his knee did not seem to be hindering his abilities. He was respectful to a Korean team who had been quite physical with him, a tactic that had previously triggered Maradona’s aggressive side: “We were surprised the Koreans played so hard. All we knew about them was that they were fast. They have a lot of fighting spirit. It wasn’t easy”.[18]

In one of the biggest matches of the group stages, Argentina’s next opponents were World Cup holders Italy. Any doubts over Maradona at this tournament were quickly put to rest: Italy could not cope with him, his equaliser was a moment of technical excellence. In another physical match, for the second time, he kept a level head and led the team by example.[19] It seemed his claim of being more mature but retaining the magic was true. In the final group match, Maradona again showed his excellence, making a major contribution to both goals in a 2-0 win over Bulgaria despite having a quiet game.[20]

While Maradona remained calm on the pitch, concerns over fans started to grow. The prospect of England playing Argentina in the quarter-finals became a possibility, and the ongoing dispute over the Falkland Islands led authorities to believe the match would be used as a platform for politically motivated violence, and the Mexican police were prepared to act if necessary.[21]

That prospect became reality a few days later. England won their second-round match, and Argentina beat Uruguay to progress as well. “A game dominated by Maradona” ended in a 1-0 victory, in which “Uruguay appeared hypnotized by Maradona’s magic”. Maradona reaffirmed that the decision to make him captain was not a risk, with his manager Bilardo commenting after the match that “Maradona was a great example. He showed how to play a real team game”.[22]

Maradona’s influence on matches would be a significant problem for England. “It won’t be easy [to stop him]. Other teams have already tried everything…to no avail” was the assessment of England manager Bobby Robson leading up to the match. If he couldn’t think of a way to gain advantage on the pitch, then he could at least try gaining an advantage psychologically, attempting to prey on Argentina’s perceived reliance on their star player: “Let’s just stay that, without Maradona, Argentina would have no chance of winning the World Cup. That’s how great he is”.[23] [24] Focusing on the match, Maradona was confident of an Argentina victory despite a respectful assessment of how difficult England would be as opponents, playing the captain’s role perfectly.[25]

Jackson, John. "Tanks out for World Cup Clash." Daily Mirror, 20 June 1986In typically hyperbolic fashion, the Daily Mirror used the political undertones of the match to present it as an analogy to war. Despite using it for sensationalist headlines, the concern over politically motivated violence was legitimate, and the Mexican authorities took it seriously. “Tanks, armoured cars, soldiers and riot police” would be present outside the stadium, with “a further ring of baton-toting riot police with shields and teargas guns” around the pitch, and helicopters flying overhead. The main concern was “a clash between the Argentine Barras Bravas thugs, believed to be responsible for burning a Union Jack at a match last week, and the few National Front supporters who have slipped into Mexico”.[26]

Most of the players and managers avoided saying anything that may encourage violence and did their best to distance the match from politics and nationalism. While Argentina’s goalkeeper Nery Pumpido tried to use politics as motivation for an Argentine win, Maradona once again showed maturity and dignity in restoring some perspective: “It will only be a soccer game, and we are not going to resolve anything by putting the ball in the goal”, a point echoed by Carlos Bilardo and Bobby Robson in interviews. [27] [28] This perspective came in contrast to the tabloid newspapers of the British press, who were being criticised by other newspapers for encouraging nationalistic feelings and doubting the truth of Maradona’s statements.[29] Despite this, even the more balanced broadsheet newspapers could not resist drawing comparisons between the match and the Falklands conflicts.[30]

Bishop, Patrick, and Simon Freeman. "The Grudge Match." Sunday Times, 22 June 1986

The fears of violence turned out to be justified, as skirmishes broke out in the crowd throughout the match, and police intervention was necessary:


“Argentines…ripped up Union Jacks and attacked British fans with wooden staves. Armed riot police moved in quickly and using nightsticks separated the fighting fans. A Union Jack…was torn up. And another British flag was about to be set on fire when security men moved in. Most of the trouble came from the notorious Argentine supporters the Baras Bravas”.


The British fans were no better:


“The worst confrontation came late in the second half when the British fans taunted the Argentines…. Some Britons, shouting ‘The National front forever’, gave Nazi salutes…. England fans threw plastic cups at the Argentine players as they walked to the tunnel”.


Police had to seal off streets after the match, and it took all their resources to break up the many fights happening in and around the stadium. Thankfully it did not degrade into riots or large-scale violence, but neither set of fans came out of the match looking good.[31] Despite promoting the political agenda and fuelling the flames, it was ironic to see some the same newspapers criticising the behaviour of England fans after the match.[32]

Despite this, the match is not remembered for the sour taste left by the bad atmosphere – or at least it is not remembered for the sour taste left by the crowd violence. The match had two memorable Argentine goals, both of which are still famous, but for very different reasons.

Of course, Maradona scored both.

The second goal, described by Bobby Robson a “miracle”, has gone down in history as the World Cup's greatest goal, and possibly the whole of modern football. Ossie Ardiles described both the goal and Maradona as: “Unbelievable. He is just unbelievable. His goal was one of the best I have seen in my life – never mind in a World Cup Finals when the pressure is at its height”.[33] “That electrifying run of 50 yards or more past three England defenders and, finally, their master goalkeeper put an end to every Englishman’s World Cup dream”, does not do justice to the goal, that simply has to be seen.[34]

We are jumping ahead though. That was Argentina’s second goal, famous for its brilliance. The first goal, however, is famous for its controversy.

The tabloid newspapers were typically blunt, complaining that Maradona was able to “punch the ball into the net”,[35] describing it as a ‘cheat’ goal. It was “one of the biggest injustices in the competition’s history”, “a blatant act of cheating”. England manager Bobby Robson openly stated his belief that “Maradona handled the ball into the goal”, and Maradona himself described the goal as being scored “a little with the hand of Diego and a little with the head of Maradona”.[36] The vitriol (in England at least) was not helped by the fact it was broadcast on live television to millions of viewers, who could clearly see the handball.

Harris, Harry. "Diego the Con Man." Daily Mirror, 24 June 1986The goal went on to be known as the “Hand of God”, with public criticism divided between the cheating of Maradona and the perceived incompetence of the referee, Ali Bennaceur. Teammate Jorge Valdano publicly said Maradona felt bad about the goal, but Bennaceur was unflinching in his own defense: “I was the man on the spot….The referee is the man who must make up his own mind and stick by his decision”, despite the many protestations that the decision should have been different.[37] [38] While some blamed it on Maradona’s nature, some saw it as a prominent example of declining morality in professional sport, exemplifying that winning is more important than winning fairly.[39]

Views on Maradona were more divided than ever: to the English, he was a cheat, to the Argentines a hero – at least in the tabloids. The broadsheets were more measured and did not deter (as much) from the bigger story: Maradona cementing his place as one of the great football players of all time if he could perform in the remaining two matches of the tournament. If he could remain calm, and the Argentine team around him could maintain the tactical approach they had used so far, then Argentina would be the favourites for the World Cup.[40] Maradona, after all, could be mistaken for “an animated advertisement for a version of the game that is being played on another planet”, such was his talent.[41] [42]

In the semi-final against Belgium, Maradona would “establish himself as Latin America’s greatest footballer since Pele”, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win, part of an “immaculate display” that made Belgium look “inadequate”.[43] The kid from Buenos Aires, from a family too poor to afford to buy him a football, who played football because he had no TV to distract him, who became the youngest player to play in both the Argentinian league and International team due to his prodigious talent, had proved he was worthy of his place in the high estimation of many.[44] He received a standing ovation at the end of the match, playing so well that Belgium, by the end of the match, had resorted to fouling in an attempt to subdue him.[45]

Was the Hand of God delibrate?

Video (c) BBC Studios 2006. 

“That Diego Armando Maradona is the best footballer in the world is already beyond all reasonable doubt”.

If Argentina won the World Cup, and Maradona played an important role in the victory, many claimed he would overtake Pele as the greatest player of all time. He had already overtaken Johann Cruyff, Alfredo de Stefano, and many others in the opinion of many. His comparison to Michel Platini before the tournament had faded, he was clearly the superior player now. The new mature, composed, focused Maradona was a different prospect from the Maradona of the last World Cup, the petulant youngster who cost his team the tournament. Maradona:


“…no longer tries to win matches completely off his own bat and does not allow himself to be upset by the rough stuff. He makes chances for others, he encourages his team-mates as a good captain should and he walks away from trouble”.[46]


One question remained: could West Germany control him?[47]


Glanville, Brian. "The urchin expects his coronation." Sunday Times, 29 June 1986Two years before, West Germany beat Argentina 3-1 in a friendly, and Lothar Matthaeus had successfully prevented Maradona from influencing the game. The two would come face-to-face again in the final. The West German team was organised and knew how to keep Maradona quiet[48], but some thought that wouldn’t be enough. Maradona’s performances at this tournament were of such quality that he would be able to find a way through the Germans.[49]

Whether Maradona deserved to win the World Cup was a different question. His talent justified it, but did his methods? The British press, still raw from the Hand of God goal, begrudgingly acknowledged that he would win the World Cup, but not necessarily that he should. As an example for kids and other sportsmen, he was ambiguous at best; a footballer capable of the sublime but also representative of the increasing role of money and fame.[50]

In the end, it did not matter whether anyone thought he deserved it: Argentina beat West Germany 3-2, Maradona involved in all three goals. Although the Germans were relatively successful at limiting his impact, he cemented his position “among the most cerebral as well as phenomenal players of all time”, a match that Maradona himself said was his “greatest victory”.[51] [52] [53] [54]

JULY 1986

Maradona did not get much rest, playing in July in a charity match for UNICEF a few weeks after lifting the World Cup trophy.[55] [56] [57] After the tournament, praise for Maradona slowly gave way to criticism over the tournament and FIFA. Questions were raised over the choice of a cigarette company as the main sponsor, as well as the use of that money to increase the tournament to include 24 teams, suggesting that FIFA were less interested in football and more interested in monetizing the sport.[58] The criticism didn’t stay far away from Maradona though, as FIFA was further criticised for their continued denial that the Hand of God goal was unfair.[59]


The controversy of the Hand of God goal did not go away, and September saw it return to the news. He had to reiterate that he did not intentionally use his hand, even if he did acknowledge that his hand contributed.[59] This debate was quickly overshadowed by another story that appeared, as two women claimed to have had children fathered by him[60] [61] [62], which he denied.[63]

The following month, Maradona hit the news again after leaving his position with UNICEF as a result of the paternity claims.[64] [65] This impact of the story grew further when reports emerged Maradona threatened to leave Napoli, demanding they “give [him] a team to win the championship or I am leaving” – after he had missed the penalty that resulted in them being eliminated from the UEFA cup,[67] but also blaming the paternity scandal souring his reputation in Naples as factor.

Speculation rolled into November, with many clubs reported to have interest in buying him. Bayern Munich was mentioned, as were several English clubs after he stated his desire to play in England, “the most exciting league in the world”, after a positive experience playing a benefit match for Tottenham Hotspur the year before.[68] By mid-December, the speculation had developed further, with Maradona (still regularly referred to as the player who “punched home” the goal at the World Cup) stating he wanted to spend two years at Real Madrid before moving to England, with Tottenham proposed by the media as the most likely destination – though it was unlikely any English club would be able to afford his wages.[69]

While 1986 ended relatively quietly for Diego, his legacy is certainly complicated. It would be easy to sift through all of the stories of his eccentricity, his bad choices, addictions, health problems, and troubles of the later years of his life and career. Like many footballers from the era, the lifestyle of the rich and famous took its toll.

The British press have not changed much in sports journalism. The tabloids still show more interest in the celebrity and scandal than they do in the football itself. They can change national opinion on a team or player overnight, and any chance to do so they will take. The broadsheets continue to be more measured, but still cannot resist acknowledging the scandals, they get a lot of clicks and sales after all.

1986 was the perfect mix that epitomised Diego Maradona. It was a combination of sublime, mercurial performances played out in front of politics, personal dramas, and constantly changing opinions. The Hand of God is still, to this day, lamented by England fans. Some still see Maradona’s professional legacy as irrevocably tainted by that one goal, despite everything else he accomplished.

No one event defines the dualities of Maradona better than the infamous quarter-final against England. One of the most controversial goals in history rapidly followed by one of the best and most breath-taking goals in history, all played out in front of fans treating the match as an excuse to exercise nationalistic conflict, by a player constantly pressured with the perception of carrying his country.

With an injured knee, a divisive reputation, under the expectation of millions, he delivered against circumstances that could have overwhelmed many players. The once volatile 25-year-old calmly and professionally led his country to a World Cup, a display of maturity no-one expected from him. He performed to a level that put the personal and political in his shadow, which few sportspeople can achieve.


1986 was a year that showed Maradona at his best. The metro boards in Buenos Aires the day after the announcement of his death sum it up simply but wonderfully: “gracias Diego”.


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