Diego Maradona coaching Argentina at the 2010 World Cup. (Valeria Witters/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports)
Michael Lewis did not only witness Diego Maradona’s 1986 Hand of God goal at Azteca, he also was in attendance for all three England-Argentina World Cup confrontations – in 1998 and 2002.
By Michael Lewis
At first, the news was stunning.
Then, when you start digesting it, it is not surprising.
Diego Maradona died today, Wednesday, Nov. 25, due to a heart attack. Given his drug problems as a player and subsequent health problems, sometimes I wondered how he lived so long.
I had the honor of watching him play in person at two World Cups and yes I had the honor of watching the great Maradona score that famous Hand of God goal at Mexico 86 and then mind-boggling run through the England team to give Argentina a 2-0 victory at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City that day, one of a handful of American journalists who attended the 1986 World Cup.
After all, why would anyone have covered the World Cup outside of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune and some other newspapers? The United States hadn’t participated in a World Cup for 36 years and the idea of playing in such an event was, well, foreign, to this country.
I covered the cup for Soccer America.
Let’s set the stage just a bit.
England and Argentina played for the first time since the Falkland Wars, which was a battle between the two countries over several islands east of Argentina in 1982.
There were banners all over the stadium, including ones claiming the Argentine attack was powered by Exocet Missiles (those French-built weapons were used by Argentina in the conflict).
Maradona, however, made certain no one would remember what transpired four years’ prior in a 2–1 victory.
Six minutes into the second half, Maradona had tried to play the ball into the penalty area, but English midfielder Steve Hodge out battled the Argentine for the ball and lifted a back pass to goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Maradona and the keeper arrived at the same time and the Argentine knocked the ball into the net with his left hand. Despite protests by the English, referee Ali Bennaceur of Tunisia pointed to the center spot.
Maradona later claimed “the hand of God” scored that goal.
As if to make amends, Maradona embarked on an amazing journey four minutes later. He took possession of the ball 10 yards into Argentine territory. He performed a 180-degree turn that left Peter Reid and Peter Beardsley standing in their tracks. He then raced down the right side into English territory past Ray Wilkins. Terry Fenwick tried to pull him down at the top of the penalty area, but Maradona shrugged him off. Shilton came out of the goal, committed himself and fell to the turf, eight yards out. Terry Butcher tried a last-ditch effort with a sliding tackle under Maradona, who pushed the ball into the unattended net.
Total time: ten seconds. Number of touches: nine.
Even Maradona’s opponents were astonished by the performance.
“Today he scored one of the most brilliant goals you’ll ever see,” England coach Bobby Robson said. “That first goal was dubious, the second goal a miracle. It was a fantastic goal. It’s marvelous for football that every now and then the world produces a player like Maradona. I didn’t like his second goal, but I did admire it.”
Let’s put 1986 into perspective.
Some journalists had to send their stories back to their respective publications via Zap Mail, essentially a fax device. I was one of them.
The American contingent, all 10 of us, sat together. The press box was, well, less than spartan and seemed to be miles away from the action somewhere near the top of the stadium. We sat on concrete (OK, time to insert a stone-age joke in here, folks) and there were no desks, at least not for us gringos. Thank heavens most, if not all of the games, were not on any sort of deadline.
Heck, there was no wireless or internet to do fast research or a TV to watch the replay. To do so, we had to wait until after the game and press conferences. I gave up my press credential for a tape of the match and we huddled around a TV until we got to the right times of the goals.
I forget how many times we replayed both goals. Ten? Twenty? Ah, it didn’t matter as long a we got the details we needed.
An interesting aside: when Maradona batted the ball into the net, I exclaimed, “It’s a hand ball!”
I looked at the linesman (that’s what assistant referees were called in those days) waited for some sort of reaction, but nothing at all. He never had his flag out. I was astonished.
I have a unique perspective with Argentina-England battles in the World Cup because I had been fortunate to attend all three confrontations.
In the next Argentina-England confrontation in 1998, that encounter had a legendary feel early on as 18-year-old Michael Owen did his best imitation of Maradona by weaving in and out of the Argentine team during an incredible 45-yard jaunt and a goal in the 16th minute. The Argentines equalized 38 seconds into first-half stoppage time on a brilliant free-kick play.
The game turned for the worst for England when Beckham was red-carded for a retaliatory foul on Diego Simeone two minutes into the second half. Simeone eventually admitted later he was acting, but that was way too late. The English, who were playing well, were forced to play the final 73 minutes of the match (which included 30 minutes of extratime) with a man disadvantage. They were eliminated via a penalty-kick shootout, 4-3, after playing to a 2-2 draw.
“We are absolutely distraught,” England coach Glenn Hoddle said at the time. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow. The sending off cost us the match. I am not afraid to say that.”
Beckham, incidentally, returned home in disgrace and in shame. Red Spice, he was nicknamed by some of us (his wife Victoria is/was Posh Spice of the Spice Girls).
Then came the third clash of the titans in the Sapporo Dome in Sapporo, Japan in 2002. This encounter could be called Beckham’s revenge as he converted a penalty kick for the lone goal in a 1-0 England victory. That goal was set up by our old pal, Owen, who was brought down in the penalty area by Mauricio Ponchettino.
Beckham then fired one home with his right foot past goalkeeper Pablo Cavellero. Becks, by the way, kissed his jersey in celebration after that goal.
It was during the post-game media session in the dreaded mixed zone where I was introduced to Beckham-mania or Beckham bedlam, media style. I got to know a BBC radio reporter who was so respected by the England Football Association communications department that they brought every important player to him. I asked him if I could stand next to him and stick my microphone out and I would let him ask all the questions. He had no problems with that.
So, we camped out together. Then the players went through. And then the King made his entrance through the door and was brought to where my friend was. Great, some fresh Beckham quotes.
But there was one slight problem. All of Sapporo wanted some precious words of wisdom from Becks as well. So the media entourage converged on us.
Now, let me tell you about the mixed zone. What separates the players from the hordes of media is a wooden barrier. It seemed solid, but there was a crush of dozens of media. Our weight was so great that it started to bend (honest, no Beckham jokes here). I couldn’t move as I had my arm straight in the air with my tape recorder at the ready. During the interview, it looked like we were going to topple on and kill the man of the match. Fortunately, a bunch of Japanese security personnel saw what was transpiring, rushed to the scene and got on their hands and knees to keep the barrier propped up.
So, what exactly did Becks say?
“It is unbelievable,” he said. “It has been four years. It has been a long four years. It has been up and down, but this has topped it all off.”
One other thing I remember from that 2002 clash: they ran out of food for the media. I managed to buy a rice ball and some bread, which I brought back to my room after I wrote my story for the New York Daily News. A sushi restaurant was open for breakfast at the airport the next day and I had uncooked fish for my morning meal. Hey, I was hungry, and I figured since I was 12 or 13 hours from New York, I figured my stomach would think it was dinner time.
And oh yeah, it was good sushi.
In 1986, we weren’t worrying about sushi that sunny, beautiful June day at Azteca. We just wanted to make sure we reported both of Maradona’s goals correctly, scores that displayed his absolute cunning and brilliance.