When asked at a meeting with newspersons in Kolkata on December 7, 2008, which was the best goal he had scored ever, Diego Maradona said the “Hand of God goal”. Probably he had said it rather jokingly (one would never know for certain), but not all the newspersons present there seemed to have taken it that way. In any case, this is one of the two goals that have become part of football legend, the other being the one he scored minutes after this goal. The first one was ugly, and the second, sublime. But it is in the discourse of football where the ugly goal scored over the sublime one; football literatureacquired the phrase “hand of God goal”. In fact, almost fittingly, Maradona is the one responsible for the phrase too, not just the goal – he described it as a goal that was scored “a little with the head of Maradonaand a little with the hand of God”. The phrase has acquired the status of a proper noun.Sincethe great man’s, some hand goals have been scored by highly celebrated footballers but the phrase will not refer to any otherhand goal than Maradona’s.
Five World Cups after, in 2010, Luis Suarez used the phrase “hand of God” to describe his goal-line save against Ghana in his country Uruguay’s quarter-final match against Ghana. His act was “deplorable”, if you were a Ghanian or “smart and memorable”, if you were a Uruguayan.That save, which he called “the save of the tournament” broke the heart of Ghanaians and took Uruguay into the semi-finals.The match was into extra time and was tied at 1-1, when Suarez used his hand to stop Dominic Adiyaih’s goal-directed shot on the goal line. His effort earned him a straight red card and took the match into penalty shoot-out, which Uruguay won 4-2. He had to watch it from the stand. “The Hand of God now belongs to me. Mine is the real Hand of God”, Suarez told “The Guardian”the very next day (July 3, 2010). I wish he had said “Mine is the Hand of God Save”. That would have been more accurate and would have saved his phrase from unnecessary competition with the original phrase. Both phrases might have survived: “hand of God goal” and “hand of God Save”.
Back to Maradona, I think not many would have cared to remember the first goal if he hadn’t scored within minutes that absolutely unbelievable second goal, which has been voted as the first best goal of the century. Some of a rather romantic temperament even said he made amends with this goal. He scored a good goal in the semi-final, but didn’t score in the final of that World Cup, which Argentina won under his captainship. However, had he not scored that great goal, and someone else had scored the team’s second goal, taking Argentina to the semi-final, the “no-goal goal” would have been forgotten amidst the victory celebrations of the World Cup. Who would have really worried about one illegitimate goal of the World Cup winning team, except of course the team that had lost! Even now, more than three decades after the incident, there is at least one player of that English team, who is still bitter about that goal and has not forgiven Maradona.
We might like to see the “hand of God” goal in a different context. Just four years before they played that World Cup quarterfinal match, Argentina had suffered humiliation in the hands of England in the Falklands War, and the nation was deeply hurt – some say it still is; it sees UK as having occupied the islands that actually belong to it. Against this background, the football field had become an extension of the battlefield, and the match, an opportunity for Argentina to redeem some honour. After 50 minutes of play when Maradona scored with his hand, and the goal was allowed, it was the turning point in that match. With that goal, England sank, as of course did the referee. About him, soon. Before England could recover from the frustration, helpless anger, and distress, Maradona scored his second. One cannot help feeling that the dazzle of that legendary goal was due in part to the psychological state of the English players at that stage. England recovered late and the brilliant Lineker scored and reduced the margin of defeat. It was actually with that “hand of God” goal that Maradona had sealed England’s fate. Many would surely not agree with Maradona that his hand goal was the best goal he had ever scored, but make no mistake about it, it was certainly the most impactful goal he ever scored.
As for the referee, Ali Bin Nasser, the Tunisian, he never again supervised a match in the World Cup finals. He might have been disappointed. If FIFA blacklisted him (what conclusion other than this could one reasonably draw?) on account of that goal, I think it was patently unfair. Before awarding the goal, the referee had consulted the linesman, who was best placed to see what had happened, there having been no VAR those days, and he had advised him that there was nothing wrong with the goal. It was a genuine human error and such errors should be and were indeed condoned.
Recently, reminiscing about that match, Ali Bin Nasser said that he had a role in the goal of the century and felt “proud” and “honoured” on that account. As Maradona was advancing towards England’s box, three English players had fouled him in trying to stop him. Nasser did not blow the whistle, which he could have, for any of these fouls. He watched with admiration Maradona artfully dodging these players as he was advancing, ready to blow the whistle at the next infringement. Had he blown the whistle, the goal of the century would not have happened. In 2015, when Maradona met Nasser at his home, he told him that if it had not been for him, he would not have been able to score that goal of the century. That was the Maradona, some may not know!
To close our story, let’s think of Peter Shilton, England’s goal- keeper in that match. He never forgot that goal; he never forgave Maradona. Quite understandable, for obvious reasons. That apart, at the World stage, nationalistic sentiments often prevail. The players on the field are affected by it, as are the spectators on the stand and in front of TV sets. Shilton commended Maradona for his football but denounced him as one who lacked the sportsman spirit. He said so as he talked about him after his death. That was a bit too much for Paul Gascoigne, a celebrated midfielder of England in the nineteen nineties. He put him in his place, saying, “That goal made Peter Shilton anyway” – a virtual nobody at the international level, despite being an accomplished goal-keeper, he became widely known only after that goal. Wasn’t that something, Shilton?
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)