On June 22, 1986 at a sweltering Estadio Azteca, Argentina beat England 2-1 to secure a place in the semi finals of the World Cup. As a football fan, no matter the nationality, you’ll have seen Argentina’s two goals countless times. They are arguably the two most legendary goals in the history of the sport and they were scored within four minutes of each other. Two moments that reflected the good and the evil of the great Diego Maradona.
But what is sometimes lost in the nostalgia is the politically charged background the famous game was played against. Just four years previously, Argentina and England had been at war over the Falkland Islands. The rhetoric between the two countries was still red hot. The build up to the game was dominated by notions of revenge, at least from the Argentine side.
At the time, Maradona bit his tongue, which was out of character for one of the most outspoken figures in the sport’s history. He downplayed the notion that Argentina’s players would be motivated to get one over their English rivals due to anything outside football. However, years later Maradona would go on to reveal his true depth of feeling.
“It was like beating a country, not a football team,” Maradona wrote in his 2010 autobiography. “Although we said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew that a lot of Argentine kids had died there, that they had mowed us down like little birds. This was our revenge, it was recovering a part of the Malvinas. We all said beforehand that we shouldn’t mix the two things but that was a lie. A lie! We didn’t think of anything except that, like hell it was going to be just another game.”
The Argentine players felt the effects of war more personally. Many of their team had not long completed military service which was required of young men at the time. Some even travelled to the Falklands as part of their service. That gave Maradona and his teammates an emotional edge.
There were scuffles in the stands between Argentine and English fans, with Boca Juniors hooligans travelling to Mexico City purely for a brawl. Four years earlier, things would have been even nastier. At the 1982 World Cup in Spain, The Argentinean team wore t-shirts in the build up to the tournament that read “Las Malvinas son Argentinas,’ meaning “The Falklands are Argentine.” The war, of course, was still raging while the 1982 World Cup was being played.
Nonetheless, there was enough geopolitical meaning attached to the game played in 1986. The story told back in Argentina of what had happened at the Azteca was very different from the one told in England. Maradona’s villainy and brilliance were the focus of hysteria for the England press, with the narrative around the Falklands a mere footnote. This wasn’t the case for the Argentineans, though.
The Albiceleste’s victory was taken as a symbolic one, one that is still spoken about to this day. The match is considered to be a part of the story told about the Falklands War. The impact of the war is still felt in Argentina. 655 Argentine soldiers were killed over the two month long conflict, with 258 Brits also losing their lives. This was a real war that still has reverberations 40 years on.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things the 1986 World Cup clash between Argentina and England did nothing to alter the political discourse over the Falklands at the time. Over time the war narrative has faded as Maradona’s brace continues to be played over and over again. The Hand of God and The Goal of the Century remain two of the most remarkable moments ever witnessed at a World Cup, the illustration of arguably the greatest player of all time. But to appreciate the gravity of what happened on June 22, 1986 it’s important to grasp all the contributing factors.
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Also published on Medium.