Footage from the 1986 World Cup shows Argentina’s star player Diego Maradona moving quickly towards the net. He handles the ball skillfully and dodges members of the England team. Maradona quickly taps the ball to a teammate, sprints forward and breaks away from England’s defence. His team-mate passes the ball back to him and Maradona throws himself into the air to head the ball into the net.
However, a closer look at the footage reveals that Maradona’s goal was not a header but a raised fist, in clear violation of the rules of football. The referees, ignoring this breach of the rules, allowed the goal to go through, much to the outrage of England’s opponents. The outcome of that game ensured Argentina would win the World Cup that year.
That infamous 1986 World Cup match between Argentina and England left its mark on history – and not just because of Maradona’s controversial ‘Hand of God’ goal. The 1986 World Cup was the first major duel between the two countries since the 1966 championship, in which the English team claimed victory. This match took place in England and was felt to be unfair to many Argentines. Her team struggled with language barriers: referees, for example, tried to dismiss the Argentina captain but he misunderstood their English. The situation speaks to continued marginalization in the world of football.
Above all, the 1986 duel was so significant because it reflected Argentina’s seething frustration with England after its imperial entanglements in the country. In fact, the game was an outlet for Argentina’s collective resentment at England’s abuse of power, particularly in the Falklands War. This controversial 1986 victory remains a significant source of pride for the country and all of Latin America – a testament to the lasting scars of imperial intervention in Argentina and the region beyond. This moment also shows how collective, cultural memories – like those of the 1986 World Cup in Latin America – are forged in moments of shared resilience and strength.
Away from the soccer field
The story of the 1986 World Cup between England and Argentina is not only about the relationship between the two countries, but also the role of sports diplomacy – the way sport can bring different peoples and nations together for better or for worse. Especially in Latin America, football is much more than a game. Following the development of football in the region provides a useful litmus test of the political and social state of Latin American society.
In a series of vignettes compiled into a history of football Football in sun and shade, author Eduardo Galeano examines how football has historically reflected the socio-political environment in which the sport is played. In a vignette titled “Creole Soccer,” Galeano highlights how the game has evolved from a British custom to something that “thrived in the slums” of Latin America. The sport itself became a “universal language”. After all, the democratization of football would allow a country like Argentina to face global superpowers like England at the World Cup.
Race was also an important factor in football’s past (and present). Originally a white sport, soccer soon became a ladder of upward mobility for some people of color. Galeano notes that in 1916 the Chilean delegation attempted to invalidate Uruguay’s victory on the grounds that Uruguay had two “Africans” on the team. The players in question were born and raised in Uruguay. They were also descendants of African slaves. The racial marginalization that black people encountered in society also manifested itself in the game of soccer.
Just eight years later, in 1924, Uruguayan José Leandro Andrade, a “black, South American and poor” player, became the “first international soccer idol”. While football reflects much of the marginalization seen in the real world, it has also offered hope and an opportunity to move up.
That’s all to say that football is indeed full of cultural and political significance. As such, the game in question remains historically significant, particularly as Argentina’s win over England was a show of strength against their political tyrant – cause for celebration both in Argentina and across Latin America.
Shaping the Moment: The Falklands War
The duel between England and Argentina, although four years after the end of the Falklands War, was certainly marked by residual ill feelings about the conflict. The war, which took place in 1982, began when Argentina sent its forces to the Falkland Islands to claim the territory. General Leopoldo Galtieri, in office at the time, did so in hopes of gaining popularity by claiming sovereignty over the islands. But this Argentine maneuver prompted a backlash almost immediately.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent her own forces 8,000 miles from England to these South Atlantic islands to challenge Argentine forces. That the English would mobilize 100 troop-carrying ships to defend such a distant small group of islands certainly raises questions. Most likely, Thatcher’s government acted to defend national pride and flaunt its military might.
The conflict resulting from these escalations soon became known as the Falklands War. The war claimed the lives of at least 20 English soldiers and 300 Argentines. It lasted 74 days and ended in an Argentine surrender.
The war was an extension of British imperialism at a time when the sun was finally setting on the British Empire. For Latin American countries, which have encountered imperialism and later neo-imperialism from European countries as well as the United States, Britain’s actions in the Falklands added insult to harm. It was this culture of resentment towards foreign imperial forces in Argentina that manifested itself on the soccer field at the 1986 World Cup.
In his memories Yo Soy El Diego, Maradona recalls: “Somehow we blamed the English players for everything that happened, for everything that the Argentine people suffered.” He explains: “The feeling was stronger than us: we defended our flag, the dead children, the survivors.” Maradona’s memoirs confirm that the story played out off the pitch influenced the game played on the pitch. Football was a way for the Argentina team to respond to the general tensions between their country and England, and an opportunity to bring pride back to their homeland.
Celebrate the win
The 1986 World Cup was many years away from the Falklands War. But these events certainly affected the atmosphere of the game. In fact, culture and sport are important vehicles for the social and political problems that plague relations between nations. These cultural moments offer insightful insights into historical memory and interstate narratives.
This game is ubiquitous in the cultural memories of Argentina and Latin America. Nevertheless, the tradition of “Maradona contra Inglaterra anotándote dos goles,‘ or ‘Maradona scores two goals against England’ remains ever present in the cultural consciousness through music and other media. Indeed, the game represents an empowering moment of collective redemption – an opportunity to demonstrate national strength, at least in a cultural sense. Football has long served as an outlet for this type of sports diplomacy. Already it offers an opportunity to restore national pride.