Barry Davies said it best. Four minutes after Diego Maradona had broken the deadlock by punching the ball into England’s net in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup, the Argentinian genius collected possession in his own half, dribbled past five opponents (including goalkeeper Peter Shilton) and gave his country a 2-0 lead which would prove unassailable.
“You have to say that’s magnificent,” BBC commentator Davies conceded grudgingly, perfectly capturing the mood of the millions back home who were still forcibly ejecting feathers having witnessed the Hand of God moments earlier. It remains the greatest goal the World Cup has ever seen.
Maradona’s starring role in Argentina’s triumph that summer guaranteed him legendary status, but he was already a global superstar before the tournament began. That wasn’t quite the case on his maiden appearance against England six years earlier, when the then-teenager almost scored a goal that, in terms of technical difficulty if not context, would arguably have been superior to his 1986 masterpiece.
Argentina’s visit to Wembley in May 1980 came a month before England’s opening game at the European Championship in Italy. Manager Ron Greenwood named a strong side featuring the talents of Kevin Keegan, Ray Clemence and Ray Wilkins, while his Argentinian counterpart, Cesar Luis Menotti, followed suit with starts for six members of the XI that began the victorious World Cup final two years earlier – plus Maradona.
The reigning South American Football of the Year was far from an unknown quantity on the other side of the Atlantic, but this was nevertheless the first time an English audience had the chance to watch him strut his stuff.
“Whatever happens, the crowd are likely to admire and maybe marvel at the precocious skills of the 19-year-old Diego Maradona,” Davies predicted before kick-off. He wasn’t wrong.
This was the future Barcelona and Napoli star’s 14th senior appearance for Argentina and came eight months after he’d helped his country claim the World Youth Championship in Japan. He was deployed in an advanced midfield role and afforded the license to roam around the Wembley pitch, with many of his early touches coming in Argentina’s own half.
England began the stronger of the two teams, Keegan and Tony Woodcock both going close in the opening exchanges, but the best early chance fell to Jose Daniel Valencia, who saw his first effort blocked and his second hit the post after being played through on goal by Maradona. It’s entirely possible that the sight of a team-mate – even a more experienced one who counted a World Cup winner’s medal among his possessions – spurning a clear-cut chance persuaded the Argentinos Juniors forward to go it alone the next time he received the ball in a promising position.
The visitors’ No.10 was his side’s most advanced player at the start of the move which ended with him narrowly missing the target. Jorge Olguin started things off by feeding a pass into the feet of Valencia on the halfway line; he in turn moved it on to Juan Barbas, who found Maradona after cutting inside and impudently nutmegging Ray Kennedy. When the ball fell under the teenager’s spell, there was nothing anyone else could do.
Even watching 38 years on, the speed of the run is frightening. Maradona had his back to goal when he collected possession 35 yards out, but after three quick touches he was suddenly facing the other way having left Phil Thompson and Kennedy trailing in his wake. He then burst past Kenny Sansom and Phil Neal as if they weren’t there – the latter resorted to a last-ditch lunge in a futile attempt to stop him – using his remarkable balance, footwork and imagination to carve out a golden opportunity to open the scoring. Centres of gravity don’t come lower.
The forward had done the hard part; all that was left to do was beat Clemence and celebrate one of the all-time great Wembley goals. The Liverpool custodian rushed out in an attempt to narrow the angle, just as Peter Shilton would do at the Estadio Azteca in 1986, but rather than adding the goalkeeper’s name to the ever-growing list of opponents he’d treated as training cones, Maradona opted to stab an early shot past him. The ball trickled inches wide of the far post.
“Maradona again… and he’s taking them all on!” shrieked Davies, positively feverish at the scene unfolding in front of his eyes. “And it’s gone wide! But what a marvellous example of this man’s ability. He picked up pace apparently from nowhere… well now you know that the publicity has not lied.”
It was, by his standards, a poor miss. Yet regardless of the final outcome, the fact remains that Maradona – for the first time in his career but certainly not the last – had slalomed through the Three Lions defence with unnerving ease, emphatically disproving the notion that it takes two to tango.
Argentina lost 3-1 that night, David Johnson’s brace and a goal from Keegan extending England’s unbeaten run to six games. For many, though, the key takeaway was the performance of Maradona, who made an indelible impression on all those who saw him up and close and personal. The 19-year-old was applauded off the field after swapping shirts with Keegan at the end of the game – and it wasn’t just the home fans who were left dazzled by his astonishing ability.
“I think it would be fair to say that he had a marginally better game than I did,” left-back Sansom, who felled Maradona to give away a second-half penalty, admitted. “He was so clever and amazing and did not make a single mistake.”
That wasn’t strictly true. Although there was no doubting the excellence of Maradona’s overall display, he was probably guilty of pulling the trigger half a second too early when one-on-one with Clemence in the 20th minute. That may sound hypercritical but the man himself acknowledged as much in his autobiography, while also confirming a sneaking suspicion harboured by several England supporters.
“What happened in London in May 1980 helped me, six years later, to score the best goal of my life,” Maradona wrote. “I dribbled past all of the England defenders at Wembley, but instead of dribbling past the goalie I tried to finish too soon… and it just missed the post.
“My little brother, El Turco, who was only seven years old, told me I’d make a mistake. In the World Cup in Mexico I remembered his advice.”