My earliest World Cup memory is from Mexico ‘86, a competition that pre-dates the gentrification of football. This is not to paint myself as a vintage football devotee bemoaning the moment soccer went mainstream, it’s only to say that the the event feels very simple and uncontrived in the memory when compared to my fully-formed recollections of later tournaments.
This was football before Fever Pitch, before Gazza’s tears in Turin, before the days of dedicated sports supplements and extended pre-match montages. I wouldn’t have known the tournament was taking place had I not been on a family holiday in Corfu – my parents weren’t interested in the World Cup and it was only the commotion I picked up from the other English people staying in our hotel that told me that something of significance was happening in central America.
I didn’t watch any of the matches in the early stages, but it was easy to intuit that things weren’t going well for England. The back page of a British tabloid draped over a sun lounger confirmed they had drawn their second game against Morocco (they had lost 1-0 to Portugal in their opening match) and that captain Bryan Robson had dislocated his shoulder in the tie – the photo that ran alongside the story showed the England captain leaving the field mournfully cradling his arm.
But towards the end of the holiday, the side appeared to be turning things around. I quietly slipped into the hotel bar one afternoon to watch the highlights of the final group game against Poland, in which Gary Lineker announced himself to the world with a hat-trick. Two more goals in the round-of-16 match against Paraguay qualified the team for a quarter-final against Argentina.
By the time we landed back in Britain I was caught up in the resurgence of the team and its new goal-scorer – that Lineker had scored his five goals wearing a plaster cast on his arm only added to the appeal.
My Dad acquiesced when my brother and I asked to watch the BBC coverage of the Argentina game from the Azteca stadium in Mexico City.
The events of the quarter-final have become so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to distinguish my memories of the match from the ones that have developed in the popular psyche. I can certainly remember being struck with how oppressively hot the conditions in the stadium appeared on TV and how vivid the white shirts and sky-blue shorts of the England players appeared against the mottled green grass of the pitch. I can also remember being preoccupied with the way an overhead gantry or PA system cast a spider-shaped shadow over the centre circle.
Maradona scored two of the most significant goals in football folklore that day, but it was only later that I appreciated his second. I was too swept up in the injustice of the first goal and too one-eyed a fan at the age of nine to fully appreciate his career-defining dribble past most of the England team.
I remember tormenting my Dad with questions as it dawned on everyone apart from the referee that he had used his hand to dink the ball over Peter Shilton for the first goal. “Aren’t they going to cancel it? Why don’t they show the referee the replay?”
The ‘goal’ taught me that the referee’s decision was final, while Maradona’s reaction taught me my first lesson in gamesmanship: he was totally unabashed in his celebrations and then led his teammates in a retreat to the half-way line to minimise the chance the referee might change his mind.
It took me a long time to get over the injustice. The day after, I still imagined that the footballing authorities would come to their senses and decide to replay the match. But Maradona’s felony didn’t make me less inclined to follow the rest of the World Cup. I’m not ashamed to admit I watched the semi-final and final hoping Argentina would get knocked out. In Argentina the reverse was reported to be true: fans appreciated Maradona and his first goal even more because he had cheated and because he had succeeded in imposing his will on opponents who seemed so intent on hacking him down.
Now we approach the first World Cup where Video Assistant Referees will be used to prevent exactly this type of injustice. But every story needs a good guy and a villain, and by smoothing out the rough decisions Fifa might actually risk diluting some of the intrigue that attends the sport. Maradona may have disappointed a nine-year-old boy, but he also hooked him on the theatre of knockout football for life.