In Which We Learn God Is Left Handed
Sport. The great equalizer. The opiate of the mass of the massive masses. The physical activity causing millions of people to simultaneously sit and stare and eat and burp and have a heart attack.
Soccer. The sport known as football by the majority of the anatomically correct world (mon dieu, France). America already has a football and it’s named football. We call it this because the unspoken understanding is that punters and field goal kickers are the most important players.1
But soccer! But non-American football!2 An English invention, as much as “kick a bloated bladder” is an invention. But no! England was responsible for the spread of a consistent structure of rules. This is their most important export since tea and resistance to the crown.
It’s resistance to the crown that brings us to our current balderdash. In 1982 Argentina informally declared a casus belli by attacking the English on the Falkland Islands (nee Islas Malvinas), England’s second most important South American island.3 Argentina claimed ownership of the islands much in the way your older brother reclaimed all his action figures before he went off to college. Yes, you’d been enjoying them recently, but they were always his. Now imagine your brother was approximately 8,000 miles (nee 12,000 km) away and those toys were already in his room. You might acquiesce, despite your insistence that these toys were a decent place to vacation without meeting any French people. Then again, whatever. You’re bigger than he is and you’re best friends with the obese slow kid who loves guns and covert operations. So, fuck it, your pride is at stake. You’ve already let people die from hunger strikes and you need a pet project before you infiltrate and undermine an upcoming worker’s strike. As William Smith once said, “...where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic. You know while the other guy’s sleeping? I’m working. Fresh. You dig?” England, she dug.
Yet, winning wars is half of an important English ying-yang: military success against most of the world, sport success only against the Northern Irish. So sport was the appropriate place for Argentinian revenge when they met England in the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup. Plus, as a double beef, Argentine fans were still sore that their captain was sent off during a 1966 World Cup match between the two countries.
The ‘66 World Cup was hosted by England. During the match, a German ref pulled out a red card and sent off Argentina’s Steve Thomas.4 England won and there was peace in our time. The Argentinian team entered the 1986 match seeking a mere win, but the entire Argentine nation sought revenge - beautiful, flowing revenge. There was more than just football at stake, even if quite simply, only football was at stake.
For both nations the 1986 World Cup progressed with few surprises: Argentina won their group, while England played gentle imperialist and allowed Morocco to pip5 their own group. Then both teams shrugged off a South American opponent in the first knockout round, both playing their own unique brand of football.
England has some of the most complete players in the world, the problem being that “complete” is relative. While pace and dribbling and first touch are measures of any player, the complete English player also excels at industrial fragility and the ability to bottle a match out of tradition. In contrast, the complete German player exhibits traits such as ruthless efficiency and an unspeakable passion for nationalism.
Argentine football, much like Argentine democracy, was shaped quite differently than the English style. While English teams valued the brutal collective, Argentina valued the beautiful individual. English tactics were rigid and their top-down management dictated play, a 4-4-2 their prefered formation.6 Argentina required a flourish from their players. Hips a gog, emotion over education, there was no rigid formation. Players were welcome to move where they pleased. This style was not without issues. Twice during their first Cup match, players left the field to smoke a cigarette and read the newspaper.
England was led, as always, by pluck and gamesmanship, which, if you’re not English, means sharps elbows, booze laden headers, and a bunch of friendly chaps who wouldn’t think twice about kicking your head in during a bar fight. Their leading scorer was Gary “Location” Linker. Europeans and the English know Lineker as the hair-faced host of the weekly highlight show “Match Of The Day.” Every weekend the show features highlights of Premier League matches and always ends, like anything filmed in Newcastle, with a rotund alcoholic boxing a horse.
Nonetheless, if your idea of soccer is two groups of people bludgeoning each other with elbows and skulls in a torrent until mud stops the ball in the box and the quickest guy around manages to thunder it into the net then Gary Linker - well - then Gary Lineker. Lineker led the ‘86 World Cup in goals, winning the unwearable Golden Boot. After, he promptly signed for Barcelona and, playing in the Spanish Primera Division, scored 21 goals in one season. He is credited with introducing Spain to the headed goal.
Argentina’s best player was Diego Maradona, a wizard of a man who would never be confused with Gary Lineker unless Lineker picked up a coke problem, lost a foot of height, and spread a rare form of lockjaw throughout Italy. Maradona was entering his prime. He had the right height, a compact body, the nimblest feet, and the inner fire that is only acceptable when destroying people’s lives through sport.
Two teams, playing contrasting styles of football, led by contrasting superstars met on the greatest sporting stage the world. For once, or twice, or twenty, a let down would not be on the cards.
Preamble: It’s summer in Mexico City. The Estadio Azteca field sits in direct sunlight. The 1980s had a distinctly dismissive view of common sense. Importantly for Argentina, with any direct sunlight, the English were at a disadvantage. Sunglass had yet to reach the island nation and during the summer most English goalies wore a sponsored hat from Christys’ annual summer collection. But Christy’s was not a Fifa sponsor and, as such, their hats forbidden.
The teams enter the field. The English walking tall, a clear height advantage, each player’s brass knuckles glimmering (merely for show. Most players removed them before the match). Argentina enters sporadically. Three players carry musical instruments, one of them banging a drum. Maradona enters a minute later in a rush. He snorts twice and ties his shorts before blowing a kiss to a beautiful, blushing woman in the tunnel behind him.
As is tradition, both teams perform the blood oath and hail the FIFA President. There is a moment of panic when one of the headless chickens sprints across the field, but an Argentine midfielder boots it over the advertising boards into the eager crowd.
And we’re off!
7 min: England has a throw in. The ball is tossed into the Argentinian box, twelve feet clamor twelve shins before an Englishman boots the ball over the net, breaking a fan’s nose. “Not a shot to remember,” the announcer says. And I’ve said too much.
8 min: The ball is chipped to Maradona inside the English half. A touch off his chest, a flick over the foot of an arriving Englishman and he’s free on the right. Four Englishmen arriving, Maradona splits them with a cut inside until England’s Fenwick, diving in, drops him before he can wiggle by. Maradona’s ankle begins to build character. Fenwick spits in the grass and inquires about Maradona’s mother’s well being.
10 min: I’m not sure which team the announcer is praising here, but I assume the English names are the ones that sound like Medieval sex moves. “No, I’ll give you a Peter Beardsly. Now change your mask, drink this milk, and grab my ankles.”
I have no idea what happened on the field.
12 min: Beardsly chance! With expert pugilarity the English lump the ball from their own half to the Argentine box. The ball rifles off the grass much in the way a ball rifles. Argentina’s goalie slips in the box as he reaches for it, much as a reaching man slips in Mexico. Beardsly pounces much in the way he pounces: like a clubbed-footed ballerina. He picks up the loose ball and, with a pirouette and two teammates open in the box, he slams the ball into the side netting. Out of play. “What a great chance,” the announcer says like a sad father. You can hear a bottle being opened.
19 min: Play begins to slow. In games of this magnitude, the first 20 minutes are nervous energy. The next 25 everything settles and the announcers break out their Fun Facts book. As if on cue, a bird flies over the pitch and shits.
20 min: FUN FACT: Announcer: Beardsly said “We should attack with 10 and defend with 11.” The announcer doesn’t explain, but it was a ballsy new tactic at the time. For centuries goalies were expected to help score goals (hence the name: goalies). By the 80s, after decades of - admittedly pretty cool - smoking sponsors, the task became impossible. When Italy’s Rodrigo Polmonero died during a match in 1985 the tactic was banned. This led to the “box to box midfielder” and a new tactic: attack with 10, defend with 11. The evolution was too fast, however. In three years, teams were attacking with 11 men and defending with 12. Then 12 and 13. Then 13 and 14. Then Monica Seles was attacked and fans were banned from playing surfaces all over the world.
21 min: FUN FACT: Tournament odds: Argentina to win 4:1. England to win 9:2. France to win 2:1. FIFA chairmen to have sex with underage men and women at their post tournament orgy 1:3.
22 min: An Englishman is ruled offside when he was clearly on.
FUN FACT: Announcer: “Referees from the third world have been given their chance.” A smirk is audible. Audible.
29 min: Maradona does a back heel. It is what is it. A small plumbing company in Brighton wins 50 pounds for putting a joke bet on “First Back Heel At 29 MIN” with their local bookie.
31 min: The crowd, restless. Their
hands wave. The world never thought
of this before now.
FUN FACT: “Not the best of waves,” says the announcer.
Double FUN FACT: The English call the “wave” the “Mexican wave,” completely disregarding the Wikhistory of the “wave.” You should have salted the ground around the White House when you had the chance, you grudgey bastards.
32 min: Our first replay. A dull yellow ‘R’ is overlayed on the top left corner of the screen so viewers will not get agitated from deja vu and start jumping out their windows. The replay is a shot for shot copy of the previous movement. I can’t remember what it was.
35 min: Uncompromising action! Corner to Argentina. Maradona moves to swing it in from the right. Can’t. There’s 30 fucking photographers in the way. As with some godly power, he moves them with the wave of his hand. But he assumes too much power when he pushes over the corner pole, its flag detaching. “No” says the referee’s assistant. “But the kick.” “No.” “But -” “No.” The schoolboy disciplined, Maradona resets the pole. “No.” “The flag too?” “Yes.” The schoolboy embarrassed, Maradona tosses the flag atop the pole. “No.” “Now what?” “Like you found it.” Maradona slips the flag over the pole. The crowd murmurs. Maradona pulls it tight. The crowd cheers. The young man soaking in the moment, Maradona shrugs his shoulders. Their dance over, he and the assistant share a smile. All of the photographers were cleaning their lenses. No one captures the moment.
Nothing results from the corner. Nothing in play, that is. The referee’s assistant eagerly awaits his book deal or a handjob from a lazy starfucker.
40 min: Off the ball, Maradona is hit in the mouth as he charges into the English box. He falls like a man hit in the face while running. Replays clearly show an English defender swinging an arm behind himself, striking Maradona. Announcer: “You can’t foul a man who is behind you,” illustrating a good knowledge of unwritten rules which don’t exist.
45 min: English shenanigans! A backheel flick to a chip to an offside call. “Coming from England, of all countries,” chuffs the sad father. The offside was surely planned as well. You can’t win a match with a flourish, says the country that gave the world David Bowie.
The teams leave the field, except for the Argentine substitutes who begin an improvised dance routine for halftime entertainment; for their entertainment or the fan’s, we’ll never know.
Fifteen minutes later both teams are back.
Maradona stands at half field. He juggles the ball, again, again, again, it cushioning off his boot, mocking England’s buckled shoes with every arc. All too easy. A dove is released over the pitch and an Argentine defender shoots it out of the sky. He holsters his gun and tosses the bird to the cheering crowd before play resumes.
50 min: “The wide men have found little space in this contest.” Wide men everywhere nod in understanding.
51 min: England lump the ball forward, taking the piss out of the game, or the shit, I’m not sure. The ball pings off a couple heads before falling to Argentina’s right back. He moves the ball to midfield. England slowly retreats, but they’re stretched and there’s acres of space.
The ball moves to Maradona, now on the left of midfield. He looks up as he rolls forward, an Englishman to his left, an Englishman in front of him, a barfight about to begin. Maradona dribbling still, nonchalant until the defender is, then a burst of pace. Left foot, right foot, past. His shirtcollar out of their reach, and ten yards of space opening in front of him.
In anticipation, the Argentine bench puts down their porno magazines and ruler. The air has changed. Their manager grabs a tuba.
Seemingly the only man with cleats, Maradona keeps rolling. To his right an Englishman moves to close the gap. Maradona darts diagonally, cutting off the closing man and skipping past an open mouthed defender on his left.
Now he reaches the wall of center backs. He lays off to a teammate at the top of the box and keeps running. The ball hops off the teammate’s foot. English midfielder, “Smooth” Steve Hodge, covering in the box, thrusts a leg out to boot it clear.
His bottles the booting, the ball arcing into the center of the box. Maradona’s ducked through the line of center backs. Now he and ‘keeper Shilton are the only actors with a play. They jump together. Maradona’s proximity makes up for his lack of height. His hands rise with him and … *dink* the ball hops off his head and over Shilton.
Everyone pauses for a moment as they process the bouncing ball.
A tuba cries.
Then chaos; Englishmen raising their arms and shouting intelligible rhyming phrases, meanings sometimes three to four layers deep, going through every phrase in the book, each player with a swear book out, almost chanting in unison “ [something] [something] bellend runt, [something] [something] tosser [rhymes with runt]”.
And still Maradona is moving, now towards the sidelines. He jumps and punches the air like he’s done it before. The schoolboy waves all his teammates over like he’s snuck a frog into class. They sit in a circle and pass around a cigarette, patting each other on the back and singing a rowdy song which Todos Tus Muertos would later cover and reach number one on the Argentine Billboard Punk Charts.7
And still the Englishmen complain and moan. The announcer now wondering as well. Now something’s wrong. Time jumps backwards. My head is spinning before I finally spot the faded ‘R’ overlaid in the top left corner. Maradona and Shilton are jumping again, this angle clearer. Maradona’s left fist raised - did it - I think it may have - yes, it must have knocked the ball over Shilton. There. Almost perfectly hidden. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The man is unstoppable.
53 min: England respond by kicking the ball harder. “Positive actions and running forward,” the announcer, English, natural underdog, buoyed by newfound belief.
56 min: The greatest goal in World Cup history.
58 min: England respond by kicking themselves harder.
68 min: Again trying to confirm Maradona’s handball, the announcer introduces “... pictures from our own special cameras,” but they cut away as soon as we see Jimmy Savile.
Oh, right, the greatest goal in World Cup history. In the 56th minute Maradona accepts a pass 15 yards in his own half. 67 yards from goal. With his first touch he evades a tackle and hops back to his right. With his second touch he pirouettes away from a second tackle and into open field. 70 yards from goal. A burst of acceleration and he leaves three men behind him, the ball a yo-yo from his foot. 50 yards from goal. The only player running downhill, left foot with every touch, he darts to his left and slaloms a newly jockless Englishman. 30 yards. A center back steps up, but momentum is against him. Maradona ends his diagonal at the back’s feet. With a burst straight ahead he’s past the back and now he’s in the box. 20 yards. One on one with Shilton, he opens his hips to shoot. Shilton dives, a dummy, and Maradona dribbles past the prone keeper. 2 yards. He rolls the ball into the net as he’s dragged to the ground.
The first goal a test of his powers, the second a showcase.
In the distance, a tuba orgasms.
Two nil. That was all Argentina needed. Location Lineker would bring England back within one in the 80th minute, but there were no more goals to be had. Three days later Argentina would beat Belgium and by week’s end they were World Cup Champions, besting Germany in the finals. But it was against England that God made his presence known. And, as God often does, he spoke with a fist.
1. For another example, see baseball which would be nothing without bases.RETURN
2. I will be using English phrases for this piece. For example: Pitch = field. Draw = tie. Douchebag = a literal bag of douches. And Yank = contemporary Puritan.RETURN
3. The most important English South American island is quite obviously the South Sandwich Islands. I’ll cover this topic in part four of my erotic non-fiction series “Ernest Shackleton: The Trunk OF Elephant Island”.RETURN
4. It was later discovered that Steve Thomas was actually a CIA agent who had infiltrated the team. That he was named Captain is a reflection of his covert abilities.RETURN
5. “Pip” is the bourgeoisie term. Plebes naturally prefer the phrase “Peddle and Crank”.RETURN
6. It consisted of 4 “brain boxers” in the back, 4 “knee knockers” in the middle, and 2 horse legged punching bags up front.RETURN
7. Group celebrations were banned by FIFA in 1987 in response to Liverpool’s Ian Rush inviting his wife on the pitch to give birth after his third goal against SV Brandenburg Gate. (Rush would leave for Italy at the end of the 1986 season when he discovered that the child in question actually belonged to teammate John Aldridge. Rush returned to Liverpool in 1988 when he accepted his wife’s excuse that the night in question was a particularly dark night).RETURN