By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (July 20, 2006) — Whether you are inclined to emphasize the first goal Diego Maradona scored against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal — the one he described as the Hand of God — or the second — when he picked up the ball in his own half and sailed through the better part of the English defense — speaks to a basic view about the nature and purpose of sports.
The way in which sports evolved in Great Britain, and subsequently in the English-speaking world more generally, is quite at odds with the rest of the world. At the beginning of the 19th century, British schools, such as Eton and Harrow, made a conscious decision to use sports as a tool to civilize students and cultivate proper behavior. As Allen Guttmann explains in his book Sports Spectators, “It must be emphasized that athletic prowess was defended on moral grounds. It was, and still is, argued that athletic self-disciple and self-sacrifice (for the team, for the school) prepares one for a life of leadership.”
The ideal was very straightforward: an athlete was supposed to play strenuously but fairly, learn the value of practice and teamwork, and act humbly if they won and keep a stiff upper lip if they lost. In sum, schools started to emphasize sports because they decided it “built character and that Christian athletes were splendid role models.”
What’s more or less missing from this school of thought is the idea that sports are supposed to be fun. In fact, a good case can be made that these schools used sports to purge playfulness from children. They were taught to obey the rules, restrict themselves to specific positions, and to be pragmatic. Being skillful or creative was still valued, but only if it could be wed to achieving a result rather than because of the intrinsic satisfaction it afforded the participants. Finally, it’s important to note this model promoted the view that sports is mock warfare, which places an emphasis on tactics and planning and strictly punishes any individual who does not sacrifice himself for the collective good. Hence, the famous expression, “the battles of Britain were won on the playing fields of Eton.”
To be sure, there have been English critics. Rodney Marsh, one of many creative talents who was all but ignored by England selectors, once complained that, “In England, soccer is a gray game played by gray people on gray days.” But comments like his have largely fallen on deaf ears. What matters most, so long as you play honestly, is getting the result, and there is a deep seeded view that charismatic types cannot be trusted. Sir Alf Ramsey, who managed the triumphant ’66 World Cup side, turned this skepticism into an article of faith. As one peer put it, “To Alf’s way of thinking, skill meant lazy,” and thus he saw little point in investing in players who could only display their wares in flashes.
In his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper argues that the English are especially given to seeing soccer as a form of warfare. Consider, for example, the way in which former England manager Bobby Robson complimented the best English midfielder in the 1980s, Bryan Robson: “You could put him any trench and know he’s be the first over the top … he wouldn’t think, well, Christ, if I put my head up there, it might get shot off. He’d say, C’mon, over the top.”
Like any good soldier, players are also taught not to questions a manager’s tactics. As Kuper put it, “The British game has a code of honor. If a player comments on tactics, ‘he’s bringing the game into disrepute’. If he quarrels with his manager, he is transferred.”
By contrast, when Bobby Robson was managing in Holland, he was flabbergasted that players and press expected him to discuss tactics with them. “An English pro accepts the manager’s decision. After every match here, the substitutes come and visit me.” The journalists “all think they are little coaches. It took me a while to adjust.”
Before the Argentina match, Robson, who was then the English manager felt confident that his side could come to terms with Maradona without man-marking him. “The nearest man goes to Maradona, kills him, and if he doesn’t, the next one does, simple as that.” As he later noted in his dairy, “We would crowd him, push him across the field. We would keep our back four in position, not lose our shape and not dive in.” His plan, as he conceded, worked to perfection, but it just was not good enough. “There was no lack of discipline on our part, no errors, just the genius of one player who went through half our team, to score the best goal of the competition.”
This was the genius of a player who had been encouraged to invent the game, not just a good soldier who followed orders.
Put all this together and it is not hard to understand why the English are still so bitter about the match against Argentina. The problem is not just that the first goal violated their deeply embedded sense of fair play. That’s just a rationalization, or at least too simple an explanation. You might be able to claim that English players are above using their hands to score goals, or that they would never dive, but as Gary Lineker acknowledged in a recent interview with Maradona, some of his teammates did indeed try to deliberately foul Maradona. Rather, the second goal proved that one individual could transcend their best collective efforts. It was easier to condemn Maradona for the first goal than acknowledge that the second had laid waste to the way they play the sport and all the lessons learned on the schoolyards of Eton.
This point is well illustrated by English writer Brian Glanville’s description of the goal.
“The second was astounding, a goal so unusual, almost romantic, that it might have been scored by some schoolboy hero, or some remote Corinthian, from the days when dribbling was the vogue. It hardly belonged to a period so apparently rational and rationalized and era as ours, to a period when the dribbler seemed almost as extinct as the pterodactyl.”
Maradona proved that soccer can be art, or at least playful, and that, at its best, it has little or nothing to with war. Will the English ever learn this lesson? Probably not. Brazil captured everyone’s imagination, even England’s, by how they won the ’70 World Cup, but, as Nick Hornby explained in Fever Pitch, their stylish performance had little or no influence on the English game. “It wasn’t just the quality of the football, though; it was the way they regarded ingenious and outrageous embellishments as though it were as necessary as corner kick or throw in . . . They had revealed a kind of Platonic ideal . . ., but we couldn’t get close, and we gave up.”
The Argentineans, as we shall see, view Maradona’s goals quite differently.