why the English can’t let go of the Hand of God and Latin Americans love it

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Matthew Brown, Professor of Latin American History at the University of Bristol, is the author of this article which was originally published in The Conversation, an independent source of news and opinions from the academic and research community.


The death of the best player in the history of associative football, Diego Armando Maradona, November 25 produced a torrent of pain and nostalgia around the world. He was such an important figure in his native Argentina that the president declared three days of mourning.

English Conversation About Sports
English Conversation About Sports

In England, although many have praised his skill and achievements, his death has provided an opportunity to unearth the old hoax about the Goal of the Hand of God at the 1986 World Cup, which involved Maradona’s fist essentially hitting the ball into England’s goal. For some, even in death, Maradona was still the deceive who could not be forgiven. Yet it was precisely his refusal to acknowledge the presumed superiority of the English stirring before him that brought joy to millions of people around the world.

The inability of a few in England to advance from that goal speaks to the historical processes that underpin Britain’s relationship with Latin America, which in my research I have characterized as a combination of “culture, capital and commerce that formed an informal empire” from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.

Football as war

The problem is that “football was created in England, but it was perfected in South America”, as historian Brenda Elsey has written.

We saw this when Peru Teófilo Cubillas played the Scottish dreams in 1978 and in Maradona’s performance in 1986. Then there was the Brazilian Ronaldinho’s Lob that left English goalkeeper David Seaman questioning gravity and the universe itself at the 2002 World Cup. Britain’s relations with South America have been defined more by football than anything else.

The goal of the Hand of God and “Goal of the century, ”What came minutes later in the same game, brought joy and spiritual elevation to so many people in Latin America. It represented a “cosmic” break in the universal order of things (to quote classic commentary on the party of Víctor Hugo Morales) that put an end to the English assumptions of superiority that had been accepted by some elites across the continent. This was particularly the case in Argentina, where English-speaking communities had come to the hundreds of thousands in the 1980s.

The depth of sentiment that accompanies Maradona’s death speaks to the enduring feeling that he was somehow responsible for a moment that has taken on spiritual significance for the way in which he broke historical patterns.

Footballers in a field.

Diego Maradona just before scoring the ‘Goal of the Century’ against England in Mexico in the 1986 World Cup. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

In his autobiography I am Diego (I’m Diego), Maradona reflected on the World Cup victory over England, which happened as a result of the war for the Malvinas / Malvinas.

Somehow we blamed the English players for everything that had happened, for everything that the Argentine people had suffered. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s how we feel. The feeling was stronger than us: we defended our flag, the dead children, the survivors.

Sport, in these terms, had become a substitute for war, an opportunity for the defeated to inflict pain on the victors by all possible means. In addition to the Malvinas / Falklands conflict, this sentiment was shaped by the strong British influence on Argentine economic and cultural life.

Argentine nationalism was marked in different ways by the British railway construction, as much as the Baring Bank crisis of 1890 that it came close to ruining Argentina and leaving Great Britain relatively unscathed. There was also the Harrods luxury store in Buenos Aires, the polo clubs and the important British community in the city and in the pampas (fertile plains that surround Buenos Aires).

In England, the continuing anger that Maradona “got away with it” rises from the ashes of the empire. From a historical perspective, we can see the British refusal to renounce the Falklands / Malvinas in 1982 in its refusal to accept the loss of the party and, subsequently, as part of a reluctance to step back from two centuries of imperial engagement with Latin America. .

Maradona and masculinity

As many have noted since Maradona’s death, he left a trail of destruction in his wake. The can be seen as a victim of some of the people who surrounded him, as well as the author of much of that destruction. Drugs, revolutionary politics, domestic abuse, and emotional outbursts, which are the most visible parts of the media narrative, fit perfectly the British stereotype of the Latin American flare.

The moment of the Goal of the Hand of God, 1986. (Image courtesy: Wikipedia)

However, as Argentine scholars such as Eduardo Archetti and Pablo Alabarces pointed out, soccer and masculinity were wrapped together more than a century ago. This combination makes Maradona the leading figure in a soccer culture that prided itself on the humiliation of its rival. He saw defeat as a result of female weakness while also marveling at the artistic beauty of the footballer’s body in flight and the perfect arc of the ball as he snuggled into the top corner.

Like the writer Ayelén Pujol You have observed, Maradona’s achievements and rebellions were an inspiration to millions of marginalized citizens; including female footballers who today strive to transform the world of soccer in their own way.

With the current stadium crowd ban due to coronavirus, we are increasingly anxious for the legends and heroes that will unite us. We long for community and public spaces where we can share moments of joy and sadness together. Diego Maradona was central to many of those moments in the past, and as a result, his life will continue to be a key landmark in world history.

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