Monday, November 23, 2009

Hand of God II

While most of America spent last week worrying about trivia like health care reform and the stuttering economy, Europe was embroiled in a furore over a football match; France had pushed Ireland out of the World Cup by virtue of a goal resulting from a clear handball by Thierry Henri, aging French legend formerly of Arsenal fame. Not for the first time in recent memory had a French star tainted his legacy on the big stage - Zidane's nutting of the Italian at a crucial moment in the last final for supposedly insulting his mother being a more significant moment.

For us English of course any mention of "Hand of God" instantly summons up memories of Azteca stadium 1986 where England succumbed to bitter rival Argentina (remember the Falklands) at the hand, literally, of Diego Maradona in the quarter finals of the World Cup. In that match the first of two goals by Maradona went in off his hand, quite obvious in replays, but apparently obvious to the ref who allowed it. Maradona dissembled afterwards about the goal being assisted by the hand of God. The racist tendencies of the average Caucasian to view Latin footballers as villains and cheats, with one or two exceptions like Pele, were only reinforced by that moment.

There are some in the old country who cannot forgive Maradona for that sleight of hand and believe his legacy is ruined as a result. I do not hold with that view; in fact I bear no grudge against Maradona despite it costing England their opportunity of winning the World Cup once more; we still have to live on the memories of 1966, and frankly that is getting rather old. The critics want to wail cheat, cheat, cheat. Yet they are silent on the dozens of fouls that defenders meted out to skillful players like Maradona to neutralize them. The rules protecting players are much better today, though far from perfect, and the overall skill level is far higher than back then, when thuggery tended to rule the day. In 1966 the naive Brazilians came to England thinking that footballing skill was all that was required. They were kicked out of the cup in part by the Portuguese, who themselves had a sublime player in Eusebio.

So why begrudge Maradona his one little opportune moment to take revenge against the dozens of fouls that went quietly unnoticed. In any event, a few short minutes after the intervention of the "Hand of God." Maradona more than compensated with the finest individual goal I've ever seen (later rated as the FIFA Goal of the Century). Picking the ball up inside his own half he danced through the English defence (for such a talent he was a remarkably one-footed player) before sliding the ball behind Shilton at an improbably delicate angle.

Let's hope that England, having once again secured their date with destiny next summer, will not have to overcome the Almighty again; the likes of Germany, Brazil, and maybe even Argentina present enough challenges.

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