The Sporting Life: The Hand of God

By David Flin

22 June, 1986. The Azteca Stadium, Mexico City.

Mexico has not been a happy place for the English football team. Sixteen years and eight days previously, England managed to throw away a match to West Germany, and begin a period of doldrums and humiliation for the national side.

There was some tension about the quarter-final between Argentina and England. The Falklands War had been fought just four years before, and this caused some ill-feeling between the two sides and their supporters.

The first half was a tedious affair. England missed a couple of good chances, but Lineker aside, England players of the period needed an A-Z to find the route to goal. Other than that, Argentina had most of the ball, most of the play, and did most of the running, which was to have an effect later on.

The second half of the match was more interesting than the first. After 51 minutes, Maradona played a pass to the edge of the English penalty area towards Jorge Valdano, and continued his run in the hope of receiving the ball back. The English midfield player Steve Hodge intercepted the pass and tried to hook the ball clear, but miscued it. The ball looped up into the penalty area, and both Maradona and the English goalkeeper Peter Shilton went for the ball. What happened next was one of the iconic moments in football, as Maradona hit the ball with the outside of his left hand, and the ball bounced into the goal. The match officials didn’t see the infringement, and the goal was awarded.

After the match, Maradona said that the goal was scored “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios”, “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.” After this, it became known as the “Hand of God” goal.

Four minutes later, the Hand of God goal was followed by what has been described as the Goal of the Century, arguably the greatest individual goal in World Cup history, in which Maradona ran 60 yards with the ball, beating five tackles, and finished with a feint that left Shilton sprawling before slotting the ball home to make it 2-0.

England made two attacking substitutions, and they nearly paid off. Lineker scored, and the Argentinian players were exhausted. However, England’s inability to know where the other side hides their goal proved fatal, and Argentina, and more specifically, Maradona plus ten other people who happened to be in his side, won.

Argentina went on to win the World Cup, largely thanks to Maradona.

It obviously begs the question: What would have happened if the referee had seen the Hand, and disallowed the goal? If we assume that Maradona’s second goal remained, as did Lineker’s, the score is 1-1 at the end of normal time. That would have resulted in extra time, and it was obvious that the Argentinian players had reached exhaustion before the end of the match. Somehow or other, it is probable that England would manage to locate the Argentine goal, and go through to the semi-final. That match would have been against Belgium, who had somehow scraped through, beating the Soviet Union after a series of marginal refereeing decisions went their way, and beating Spain on penalties. It doesn’t really matter who would have won, as neither side would have been a match for West Germany or France, both much better teams than either Belgium or England.

The interesting consequences come after the World Cup. The English media would be euphoric, praising a fairly ordinary England team as the greatest thing since 1966.

Britain had economic issues, with unemployment running at well over 3 million, recessions constantly being predicted, social disturbances from many causes, IRA terrorist activities, and some fairly divisive politics. However, it seems probable that extra euphoria would, if it had any political effect, tend to boost the sitting Government. Since the sitting Government, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher, won the 1987 election with a majority of 102, it’s probable that any fallout from greater footballing success would have minimal impact.

There are more interesting possible consequences on Argentina. Winning the World Cup was a huge morale boost for a country undergoing turbulent times. Argentina had only recently, in 1983, returned to democratic rule after the military dictatorship which had included the “Dirty War” in which political dissidents to the military rule were “disappeared”. Argentina faced significant economic problems, the Alfonsín Administration faced opposition from both the military and the trade unions, the Administration had to deal with huge levels of endemic corruption, and there was pressure from the public to seek answers to the questions of the “Disappeared”.

In particular, the military was angry and restive about the investigation and prosecution of people accused of political violence during the dictatorship. Several military officers had been convicted and sentenced, and the military feared that there could be more to come, especially as around 30,000 people had been murdered during the dictatorship.

The World Cup victory gave a big boost to public morale, and during this, Alfonsín was able to pass the Full Stop Law. He was initially opposed to the law, but accepted the legislation under the threat of a coup d’état by the military. The law stopped any further prosecutions among military and security officers.

It was immensely unpopular amongst the public, but it kept the military more or less loyal. With the help of the distraction caused by the World Cup victory, the law was passed, and attention could be paid to dealing with the other endemic problems.

Without the World Cup victory, passing the Full Stop Law becomes more problematic. The public will oppose it, and cause major disruptions if it passes; the military would cause major disruptions if it didn’t pass.

This could develop in many different ways, and is a valuable POD for that very reason. It could lead to a military coup – one was threatened in OTL; it could lead to a campaign of massive civil disobedience; it could lead to an attempt at distraction with a foreign war. A treaty of Peace and Friendship had been signed in 1984 with Chile, which in effect gave the islands of Tierra del Fuego to Chile, and the maritime rights to Argentina. However, a number of public officials in Chile warned of previous treaty repudiations by Argentina, and feared that this could be potentially be another. Given the state of the Argentine military in 1986, Chile had little to fear, but there were unquestionably those who were suspicious of Argentine intentions.

The treaty held, although there were elements in the Argentine military pushing for action in this area. Brigadier Basilio Lami Dozo, head of the Argentine Air Force during the Falklands War, said that “these islands would be next”.

It would be for the author of a timeline to devise how that particular conundrum played out.

Operation Condor, the campaign of political repression in South America, which caused the deaths of 60,000-100,000 people, was still on-going in some countries. It had ended in Argentina, but was still ongoing in Chile and Brazil. If the Argentine military go through with their threatened coup, how does the USA respond? In OTL, it was very supportive of the Operation, and would conceivably support a coup that brought Argentina back into line with its neighbours.

None of this came to be, because of the Hand of Maradona. But what if the referee had seen the infringement?

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow