World Cup Starts Today: A Brit Talks Hand of God
Stephen Brennan, a Brit, teacher, and soccer fanatic, will tell the World Cup's craziest moments over the next few days. This is the first installment.
Almost a century ago, during the first Christmas of the bloodbath that was World War I, war weary German and British soldiers climbed hesitantly out of their trenches and stumbled into no man's land. They shook hands, sang carols, lit each other's cigarettes, and, using helmets for goal posts and a bully beef can as a ball, they played a game of soccer. Briefly, the international language of the beautiful game trumped the violence of the battlefield. The next day they returned to their positions in the trenches, and resumed the mass slaughter of the Great War.
Starting today the world comes together to play soccer again, thankfully not on the battlefields of the Western Front, but in the spiritual home of football, Brazil. Yes, the greatest competition of the world's greatest sport is here - the World Cup.
203 nations attempted qualification; more countries than there are in the United Nations. Now, 32 from all corners of the globe converge to contest the finals, from the "Indomitable Lions" of Cameroon and the ""Samurai Blue"" of Japan, to the traditional power houses of Europe and South America.
Geopolitical and economic giants can be slain by nations a fraction of their size and GDP (see U.S. v Ghana in 2010), old nationalist and imperialistic rivalries can be replayed in 90 minutes on the pitch (see England v Germany '66, '70, '90, '10). Hopes will be realized, dreams will be crushed. Titans and scoundrels will be made with the kick of a ball. There will be controversies, there will be gaffes, there will be goals.
Billions will be transfixed to television screens the world over to see their heroes take part in this ballet of the masses. Reaching out to their fellow citizens of the world with one hand, while pounding their chests and proudly proclaiming their tribalism with the other. The world is truly watching, it doesn't get any bigger than this.
It's salivating stuff. Over the next few days, I will be describing some moments from the tournament's history to give a flavor of what has been, and what might be..
The Hand and Feet of God - Maradona destroys England - Argentina v England - Quarter Final 1986
Every World Cup needs its heroes and villains, and in Argentina's Diego Maradona the 1986 World Cup in Mexico had both. The greatest player of the last 30 years, the only rival to Pele for the greatest ever, dominated this World Cup more than any single player has dominated a tournament before or since.
He had almost single-handedly dragged the '86 Argentina team to the quarters, proving that a great soccer player need not be a de-marbleized version of Michelangelo's David. No, in soccer, it is about ability rather than shape, and turning a limitation into an asset. Maradona did exactly that, using his short and stocky stature to dribble through midfields and barrel past defenses.
However, another reason why watching soccer is the best waste of time ever, is that you can combine an appreciation of aesthetic beauty with a deep exploration of human nature in just 90 minutes. Yes, Maradona was perhaps the most skillful player there has ever been - but he was also sly, cunning and tempestuous, and his performance in the WC quarter final against England displays both sides of his personality.
Six minutes into the second half, Maradona responded to a sliced clearance from an England defender, and fisted the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and into the back of the net. The referee let the goal stand, despite protests from the England players. The so called "Hand of God" incident left Argentina fans in rapture and the name Diego Maradona and "cheat" etched into the minds of the English forever.
However, it is shame that the incident somewhat overshadows Maradona's second goal of the game. Four minutes after his first, the Argentinian no. 10 picks the ball up well in his own half, pirouettes and then begins a dash for goal that saw him dribble past four English players, leaving them as mobile as Easter Island statues, before dribbling it around the hapless Shilton and toe poking it into the goal. It's a goal of great quality by a player of the greatest quality. The Italian press wrote of it, "England were in a daze, like a man who had just had his wallet stolen". Though England pulled one back, it was too late.
Maradona would score another two against Belgium in the semis, and then lift the trophy as captain in the final. He would play in 2 further World Cups, though would never scale these heights again. At the '94 World Cup, Maradona tested positive for banned substances and was kicked out of the squad for good. However, he remains the greatest player to ever don an Argentine shirt.