The Hand of God Returns

Hampden Park, November, 2008

When the Breogan Primary bus left Hampden in the summer of 1979, I wondered if I would ever see Diego Maradona in the flesh again. Now here I am, almost thirty years on, face to face with this diminutive giant of the game. And he needs my skills at Hampden Park. We are here for the press conference on the eve of his first match as Argentina’s national coach.

The first journalist pronounces every word carefully, unaware that Diego will not be answering questions in English: “The Scotland assistant manager Terry Butcher has said that he will refuse to shake your hand tomorrow because of the goal you scored against him in the 1986 World Cup. Will you go to shake his hand tomorrow?”

I repeat the question in Spanish. Maradona makes a whoopy doo facial gesture as the Butcher comment sinks in. Diego tells me: “No. I’m not interested in shaking Bacherr’s hand. I get on fine with people who are okay with me. I don’t know why Bacherr wants to be like this. But if that’s the way it is, so be it. Let him get on with his life and I’ll get on with mine.”

As I start to announce in English what Diego has said, he puts the hand of God on the back of mine and adds: “It won’t kill me. I won’t lose any sleep if Bacherr doesn’t offer his hand.”

Next question, asked by an English female reporter: “You’re a proud Argentinian. I can only imagine what your response would be if you lost in the World Cup to a handball goal. Can you understand the reaction of Terry Butcher, in some manner?”

Maradona sits back, perhaps getting the gist of the question. I clarify it for him.

“I’d like to remind the young lady that England won a World Cup final against Germany with a goal where the ball never crossed the line.”

There are whoops of laughter and delight from the gathered press core when this is fed back to them in English. Maradona goes on sincerely: “Well? The whole world saw it, you know.”

He moves his hands away from his body, a metre apart, rather like a flight attendant showing the way to the plane exits. This is his estimate of the distance by which the ball failed to cross the line in 1966.

The Scottish press corps lap up his antics. Of course, I can’t give my view at the time but off the record I find it ironic. My own people are always banging on about gamesmanship – particularly play acting by foreigners. Yet, here they are, over twenty years on, still revelling in one of the most blatant acts of cheating the sport has ever seen. It’s a funny old game.  When Bacherr… sorry Butcher,  joined Rangers after the ’86 World Cup, he said that he saw more Argentina shirts in Glasgow than he ever saw in Mexico. North of the border at least, it seemed as if Argentina had already been forgiven over the Falklands.

Scotland’s performance in Mexico was the usual mixed bag with mediocrity prevailing and more first round syndrome. We were drawn along with Germany, Uruguay and Denmark in the “Group of Death”.  Was this a universal consensus or just the Scottish media getting their excuses in before the inevitable fall from grace? After losing 1-0 to the Danes, Scotland started brightly against Germany, with Gordon Strachan putting us ahead before celebrating in odd fashion by trying to mount the advertising boards. He was too wee to succeed. Germany fought back with goals from Völler and Allofs and won 2-1. In the final game, Scotland needed to beat Uruguay who had been humped 6-1 by a Michael Laudrup inspired Denmark. The signs were good when Batista of Uruguay was sent off in the first minute. Scotland struggled to create chances and when they did, Steve Nicol missed a sitter. Former international Ian St. John was caught on film calling Nicol and his teammates every name under the Mexican sun. The evidence was broadcast to the nation on the Saint and Greavsie show. Who’d be a Scotland fan if it wasn’t an accident of birth?

Countries of the World– © Steven Porter/Breogan Books 2011


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