From Defending Islands to Defending the Soccer Pitch: History of the 1986 England-Argentina World Cup

From Defending Islands to Defending the Soccer Pitch: History of the 1986 England-Argentina World Cup

. 5 min read

Footage from the 1986 World Cup shows Argentina’s star player, Diego Maradona, swiftly moving towards the net. He handles the ball deftly and evades the members of the English team. Tapping the ball quickly toward a teammate, Maradona sprints ahead, breaking away from England’s defensive line. His teammate passes the ball back towards him, and Maradona launches himself into the air to head the ball into the net.

A closer look at the footage, however, shows that Maradona had scored not with a header but rather with his raised fist, a clear breach of soccer rules. The referees–having missed this violation–allowed the goal, much to the outrage of the English opposition. The outcome of this play ensured that Argentina would claim the World Cup that year.

This notorious 1986 World Cup matchup between Argentina and England has left its mark in history–and not just for Maradona’s controversial “Hand of God” goal. The 1986 World Cup represented the first major match-up between the two countries since the 1966 championship, in which the English team claimed victory. This match took place in England and was regarded as unfair to many Argentinians. Their team struggled with language barriers: referees, for instance, attempted to send the Argentinian captain off the field, but he misunderstood their English. The situation speaks to ongoing marginalization in the world of soccer.

More notably, though, the 1986 matchup was significant also because it reflected simmering frustrations from Argentinians toward England after the latter’s imperial entanglements in the country. Indeed, the match represented an outlet for Argentina’s collective resentment about England’s abuse of power, especially in the Falklands War. This controversial 1986 victory remains a significant source of pride for the country and for Latin America at large–a testament to the lasting scars of imperial intervention in Argentina and the region beyond it. This moment also highlights how collective, cultural memories–like that of the 1986 World Cup in Latin America–are forged in moments of shared resilience and strength.

Off The Soccer Pitch

The story of the England-Argentina 1986 World Cup is not just about the relations between the two countries but also about the role of sports diplomacy–the ways in which sports can pull various peoples and nations together, for better or for worse. In Latin America, especially, soccer represents far more than a game. Tracing the evolution of soccer in the region offers a useful litmus test for the political and social condition of Latin American society.

In a series of vignettes compiled into a history of soccer called Soccer in Sun and Shadow, author Eduardo Galeano explores how soccer has historically reflected the socio-political environment in which the sport is played. In one vignette called “Creole Soccer,” Galeano highlights how the game evolved from a British custom to something that “blossomed in the slums” of Latin America. The sport itself became a “universal language.” Eventually, the democratization of soccer would allow a country like Argentina to compete against global superpowers like England at the World Cup.

Race was also an important factor in soccer’s past (and present). Originally a sport for the white population, soccer soon became a ladder for upward mobility for some people of color. Galeano notes that in 1916, the Chilean delegation attempted to invalidate Uruguay's victory on the basis that Uruguay had two “Africans” on the team. The players in question were born and raised in Uruguay. They were also descendants of African slaves. The racial marginalization that black people encountered in society manifested in the game of soccer, too.

Just eight years later, though, in 1924, Uruguayan José Leandro Andrade, a “black, South American and poor” player, would become the “first international soccer idol.” While soccer has reflected much of the marginalization seen in the real world, it has also offered hope and the opportunity to advance upwards.

This is all to say that soccer indeed is full of cultural and political significance. As such, the match in question remains historically important, especially because Argentina’s win against England represented a show of strength against its political bully–cause for celebration both in Argentina and throughout Latin America.

Photo by Jannik Skorna / Unsplash

Framing the Moment: The Falklands War

The matchup between England and Argentina, though four years after the end of the Falklands War, was certainly tainted by residual resentment from the conflict. The war, which took place in 1982, began when Argentina sent its forces to the Falkland Islands to claim the territory. The then-reigning General Leopoldo Galtieri did so hoping to gain popularity by claiming sovereignty over the islands. Yet, this Argentinian maneuver almost immediately resulted in backlash.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent her own forces 8,000 miles from England to these islands in the South Atlantic Ocean to challenge the Argentinian forces. That the English would mobilize 100 troop-carrying ships to defend a small group of islands so far away certainly raises questions. Most likely, Thatcher's administration acted to defend national pride and flaunt its military power.

The conflict that ensued from these escalations would soon be known as the Falklands War. The war claimed the lives of at least 20 English soldiers and 300 Argentinians. It lasted 74 days and ended with an Argentinian surrender.

The war was an extension of British imperialism during a time when the sun was finally setting on the British empire. For Latin American countries that have encountered imperialism and later neo-imperialism from European countries as well as the United States, Britain’s actions at the Falklands added insult to injury. It was this culture of resentment towards outside imperial forces in Argentina that manifested on the soccer field at the 1986 World Cup.

In his memoir, Yo Soy El Diego, Maradona recalls that “Somehow we blamed the English players for everything that had happened, for everything that the Argentinian people had suffered.” He elaborates that, “The feeling was stronger than us: we were defending our flag, the dead kids, the survivors.” Maradona’s memoir confirms that the history that unfolded off the soccer pitch affected the game that was played on the field. Soccer functioned as a way for the Argentinian team to respond to the broader tensions between their country and England and an opportunity to bring pride back to their homeland.

Celebrating the Win

The 1986 World Cup was many years removed from the Falklands War. But those events certainly influenced the atmosphere of the match. Indeed, culture and sports are important vehicles for the social and political issues that plague the relationships between nations. These cultural moments offer revealing insights into historical memory and inter-state narratives.

This match remains ever-present in the cultural memories of both Argentina and Latin America. Even still, the lore of “Maradona contra Inglaterra anotándote dos goles,” or “Maradona scoring two goals against England,” remains ever present in the cultural conscience through music and other media. Indeed, the match represents an empowering moment of collective redemption–an opportunity for a display of national strength, at least in the cultural sense. Soccer has long operated as an outlet for this sort of sports diplomacy. Even now, it provides an opportunity to restore national pride.