You can take our freedom. But you can’t take our grainy old football videos. In this short series I will be exploring the contents of Fifa’s newly released World Cup archive; revisiting World Cup lore and World Cup truisms, and finding out if staring at them in peeled-eyeball detail from the confinement sofa really does reveal their deeper truths.
In his brilliant, dashed-off book U and I the novelist Nicholson Baker invented something called closed book examination. This involves taking a much-cherished object – in his case the books of John Updike – and writing down everything you can remember about it without ever looking at the original.
The idea is to contrast the internalised version with the cold hard text. Often Baker’s preciously guarded version of Updike tallies up with the real thing. Often it doesn’t. Lines, phrases, details take on a life of their own, distended by time and distance.
This is also the way we tend to recall big sporting events. A lot of the stuff we know as fact turns out to be closed book fiction, a version of the truth steeped in the memory and settled now as a matter of certainty. Talking of which: England versus Argentina, 1986. What actually happened there?
The closed book history of that World Cup quarter-final, an event most people will have watched once, 34 years ago, states that the game was pretty much even. Diego Maradona punched the ball into the net. He scored a wonder-goal from nowhere. Towards the end something freakish happened to stop Gary Lineker heading an equaliser.
Jimmy Hill, co-commentating for the BBC in Mexico, announced that Bobby Robson’s team had been “knocked out of the World Cup by an act of blatant cheating”. England were unlucky, derailed by a muscular man in shiny shorts with a Malvinas-grudge and a streak of ragged genius.
This version also elides with a broader picture of Argentina’s World Cup win as basically a one-man affair. The players lived in wooden huts in Mexico. They shaved outside, cooked barbecues, horsed around on the bus to the games. How did we lose to this lot? How did we lose a clear chance to actually win the World Cup?
At which point: rewind. The Fifa archive film comes in vivid, slightly grainy square-screen. The pictures capture a world that was still pre-modern: cotton shirts, adverts for Camel cigarettes, skinny men in Union Jack shorts frazzling in the midday sun.
The players’ heads flash up on screen and you remember how young and handsome Maradona was in those pre-meltdown days. England are in white shirts and light blue shorts.
The names of the starting XI are: Pete, Gary, Kenny, Terry, Terry, Trevor, Glenn, Pete, Steve, Pete, Gary. Little wonder that in this company being called “Glenn” could mark you out as a bit of a maverick.
England’s pre-tournament first-choice midfield, Bryan and Ray, is absent for this game, one as a result of injury and the other not being recalled after suspension. At which point it is worth dwelling on the mood, the vibe, the outlook. The Madness Of England Football Part 1.
In the buildup to Mexico 86 Bryan Robson had written an article in which he revealed that he felt tortured by the famous picture of Bobby Moore lifting the World Cup. When he saw it he wanted to rip it up. This was because England had gone a full 20 years – imagine! – without winning the World Cup again.
Never mind the fact England had managed to qualify only twice since then. Robson was tortured by the failure to actually win it, something that could still be cast as a transgression against the natural order.
But then, four years previously the England World Cup squad had sung “this time, more than any other time”, a tournament song ode to yearning and missed chances that ignores the fact England had actually won the World Cup just 16 years previously.
There had only ever been 11 World Cups ever at that stage. England had no right being this upset, this thwarted. This Time is proof of only one thing, that England as a nation is hard-wired to see nostalgia and lost sovereignty on every available stage.
England football has always been to some degree about scale and loss of scale. Being cheated, not just out of a goal, but out of everything; well this was always going to be an irresistible twist.
Back in Mexico, the referee, Ali Bin Nasser, appears on screen, an ambling figure with a range of oddly formal gestures. He’s described by the Fifa commentator as the “relatively inexperienced Tunisian”.
The game kicks off and England pass the ball around slowly at the back. Steve Hodge is kicked to the ground. Kenny Sansom launches a startlingly long, flat throw. And almost immediately everyone looks fried in the midday heat, the players barely moving off the ball.
This is the biggest textural difference. Nobody stands still these days.
Only Peter Reid is really running around. He dispossesses Maradona, loses his boot and keeps on running. For 15 minutes he’s the best player on the pitch. His opposite number is Sergio Batista, who despite being only 23 has perfected the classic bearded serial killer midfielder look. The crowd noise is an ambient hum through this, with sudden vague hisses of excitement.
England’s full-backs stay very wide. The whole team is arranged in a series of rigid squares. Argentina are more fluid, easier in possession, and more prone to breaking up those tight lines.
It takes Maradona 10 minutes to drop deep and play his first high-speed one-two. He beats Samson twice and is violently hacked down by Terry Fenwick, just back from suspension, and rewarded with his fourth yellow card of the tournament. The free-kick deflects off Glenn Hoddle’s head and Peter Shilton palms it awkwardly over the bar, barely getting off the ground. He looks very small in that moment.
Does anyone else think Shilton gets away with it a bit? There was a real sense of English goalkeeping exceptionalism in the 1980s. Our keepers were scowling, nerveless, un-clown-like. They were the Best In The World. But Shilton should probably have caught that ball back from Hodge, the one that hasn’t happened yet. Aged 40, he didn’t get off the ground against West Germany in 1990, or get anywhere near any of those penalties.
Maradona pops up on the left and whips in a lovely cross. Thirty minutes gone and we haven’t had a shot. Gary Lineker gets his first touch and is hacked down by Oscar Ruggeri. Jorge Valdano holds the ball well, striding from wing to wing, much more than just a target man.
And by now England are under pressure. They can’t really keep the ball. The players are relentlessly committed and forceful in the challenge. But they also kick the ball like they hate it. In possession they run through the same drilled patterns.
Does it have to be like this? The Madness of England Football Part 2: for decades the national team played this way as a matter of choice. There is a notion that England looked like a regressive footballing force because they had no plan. But this isn’t true. They did have a plan. They had a bad plan.
Charles Hughes was the FA’s de facto technical director in 1986. The plan was clear, developed out of the garden-shed direct football data of Wing Commander Charles Reep. This Reep-Hughes ideology stated that direct forward passes were the way to win at football, that set pieces and crosses into the Position of Maximum Opportunity were the dictum, and that players who were willing to deliver this would be selected
It seems odd now that so many influences – the progressiveness of Bobby Robson, the grace of Hoddle – could be subsumed by this. But Hoddle was always chafing against the orthodoxy, and England doomed to battle against the limits of their own vision.
As half-time approaches Maradona goes to take a corner, removes the flag, and has to literally tie the material back on to the pole himself before the game can continue. The interval arrives as a bit of a relief to everyone. We’ve yet to see a shot on target. But there is a feeling of ascent, of one team playing with the flow.
The commentator reminds us England have conceded once in six and a half games. In fact they’ve kept 17 clean sheets in their last 26 games. All of which helps to explain the startling nature of what happens six minutes into the second half.
Maradona takes the ball deep on the left side and beats three men with five touches. He veers past Hoddle with ease. Reid and Fenwick just can’t get there. The ball is chipped towards Valdano. At which point Hodge does something odd, skying the ball back on the volley towards his keeper. Shilton is surprised. Maradona is standing in what would have been an offside position. He runs forward and punches the ball into the goal.
So many questions. Why didn’t Shilton just clean him out? Why didn’t he take the ball with both hands? Why didn’t the referee or assistant referee see it? In his autobiography Maradona says he was running to the far side screaming for everyone to follow before the referee disallowed it.
England are winded by this. Argentina have been the better team, but there’s no doubt the gut-wrench of the first goal has something to do with the brilliance of the second. Suddenly there is space, a relax of air. It takes a genius to do this with it.
Let us ponder Maradona for a moment. He is already playing a different kind of game to anyone else in this tournament. Football was a brutal environment. People didn’t dribble and hurdle challenges or try to break the whole game open on their own.
Maradona has talked about how he found the right tempo in Italy. He knew if he played at full speed nobody could live with hm. But he knew he couldn’t do it all the time, partly because of exhaustion, partly because he’d be kicked to death. How much of this can I cope with, how far can I extend myself? In Mexico he found the perfect timing, the perfect set of rhythms.
With 55 minutes gone Maradona takes the ball facing his own goal in his own half to the right of the centre circle. Eleven seconds later it’s in the England net.
First he pirouettes away from Peter Beardsley, then he dodges Reid. Reid runs back with him, losing ground. Terry Butcher has charged out to fill the space. Maradona hurdles him. He’s at the edge of the area now. Something is clarifying. He veers past Fenwick, who puts an arm across his throat. He takes a soft, rolled touch with his left foot that puts Shilton off balance.
Butcher has got back, but Maradona shifts his feet to block the lunge from behind, then prods the ball into the empty net as the world starts to erupt around him. Argentina’s No 10 has beaten seven challenges and run straight through the middle of all that English muscle, a man playing with a kind of light around him.
To their credit England rally. Beardsley begins to affect the game. Batista is finally booked. Reid is replaced by a pre-mullet Chris Waddle, hair forming a wondrous pomp rock tangle down his shoulders. Hoddle has a shot. Waddle produces a fine dipping cross with the outside of his boot.
Argentina’s players are shouting at each other. And England are finally bringing their version of the game to bear, putting the ball into the box, creating some aerial confusion. At which point, enter John Barnes, who comes on for Trevor Steven.
This is not the full Barnes, not yet the player who would illuminate the First Division with Liverpool. But it is also his first appearance of the tournament. Lads, he’s your most talented player. There you go, Barnesey, have 15 minutes. And by the way we’re 2-0 down.
Some shithousery has broken out by now. England players are grabbing their opponents and hoisting them to their feet. There are sneaky kicks and trips. Hoddle is furious as Maradona punts the ball away as he stands over a free-kick.
Barnes gets his first touch on 79 minutes. A minute later he gets his first pass of the World Cup. He ducks outside, beats his man, gets to the line and crosses. Throughout all this Lineker has kept on making his finely judged runs, playing with wonderful patience. He’s in the perfect spot to head it in, a goal that captures a different kind of brilliance.
Argentina go back down the other end of the pitch and hit the inside of the post. Maradona takes the ball and waggles his foot over it by the corner flag, waiting for someone to kick him. There are seven minutes to go.
Soon after we get the final significant act. Barnes gets his second pass of the tournament. This is how England might have played. Hodge wins the ball from Maradona. Hoddle plays an instant pass. Barnes goes for the line, beats two men and puts a cross to the back post.
A while back I asked about what happens next on Twitter. “Why didn’t Lineker just punch the ball into the net, he knew he wasn’t going to reach it?” At which point something very modern happened. “He did reach it,” a voice interjected like some unanswerable deus ex machina.
The Voice of Football? Jehovah himself? In fact it was Lineker himself, lurking once again in just the right spot. He is of course right. The cross produces an astonishing piece of defending from Julio Olarticoechea, who somehow gets around Lineker just as he makes contact, and deflects the ball away. This is what denied England in that moment: not bad luck, but brilliance.
Lineker is hurt, dumped into the back of the net. In the stands lads are singing and waving their union flags. Argentina have started to triple-mark Barnes, blue shirts in full panic-defence mode. Imagine if he’d been on for an hour.
The final whistle is blown and Argentina’s players bounce around, rejoicing in a moment that isn’t just to do with football.
Watching the game back has clarified some things. It’s obvious why England didn’t win the World Cup. They weren’t good enough. Or rather, they were good for 10 minutes and so-so for 80. Argentina may have had a (cheating) genius at the height of his powers. But they also looked a lot more like a modern football team.
Whereas England still couldn’t help themselves. The Madness of English Football Part 3. Bobby Robson took a better team to Italy in 1990. He shifted the formation to suit his players. He trusted his instincts, playing Waddle, Barnes, Lineker, Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne in the same XI. England really were a bit unlucky in Turin. They might have had their revenge for the Azteca at the final in Rome.
And yet within two years they would be back at Euro 92, managed by an arch-zealot of direct football in Graham Taylor, and producing something that looked almost like a pastiche of that cod-science long-ball island game.
England were cheated in Mexico. But nobody was robbed. Destiny wasn’t altered. Something was still being worked through here. And while the dynamic may have changed now, with the arrival of a global top-tier league and the systems-football of the Southgate era, it is also possible to miss that note of variation; the days when England, who thought they were the state of the art, the once and future kings, were still playing a different game altogether.