It became the most iconic sporting comment of all time but the English-speaking world very nearly did not get to hear Diego Maradona’s pithy reflection on his infamous goal in Argentina’s 2-1 defeat of England at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Reuters sports correspondent Rex Gowar was in the bowels of Azteca Stadium after the match when Maradona confessed to the most talked-about piece of cheating in soccer history.
“It was my first World Cup with Reuters,” Gowar, who first encountered a teenaged Maradona in Buenos Aires as a photographer for an Argentine newspaper, recalled on Wednesday after hearing the news of Maradona’s death, aged 60.
“We were near the changing rooms with a group of Argentine soccer writers, it was the normal sort of melee that you had after a match of that importance.”
While it was long before the days of mobile phones, social media and 24-hour rolling news coverage, the outrage was already brewing after TV replays clearly showed Maradona had used his hand to knock the ball past England keeper Peter Shilton for Argentina’s opening goal in their 2-1 win, reports Reuters.
The fact that his second goal, a few minutes later, was a work of genius was overshadowed by the raging controversy over the first. To pour petrol on the fire, Maradona then uttered the words that filled back pages around the globe.
“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”) Maradona told the select few reporters sniffing around for the day’s killer quote. It was gold dust.
“I was part of the melee that heard the quote,” Gowar, who went on to cover four World Cups, three with Reuters, said. “The quote came out of us probing him. No one knows who he said it to exactly but of course as soon as I heard the quote it impressed me and it certainly impressed my desk.”
The English media pack picked over the bones of another failed bid for glory by a team saddled with trying to re-create their 1966 triumph, lacing their copy with a sense of injustice at Maradona’s brazen act of deception.
With no official translations, however, they were not to hear about Maradona’s admission until the Reuters wire dropped into their offices. Some, Gowar says, did not believe he actually said it, perhaps upset that they had missed the quote of the decade.
While England’s soccer writers seethed, their Argentine counterparts eulogised Maradona.
“They were not trying to dispute that he had used his hand,” Gowar recalls. “They knew what had happened but thought it was very cheeky of him, they were impressed that he had managed to get away with it.”
Bizarrely, Gowar nearly missed the iconic moment after a slipping in his hotel bathroom on the morning of the match. “After breaking my fall with my right elbow, which still carries the scar, I improvised a bandage and headed for the Azteca stadium,” his account of the day read.
“Did we Argentines believe then that England would be just another hurdle easily overcome on the way to what was to be their second World Cup title? It is easy to think that now, but Maradona had a trick up his sleeve just in case.”
Sat high in the media tribune, Gowar described the moment that was to become part of sporting legend.
“My colleagues from Reuters were shocked when Maradona, pretending to have headed the opening goal, ran off celebrating. The referee, pointing to the centre spot, was surrounded by England players demanding a hand ball decision,” he said.
“The press tribune high in the third tier of the giant stadium and a long way from the goal where he scored immediately buzzed, hardly believing the referee had missed the trick.”
Few journalists can boast Gowar’s insight into the remarkable career of Maradona.
He got an exclusive interview with a 19-year-old Maradona in April 1980, weeks before he mesmerised England at Wembley on a European tour by then world champions Argentina, and he was in the United States 14 years later when Maradona’s dream of winning a second World Cup was shattered by a positive doping test.
“It shattered our dream too,” Gowar said.