When Steve Hodge awoke on the morning of Sunday 22 June 1986, he had no idea what lay in store. By the day’s end he would have played a key role in one of the most famous, and infamous, FIFA World Cup™ matches of all time, and would also have a fabled memento.
That day, Hodge’s England faced Argentina in a World Cup quarter-final heavily charged by the Falklands Conflict earlier in the decade, with La Albiceleste captain Diego Maradona tipped to play a pivotal role in the midday kick-off at the Azteca Stadium.
“It’s hard to remember the morning,” Hodge recalled in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “We would’ve had breakfast earlier than normal and it was an hour’s drive to the stadium. When we arrived, I went for a walk on the pitch and thought how fortunate I was to be there and playing.
“We went in and got changed. We could hear the slight din of people milling in. A noise almost like a siren, horns outside. I remember going to a side-room and banging a ball on my own against a wall, to get my brain awake. All the players did their own little things. You didn’t have to speak to anybody to say ‘this is a big game’, everybody knew.”
The late Sir Bobby Robson chose to focus England’s attentions in the build-up not on Maradona, but on the Three Lions themselves. Having conceded just one goal during the finals and with consecutive 3-0 victories – against Poland and Paraguay – England were confident going into the quarter-final. Hodge was wary though, having played against El Pibe de Oro* *for Nottingham Forest two years earlier.
“Our planning was about us,” Hodge said. “I think we all realised you had to help your mates out and crowd [Maradona] out wherever you could. I’d seen him just go by people [against Nottingham Forest] and make experienced defenders look stupid. I knew he was something I’d never seen before in terms of frightening pace, speed of thought, strength and aggression. He made things happen.”
Hodge and the 'Hand of God'
El Diego would certainly make things happen that fateful Sunday afternoon. In sweltering conditions at a packed Azteca Stadium, a tense first half ended goalless. Six minutes into the second period, Argentina took the lead with arguably the most infamous World Cup act – in which Hodge played a part.
“Maradona does a diagonal run towards the edge of our D-area, pops a little pass off to Jorge Valdano and he takes a strange run into the box, looking for the one-two,” Hodge remembers, the image picture perfect in his mind’s eye. “He then diverts, takes a left turn towards the goalkeeper. As that ball was popped off towards Valdano it went by him on to my left-hand side.”
Unaware of Maradona’s run, Hodge attempted a back-pass to goalkeeper Peter Shilton which, before the alteration of Law 12 to outlaw back-passes in 1992, was routine.
“I was being leant on a little bit by Valdano, but the ball bounced nice, it was on my left foot – my strong foot – and I caught it absolutely spot on. It was the contact I wanted, looping it back with a bit of dip. When I caught it I didn’t have a moment’s thought that it could be a problem, because I didn’t know where Maradona was. To a modern eye, [that kind of pass] looks crazy, but you’d see it in every game those days.”
What followed was a blur. From Hodge’s back-pass, the ball had somehow ended up in the back of the net.
“As it went in I thought to myself: ‘Oh god, what have you done?’” Hodge remembered. “From my kick, a second later, it’s in the back of our net. I saw a mop of black hair, a collision, and the ball’s bobbled in. People were putting their hands in the air. It looked wrong. Within five seconds, he’s by the corner flag celebrating. You just knew it was going to stand. Within ten seconds you’ve got to move on.”
*From sleight of hand, to 'Goal of the Century'
*What followed was Maradona moving from the darkness to the light, from his ‘Hand of God’ to deity-like levels of skill. Hodge was close to the Argentina No10 at the beginning of the famous run and finish that saw the South Americans double their advantage.
“I remember looking and thinking: we’ve got [Terry] Butcher, [Terry] Fenwick and Gary Stevens on the cover, we’ve got the best ‘keeper in the world [Shilton] on a bobbly pitch. He’s got 60 yards to go,” Hodge smiled. “We should be alright.
“When it went in I remember thinking: ‘wow, unbelievable’. As a football player you have to look at skill like that and think: he’s from another planet.”
England pulled one back through Gary Lineker late on but it was to no avail. Maradona’s Argentina prevailed and celebrated on the pitch with vigour. Hodge, along with his team-mates trudged off the pitch.
“I thought, I won’t be here again. I’ll try and get a shirt,” Hodge remembers. “I shook Maradona’s hand, he was being mobbed by his team-mates. So I thought: there’s no point, just leave it.”
England’s No18 was held back for a TV interview, his team-mates headed back to the changing room. He had not seen a replay of the ‘Hand of God’ goal.
“After the interview, I went down, behind the goal, to the changing rooms,” Hodge recalls. “As I went down, Maradona was walking with two of his team-mates. I looked him in the eye, tugged on my shirt as if to say ‘any chance of swapping?’ and he came straight across, motioned a prayer, and we exchanged shirts. And that was it. It was just as simple as that.
“Nothing grand about it,” Hodge grinned. “It was just a meeting underneath the pitch. The changing rooms were about ten yards away. I went off, so did he, and I just put mine in my bag and that was it.”
Hodge headed back into the England changing room and, as Maradona’s actions for the first goal were discussed by his team-mates, it became clear that there had been a misdemeanour in the scoring of the opener.
“If I’d have known what had happened, I wouldn’t have swapped my shirt with him,” Hodge said. “I think I would’ve felt angry about it if that had been the case, definite cheating had gone on. He was wrong in what he did. He should have admitted it after the game. I can’t really blame anybody. Nobody could’ve changed what happened. That was my mindset: we’re out, let’s get home. You can moan until the cows come home, it doesn’t matter.”
The fabled shirt has been on a long-term loan to England’s National Football Museum, on display since 2002. Hodge and Maradona, forever linked by the ‘Hand of God’ and the post-match shirt swap, have crossed paths just once since that scorching afternoon in Mexico City.
“I went to see England play Brazil [at Wembley] in 1987 with Ossie Ardiles who was my Spurs team-mate,” Hodge recalls. “We met [Maradona] in the bar for a five-minute chat about England and Brazil. I think it was at half-time or after the game. We talked about that game. The 1986 match wasn’t mentioned. What can you say? I can’t say to him: ‘you cheated us’. There would have been no point.”
“In a game of 90 minutes, a fast-paced emotional highly-charged atmosphere, people do things they shouldn’t,” Hodge said as the interview drew to a close. “He got away with it. I felt that way 30 years ago, as I do today.”