Argentina's former captain has been silent over the death of the late British Prime Minister, whose decision to recapture the Falkland Islands he has repeatedly denounced
During a fiery yet brilliant career on the pitch and a volatile life away from it, Diego Maradona has never been afraid to make a few enemies. The former Barcelona, Napoli and Argentina superstar has fallen out with countless figures in sporting and public life; from Pele to George W Bush, some of the most recognisable personalities on the planet have felt the sting of his uniquely home-spun and vitriolic criticisms over the years.
So far, however, the idol has remained remarkably quiet on a topic one would expect he would have no problems in passing his opinions. On Monday, Argentina awoke to the news that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, at the age of 87, had died after a long battle with illness.
It was under Thatcher in 1982 that the UK, responding to the invasion and occupation of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands by the military dictatorship headed by Leopoldo Galtieri, ordered military action to repel the Argentine invasion. The war lasted two months, leaving 649 Argentine dead and many more severely disabled or wounded, but the repercussions are still felt in the capital Buenos Aires to the present day.
A permanent camp in the city's iconic Plaza de Mayo, home of the presidential palace, is a symbol of the fight for justice and compensation for the young kids conscripted to fight in a hopeless battle, while tempers over the Islands' futures remains a hot topic both sides of the Atlantic. It was this struggle that put Maradona on collision course with the British political elite which culminated at the 1986 World Cup.
The Hand of God | Diego 'robs the English wallet' as he guides the ball past Shilton
Writing in his autobiography I am El Diego, in 2000, the former No. 10 explained how their quarter-final clash was more than a game of football for Argentina; it was a chance to avenge the military defeat four years before. "It was like beating a country, not a football team. Although we said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas War, we knew that a lot of Argentine kids had died there, that they had mowed us down like little birds," wrote Maradona.
"This was our revenge, it was ... to recover a part of the Malvinas. We all said beforehand that we shouldn't mix the two things but that was a lie. A lie! We didn't think of anything except that, like hell it was going to be just another game!"
While the 1986 victory was hugely symbolic in Buenos Aires, its impact on Thatcher’s popularity was minimal. All the talk in the UK media after the match was of Maradona’s handball for the first goal - a moment he later stated was like "Robbing an Englishman's wallet" - and his dazzling skill for the second. The Falklands dimension was a sideshow and Thatcher went on to win a third successive General Election less than a year later.
It would have been a different story, however, had the encounter taken place four years earlier at the 1982 World Cup. Maradona was a member of the squad which displayed “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” [The Falklands are Argentine] banners during friendlies in the build-up. The war was already under way when the team left for Spain but there was never any question of the team not taking part. Daniel Passarella, the 1982 captain, later admitted it was the wrong decision. He said: “I should not have played at the 1982 World Cup. A lot of kids died in Malvinas and I, as the captain, should have done something to stop us going on the pitch.”
|"This was our revenge, it was ... to recover a part of the Malvinas. We didn't think of anything except that, it wasn't just another game"
- Diego Maradona on beating England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final
Across the Atlantic, the World Cup was such a serious political issue for Thatcher that England, Scotland and Northern Ireland’s participation was debated in the UK parliament. The issue was intensified by the draw which created the possibility of Scotland facing Argentina in the second round and hosts Spain’s decision to abstain in a United Nations vote on the Falklands/Malvinas. But Thatcher was convinced the UK should be represented, telling parliament of her view that “a good showing by the England team in Spain will prove an excellent fillip for the servicemen in the Falklands.”
That year Maradona’s international team-mate, Ossie Ardiles, of Tottenham Hotspur, was one of the biggest stars in the English game but such was the abuse from the terraces that he was sent on loan to Paris Saint-Germain. To put that into context, imagine the furore if Sergio Aguero was forced to leave Manchester City for similar reasons. Ardiles’ cousin, Jose Ardiles, was a pilot killed during the first Argentine air raid on the islands in 1982.
Ardiles forgave his adopted country and returned to continue his career in England as a player and manager. But, for Maradona, the anger did not subside. As late as 1999, he asked for his country to break relations with Chile after recognition by Thatcher of the help given during the war by former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Fast forward 31 years and Maradona's silence has been typical in a country unsure how to digest the news that an old adversary has left this world. While scores of politicians and representatives of Falklands veterans' associations denounced the deceased ex-minister, such as 2011 presidential candidate and runner-up Hermes Binner, President Cristina Kirchner has held her tongue.
Thatcher, meanwhile, who held office for 11 years, leaves a football legacy which extends far beyond the symbolic World Cup ‘Hand of God’ defeat to Maradona. The Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough disasters all took place on her watch, the lessons of which directly led to the modernisation of the English game’s stadia and management. However, she was no friend to the game and, although there is no evidence to suggest Thatcher was directly involved, the recently revealed British establishment cover-up of police blunders over Hillsborough casts a lengthy shadow over that period of football administration.