England versus Argentina in the Mexico World Cup 1986 quarter-final is arguably the most iconic football game in history, for both the sublime and the scandalous.
Indeed, it was in that game where Diego Maradona scored the goal of the century, where he picked the ball up inside his own half, dribbled past half of England’s team and slotted into an empty net after taking the ball round goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Of course, his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal also caused a little bit of controversy.
Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser was the man in the middle for the dramatic fixture, and recalled to FourFourTwo – in the latest issue available to order – what he was thinking when Maradona rose to meet the ball with his hand on the Azteca pitch that day.
“The ball lifted in the air towards Maradona – it wasn’t offside as it came off an English defender [Steve Hodge],” Bin Nasser explained. “Both Maradona and England goalkeeper Peter Shilton leapt for the ball.
“I was stood on the edge of the box and couldn’t get a direct sight of the ball as a few players were blocking it. My assistant, Dotchev, had a perfect view, though. Diego scored but, immediately after the goal went in, I had my doubts. Something just didn’t feel right about it.”
However, despite feeling like something untoward had happened, Bin Nasser didn’t whistle for a foul due to directives issued by FIFA before the beginning of the tournament.
“At the 1986 World Cup there were 42 referees. Unlike today, there was no distinction between the main referee and his assistants. Before the competition, FIFA brought us all together for three days to give us our official instructions and decide who would be the referees, the assistants and the fourth officials. Our instructions were clear: if an assistant was in a better position, you had to trust his judgement.
“I didn’t get a clear view, so I awarded the goal and started heading back towards the centre circle. But all the while, I kept one eye on my assistant. I waited for him to give me a reason to disallow the goal, but he didn’t say anything. I had my doubts but my colleague was much better placed than me. Applying FIFA’s instructions, I was obliged to give the goal.”
Despite awarding the goal, when everyone in the stadium apart from the officials realised Maradona had used his hand, Bin Nasser compliments the England players for the way they reacted to the injustice. Understandably, some were angry, but the referee explained everyone had to forget about the moment and carry on with the game.
“England’s Terry Fenwick was especially upset about it. He came to me shouting ‘handball’ and threw both arms up in the air, but by then I couldn’t go back on my decision. I simply told him to focus on the game.
“I actually didn’t have to argue with the players much and I must emphasise how fair the English were that day. At the end of the game, coach Bobby Robson said I’d done a good job but blamed my assistant.
“I couldn’t change anything about what happened and told myself that mistakes are just part of football. I knew I’d done a good job during the game because the FIFA supervisor, an Irishman, awarded my performance a 9.4/10. From the first minute to the last, I made no errors of judgement. Maradona’s handball had to be reported by my assistant. I waited for him but he didn’t say anything.”
Bin Nasser also admits that he was secretly hoping for an England equaliser after Maradona’s brace. Gary Lineker made the game 2-1 in the 81st minute, and the Tunisian referee explains how he was enjoying the tie so much he wanted it to continue into extra-time.
“Later on, England scored and – I have to tell you a secret – I was really hoping that they would get an equaliser. Not because I wanted one team to win more than the other, but because I wanted to stay on the pitch for another 30 minutes. I didn’t want the game to end.”
England didn’t find an equaliser, and crashed out at the quarter-final stage. Argentina, meanwhile, went on to win the 1986 World Cup, with Maradona their talismanic hero.
In 2015, 29 years after the game, Bin Nasser revealed that he met Maradona, with the latter stopping off at the former referee’s house while on the way to Dubai. Clearly, Bin Nasser enjoyed getting to witness Maradona’s mazy dribbling goal first-hand.
“In 2015, Diego came to my house with his wife. He was going to Dubai for a commercial and stopped by to see me. We talked about the match – him in Spanish and me in French with an interpreter by our side. We took some photos together and he gave me a signed jersey. We had a nice evening.
“Maradona was an impressive person. All the time and everywhere I go. People don’t only want to discuss the ‘Hand of God’, though. They also want to talk about Maradona’s second goal. In a way, I’m part of the legend of that match and I’m proud of it.”