Dialogues on the goal of the century

Undici in partnership with Puma Eyewear presents #NoCage, a collection of 12 stories of past and contemporary athletes that have changed the history of sports, overcoming the barriers and obstacles in their path thanks to determination and willpower

“I was there”. How many times would we have liked to say that phrase. I was in Los Angeles when Carl Lewis showed us what it was like to be the wind’s child. I was at the ringside when Muhammad Ali took the soul of Sonny Liston. I was in the stands at Wimbledon when John McEnroe roughed up Jimmy Connors on the grass. I was there when Tardelli shouted to the world that our dreams, if only once in a lifetime, do come true. Or when Diego Armando Maradona went off amongst the British, dancing to a music of his own, ta-ta-ta-ta. We call it the goal of the century, but it is much more. And so, we asked those who had already told the story once, live, realizing that what they had witnessed was one of those moments that would never forgotten, to tell the story again. Four journalists from Italian newspapers who covered the 1986 World Championships in Mexico. Thirty years later, we came back to them, so they could tell us the story of those World Championships, that day, that goal. The rest is fantasy, just like Maradona’s leap against the impossible. They were there.

Interview with Michele Serra – Correspondent for l’Unità

The loudspeaker announced the flight back from Buenos Aires. Ernie looked up; he thought he heard the voice of God. “I hate flying,” he muttered to himself, clutching the lacquered handle of his briefcase. “Milan-Rome-Moscow-Dublin-Havana-Mexico City”. “What did you say?” asked Ernie. “Milan-Rome-Moscow-Dublin-Havana-Mexico City, thirty-six hours of travel with your knees around your ears on Aeroflot planes. It costs less, or so they told me”. “Uh,” said Ernie. He thought it would be a really lousy trip, with all of the stops, the endless waits at airports, and everything else. “And then?” Ernie asked. After all, making conversation seemed a good way to swallow the fear, or at least distract himself, while the blondest airhostess he had ever seen ordered him to fasten his seat belt with a smile. “And then, and then. Thirty years have passed”, he replied. Ernie looked at him. The man was carrying several newspapers, a book, a pocket diary; things that seemed to incite an indecipherable need to hear the rest of the story, whatever it was. He nodded his head, forgetting even that the plane would be taking off at any moment. “Thirty years. Nevertheless, I still have a pretty clear memory of my forty days in Mexico City. The rarefied air, full of dust, a feeling of a noxious life, the poor sleeping in the flower beds in front of the luxurious Hotel Chapultepec, where l’Unità, perhaps due to an accounting error, had booked me after that delirious trip via that unforgettable route: Milan-Rome-Moscow-Dublin-Havana-Mexico City”.

The more the man spoke, the less Ernie worried about the rolling sensation, or the roaring, steaming breath of the engines, or the inclination of the passenger compartment as the plane’s metal casing held together by nuts and bolts rose into the sky. And suddenly, in a loud voice, he said: “Ah, but of course, the Mexican World Championships, of 1986”. To Ernie it seemed almost as if he rejoiced in it, but no one seemed to notice.

“By the time we got to the quarter-finals I had learned to get by a bit better. I ate in Argentine restaurants, meat and cheese, cheese and meat, a vegan would be hung from the first lamppost. And I worked a lot, with the eternal anxiety of not being able to find a free phone at the hotel so I could dictate the piece to the phone recording machine operators…”. Happy to be amused with a few memories, Ernie realized that his only recollection of those years was rough, fragmentary and quite sad. There was the Chernobyl accident. And the tensions between Italy and Colonel Gaddafi. Maradona was a flash of light in the dark, but at least it was enjoyable. “And Maradona?”, he asked with the innocence of a child.”He was quiet, friendly and always full of smiles, the exact opposite of the moody, sarcastic character of Platini, the other big star of the soccer world who after the French withdrawal greeted us so rudely. Diego was just the opposite. In training, from only a few meters away, I admired Maradona’s physique: he was not as short as I thought, but had a rather stocky build, almost cubic, imposing, and seemingly incompatible with the concepts of agility and speed. I thought that if football is the most loved sport in the world it is because it allows anyone, be they dwarfs, giants, skinny- and strongmen, prim or hysterical, to excel… anyone”.

Hoddle, Reid, Sansom, Butcher, Fenwick e Shilton, nobody can stop  El Diez

“And that goal, do you remember that goal?”. There was no need to nominate the British. That goal, for Ernie, and perhaps for all of us, was the goal that Maradona scored against England. “What a feat, a true marvel. You also saw it, were you there that day?”. The man paused. The sunset seen from this height seemed even more powerful and bright, and the windows glowed with a vivid yellow light, the same light that illuminates one’s thoughts. “Well yes, of course. I saw all of Argentina’s matches in the final stage, in amongst the confused group of Argentine journalists, and over the whole event hung an aura of what felt a lot like an inescapable destiny. I had the impression that the opponents, Belgium and England, with the exception of Germany who at least tried in the final, had already resigned themselves to the fact that it was Maradona's World Championships. This was also thanks to the absurd war of the Malvinas, which overloaded the Argentine expedition with patriotic emphasis. And so that goal, which had an almost senseless form in the context of the modern game – with a single man surpassing three, four, five, eighty if there had been eighty players to pass – seemed almost normal to me, in the sense that nothing could stop Maradona”. Ernie said nothing. He listened. He was listening at the right altitude to hear the dreams vibrate inside his head. Another pause, and then the man continued to tell the story that rose out of the mists of time, from the dust, or perhaps from another universe: “I wouldn’t say that I expected it, but still the wonder was slightly less incredible than it would have been in a different situation.

It was as if Maradona was running downhill and all the others uphill. And I saw it all perfectly, the Azteca is noted for its vertical structure, with the stands literally standing around the field so that the actions are seen almost from above. It’s ideal for those who are passionate about game plans and field tactics, its almost like a Subbuteo”. Ernie laughed, and then turned to look outside. With eyes that sparkled with the thought of the goal that had long been a dream of his youth, he thought of how many times, on the street with the other boys, he had launched into a violent, nervous stretch of exaggerated dribbling. “But how do you score a goal like that? How? Have you ever seen another goal as beautiful, or more beautiful and more absurd than that one?”, he asked without turning around. Ernie heard the man's voice as a faint sound, a breath that he only just felt before falling asleep: «Frankly, no, but I do not follow football with sufficient diligence to be able to say so. Perhaps wonders have happened on some minor league field of which no one will ever hear. That goal is certainly the most beautiful I've ever seen for the simple reason that it overthrew the concept of tactics, of team work, and even of competitive spirit, in favor of the role of star players. Alone, he overturned a whole world. Not even a roadblock would have stopped him. A child’s goal, the goal of a “nino de oro” (child of gold). Where “of gold” matters, but the “child” counts more». When Ernie awoke, the plane had been on the ground for a while. The seat next to him was empty.

Diego Maradona of Argentina #10 shakes hands with Peter Shilton of England before the 1986 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final on 22 June 1986 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Mexico. Argentina defeated England 2-1 in the infamous Hand of God game. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
Diego Maradona of Argentina #10 shakes hands with Peter Shilton of England before the 1986 FIFA World Cup Quarter Final on 22 June 1986 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Mexico. Argentina defeated England 2-1 in the infamous Hand of God game (David Cannon/Getty Images)


With Lodovico Maradei – Correspondent for the Gazzetta dello Sport

He was dozing off with his mouth full, when the door swung open and a shadow stuck in his head. Andy felt the embarrassment rise up from his stomach like a warm, unexpected breeze, smoothed his hair, rubbed his face and tried not to draw too much attention to himself. Customers do not like that kind of carelessness. A taxi driver can do anything, you can have a dashboard full of papers and magazines and the wrinkled faces of holy cards stuck behind the wheel, but to sleep during one’s shift, well, that is absolutely prohibited. “Where to?” Andy asked adjusting the rearview mirror. The man stammered an address. Distracted and without another word he concentrated on the landscape that turned into a liquid with speed, took a newspaper and peered at the sports page, the one printed in color. “Did you see yesterday’s match? What a team!”, said Andy, trying to strike up a conversation. The man looked up at him from behind the lenses of his spectacles, and without saying a word remained immersed in his business. Andy pulled into the large ring road that ran alongside the overpass, he felt the car in hand, felt it through his hands, and tried to depress the accelerator so that it was totally imperceptible to those riding in the back, just a touch with his toe, just enough to feel a chill in his temples. “Of course now they build these racing cars and you can’t even take them to their max. Huh?”, Andy tried again. Two kilometers later a warning light began to flash. Unexpected events like that normally wouldn’t fuss Andy, but when you have a passenger on board it can made the situation pretty damn annoying. And it got even worse when he saw a stream of white smoke curl out from under the hood, to the point that he had to pull over, stop his run-down sports car and race to check the engine. “Holy shit!” he exclaimed.

“Once it happened to me with a Chevrolet. It stopped suddenly, the oil was finished and the engine was stuffed. Luckily, it stopped right in front of a small house with decaying walls and no window or door frames. A boy came out, showed us that there was a mechanic’s workshop a two-kilometer walk away. More than a workshop it seemed the den of an ogre. The mechanic was slovenly, filthy dirty and grimy all over. He wore a holy sweater and his nails were black with motor oil. He loaded us into his car and drove us back. Once we got there, the boy and the mechanic slid under the car in the dust, but there was nothing to be done. They had to call the tow truck, which, however, would only arrive the next day. The guy told us to push it right in front of his house, saying that he would keep an eye out all night”. Andy looked at the man for the first time, really looked at him, from head to toe. “Where? Where did it happen?”. “In Mexico. In 1986: it's been thirty years.” The wind carried the white smoke away, enveloping the two men and hiding them from the world, and it was then that they felt a moment of complicity and sympathy. “The night in Mexico City is incredible: in the Pink Zone, which is the richest part of the city, the streets are very, very long, almost endless. But around midnight the campesinos, come out, as if from nowhere. Such poverty. On my way to Guadalajara, I saw the corpse of a horse tossed into the ditch and left there to rot, and along the roads, just beyond the paving stones, there were these dilapidated houses without windows, full of holes. So much misery. And yet it was an exceptional World Cup”.

Argentinian forward Diego Maradona (R) gets ready to cross the ball under pressure from English defender Gary Stevens during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Argentina and England 22 June 1986 in Mexico City. Argentina beat England 2-1 on goals by Maradona. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)
Argentinian forward Diego Maradona (R) gets ready to cross the ball under pressure from English defender Gary Stevens during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Argentina and England 22 June 1986 in Mexico City. Argentina beat England 2-1 on goals by Maradona (Staff/Afp/Getty Images)

«World Cup?” Andy asked, his eyes widening as he dared to add “Argentina! Maradona! Maradona?”. The other man smiled. “There was the feeling of being in front of a character who was capable of doing anything. Maradona. What a player. I remember the burst of enthusiasm that he gave me with that goal against England…”. “Maradona! Yes, yes!” confirmed Andy. “Every time I think of it I imagine a formula one racing driver as he changes from second, to third, to fourth, and then into fifth, and that continuous repetition of gear changes, I ask myself where does that increase in speed go, zam, zam…”. As Andy looked at the radiator, he burst out laughing and the smoke entered his mouth. He coughed so hard that the other man thought he would pass out. “He is the best player in history, isn’t he?” ventured Andy when he had recovered. “I saw him for the first time in London, a few years earlier, playing against England. The newspaper had called him Maradonna with two ‘n’s, because in Europe he was not yet known. I went with Bearzot, who was studying the British. At the time, Maradona did not arouse much interest, but he did do something, just one thing, that left Bearzot and I breathless. I recall that Bearzot even stood up to applaud. A high ball flew towards a tall, lanky defender. Maradona, who was much shorter, made a move, so suddenly and with such strength, leaping lightly and raising the pivotal leg, which beat the defender with speed. In my imagination, the defender remained motionless.”


Adalberto Scemma – Correspondent for the Arena

“You still smoke?”, Tully asked. “Are you kidding? Of course not”. “I mean, how the heck does someone last so long?”. “It's matter of principle, of willpower, do you understand? It’s all in the head. A form of willpower you learn. Athletics taught me. Sport helps. You have to engage yourself, otherwise it doesn’t happen”. “I can’t do it”. Sighing, with his elbows on the counter, Tully sniffed his hands for a hint of the acrid, rough smell of tobacco still clinging to his fingers. He smelled a faint aroma of licorice, and that did it. “Okay, okay. How long has it been since the last one?” Tully asked, closing his eyes. “Thirty years. I risked a congestion during a television broadcast. Bagnoli and Brera were there at the time. The doctor told me that I was paving the way towards emphysema. You know, I smoked fifty cigarettes a day. I asked him if I should just quit. He told me to cut down, saying that no one ever quits completely. And in saying that, he made me go crazy, not being in control drives me crazy”.

Tully looked at him amused, waving his index finger under his nostrils. “And then?”. “The day I arrived in Mexico, in ‘86, the newspaper asked me for a page. We arrived at eleven o'clock in the evening, I had until seven the next morning to deliver the piece. Let’s just say that at midnight, I was in front of the typewriter and could not muster a word. So I drank a shot of tequila. Nothing. Another drop. Still nothing. At four I was almost drunk and sweating, when I felt the terror bite at my throat, the fear that I would not make it”. He glanced at the empty glass, and Tully felt he had been hit in one of his weak points. He felt the mixture of alcohol and smoke on his lips and at the bottom of his throat, and he felt like taking a cigarette and lighting up that prohibited pleasure made of tar and nicotine. “I feel as if I could start again,” he said. “Wait, listen. At five o’oclock, in a panic I open a drawer, and what do I find? A brand new pack of red Marlboros. Ah. A packet. I became nervous. I squeezed the pack with all my might, and then I threw it against the wall. Wham.” “And then?”. “I wrote the piece in one breath.”


Tully looked up, the television was showing the match of Boca. Then he turned to the man beside him, and suddenly he thought about Maradona. “And Diego?”. The other man smiled. “You mean the goal against England?”. Tully nodded. He had seen that Argentine dance so many times that he knew every detail. Yet he had never really seen it. In fact, only a very few had been granted the privilege to see that prodigious spectacle live. Then he went back to sniffing his index finger, and this time he seemed to smell the scent of grass. “I've never seen anything like it again. I swear. If I close my eyes, I can see it clearly. You know the ones that do the triple jump? Diego jumped opponents with the same lightness, with the same agility, and with extraordinary force. He made it seem so easy. The Azteca stadium was chaos. Before the game, the spectators had thrown little pieces of silver paper, a shower of silver. I have kept them, you know. Maradona took the ball and took off. As if he left flying”. When they left the bar, Tully fumbled in his pocket, extracting a wrinkled pack of cigarettes, looked at him for moment, with a self-indulgent smug: and threw it away. “Are those goals scored using willpower or by magic?” He asked. “True class is knowing exactly what to do, when. Magic is the optimal use of energy. That was not a classy shot. It was a stroke of magic. ”

The tale of a magic moment


With Antonio Corbo – Correspondent for the Corriere dello Sport-Stadio

“Can you believe it? Thirty years have passed already. Thirty years you know?. ” “Eh.” Without the public, the Azteca stadium looked more frightening and impressive than ever, with the bleachers overlooking the field and air seeping in everywhere, through the tunnels and the steps, through cracks in the concrete, creating a distant sound similar to that of an electric saw. The two stopped just beyond the halfway line.”What do you remember?”. “I remember the hotel where we were staying, and the night that never waned, like in army barracks and hospitals, and there was this sense of continuous and perpetual motion, this swarming around us as newspaper journalists, and people coming and going at all hours”. He paused, closed his eyes and then continued: “And I remember the hostesses, these beautiful women who would become the child stars of Televisa, the Mexican TV channel, women full of curiosity that I never fully understood. I wonder why. I remember the day before the game, dictating the piece to the telephone recorder operators, and women looked in from the big door of this huge, enormous room where they had put all of us journalists, peering, eavesdropping. They were interested in this surreal story, in the torments of the great Argentine champion, in the war of the Malvinas, in England… “.

22 Jun 1986: Diego Maradona of Argentina in action during the World Cup quarter-final against England at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Argentina won the match 2-1. Mandatory Credit: David Cannon/Allsport
22 Jun 1986: Diego Maradona of Argentina in action during the World Cup quarter-final against England at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Argentina won the match 2-1 (David Cannon/Allsport)

The more robust of the two kicked a ball made of air and imagination. The other looked on without expressing much surprise. “Thirty years ago I did not have this belly, my slender legs moved and twisted fast. Not like now. And then I also got heart problems, the years go on my friend…” “Eh…”. The two trundled across the lawn slowly, one step after the other, with their leather shoes that seemed to creak like an old door, with the blades of grass rustling against the hems of their good pants. Time seemed to stand still. “And what else do you remember?” “I remember the president Alfonsín, with that mustache and melancholy look in his eye because he didn’t even go to that World Championship match. I also think of him…”. They took a few more steps, and then stopped again.

“And the goal?”. “Eh, the goal. I felt like I was seeing a giant in full color, playing alone in amongst his opponents in black and white, and I cannot even remember who those opponents were, it was as if he was carrying that goal with him, on his back, I don’t know. The feeling was that of watching a light moving fast, even if it was a rather abstract light…”. They thought how, in broad daylight, sometimes even sounds shine. As do gestures, silences, dreams. Everything shines in one’s memory. “In the end, it was the best goal in the World Championships. Already. Perhaps it was more a lot more. ” “Yes, it was the goal of the century. And you, Diego, what do you remember? “.