20100521

How Steve Hodge swapped his shirt for the fury of a nation


England and Argentina have not been friends on the football field since Antonio Rattin was sent off at Wembley in 1966 quarter-finals, when the South Americans suspected a conspiracy between England and Germany to ensure their elimination from the tournament.

A goal by Geoff Hurst -- the only one of the game -- was allowed to stand despite Argentine suspicions of offside by German referee Rudolf Kreitlein, who reportedly sent off Rattin, the captain, for "violence of the tongue", even though he spoke no Spanish.

But it was in 1986 that their mutual dislike became irreversible, thanks, of course, to Diego Maradona and the "Hand of God" goal in the quarter-finals in Mexico, which was generally seen by the little maestro's country as a justifiable act of retribution for the Falklands War of four years earlier.

England missed the chance to avenge their sense of injustice when Germany eliminated them from the 1990 tournament at the semi-final stage, denying them the chance to meet Argentina -- and Maradona -- in the final.  Beaten on penalties when they met in France in 1998, in the match notorious for David Beckham's red card, England did manage a 1-0 win at the group stage in 2002, but with Maradona long retired the sense of satisfaction had something missing.

This time, though, England's time may come.  Maradona is Argentina's coach and should both teams come through their groups they could find themselves face to face, perhaps as early as the quarter-finals but maybe even in the final.  If the latter possibility materialises, there would never be a better time to settle the score.

A whole nation's desire for retribution seemed to be coursing through Beckham's veins after his goal settled the 2002 encounter -- yet the experience of the players on the field is not always in line with the partisan emotions erupting in front of television screens at home.

Take 1986, for example.  At the end of the game in the Aztec Stadium, after England's gallant attempts to force extra time had failed, the incredulous fury of the fans back home grew and grew as the tape of Maradona's opening goal was subjected to replay after replay. On the field, however, an England player was walking up to the man into whose metaphorical effigy several million pins had already been driven, tugging the front of his shirt as he did so. And in the time it takes to smile and shake hands, he was in possession of Maradona's number 10.

That player was Steve Hodge.  Rapt in admiration at Maradona's second goal, the one that confirmed his status as the greatest player on the planet (technically, at least), Hodge had seized his chance.   He knew what had happened.  For goodness' sake, it was his backpass -- or miscued clearance, depending on how you interpret it -- that put the ball in the vicinity of Maradona's head.   Some teammates, notably Kenny Sansom, felt Hodge was in some part responsible for the goal, having forgotten an instruction to push forward if Maradona was looking for a one-two.

But never mind the baying for Maradona's blood, Hodge had his shirt.  It was, you imagine, a spontaneous act, the traditional exchange of favours between gladiatorial adversaries.  If it was a calculated business move, however, then Hodge was clearly a shrewd cookie.

He still has the shirt, stored safely in a bank vault and only occasionally allowed to see the light of day. He turned down an offer of £25,000 for it some years ago.  Its value now would be considerably more and will soar again if Maradona is finally made to pay his moral dues in South Africa next month.

With what may be perfect timing, Hodge has chosen this summer to bring out a book whose title commemorates his prized capture. The Man With Maradona's Shirt offers readers the chance to share Hodge's observations on the 1986 World Cup and much more, based on diaries he kept during his playing career, covering his time working under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, alongside Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle and Ossie Ardiles in a brilliant Spurs midfield, and in the company of a 'somewhat shy' Frenchman called Eric Cantona at Leeds.

Publishers Orion say The Man With Maradona's Shirt provides an intimate glimpse behind the scenes of football at the top level that stands comparison with Pete Davies's All Played Out and Tony Cascarino's Full Time.  Buy the book now and you can be the judge of that.

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