-Arbitro corupto! Arbitro corupto!
We are sitting in the nosebleed section of the Azteca stadium on the outskirts of Mexico City listening to hilarious chants of the local boisterous soccer fans. We are sitting so high that I feel a little dizzy and a bit worried that my nose may actually bleed. I can’t believe I’m here. Azteca. Cathedral of futbol. One of the most iconic stadiums in the world. My childhood dream to visit this place has been finally fulfilled.
Azteca is enormous. The giant bowl of the stadium today can host almost 90,000 spectators. But the sheer size of the stadium creates an impression that it can host even more. I can barely make out the silhouettes of spectators sitting on the opposite side of the stadium. This evening, the stadium is mostly empty as the Liga MX game between Cruz Azul and Pachuca, two local teams, is not quite a riveting affair. But the rows of empty seats do not diminish the magic. As I am looking down on the soccer field, I can barely concentrate on the ball. The game of the Mexican Soccer League is surely a fun affair, but I am distracted. I am still dizzy. My head is spinning. I take my eyes off the field and take a deep breath. My childhood memories come rushing back at me. I open my eyes and slowly look around. The stadium is now full, not a single empty seat. I see a team in blue shirts advancing a ball down the field against a team in white shirts. The spectators around me look different with their haircuts and clothes no longer from 2019, but from the 1980s. I look at the scoreboard and there it is, clear as day: Argentina-England 0:0. The year is 1986, and I am at the quarter-final of the FIFA World Cup.
I can’t remember the 1986 World Cup, I was only three years old when it took place. Yet, as a child, I watched the magic of that World Cup on VHS tapes. By the early 1990s, VHS recorders made their way to the former Soviet Union, although it was still a luxury item in most households. My family could afford one only at the end of the 1990s.
One day, as I returned from school, I found my dad and my uncle in the living room watching Terminator-2 on the VHS recorder that my uncle borrowed from someone for a day. Once they finished with the movie and went to the kitchen to eat, I was left alone with the VHS recorder and whatever was recorded on the tape following the movie. I was glued to the screen as the VHS started to play a sports program showing the best moments of the 1986 World Cup. I watched it, breathlessly. The program was in a foreign language, but it didn’t matter. The memory is still vivid as this was the first time when I saw those two goals and the magic of Diego Armando Maradona. A year or two later, at my friend’s place, I watched another program on that World Cup and was just as impressed with what I saw.
I also knew about the FIFA World Cup from obsessively reading (no less than 10 times!) the autobiography of a midfielder for the USSR national team and my childhood hero, Sergey Aleynikov, whose poster had been hanging in my room for more than a decade. In his book, “Life, Tears, and Soccer”, he described the World Cup, the difficulty of playing in Mexico at high altitudes, Azteca Stadium, Diego Maradona, and a scandalous elimination of the Soviet team in a game against Belgium caused by odd officiating by Swedish referee Fredriksson. The name of that villain referee (arbitro corupto indeed) was seared into my childhood memory that I still remember it more than 25 years later.
Back at Azteca, the second half is underway, the scoreboard still displaying 0:0. I am sitting next to a middle-aged couple clad in the blue and white colors of the Argentinian national team. They speak Spanish in a distinct porteño accent, which is generally hated and considered to be pretentious by people outside of Buenos Aires and throughout South America. Right above me, two English lads are talking to each other in an unmistakable accent of industrial England. They are from Manchester or Birmingham, I conclude. The collective chatter around me in posh Spanish and proletarian English does not faze me at all. I am intently staring at the field, anxiously waiting for something big to happen. I know the script too well. I watched it and I read about it so many times. The next five minutes will be written in soccer history.
The stadium clock shows 50 minutes of playing time. I see a short stocky player with flowing black hair in a blue shirt with number 10 on the back getting a ball near the midfield and starting to make his way into England’s territory. Diego. He moves effortlessly. The ball appears to be glued to his foot. He accelerates and with his dribbling moves leaves three English players one after another to stare at his back while advancing the ball closer to the penalty zone. Right before entering the penalty zone, he passes the ball to the right while continuing to charge to the net. The Argentinian player, for whom the pass was intended, connects with the ball awkwardly and the ball goes to the English defender who also can’t handle it properly and the ball, bouncing off his leg, flies high in the air toward the English goalkeeper, Peter Shilton. Maradona, who just seconds ago passed the ball, is all alone in front of Shilton and the ball is in mid-air between him and the English goalkeeper. Diego jumps as high as he can and reunites with the ball, knocking it to the net with his head. Or at least, it appears that he knocked it with his head. The English defenders all instantaneously raise their hands protesting: he scored it with a hand!!! But Maradona is having none of this; he is running toward the stands celebrating the goal without looking back. The Argentinian fans are jubilant. The Argentinian lady hugs and kisses me on the cheek. The English lads from above are booing relentlessly and screaming “handball” from the top of their lungs. The atmosphere in the stadium is a strange mix of confused celebration and indignation.
He did score it with a hand. There is no denying it, and video replays in slow motion clearly show his crime. If the game was played today, the goal would surely have been disallowed and Maradona would have received a yellow card for his foul. But in pre-VAR simpler times, the game was all about here and now, no second looks. Keep your eyes open or you miss it. Everything happened so fast and the scoring contact with the ball was so instant that no wonder the referee did miss that call. The English players keep pleading with the referee, but he sternly points to the center of the field. Diego continues his celebratory lap by hugging teammates and pumping his left fist into the air as if proclaiming “look, this is the Hand of God.” Let’s give him credit, he did sell the goal with his unwavering celebration better than personal injury attorneys sell their services in the middle of the night on cable TV.
Had the game ended at 1:0, Maradona would have been the villain in the book of world soccer, eliminating the decent English team with his cheating handball. The “Hand of God” moniker would still probably have been coined, but the win against England and the subsequent World Cup victory would have been forever marred by a goal that should have never counted. Yet, all these musings are irrelevant. As the game resumes, I know that in just four minutes Azteca and the world will witness one of the greatest goals in World Cup history, providing total redemption and immortality to the Number 10.
The ever-present Maradona, like Figaro who is here and there, again gets the ball midfield and starts charging into England’s territory. He moves so fast; he is barely touching the ground. He dribbles to the left and right, leaving behind player after player. He goes through the defense like a knife through butter. By the time he enters the penalty zone, five English players are left behind. The entire stadium is breathless, anticipating his next move. He does not need to pass and needs no support from his teammates: they, like all of us, can only watch this moment of glory. Diego continues forward, pushes to the right of Shilton, and strikes again. 2:0.
No cheating, no foul play. Just pure greatness. The villain from 5 minutes ago has redeemed himself with this brilliant goal. “Goal of the Century?” It absolutely is. The stadium erupts and, this time, it is pure celebration. The Argentinian couple next to me is crying, raising their hands to the sky. I turn my head and two English fans from above silently shrug their shoulders in disbelief at what they just saw. I am overjoyed, as I close my eyes to listen to the jubilant noise of Azteca.
Julia pulls me by the sleeve and asks: “Are you okay? You are kinda quiet.”
“I am fine,” I say.
I look around, the stadium is almost empty. I look at the scoreboard; it shows Cruz Azul-Pachuca 4:1. The Mexican fans behind us keep yelling funny stuff in Spanish. The trip down memory lane is over.
Soccer stadiums are like tiny cities in themselves. They host historical events, heartbreak, disappointment, and greatness. Azteca is one of such iconic places and a huge reason I wanted to visit Mexico since I was a kid. Argentina would go on winning that game against England 2:1, as well as a semifinal against Belgium and a final against West Germany, all at Azteca. Diego would raise the World Cup here. And over 30 years later, I would sit in this very stadium, just as breathless as I was when I first saw Azteca on TV as a child.
“It was a great game,” Julia says as we leave our seats.
“Yes, it was,” I say. “The greatest.”
Today is a year since we started this blog, to document all the stories and shenanigans, all the little details that fade from memory, all the funny tidbits and hardships that come from being immersed in a foreign culture, thousands of miles away from home. For the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on why we travel as we do and why the memories from our trips are important enough to warrant documenting here. Today’s entry is the result of these meditations. The awe with which I experienced life as a child, the love which I cultivated for various countries through watching Olympics and world sports competitions, the mysteries of ancient civilizations and far-off places from the pages of my Soviet-era textbooks I yearned to uncover, all of this I can now experience through the magic of low-budget airlines and a well-planned itinerary. If you told the seven-year-old me that this was possible, I wouldn’t have believed it. A part of me doesn’t believe it still.
To everyone planning trips in this upcoming year to satisfy their inner child – Happy Travels!