It is an iconic piece of Argentine football history, linked intimately with the nation’s greatest sporting idol and his crowning moment on the field.
That makes a London auction house a rather incongruous, if temporary, home for what will soon become by far the most expensive piece of sporting memorabilia ever sold.
The blue shirt worn by Diego Maradona during Argentina’s 2-1 defeat of England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final is currently up for auction at Sotheby’s, having spent the last three and a half decades in the possession of one of the late genius’ Three Lions victims, Steve Hodge, as well as on loan to Manchester’s National Football Museum.
Hodge was one of the England players who was left star-struck and seething in equal measure that June day by two of the most memorable goals ever seen at a World Cup finals, known in turn as the Hand of God and Goal of the Century.
Hodge had the good sense to bag a piece of footballing history as he swapped shirts with the then-Napoli star – in hindsight an inspired decision.
Such was the significance of that prize – which has already met its £4 million ($5m) reserve valuation and will surely go for much more once bidding ends next week – that upon writing his memoirs following a career that took in spells at the likes of Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Tottenham as well as two World Cup appearances, the battling midfielder chose as his autobiographical title The Man with Maradona’s Shirt.
Is it the shirt, though?
Maradona’s daughters by wife Claudia, Dalma and Giannina, have publicly disavowed the auction, claiming that the jersey in Hodge’s possession is not the one which was on the No.10’s back when he broke English hearts.
“It isn’t the one. I don’t want to say who has it because it’s crazy. That man [Hodge] doesn’t have it,” Dalma told reporters following the start of the auction. “That’s not from me, [Maradona] said it. He told me, ‘How would I give away my most treasured shirt?’
“This ex-player thinks he has my dad’s shirt from the second half, but he’s confused, he has it from the first half.”
Sotheby’s in response insists that they have the correct piece of kit, using a technology called Resolution Photomatching to confirm the shirt is identical to that seen in images of Maradona’s second half in Mexico City.
“Resolution Photomatching was able to make a conclusive photomatch to the celebration following “The Hand of God” goal,” the auction house maintains on its website.
“Resolution Photomatching did determine that Maradona switched shirts during the match, but that Maradona did wear this shirt for both historic goals in the second half of the match.”
Journalist and writer Andres Burgo, whose book El Partido gives a fascinating, exhaustive look into both teams before, during and after the famous quarter-final, is in no doubt. “It’s the second-half shirt up for auction, it’s clear,” he said.
“All the signs confirm it is that shirt. Hodge has maintained that for 20 years, Maradona when he was still alive acknowledged it in 2002, there are other witnesses. There has never been any question of it being that shirt, I’m not sure why the family said that, I believe they are the ones who have the first-half shirt.”
One of the great curiosities of this story is that the shirt itself began life in the most inauspicious setting of a backstreet Mexico City sporting goods store.
Shortly before the quarter-final, Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo decided the nation’s chosen away kit for the World Cup was too heavy for the searing local climate and sent off his assistants to find a lightweight version that still carried the logo of supplier Le Coq Sportif.
Forty of the shirts were eventually tracked down and employees of the team hotel were charged with sewing by hand the national team’s badge and numbers on each article, less than 24 hours before the game itself was due to kick off.
The numbers in particular, sparkling grey and designed for use in American Football, caused no little comment among the players. “Those grey numbers were disgusting,” star midfielder Jorge Burruchaga stated, as related by Burgo in El Partido.
Bilardo added: “They were made up of grey sequins, tiny ones. It looked to me like something out of a cabaret show.” But Maradona gave them his seal of approval, and thanks to his two goals, the hastily assembled shirt was destined for a place in football history.
“It adds something even more romantic and of the amateur spirit in an era where that had already gone, it is a fantastic story,” Burgo admits.
Its appearance in an auction has caused other stirs, too. No few Argentines believe that it belongs in Maradona’s country of birth as a national artefact, with some even pushing local influencer and crowdfunder Santi Maratea to make the shirt his next project.
“If a million people put in 2,000 pesos (roughly $10) we’ll get $10 million (£8m) together and buy it no problem,” Maratea joked on Twitter.
Ezequiel Fernandez Moores, one of Argentina’s most respected football voices, lamented to La Nacion: “Diego’s shirt, it’s true, is world football ‘heritage’. But even more so, it is ours. In any case, we prefer England, our historic beaten rivals, to it being bought at auction by a Sheikh or some nouveau riche football magnate.
Burgo, however, is more circumspect. “I’m fairly cold here, the English have been worthy rivals in football, Maradona chose to swap it, and an Englishman having it is fine, now he might have the need financially to auction it, that’s the way the world works, what can we do?” he explains when asked about the shirt’s fate.
In any case, the shirt itself is nothing more than the physical representation of one of the great sporting feats of all time, one which millions had the privilege to witness live and countless more watch back on television shows and via the internet, making it a truly global, ageless phenomenon.
“It goes beyond Maradona, it is the shirt of the two goals, it is like football, if not sport’s Holy Grail, the two most famous World Cup goals in football history and they were scored with the same shirt, in the same game within minutes of each other,” Burgo argues.
“The crowning moment of Maradona is in that game… Two extraordinary goals, one for the right reasons, and one for the wrong reasons, and in such a short time, that is what makes it so special.”
Adwoa Adubia News