It’s a fierce footballing rivalry that’s been controversial at every turn. England and Argentina, rare intercontinental foes, are hardly two peas in a pod. But as well as that, England itself painted starkly contrasting pictures in 1986 and 1998. From Hillsborough and Thatcher to the Premier League and Blair, England evolved an awful lot between those notorious Argentinian heartbreaks.

The backdrop in ’86

As Sir Bobby Robson’s men boarded their flight to Mexico, England’s domestic game was in the gutter. Just over a year earlier, two of our most horrific football tragedies had occurred inside three weeks. The Heysel Stadium disaster left 39 dead and saw English clubs banned from continental competitions until 1990. The Bradford City stadium fire saw 56 people lose their lives.

Hooligans dominated the terraces; so much so that Thatcher’s government created a “war cabinet” to combat the issue. Away from football, the year-long miners’ strike only concluded in March 1985. At the start of the decade, nationwide riots inspired The Specials’ dystopian anthem ‘Ghost Town’. And then we come to the most pivotal factor: the Falklands War.

Whilst the conflict affected many in the UK, there’s no doubt that Argentinians’ anger was much more visceral. “Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds,” stated Diego Maradona. “And this was revenge.”

Casualties on Argentina’s side had totalled 649, compared to 255 on the UK’s. Over 11,000 Argentinians were captured during the conflict. Earlier in the tournament, Argentine barra bravas burned Union Flags, and there were several clashes between supporters in the days before the match.

It wasn’t only the Falklands that fanned the flames of the rivalry from Argentina’s perspective. Their 1-0 defeat against England in the 1966 World Cup was dubbed ‘el robo del siglo‘ (‘the theft of the century’). Two decades worth of frustration on their part meant that revenge on the pitch was even more vital. British ex-pats had introduced football to Argentina in the late 19th century. But now was their time to claim ownership for good.

And then England’s heartbreak…

And so, the game itself. Inside the space of four minutes, Diego Maradona scored two of the most iconic goals ever seen. His infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal left England’s players reeling at the officials. And whilst they were still shell-shocked, ‘The Goal of the Century’ put Carlos Bilardo’s men 2-0 up. An 81st minute Lineker goal wasn’t enough, and the Three Lions were sent home weeks earlier than they’d hoped.

The circumstances of their victory and the controversy surrounding it were simply irrelevant. “In 1986, winning that game against England was enough,” said Robert Perfumo. “Winning the World Cup was secondary for us. Beating England was our real aim.”

The backdrop in ’98

It’d be 12 years before England would have a chance to respond on grass. And what fascinates me is the fact that the country had changed almost beyond recognition during that period.

For a start, our top-flight clubs no longer competed in the First Division. Exactly halfway between these two matches, the Premier League had arrived. Sky TV was broadcasting regular matches into our living rooms. In the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, Premier League matches took place in all-seater stadiums. Our game was now adorned with foreign superstars: for every Shearer or Cole there was a Cantona or Vialli.

Outside the stadiums, we’d had the BritPop boom and Cool Britannia. Tony Blair had won a landslide in 1997 and the Spice Girls were dominating the charts. England, in general, looked brighter, cooler, sexier and, dare I say it, happier. Italia ’90 had captured our hearts and signalled a new dawn for English football. After Wembley heartbreak at Euro ’96, we were ready to go one step further at France ’98.

And then England’s heartbreak…

The tie started at breakneck speed, with two penalties inside the first nine minutes. Alan Shearer’s cancelled out Gabriel Batistuta’s to send our heart rates through the roof. Wonderkid Michael Owen then scored one of the greatest England goals of all-time on 16 minutes and until Javier Zanetti caught us snoozing in first-half stoppage time, we were truly allowed to dream.

And then it happened. A moment that sent shock waves through millions of households and changed one man’s life forever. England’s young, charismatic superstar gave a petulant kick to Diego Simeone’s calf directly in front of the referee. Lying on his front after being fouled, it was a petty and unnecessary retaliation. Simeone went down in histrionics before being booked, and Kim Milton Nielsen broke English hearts by sending Beckham off.

Two minutes from half-time, we were 2-1 in front with our tails up. Two minutes into the second half, we had a mountain to climb. Glenn Hoddle’s men battled valiantly, and when Sol Campbell scored in the 81st minute, we were sent into raptures. But the goal was disallowed, and by the end of extra-time, we were mentally and physically exhausted.

Hernán Crespo’s miss was immediately forgiven by Paul Ince’s. And when Roberto Ayala made it 4-3 in the shootout, it meant that David Batty had no room for error. Batty, the straight-talking, old school Yorkshireman who, aged 30, had never taken a penalty in his career. Saved. Heartbreak, again.

The aftermath of ’98 in England

This time, we didn’t have Maradona to blame. We couldn’t sneer at the opposition and revel in self-pity. This time, it was one of our own. Beckham, who’d been left out of the first two matches because Hoddle disliked his persona, was public enemy number one. A hanging effigy of him was pictured outside a London pub and plastered over the tabloids. He received multiple death threats, and eventually, the tabloids themselves had to beg people to lay off him.

Never had one of England’s stars been so vilified by our media. But Beckham’s treatment would be the first crack in a relationship that’s yet to heal. The triple-whammy of shoot-out agony in the 1990s had heaped unfathomable pressure on our “Golden Generation”. And the tabloid press was a pack of piranhas waiting to greet them off the plane each time.

England’s evolution

According to the record books, nothing had changed between ’86 and ’98. Argentina were better than England at football and progressed to the next round of the World Cup. But fortunately for us, the record books only document the formalities.

Now, to play devil’s advocate. I’m aware that some people love Thatcher and despise Blair. But the general mood of the nation in ’86 and ’98 was a drastic improvement, regardless. I’m also aware that terraces had something that all-seater stadiums could never replicate. Whilst our safety inside stadiums has improved, the atmosphere has suffered. Some fans look at the 1980s as being a golden era for going to the football.

Also, the Premier League has seen the amount of money in our game swell to astronomical levels. Some would say unsustainable levels: particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The gap between the Premier League and EFL is severely damaging to the chasing pack. Furthermore, England are yet to win another tournament, and some blame the disproportionate prominence of foreign players in our top-flight.

This is a tale involving two nations, two moments of madness, three deciding characters and 12 hugely transformative years. From Diego Maradona in ’86: one of the most divisive characters that the game has ever seen to David Batty in ’98: a caravan dwelling, motorbike driving Yorkshireman who doesn’t even like football. From hooligans in fenced-off pens to Geri’s dress. From riots and strikes to the Dot.com boom, and from Millwall versus Luton to Zola versus Schmeichel.

The heartbreak and tears will always remain as constants when it comes to the beautiful game. But between these fiery contests, England evolved in every sense.