BY MARK GODFREY
As the intense, late afternoon heat scorched the lush green Azteca turf, 22 sweat-drenched combatants congratulated and consoled each other and themselves at the end of one of the most notorious and remarkable association football games ever seen.
Two short, dark-haired, stocky midfielders met to swap colours, their respective careers now defined by the previous interventions of the other. One of them walks away with possibly the most prized piece of sporting memorabilia in the world while the other takes home something that has become even more elusive and unobtainable; the number 18 shirt of Englandâ€™s Steve Hodge.
Exactly what happened on June 22nd, 1986 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City shouldnâ€™t need explaining and therefore I wonâ€™t waste your time or mine by recounting it in all its minutiae. Needless to say, Diego Maradona became both vilified and beatified within the space of five preposterously incredible minutes.
At full time of that World Cup quarter-final between England and Argentina, a game that exacerbated the stereotype of â€˜Jonny Foreignerâ€™ and his untrustworthy, cheating ways in the collective English mindset, Hodge was able to exchange his shirt for that of the dramaâ€™s principal protagonist.
While the practice of shirt-swapping at the end of international fixtures was the norm â€“ especially at the World Cup â€“ quite why Maradona was so quick to avail himself of such a memento is anyoneâ€™s guess. Perhaps the single-mindedness that pushed to him to chance his arm (quite literally) for his first and most controversial goal that day, and then drove him to produce the wonderous, slalom-like effort soon after had already focussed his mind towards almost singlehandedly winning the tournament for his country. Such trivial keepsakes like a shirt were inconsequential to the task ahead; the euphoria of getting one over the hated English â€“ military enemies just four years earlier and seen as illegal occupiers of Argentine land (Las Malvinas) â€“ proving too much of a distraction.
And while Englandâ€™s reliable, if unremarkable Hodge (a prototype for James Milner, if you will) was responsible for the hideously misjudged backpass attempt to Peter Shilton from which the worldâ€™s greatest player (with an assist attributed to God himself) scored by means of foul play, he would walk away with some kind of recompense from Englandâ€™s controversial World Cup exit.
The resting place of Maradonaâ€™s royal-blue number 10 shirt worn on that day is well-documented. Hodge has had it stashed away for over 25 years, only allowing it to occasionally appear on TV or in museum exhibitions. He has reportedly resisted several tempting offers to relieve it from his possession. Far less, if anything, is known about the fate of the jersey worn by the ex-Spurs, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa man.
What is sure â€“ should it ever be located – is that it carries very little financial value, and unlike Maradonaâ€™s shirt, it possesses even less cultural worth. The Argentine captain â€“ dizzied by the headiness of triumph â€“ is unlikely to have treasured Hodgeâ€™s shirt whatsoever. More plausible, given the animosity between the two nations, is that he would feel compelled to wipe his arse on it and then pass it on for his compatriots to do likewise. Unseemly, but, in the palpable toxicity of that particular occasion â€“ especially for its eventual victors â€“ one shouldnâ€™t be surprised if such a gesture of defiance left its mark (pardon the pun) on that discarded garment.
In the heat of the moment Maradona gave away the top he wore on the day of his ascension to legend, and as film archives show, preferred to celebrate post-match by dancing semi-naked and shirtless in the changing room. I doubt he gave even a second thought to the one he got in exchange from a competent,Â run-of-the-mill English midfielder.
So, and I canâ€™t believe I am giving myself this ridiculous task, I have resolved to try and track Steve Hodgeâ€™s England shirt down, or at least discover where it may have perished, more than 28 years after it passed into the ownership â€“ however briefly â€“ of the greatest player of his and perhaps any other generation of footballers.
How on earth am I going to do this you might very well ask? Frankly, I donâ€™t have the first idea. Without even trying I can identify plenty of obstacles. I donâ€™t know Diego Maradona nor anyone that does. I also donâ€™t know how to get hold of any of his representatives. The world of Maradona seems to be a dark, edgy, haphazard and chaotic one with access to him or his people likely to be dictated by the amount of money thrown at them to secure fleeting moments of his presence. I am not in the financial position to facilitate such an iffy transaction and neither am I able to chase him maniacally around the world to pose the question â€œwhat did you do with Hodgeâ€™s shirt?â€
The likelihood is that it did indeed pass through Maradonaâ€™s crevice before finding its way into the nearest garbage bin on that sweltering afternoon in Mexico City. But what ifâ€¦.what ifâ€¦itâ€™s tucked away somewhere in the little fellaâ€™s hoard of football trinkets garnered from his incredible career? This could be the opportunity to secure that sporting curiosity for the nation.
Now, I am pretty certain I wonâ€™t be able to undertake this ridiculous, nonsensical quest on my own. Therefore, dear reader, I need you. Thatâ€™s right, Iâ€™m asking you to join me. It might not be the Holy Grail we are looking for, but it may just be as ludicrous to believe it actually exists. But believe we must.
Stay tuned for updatesÂ in the unlikely event of any progress!
If you think you can help find Steve Hodgeâ€™s number 18 shirt from the England vs. Argentina World Cup semi-final of 1986 â€“ leave a comment or email TheFootballPink@hotmail.co.uk