Numbers Made of Sequins
How Argentina improvised to find lightweight shirts for the 1986 World Cup quarter-final
The sequence of images that led to the “Goal of the Century” is perhaps the most iconic in the long, illustrious history of the World Cup. Argentina's Diego Maradona receives the ball from Héctor Enrique under the punishing midday sun of Mexico City, the silver-grey 10 stamped on his back reflecting those rays in dazzling fashion, under the close attention of an England team furious at having gone behind in the 1986 quarter-final to a goal steered past Peter Shilton by the Napoli star's hand. Back in Buenos Aires millions of fans tuning in are entranced by the action, sent back home in colour for only the second time in a World Cup competition – while the 1978 final had been screened with the new technology only a handful of viewers fortunate enough to have imported suitable television screens were able to enjoy it..
As Maradona began his long path towards the net the velvet tones of Víctor Hugo Morales set the scene. “Now Maradona has the ball, two are marking him, Maradona touches the ball, the genius of world football is heading down the right.” Clad in the vivid blue of Argentina's alternative shirt, used for the second game running to avoid clashes first with Uruguay, and then with the Albiceleste's old European rivals, he shrugs off the attentions of Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid and advances past the halfway line, a third England star, Kenny Sansom, joining Beardsley and Reid in a futile chase.
By the time Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick have been eluded Maradona enters Shilton's area once more, with Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga waiting expectantly for the inevitable pass. But Diego ignores his hopeful teammates; he strokes the ball to Shilton's left, leaving the goalkeeper floundering on the Azteca turf, and he has just enough left in the tank after a manic 50-yard dash to avoid Butcher's second attempt to foil his plans and bury his effort just inside the near post. “Cosmic kite, what planet have you come from?” exclaims Morales, seemingly on the verge of tears, while a dejected England face up to a two-goal deficit courtesy of what would later be voted the greatest strike ever to light up a World Cup finals.
The goal, and the quarter-final as a whole, has gone down in football legend. That much is demonstrated by the unparalleled value of the shirt claimed by England's Steve Hodge after the final whistle from his diminutive foe, the iconic No. 10 jersey later appraised at a six-figure sum were he ever to send it to auction. But the existence of that shirt in the first place owes itself to a bizarre set of circumstances that for years were one of the game's best-kept secrets. Argentina had in fact changed their entire kit prior to the last-eight encounter, a madcap process that was completed precious hours before the team entered the Azteca for their date with destiny.
It should come as no surprise that the Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo was the mastermind behind the astonishing switch. Blunt, irascible, a confirmed lover of football's dark arts and with the ability to hold a grudge for decades, Bilardo was also a man whose meticulous approach to the game set him out as sometimes years ahead of his time. Nothing escaped his attention. From the team's last meal the night before games – Bilardo, following a tradition set by his former Estudiantes boss Osvaldo Zubeldía, would only serve roast beef, believing chicken to be bad luck – to such marginal aspects as the way in which his charges celebrated a goal, he kept an iron grip on all the variables and minutiae that surround professional football. And it took the good doctor just 90 minutes of observation to determine that the Albiceleste's change strip was not going to meet his high standards against England.
Bilardo had insisted that Argentina's World Cup shirt, designed by Le Coq Sportif for the second straight tournament after the French company won the contract from Adidas in 1979, be as lightweight as possible to allow his players to breathe in the height of the Mexican summer. The 'home' strip, the famous celeste y blanca, fulfilled his requisites, using a revolutionary 'bee hive' technology that permitted air to circulate through the fabric. The nation's secondary blue jersey, however, was a more traditional cotton design; a difference that was sorely felt in the last-16 match against Uruguay, its first outing in the 1986 World Cup. “At the end of the game against Uruguay Bilardo grabbed me: 'Get me a shirt! We are going to weigh it!'” the kit man Rubén Benros explained to Andrés Burgo, who brings to life every incredible twist and turn of the quarter-final in exhaustive detail in his book, El Partido (The Match). “They were the blue ones, they were soaked through and we looked for some scales. I am exaggerating, but they weighed something like ten kilos more. Carlos said to me, 'We have to change them'”.
The coach was not the only one dissatisfied with the apparel. “We played in a shirt that did not let sweat pass through it, it was utter madness,” the midfielder Ricardo Giusti recalled. “It was also hot and humid, and it might have been Diego [Maradona] or someone else who told Julio [Grondona, the late AFA president] that we could not play in them again.” Once England had dispatched Paraguay in their last-16 clash fears grew that Argentina could be called upon again to use that despised shirt; sure enough, a draw was held – “a 'non-draw', that England were always going to win”, in the words of the AFA employee Ángel Coerezza, acting in Mexico as the nation's disciplinary liaison – and the Three Lions were awarded the privilege of playing in their home strip, sending alarm bells ringing in the camp a matter of days before the big match.
Argentina were now placed in a delicate quandary. With Bilardo, and apparently Maradona too, dead against reusing their original away shirt, there could be no question of taking to the field again in such an unsuitable garment. On the other hand, there was equally no plausible way to demand Le Coq Sportif manufacture and deliver an entire shipment of acceptable jerseys in time for the quarterfinal. Seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the coach at first attempted a rather extreme solution. “He told me, 'we will go and look for those shirts with holes in, the baseball shirts,'” Benros adds.
“He said it because they play a lot of baseball in Mexico, but then he picked up some scissors and started to punch holes in the blue shirts we used against Uruguay. While he was doing that a player passed by and said “Eh, Carlos, this is the Argentina national team, how are we going to take to the field like that?!'” Seeing sense, Bilardo instead sent Benros and the AFA logistics assistant Rubén Moschella on a dash round Mexico City to find the holy grail: 40 blue v-neck sports jerseys manufactured by Le Coq Sportif that were light enough not to suffocate his charges in the sun and smog of the capital. It was, to put it lightly, a rather delicate mission and perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire tale was that the two intrepid adventurers were able to complete their quest.
When one delves into the mists of history, conflicting accounts and anachronisms are bound to appear. No few collaborators from Argentina's run to World Cup glory in 1986 claim to have told Diego Maradona on the morning of the quarter final that England would be defeated with two goals of his, just as tens of thousands claim to have been present at the Pibe de Oro's professional debut with Argentinos Juniors back in 1976 against Talleres at the age of 15. Similarly, the details of how Benros and Moschella got their hands on what would soon become one of the most iconic shirts in football history are now, three decades down the line, subject to interpretation. The Albiceleste midfielders Jorge Burruchaga and Sergio Batista assert that the team's third-choice goalkeeper Héctor Zelada came to the rescue. “Luckily Zelada lived and played in Mexico and owned a sporting goods store,” Batista explains in El Partido. “The guys went to the store and bought the shirts.”
Speaking to Burgo, however, Zelada initially appears unsure of his role in the quest – before rapidly adapting his story to acknowledge his heroism. “It is true, I had a store. If you had not mentioned it I would not have remembered helping to solve the shirt problem. I personally took care of the issue and solved it.” Benros and Moschella, for their part, fail to mention Zelada's part in the tale, instead retrospectively tracing the shirts to a nondescript store in a corner of Mexico City. “They were very cheap,” both men recall, while the exact price of the 40 shirts purchased in the hours leading up to the game is another detail lost to time. The new jerseys were a curious two-tone blue, with a white v-neck that must have delighted Bilardo upon first sight - and clearly a lighter confection than the cotton top which had left Maradona and co drenched in sweat at the end of the Uruguay clash. The first objective, however it was achieved, had been passed, but it was far from the end of Argentina's sartorial odyssey.
With less than 24 hours to go before kick-off the new-look kit still lacked two vital components of any football strip: Argentina's badge and, of course, the players' numbers. For both jobs further help would be needed, and once more luck was smiling on the Albiceleste. Argentina had spent the World Cup as guests of the Mexico City giants América, using the club's training facilities; in a further gesture of goodwill América's employees were drafted in to cut, sew and iron the shirts.
Here once more recollections tend towards the hazy. According to Benros, the Argentina badges were cut straight out of the now-discarded change strip and stitched onto the new one, while Moschella credits an unnamed designer linked with América who sketched out the crest on his computer to the best of his ability. The differences are clear: against England the badge does not boast any stars underneath, unlike in the Uruguay game; while the entire composition appears oversized and crude on the chests of Argentina's stars. The second theory, then, appears the more plausible, while when it comes to the Albiceleste's outrageous numbers our witnesses' accounts once more converge neatly.
“The numbers had to be white, like the ones we used against Uruguay,” continued Benros. “We went back out in the street and all the stores were closed. The América president's son came to our rescue, he knew of a store that sold the material to make the numbers. The problem was that they only had three colours, red, blue and yellow, and none of those was any good to us.
“'They are going to kill us,' I told Moschella, scared to death, until suddenly a shiny grey fabric appeared and we decided to give it a try.” Moschella added that “they were American football numbers, that's why they were shiny.”
Unsurprisingly, on being shown a test run of the shirt that would soon be beamed across the world to millions of households, a bizarre hybrid of sporting goods store cast-off, a badge traced almost by hand and garish numbers suited to gridiron, Bilardo was less than impressed. “Nah, how can we go out and play in these grey numbers?” he asked. But the beleaguered duo of Benros and Moschella were about to gain a powerful ally. Waltzing back from lunch on Saturday afternoon – Argentina would be leaving for the Estadio Azteca in the early hours of Sunday morning – Maradona's attention was piqued by the commotion. “Let me see, Tito, let me see,” he said to Benros, who dutifully revealed his creation. “Ooh, lovely, I like it. We will beat the English with this.” Diego's word was gospel: the jerseys were not going anywhere and América's employees buckled down to a long night with needle and thread.
Not everyone on the Argentina team, it is true, were as enthused by the new strip as the captain. “Those grey numbers were disgusting,” Burruchaga said, an opinion shared by starting goalkeeper Nery Pumpido. Bilardo explains that the numbers were grey “because they were made up of grey sequins, tiny ones. It looked to me like something out of a cabaret show.” No less disconcerting to the squad was the sight of their apparel being stitched together just hours before the game itself, the biggest test for any of those involved. Burruchaga and Néstor Clausen indeed were dumbfounded, and filmed the impromptu workshop on a handheld camera in what has since become priceless behind-the-scenes footage of the Albiceleste's World Cup triumph.
The video remained unseen for several years, before, in June 2016, to mark the 30th anniversary of the World Cup triumph the state-run channel TV Pública produced a documentary based on Clausen's home movies. The viewer's first impression is of an intensely spartan environment: a training camp of bare brick walls and the bare minimum of home comforts. There are also candid 'interviews' carried out with the Argentina squad, with one member of the team admitting that if he had not gone into professional football he would have liked to be a painter or panel beater; another player confessed his most likely career path would have been as a “thief, or beggar”. But the sight of four female employees, each wearing pink maid's uniforms, dutifully working on the shirts with needle and thread, each number and badge attached by hand, is perhaps most striking of all.
“It's 6pm, a day before the game and the women are sewing, this shirt is great,” Burruchaga laughs from behind the camera. “If we win the World Cup they will have to put up a statue for all of us.” More chuckles follow when one of the completed jerseys is held up to the lens, with special focus given to the outsized badge and unique two-tone motif. Many of the players, meanwhile, first saw the improvised strip in the dressing room in the depths of the Estadio Azteca, as outside millions of England and Argentina fans felt the tension of a game inevitably marked by the Falklands War. The sight of it perhaps helped to break some of that anxiety: certainly, it caused quite an uproar. “We were in the Azteca dressing room and we picked up the shirt we had to wear,” Ricardo Giusti told Burgo.
“What an ugly shirt, mother of God! Have you seen it? Those sons of bitches… I looked at it next to Burru[chaga] and we said, 'What the hell is this piece of shit?!'” Bilardo, while his slightly bemused charges were changing, set the tone with a typically fiery motivational speech. “Think of Argentina! Get out there and sweat blood, piss blood!” the coach shouted. The final word, however, belonged to Maradona, who brought his teammates to a near-frenzy with his own battle cry. Decked in the soon to be iconic shirts, the Albiceleste troops filed out to meet their white-clad opponents in the tunnel. “We have to beat these sons of bitches, we have to beat these sons of bitches,” they screamed, neatly taking advantage of the language barrier. “Come on, come on, we have to kill these sons of bitches.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The final postscript of the story of Argentina's shirt is provided by a rather unlikely figure. England's Steve Hodge had an unfortunately prominent supporting role in a game in which Maradona wrote his name into Argentinian and world football history with his double. It was the then-Aston Villa midfielder's sliced clearance that gave Maradona the opening to leave Shilton flailing as he raced off to the corner flag to celebrate his most controversial of goals. Hodge was then a spectator to the second, one of the few England players not beaten by the little genius on his way to the net. But the moment that assured his place in the epic tale written at the Azteca came after the final whistle, when with single-minded determination he got his hands on the No 10 shirt.
“I thought, I won’t be here again. I’ll try and get a shirt,” Hodge recalled in an interview with FIFA.com. “I shook Maradona’s hand, he was being mobbed by his teammates. So I thought, ‘here’s no point, just leave it.’ After a [television] interview, I went down, behind the goal, to the changing rooms. As I went down, Maradona was walking with two of his teammates. I looked him in the eye, tugged on my shirt as if to say, ‘Any chance of swapping?’ and he came straight across, motioned a prayer and we exchanged shirts. And that was it. It was just as simple as that. It was just a meeting underneath the pitch. The changing rooms were about ten yards away. I went off, so did he, and I just put mine in my bag and that was it.
“If I’d had known what had happened, I wouldn’t have swapped my shirt with him. I think I would’ve felt angry about it if that had been the case, definite cheating had gone on. He was wrong in what he did. He should have admitted it after the game. I can’t really blame anybody. Nobody could’ve changed what happened. That was my mindset: we’re out, let’s get home. You can moan until the cows come home, it doesn’t matter.”
Despite his grievances, taking ownership of Maradona's shirt became a pivotal event in Hodge's life: in 2010 he even titled his autobiography The Man with Maradona's Shirt. The jersey has been valued at £250,000, but he has refused to sell. It is currently in residence at the National Football Museum in Manchester, which it has called home since the building's opening in 2012.
Hodge may be disappointed to learn, however, that his treasuring of one of the most famous shirts in football history was not reciprocated. “I have no idea if he has still got mine. I did an interview this year with a Brazilian TV crew and they have promised to find out,” he told the Independent in an interview in 2011. Maradona's possession of the midfielder's white No. 18 top was indeed all-too fleeting, as he disposed of it almost as soon as he triumphantly entered the Argentina dressing room.
“The English came in with their shirts, they knocked on the door and said to us, 'Let's change,'” Óscar Garré, an unused substitute that day, told Infobae. “I swapped mine with [Gary] Lineker, who was the team's centre-forward but wore number 10. Diego found out and said to me: 'Perro, you know I collect No. 10 shirts, would you give it to me? How could I say no? So I gave him Lineker's and kept the one he gave me.” Neither, perhaps, could Hodge imagine that the most treasured relic of his football career had sat in the warehouse of a Mexico City store less than 48 hours before the quarter final, and had been stitched together by hand with American football numbers while the Argentina side watched in hilarious disbelief. The shirt would never be seen again in competitive action, but in just 90 minutes it marked its place indelibly in the Albiceleste's rich football history.