As the spy versus spy caper carried on around the poisoning of former Russian British double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, a rather more jolly game was being played in Hall 4 of Baselworld, Switzerland, in March. It was billed, in flamboyant Hublot fashion, as “a fusion between the world sprinting legend, the God of Football and the Special One for a Football Match of Friendship.”
Prepping to meet subjects.
Esquire is entertained by Jose’s hissy fits and still marvels at how Usain Bolt so joyously took flight on tarmac. But it is most beguiled by the Man with the Hand of God: on the blazing afternoon of June 22, 1986, Diego Maradona (1.63m) outjumped England ’keeper Peter Shilton (1.83m) in the 51st minute of the World Cup quarter-finals between England and Argentina at Estadio Azteca, Mexico City. Argentina 1, England 0.
With Ricardo Guadalupe, Hublot CEO.
It was a climactic finish to a wonderful build up that saw Maradona stroll, shimmy and burst free of England players missing their salsa teacher. The fact that he’d ‘scored’ with his left hand added to the drama witnessed by the 114,580 crowd.
With Gianni Infantino, Fifa president.
Referee Ali bin Nasser (Tunisia) later claimed he awarded the goal after his assistant referee, Bogdan Dochev (Bulgaria), hadn’t raised his flag to indicate an infringement had taken place. Dochev died last year, aged 80. He told Bulgarian media that Fifa rules then did not permit him to discuss decisions with the referee, even though he had immediately sensed something amiss, reports the BBC. Maradona, the tragic Dochev said, “ruined his life”. Drama indeed, and grist for the karmic factory. And Peter Shilton? He tweeted earlier this year that he’s been invited to dinner with Maradona in June and is still thinking about it, noting that the latter is yet to offer him an apology (“be the bigger man” tweeted one of Shilts’ followers).
"Ha ha! No, no, no. To play football, your team must get off the bus. And keep it off the grass."
But this is not why Esquire thinks Maradona is a bit more interesting than Messi. It’s because, if he’d cheated for the first goal, God had said it was okay. How else to explain his sublime second, just minutes later, when he’d left them in his wake and on their backsides? And this, Esquire submits, is why Maradona said it was the Hand of God. Any doubt that He approved would be banished after Maradona scored two more against Belgium in the semi-final on the way to victory over West Germany (3-2) and lifting the Coupe du Monde. (England, had it got there, would have lost to the Auld Enemy on penalties after extra time.)
About to pull a fast one on Bolt.
But there could only be one Hand of God. The Ali bin Nassers of our time will now be augmented with VAR, the Virtual Assistant Referee that makes its official World Cup debut in Russia this June, having first been trialled in Japan-Korea 2016. What would have happened if VAR had been used to negate the Hand of God? Omnisport asked Maradona. He was staunch:
"Nothing. I would play against the VAR!”
"I think there must be technology in football," he added, speaking courtesy of Hublot. "And football can't be disconnected from technology because it is everywhere.
"I think VAR is something really good because it reflects what happens on the field. It is not just about recognising a goal or an offside."
With the perplexed Damien Duff and Alexei Smertin.
Baselworld 2018 wasn’t the first occasion Maradona has thought about tech’s disruption of football, beautiful in its spectrum of humanity and handsome moments. But first, recall the spectacular save by Luis Suarez of Dominic Adiyiah’s stonking header and pre-destined match-winner in extra time + 1 minute in the Uruguay v Ghana in quarter-final of South Africa 2010. “The Hand of God now belongs to me. Mine is the real Hand of God,” the unthrottled striker said in his post-match comments. (No, new footie fans, he wasn’t the Uruguay goalie.) Suarez was sent off in tears. History beckoned the African continent’s first-ever World Cup semi-finalist as Asamoah Gyan stepped up to take the penalty. He missed. Suarez was ecstatic. Ghana would lose 2-4 in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.
But evidently, He had already been there, done that.
“Obviously I think about it whenever I show my support for the use of technology,” Maradona told Fifa.com last year. “I thought about it and, sure, that goal wouldn’t have stood if technology had been around. And I’ll tell you something else: at the 1990 World Cup I used my hand to clear the ball off the line against the Soviet Union. We were lucky because the referee didn’t see it. You couldn’t use technology back then, but it’s a different story today.
“It’s not just my goal in ’86 that wouldn’t have counted. Let’s not forget that England won the World Cup in ’66 with a shot that didn’t go over the line. Then it happened to them in 2010, when (Frank) Lampard’s shot crossed the line against Germany but wasn’t given. England had the ball and scored the goal they deserved, but Germany grew in confidence after that and it changed the match completely.
“There have been lots of incidents where World Cup history would have been different if technology had been used. It’s time to change all that.”
Guadalupe introduces this year's newest World Cup referee.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, behold Big Bang Referee 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia,™ the Official Fifa Watch. It offers the colours of the 32 participating nations for your personalised dial (or mimics a “neutral” Big Bang) and announces matches 15 minutes before kick-off, and vibrates, and displays GOAL instantly, in real time, besides other match stats that are a pundit’s delight.
Maradona, Dario Cologna (cross-country skier, standing), Carlito Fuente (cigar maker), Jean-Claude Biver and Infantino (head of LVMH watch division).
But it is the Big Bang Referee’s use as a device to enhance the omniscience of the man in black that is so Space Odyssey (the film celebrates its 50-year anniversary this year). It was tested discreetly by referees during the Fifa Confederations Cup 2017 and the Fifa Club World Cup 2017.
Nicola Rizzoli, referee
The Big Bang Referee runs on the newly rebranded (Android) Wear OS ecosystem and is compatible with all devices using Android 4.4 and above or iOS 9 and above. In Russia, the referees’ watches will be connected to goal-line technology, football’s equivalent of tennis’ Hawk Eye system, and synced with the Big Bang-shaped referee boards in the World Cup’s sporting arenas.
Match of Friendship, Hall 4, Baselworld 2018
Maradona’s team: Tino Asprilla, Roberto Carlos, Hernan Crespo, Gianni Infantino, Christian Karembeu, Marco Materazzi, Gaizka Mendieta, Angelo Peruzzi, and David Trezeguet
José Mourinho’s team: Usain Bolt, Vitor Baía, Stéphane Chapuisat, Marcel Desailly, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Patrick Kluivert, Richard Orlinski and Alexei Smertin
Big Bang Referee 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.™ Limited to 2018 pieces, available from 1 May, 2018 from Hublot sales outlets. This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia Summer 2018.