Referee Bennaceur blamed assistant Dotchev for Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal

The referee at the centre of Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup has broken his silence about his decision to award one of the football’s most controversial goals to Argentina — and has claimed it was not his fault. Ali Bennaceur, the Tunisian referee, has blamed his Bulgarian assistant Bogdan Dotchev for failing to alert him to the moment when Maradona punched the ball past England goalkeeper Peter Shilton to give Argentina the lead in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final in Mexico’s Azteca Stadium.
“Look at the video: Why do you think I am running backwards? In fact, I was looking at my Bulgarian assistant until I got to the halfway line, seeing if he would perhaps point out something to me, because I had some doubt,” said Bennaceur 28 years after the event. “I had not seen the hand. If I was [refereeing] in Africa, I would have disallowed the goal. But before the game, FIFA gave us clear guidelines: ‘If your colleague is better placed than you are, his decision should take precedence.’ That’s what I did: my assistant did not raise his flag. Moreover, for three years, at the end of every year, he would write me a little note that always said the same thing: ‘My brother, my colleague, there was only the hand of Shilton.’ After that he stopped writing. He had to revise his view of the goal.” Bennaceur also claimed FIFA were happy with his performance in the game, giving him a score of 9.4 out of 10 — the third best of any official at that World Cup. The Tunisian was particularly pleased with his role in Maradona’s second goal. “I took part in the goal of the century,” he said in an interview with French magazine So Foot. “Maradona did not score that all by himself, that goal. I was his assistant: I played three advantages. I did not have to. For the first foul, he stumbled. The second came just on the edge of the area. I shouted, ‘Advantage, advantage’. And when he entered the area, I was expecting Butcher to slice him down. I put my whistle to my lips, I was ready to intervene but I didn’t blow. “Maradona was hard to referee, you had to be on your guard. He was capable of anything: cheating, dribbling, provoking the opponent. When I followed him, I did not have three eyes, I had four. I was like his shadow.” Ultimately, Bennaceur remains convinced he was blameless for the events of June 22, 1986. “The referees’ representative told me what was said [by the referees’ committee],” he added. “The African applied the letter of the law according to FIFA. But the linesman should be slaughtered”. As you might expect, Dotchev’s view is slightly different. “Although I felt immediately there was something irregular, back in that time FIFA didn’t allow the assistants to discuss the decisions with the referee. If FIFA had put a referee from Europe in charge of such an important game, the first goal of Maradona would have been disallowed. Bennaceur was just not prepared well enough to referee such an important game,” he said. “And how could he be? After all, he used to be in charge of some games between camels in the desert”, Dotchev told the Bulgarian media. And so the war of words began.
Of course, the world and England had already been there before. During extra time in the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany at Wembley the referee from Switzerland, Gottfried Dienst, was not entirely sure if the ball had crossed the line from Geoff Hurst’s now iconic shot. Therefore Dienst passed the responsibility for the decision to his linesman Tofiq Bahramov. Despite not being able to see the situation clearly the assistant gave a goal, which happened to be the vital third in England’s 4-2 win. Dienst confessed later that he and Bahramov didn’t speak a common language leaving them no choice but to communicate non-verbally. That was exactly the case 20 years later with Bennaceur and Dotchev. The Tunisian was fluent in French and English whereas his colleague from Bulgaria spoke German and Spanish. After the game between England and Argentina they spoke in the dressing room only through a translator, who had been provided by FIFA.
Off the field, the lives of Dotchev and Bennaceur couldn’t have been more different. While the Bulgarian had a degree in finance, the Tunisian worked as an engineer. Dotchev also had the added experience of a playing career. In the 60s he was a striker who played in the Bulgarian first division. After the end of his playing days he dedicated himself to refereeing. In 1977 he got on to the list of FIFA’s international officials and was present at the 1982 World Cup as well as at the one four years later. For Bennaceur, who was nine years younger than Dotchev, the 1986 tournament in Mexico was his sole World Cup experience. Soon after the game in Mexico City the Tunisian found a peculiar excuse for missing the notorious handball by citing a haemorrhoid treatment that, apparently, affected his sight. For a decade after that, he and Dotchev refused to comment on the moment which ruined their international refereeing careers, as if they were comrades from the battlefield who had made a pact of silence. Neither of them was involved in another World Cup match, although Dotchev soon reached the age limit for an international referee and had to retire. Bennaceur was the first to speak about the incident again. In 2001, on the 15th anniversary of the game he gave an interview to the Argentinian newspaper Olé. “After Maradona scored I hesitated for a moment, but then I saw Dotchev running towards the centre of the pitch. And because he was better placed than me I decided to trust his judgment. No matter what happened I still think I had a good game,” Bennaceur said. Yet the sense of calmness which shines through that interview might be a little misleading. According to the other assistant in this game, Berny Ulloa from Costa Rica, Bennaceur was “really sad” after seeing the TV replays at the hotel. And what does Maradona think of the two officials who helped him score one of his most famous goals? In some interviews Maradona calls them “my amigos”. Still there was no warm reception for Dotchev in his native Bulgaria. Instead of staying involved in football he preferred to avoid the city and start a new life in a small village. “Never mind the reaction of the foreign media, the biggest insults I received back then were from Bulgarians. Some even called me a national traitor,” Dotchev said with bitterness. Unlike his Bulgarian colleague, Bennaceur continued working in football. In 2010 he even became part of a special technical committee which had to reform Tunisian football. Furthermore one of his sons, Kacem, followed his father’s footsteps into refereeing.

Source: The Telegraph / Irish Examiner