Argentina’s greatest number tens – Diego Maradona

Amidst the joyous celebration of World Cup success on home soil in 1978, Argentines were still feeling a little unhappy with coach César Luis Menotti. Despite having chosen the squad that would deliver the nation its first ever World Cup, led by the prolific Mario Kempes, one player was not chosen for the final squad; 17 year old playmaker Diego Armando Maradona.

Maradona was born in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, but raised on the outskirts in Villa Fiorito, a town known for its poor background. It is on these streets that he first kicked a football, being noticed at age eight by a scout from Los Cebollitas. When he first began to play with his age group, he was so much better than everyone else his coaches marched straight to his mother’s house to confirm that the boy they had just seen play was indeed only eight years old.

It was during this time that he appeared on Argentine national television. His ability on the ball and his pleasing of the crowd during the halftime break attracted the attention of a television show, who decided they would interview him. The reporter asked him what his hopes and aspirations were for the future. His answer:

My first is to play in the World Cup, and my second is to win it.

El Diego started his professional career with Argentinos Juniors, a team in close association with Cebollitas. He amassed 116 goals in 167 games, mesmerising the opposition with his amazing ball control and dribbling ability, scoring these goals playing in the number ten position, controlling the play. These performances earned him a move to his boyhood club, Boca Juniors, although it only lasted a year.

He started off exceptionally in ‘La Boca’, scoring a brace on his debut, but he did not see eye to eye with the coach, Silvio Marzolini, later berating his training techniques and methods in his autobiography. Before departing, however, he still had time to put in the best performance of his young career to date.

Much like Spain comes to a standstill for ‘El Clásico’, the whole of South America stops when Boca Juniors and River Plate play out ‘Superclásico’. This particular edition fell on April 10th, with Maradona his usual self.

The opposition decided the only way to stop him was to repeatedly hack him down, challenges going unpunished that would today be considered a red card offence, but he was still untouchable. Boca ran out 3-0 victors at La Bombonera, with Maradona dribbling past Alberto Tarantini and 1978 World Cup winning goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol before slotting home. The season ended with Boca league champions, the only domestic title the world’s greatest ever footballer has won in his native country, although his next move could not have gone any worse.

Over the summer of 1982, he transferred to Barcelona for a then world record transfer fee of five million pounds. Already considered to be the world’s best player, things did not go well in the Catalan capital. It is here that he was first introduced to cocaine, and also contracted hepatitis, which forced the club to sign Menotti as coach in a bid to ground their new main attraction.

It worked at first, as his brilliant goal against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu to grab a 0-1 league win signified, but a horrible challenge from Andoni Goikoetxea, “the butcher of Bilbao”, which threatened to end his career, undone it all, and he reached the point of no return during the 1984 Copa Del Rey final when, with the King looking on in horror, he instigated a 22 man brawl on the pitch following a series of rash challenges, in a game that Barcelona lost 1-0.

Disgraced, clubs were hesitant to show interest in the temperamental, but incredibly gifted, playmaker. Until Napoli called.

Italian football has always been a tale of two halves. The top half of the country, full of rich clubs such as Milan, Internazionale and Juventus have always dominated over the lower half, with less respected financial teams, such as Napoli and Bari, but Diego changed that. He did not come cheap, another world record transfer fee of 6.9 million pounds in the summer of 1984, the first player to ever break the fee twice, but almost instantly proved his worth.

In his first season, Napoli finished 8th, a four place improvement on the previous year, while 3rd was achieved during the 1985/86 season. It is the following campaign, however, where things really got going.

Placing their trust in him, the board signed players on Maradona’s recommendation, and it is this trust that enabled ‘El Pibe de oro’ (the golden boy) to lead Napoli to the domestic double. The UEFA Super Cup followed two years later, along with an additional league title and the Italian Super Cup in 1990. The clip of Maradona’s pre-match warm up in the Super Cup semi-final against Bayern Munich, where he dances around the pitch juggling and flicking the ball as he pleases, the laces on his boots untied, has become the stuff of legend.

Following his stay at Napoli, Maradona endured underwhelming stints at Sevilla in Spain and Newell’s Old Boys back home in Argentina, before returning to his beloved Boca Juniors and hanging up his legendary boots in 1997. However, much like Kempes before him, he is heralded more for his performances with the national team.

Going in to the 1978 World Cup, Diego was anticipating a call up, although it never came, with Menotti’s reasoning being that he was too young at 17 and could not handle the pressure. Diego thought otherwise, but either way, he was given his opportunity in 1982 at the World Cup in Spain, although it seems as though he was never meant to succeed in this country.

Along with his poor results at both Barcelona and Sevilla, looking at Maradona during this World Cup, no one would have ever guessed the heights he would reach four years later. He was below par throughout apart from a brace against Hungary, and his outing in Argentina’s final match, when they were ousted by Brazil, was symbolic, as Maradona was dismissed for kicking opposition player Batista in the nether regions.

His showing in Mexico four years later, however, is, and probably forever will be, the greatest individual performance in World Cup history.

Menotti was sacked, and the more pragmatic Carlos Bilardo was appointed. Due to everything he gave the club, Napoli allowed Maradona to leave a month early to join up with the rest of the Argentina squad, in the hope of becoming accustomed to the altitude and climate. This may have been helpful, as Argentina played primarily European teams in the sweltering Central American heat.

‘La Albiceleste’, captained by Maradona, opened their campaign against South Korea. This match is better known for the brutality the Asians showed towards Diego, who was in inspired form, rather than the three assists he made in the 3-1 Argentine victory. He grabbed his first goal in the 1-1 draw with Italy, a beautiful volley guided to the far corner at an incredible angle past Giovanni Galli, before the side dispatched of Bulgaria 2-0 in the final group game to set up an all South American last-16 tie with rivals Uruguay, which Argentina dominated and emerged with a 1-0 win. What followed next was incredible.

Argentina were drawn with England in the quarter-final. The Falklands war was a major talking point going in to the game, with Maradona later stating that if possible, the Argentina players would have went out onto the pitch with guns and shot the opposing players, although he also acknowledged that they were not to be held responsible. Diego glared at the Englishmen as God save the Queen bellowed out into the Azteca stadium.

After a tight first half, he opened the scoring on the 51st minute, with what has become known as the ‘hand of god’. A failed one-two with Jorge Valdano saw the ball loop in to the air after a poor Steve Hodge clearance, and when it seemed an easy catch for goalkeeper Peter Shilton, the diminutive, 5 foot 5 Argentine leaped and punched the ball in to the net. The English were furious, but the goal stood. However, there could be no complaints about the second.

He received the ball from Héctor Enrique inside his own half before turning and accelerating. He sprinted past Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid before darting inside past Terry Butcher. He then shimmied and took it back outside past Terry Fenwick before dummying to shoot and carrying it past Shilton who dived anticipating the shot. Just as Butcher closed back down to block, he slotted the ball in to the empty net before reeling away in celebration.

Gary lineker, who was playing, and would later score, for England on the day, said the goal was that good he felt like applauding. Enrique also joked that the goal was good, but would not have happened where it not for his pass. Argentina were 2-1 winners, and would face Belgium in the semi-final.

He was also exceptional in this game, although anything done from here on out would always be outshadowed by the events that unfolded against England. Jorge Burruchaga unlocked the defence just after halftime, as Maradona got to the ball a split second before the Belgian goalkeeper to loop the ball to the far corner, before another mazy dribble with the ball seemingly glued to his foot, past three defenders, allowed him to smash the ball across the face of goal and in to the back of the net. A 2-0 win set up the first Argentina-Germany final in World Cup history, and the game did not disappoint.

Argentina came in confident, seemingly fulfilling their destiny, and raced to a 2-0 lead. However, with little over 15 minutes to play, the West Germans pulled one back thanks to Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, before a Rudi Völler strike levelled it. Argentina were cruising at 2-0 and had seemingly let it slip, but Maradona had other ideas.

As it seemed destined for extra time, with five minutes left to play, he received the ball just inside the Argentina half, and in a split second of inspired genius, played a first time ball in to the path of Burruchaga, who kept his nerve and finished past Harald Schumacher to give Argentina a 3-2 victory and its second World Cup in eight years. Their captain finished the competition with five goals and five assists, as well as being named the tournament’s best player.

Maradona would play in two more World Cups, losing the 1990 final to Germany following a controversial penalty, and being sent home disgraced from the USA in 1994 following a failed drugs test.

The wait still goes on for Argentina to win a trophy since the days of Diego, but one thing is for sure, the country will never see a player like ‘El D10s’ again.

The Author

Robert Barter

18 year old lifelong football fan from Dublin, Ireland. Aspiring journalist. Twitter handle @RobertBarter16.

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