La Liga Lowdown
Diego Maradona in Spain: Football’s Greatest Contradiction
Written by Alan Feehely
“It’s enough to make you cry, forgive me. Maradona, in an unforgettable run, in the play of all time. Cosmic kite, what planet are you from? To leave in your wake so many Englishmen and leave the whole country with clenched fists, shouting for Argentina? Thank you God, for football, for Maradona, for these tears, for Argentina 2-0 England.”
The commentary is nearly as legendary as the goal. Víctor Hugo Morales, the Uruguayan broadcaster, overcome with emotion while covering Diego Armando Maradona’s legendary second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. It was a moment that encapsulated everything Maradona is about - a move of sublime skill and ingenuity, coupled with the fortitude to ride heavy challenges and the ability, rarer than gold, to induce grown men into states of ecstasy. What’s more, it followed an act of daring viveza criolla in the form of his notorious Hand of God. If a game showed the world Maradona, it was this one - this short, stocky, long-haired man, capable of moments of unmatched genius and daring on the biggest stage in world sport.
But as with all peaks, Maradona lived a life outside that mythical June afternoon in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium. To celebrate his 60th birthday, we’ve decided to take a look at the time he spent in Spain, moments both before and after his peak, speaking to people close to him for each period. He didn’t reach the heights of Italy or Mexico on the Iberian peninsula, but like everything with Maradona, it was a fascinating period nonetheless.
The deal which changed a city
“Seville as a city was doing well,” remembered Seville-based Spanish journalist Juan Manuel Ávila. “They had just had the 1992 Universal Exposition and then you had Carlos Bilardo come into Sevilla and propose the transfer of Diego Maradona. They were taking advantage of the fact that he had been banned for testing positive for cocaine and was trying to relaunch his career ahead of the 1994 World Cup. This, coupled with the presence of Bilardo, made negotiations smoother than they otherwise would have been.”
Maradona had just been turfed out of Napoli, the club where he reached incredible heights, in disgrace. The common narrative surrounding the man was one of a shanty-town kid from Argentina unable to resist the allure of the underworld despite his worldly success, but Maradona still commanded a profile incomparable to other sports figures globally.
“Maradona’s arrival brought a lot of attention to Sevilla,” remembered Seville-based Spanish journalist José Manuel García. “But Sevilla didn’t have the profile it has now, and that was the thing holding Maradona back from becoming a true success at the club. They now have 500 employees, but back then they had just 50. Sevilla was a family club unable to manage the phenomenon that was Maradona, but that’s easy to say after it happened. In the beginning it was simply an explosion of joy, jubilation and optimism.
“I had become close with Bilardo, and every time he came to Madrid we would meet. Bilardo signed for Sevilla two years after coaching Argentina at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and I remember one evening having dinner with him and members of his coaching staff. As we were enjoying a coffee, he turned to me and asked for my thoughts on Maradona. I said that I thought he was still a star who could single-handedly turn a contender into a champion, as he had done at Napoli. ‘Are Sevilla thinking of signing Maradona?’ I asked him. He smiled. ‘Yes’.
“Maradona hadn’t spoken to the press for two years, but I had been told that I’d be the first to speak with him about signing for Sevilla. One day, I got a phone call telling me to come to Buenos Aires. The next, I left for Argentina, arriving there at six in the morning. A driver collected me from the airport and brought me straight to Diego’s apartment - he received me with a wide smile in a tracksuit paired with tiger-patterned slippers. He hugged me and confirmed everything, and the interview was a world exclusive. He was eager to return to football and wanted to become a champion with Sevilla.”
Back to his Iberian beginning
Maradona went to the 1982 World Cup in Spain as a newly-minted Barcelona player. He had begun his career with Argentinos Juniors before joining Boca Juniors, and had developed into an important figure in the Argentine national team as well as one of the most promising talents in world football. His first World Cup, however, wasn’t going to be the stage where he fulfilled his much-vaunted potential. “As soon as I arrived in Spain, the first thing that struck me was the lack of cohesion in the team,” remembered Buenos Aires-based Argentine journalist Ezequiel Fernández Moores.
“It was a divided squad - the older group, from 1978, was led by Daniel Passarella and had a degree of privilege that rankled with the leadership of the new era. Maradona wasn’t comfortable. Ossie Ardiles admitted to me years later that it wasn’t as hungry as the team of 1978 - they had already become world champions and their bellies were full. You also must understand that the team arrived in Spain in the midst of the Falklands War, and it was only upon their arrival that they learned Argentina was losing - all the official information back home was that they were winning. It impacted the players greatly.
“Maradona showed flashes of brilliance that summer but wasn’t comfortable enough to lead the team in the manner in which he later would. This is partly down to the position he played but also to the brutal treatment he received on the pitch - just look at the game against Italy, when Claudio Gentile committed violent challenges that wouldn’t be permitted in today’s game. Looking back, Maradona then reminds me of Ronaldo in the 1998 World Cup - the Brazilian arrived in France with the idea of becoming the new king of football, only to leave in defeat after suffering convulsions before the final.
“Maradona also arrived in Spain intent on becoming the new king of football, but it didn’t happen. A lot of this is down to a misunderstanding between César Menotti and Maradona, which was strange as Argentina had won the 1979 World Youth Cup with the pair but that success didn’t translate into the senior setup. Bilardo learned that from 1982 and neutralised the divisions in the camp by giving Maradona the captain’s armband. Passarella was a good captain, but it was the right decision to give it to Maradona.”
Argentina, defending champions, saw their dream of retaining their crown come to an end in a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Brazil, that great team with Zico and Sócrates operating as twin playmakers in midfield. Maradona was sent off with his team 3-0 down after kicking out at João Batista in frustration. “Maradona was fouled and hacked down during that tournament more than any player I’d ever seen,” remembered London-based Argentine journalist Marcela Mora y Araujo, who translated Maradona’s autobiography into English. “His sending off was described in his autobiography as basically being kind of an explosive tantrum. By then he was sufficiently well-known that he was the man everybody was going to go for, and he was aware of that. I think he felt he had a lot to prove, so it was an interesting reveal of his character.”
“Let’s remember how young Maradona was,” said Fernández Moores. “He was an emotional character, but he actually had very few episodes of violence aside from that explosion of anger in the Copa del Rey final. It all came down to frustration - Maradona wanted to be the king of football and he couldn’t do it, so he lashed out. Menotti once told me an anecdote from when they were together at Barcelona. During a practice, Bernd Schuster was being praised constantly throughout the session. Afterwards, Maradona went to Menotti’s office and said: ‘Mister, can I tell you something? Everything Bernd does, I can do. But Bernd can’t do what I can do.’ That was Maradona’s ego.
“The crazy thing about Maradona’s success in Mexico in 1986 was that he was living a personal drama that would have disrupted anyone else. He had been having an affair with a woman named Cristiana Sinagra back in Naples - she became pregnant and Maradona’s family wanted her to abort the child, but she refused. Despite this, Maradona put in perhaps the best collection of performances we’ve ever seen from an individual footballer. That’s what makes Maradona unique - he had the ideal conditions both physically and mentally to succeed in 1982, but only hit unprecedented heights in the midst of a personal drama.”
“I think he feeds on controversy and conflict,” said Mora y Araujo. “He thrives on opposition - me, over and above the collective, against the world. This is another instance in which he’s completely different from Lionel Messi, who thrives on cooperation and is paralysed by conflict. Regarding the Sinagra affair, I think there’s turned out to be so many illegitimate children that I suspect every month of his life he’s had a woman going ‘I’ve got your kid here’. But that chaos is definitely something he needed to excel. We’ll never know what would have been had he played in a different world, one that nurtured his talent and made things easy for him.”
Conquering Camp Nou
“He had complete mastery of the ball,” remembered Maradona’s Barcelona teammate Lobo Carrasco. “When Maradona ran with the ball or dribbled through the defence, he seemed to have the ball tied to his boots. I remember our early training sessions with him: the rest of the team were so amazed that they just stood and watched him. We all thought ourselves privileged to be witnesses of his genius.” Maradona would go on to spend two years in Catalonia but proved unable to turn his undoubted genius into outstanding achievement. Illness and injury played a key role - he suffered a bout of hepatitis as well as breaking his ankle in a challenge from Athletic Club’s Andoni Goikoetxea, an incident that laid the foundation for an incredible brawl, sparked by Maradona, after Athletic beat Barcelona in the 1984 Copa del Rey final. He was also sucked into life off-the-pitch, getting involved in the Barcelona nightlife and the cocaine that accompanied it.
“Back then, there was no such thing as clubs with atypical income in football,” remembered Barcelona-based Spanish journalist Ramon Besa. “Their ability to invest in signings depended on the number of members each club had, and Barcelona have almost always had more members than anyone else - that’s how they were able to sign László Kubala. They moved heaven and earth to sign Maradona - they asked permission from the government to obtain foreign currency and they had to convince the Argentine military. It was a long process that took many months, so when he arrived at the club the expectations were incredibly high, even though he was very young.
“For me, he was just different. People would come to the stadium just to see him warm up. He had an extraordinary dribbling ability and an incredible drive, in terms of the way he managed to evade opponents. His left foot was absolutely sumptuous. Often, joking with friends, I would play a tango and explain that to truly understand tango you had to watch Maradona play - the way he accelerated and was able to abruptly stop was remarkable. The problem was that he didn’t have a full season. He constantly had fitness problems and was never able to establish consistency, and without that it’s very difficult to deliver extraordinary work. He’s remembered for specific goals and games rather than titles, but that’s also partly down to the club’s institutional sporting situation - it was in the midst of instability, going from one coach to another. Diego was close with all the press. I never had a problem with him, nor did any of my colleagues. The problem was the people around him - I think that his environment didn’t help him, and neither did the image of him that was being constructed.
“As a group, they paid for the inexperience of youth. They were all young and they didn’t know how to work together, and structure is important for a star like Maradona. He expressed himself well and was open, but this exterior hid a certain naivety and tenderness. He was a young footballer who had just left Argentina for the first time, and he lacked the environment and structure he needed to succeed. There was also the hepatitis, but there’s doubts about that episode because the truth is Diego didn’t take care of himself. He’s always been the same - on the pitch, he was the best, but off it, he didn’t know what to do. So to pass the time he could do anything, and between the ankle injury and the hepatitis he spent a good deal of time out of action. This gave him the time to do a lot of different things, not all of which were recommendable. I think Maradona could have been a success at Barcelona if the club had looked after him more than they did.”
“I think he would have taken cocaine wherever he went - he entered celebrity and superstardom at a time when that’s what people did,” said Mora y Araujo. “His personality and make-up are such that he would have gone for whatever elixir was on offer. I think the cocaine is blown up and aggravated more than his generally addictive personality, so even though his cocaine use was probably spiking at that time, like he said, he didn’t take it to play a game. When he had a heart attack and ended up in intensive care, for example, many years later, the medical note revealed that they found incredible quantities of champagne and pizza in his system. It’s that jaunty side of his personality, this idea of ‘I’m not going to stop’. It’s an addictive trait.
“He was one of the first footballers to be stolen by the media. He wanted to show off - he had the flashy car, the white fur coat, the jewellery. It’s easy to focus on his excesses and his personal decisions, which were almost always questionable, but as a footballer and an artist in his métier I think his time at Barcelona shaped him. One of the cornerstones of his personality is that when he comes across something he perceives to block his ability to express himself - whether that’s a manager, a club president, or an opposing team like Brazil in 1982 - he’s going to lash out explosively. Someone like Messi won’t do that - he’ll withdraw. Maradona was different. His mindset was ‘you’re stopping me from accomplishing my art’ and that inevitably led to violent exchanges. The Copa del Rey final, for instance, was a classic case of ‘the devil’s got in my way’.”
Arriving in Seville
Sevilla had finished the 1991/92 LaLiga season in 12th place. By signing Maradona, they were hoping for an injection of enthusiasm and impetus akin to his effect in Italy with Napoli. Seville, like Naples, is a footballing hotbed, with two clubs in Sevilla and Real Betis far bigger than their trophy cabinets suggest. It was soon evident, however, that Maradona was in a different space to his glory days. “Maradona arrived at the end of September and didn’t make his debut until the beginning of October,” said Ávila. “Obviously, he wasn’t in shape. He hadn’t played competitively for a year, so it took him time to get up to speed. He never reached full strength, but he did reach a good level of performance that coincided with the end of the year. One of the best and most complete games he played for Sevilla was against Real Madrid. It was just before the Christmas break and he was in good condition - he had brought in a personal trainer and was taking all the right medication.”
“Diego was immensely happy in Sevilla,” said García. “He initially stayed at a hotel on the Seville-Huelva highway before moving into a chalet owned by the bullfighter Juan Antonio Ruiz. He intended to stay in Seville for four years, so he had all of his cars brought there - two Ferraris (one black, one red), a Mercedes-Benz and a Porsche Carrera, hiring an employee solely to look after them. One thing I remember him telling me was that in Seville, for the first time in his life, he could go to dinner with his wife, Claudia, and his daughters, Dalma and Giannina, without anybody bothering him.
“I also remember going to Seville the night before Sevilla were due to take on Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. Diego told me that he was going to get a haircut in the style of the 1986 World Cup, his best years. At that time, he was also at his ideal weight, 78 kilos, exactly the same as 1986. Diego was short but muscular and strong, with a powerful lower body essential to withstanding challenges from the opposition while maintaining control of the football. That game ended in a draw, and he had other memorable games afterwards against Real Madrid, Sporting Gijón, Real Zaragoza and Celta Vigo. The guy was, for a period, very happy with his life in Seville.”
“Maradona was always good with us,” said Ávila. “After training sessions, we would often speak with him, and one day he told me that I could interview him at his house. The interview coincided with that brilliant moment against Real Madrid, and so we spoke about his future plans at Sevilla. They came to nothing, but he mentioned that he wanted the team to be reinforced and for several improvements to be made around the club. Although it all went wrong, there was a moment where it seemed possible that Maradona could really settle at the club and there could be a happy ending to his story in Andalusia.”
Decline in Andalusia
Maradona’s high point at Sevilla, when he had the same hairstyle and weight as his peak of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, was short-lived. “Over Easter, the relationship between Sevilla and Maradona began to break down - or more specifically, the relationship between club president Luis Cuervas and Maradona,” said García. “He was, like many presidents, an arrogant guy. He wanted to be seen as the man in charge, the man whose word was law. He didn’t care that Maradona was Maradona, and Diego was someone who was never going to back down to fighting talk like that.
“If there’s one thing that characterises Maradona, it’s that he busts his ass for his teammates. All the Sevilla players loved him and never hesitated to proclaim him their leader. He got the captain’s armband as soon as he arrived, and he got the club to raise their bonuses and better the quality of their general environment. They became a really close-knit group, and they were all ready to fight until the death with him - if Maradona was ever kicked during a match, the entire team would go out to get the aggressor. Diego’s 32nd birthday, for example, was celebrated by a party at his chalet, with all the players, technical staff and directors - including a young José María del Nido - in attendance. At that party, the famous Argentine singer Fabiana Cantilo was flown out from Miami to Seville just to surprise Diego and attend his birthday. She’s still an idol in Argentina.”
“Things changed,” said Ávila. “Maradona didn’t take care of himself and started to become more involved in life outside the pitch - there were reports that he was going out a lot at night and bringing other teammates with him. Things developed so that by the end he left the club in a bad way, but he maintained a good relationship with the fans, by whom he was still admired and loved. It will always be a mark of pride that he played for Sevilla.”
“Diego was doing so well during that high-point that he caught the attention of the head coach of Argentina, Alfio Basile, and was called up to the national team for the first time in four years,” said García. “Diego was delighted to receive the call, but the friendly he was selected to play clashed with Sevilla’s cup game against Logroñés - he was due to play in Buenos Aires on the Monday and then with Sevilla on the Wednesday. Cuervas tried to prevent him from playing but proved unable to stop it - this was a fatal error. Even if he had succeeded in preventing Diego from going he would have gone anyway, as FIFA forces clubs to give up their players even if it’s only for a friendly and it was Diego’s dream to return to the Argentine setup.
“So, he travelled to Argentina with Diego Simeone and told Sevilla he’d be back in time to play for them. He played the friendly and after the game took a private plane to the Basque Country before going directly to Logroño, arriving two hours before kick-off. Sevilla lost the game, and from that point on the relationship between Diego and the club deteriorated seriously. Diego went into a phase of depression and stopped training as frequently as the rest of the squad, albeit with the consent of Bilardo. They trained from Monday to game day, while Diego would just train on Thursday and Friday. He had hit his ideal weight but let himself go and allowed himself to get fat.”
“He only had two months at his ideal weight,” said Ávila. “The club actually hired a detective to follow his life outside football and make sure that he wasn’t a bad influence on the younger players. There was a lot of talk about an incriminating detective’s report and the possibility that there was some strange things going on in his personal life, and that was leveraged to avoid paying him all the money he was owed in his contract and liquidate the agreement between himself and the club. In the end, things didn’t work out well between him and Sevilla.”
An ”extraordinary” character
Maradona’s three chapters in Spain speak volumes about his character and his personality. The 1982 World Cup was an intense fishbowl where his ability was put under the microscope - playing for the holders and pitched as the next global talent of world football, he couldn’t respond to the pressure and lashed out in anger. With Barcelona, institutional problems coupled with injury and illness hampered his ability to shine, while simultaneously contributing to off-field issues that would dog him for the rest of his career and shape the course of his life. Sevilla is perhaps the least dramatic chapter - remarkable to say when there were private detectives involved. Despite being in just his early thirties, Maradona was past his best in the Andalusian capital. The horse had bolted, even if there was still clear evidence of an interstellar football ability and a remarkable personality.
“When you deal with him on a personal level, it’s clear that he has a remarkable charisma,” said Mora y Araujo. “But he was also prone to changing - one day he’d be lovely and the next he’d be horrible. But you can absolutely sense it when he’s in a room - I’ve never met anyone with quite the same aura. I interviewed a psychologist many years later and he told me that Bill Clinton had the same thing, as did Eva Perón and Fidel Castro. I found it fascinating that he compared Maradona to these powerful political leaders.
“The interesting thing is that this ability didn’t end with his playing career - he had a TV show, for instance, that was an absolutely massive success. I did a piece on it for the Observer and it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. He had come close to death in Argentina, but he subsequently recovered and spent time in a psychiatric hospital before coming out and hosting this TV show. Maradona was just extraordinary, and he worked hard. I spoke to all the production staff and they said that he always turned up on time and did all the rehearsals. If he feels there’s something he wants to get done, he has an ability to find the spaces to do it. I sometimes wonder what kind of cognitive abilities he has, because he’s an unusually exceptional creature.
“He has a somewhat heroic standing in Argentina, almost like a deity, but he’s also almost outlived his own legend. Everyone is grateful that he won the World Cup, but part of the problem is almost that he didn’t stop there. He’s had all these public scraps with his wives, girlfriends and children, so he’s actually a really complicated character in a way that we’d judge as morally objectionable in almost all other walks of life. When he dies, we’ll all say he was the greatest player who ever lived, but while he’s alive we all see him as one of the most complicated and difficult men who’s ever lived. When he dies, his story will be completed, but he’s someone who just keeps on going. Outside of Argentina there’s a reverence for him that’s distant from the real person, but in Argentina you could see him walking down the street or hear the people in his life talking about him on telly. He’s a human - a conflicted, revered human. We’re all a contradiction, but he’s a contradiction on an unprecedented scale - he’s both good and bad at the same time, guilty and genius. He represents that duality in all of us.”
What could have been
“Despite the fact that he wasn’t at the club a whole year, Maradona left a significant mark on Sevilla,” said Ávila. “His colleagues still hold a high opinion of him today and he was undoubtedly their undisputed leader. Monchi, Sevilla’s current sporting director, still speaks fondly of his time playing alongside him. Maradona fought to improve the conditions of the other players at the club as he was someone who carried a lot of weight - it was really great to have a player of his level at Sevilla. The only benefit for the players when he left was that they could finally travel in peace, without the huge crowds that were inevitable when Maradona was at the club.”
“Sevillistas will never forget that Maradona wore their shirt,” said García. “He was a diamond that Sevilla didn’t know how to use. It comes back to the lack of infrastructure at the club that I mentioned earlier - if they had a marketing team in place like they have now they would have been able to use Maradona’s image and make a lot of money, but they didn’t. The turtle got away from Sevilla, as Maradona himself would say.
“But I’ve seen Diego many times since that year in Seville and every time I see him he receives me with open arms and a kiss, as if I was family. Diego remembers his time at Sevilla in a good light, albeit with a sense of longing for what could have been. One of the things I remember him saying he enjoyed was this - Diego always shaves. It was a habit he picked up from his father as a boy - it’s rare to see Diego with a beard. So, Diego would shave in the morning with a mirror on his terrace, feeling the benefit of the warm sun and the spring morning air. I thought it was amazing - Maradona was this global star, but he loved his moment of peace in the Andalusian morning more than anything else.”
They say that Seville has a special colour, and it’s really a city that was built to welcome Maradona with open arms. It’s the land of fiesta, sunshine, bullfighting, flamenco, gypsies, beautiful women. It’s a shame that Maradona’s marriage with Sevilla couldn’t have been a more successful one, but in many ways that’s the story of Maradona in Spain and throughout his wider life and career in general. It’s imperfect, but all the more beautiful for it. The moments of magic he created while under intense pressure, against myriad obstacles, and with the aggression befitting of a boy from the slums of Buenos Aires, is something unmatched in the history of football. Never mind goalscoring records, titles or Instagram followers - nobody has encapsulated the true, renegade spirit of football as this man, today celebrating the 60th birthday of a life lived with unrivalled intensity.
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