Maradona’s forgotten year in Seville

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Argentinos Juniors, his first club, have named their stadium after him.

At his beloved Boca Juniors, where he had two stints and retains an executive box, they still chant his name.

In Europe, he is remembered for his world-record breaking move to Barcelona and his subsequent transfer to Napoli, where he became a World Cup winner and a club legend.

But before he returned to Argentina, there was one final stop-off on the European adventure of Diego Armando Maradona. It is his forgotten season. His lost weekend.

It is the story of Maradona in Seville.

His time in Andalusia is routinely described as forgettable and it is easy to see why a season which brought no silverware might be ignored. There was no glory here.

But there was hope.

As Maradona flew in he sang of Sevilla being champions. It was fantasy. The only title had come almost half a century ago. The club had not been in the top four for over 20 years.

But there was a precedent. Napoli had never been champions of Italy and he had delivered two titles there. Here was another southern city with designs on altering the natural order.

Maradona was returning from a 15-month ban for using cocaine but he was only 31. There was time for another glorious chapter and he was being reunited with Carlos Bilardo, Sevilla’s coach and the man who had guided Argentina to that World Cup win in 1986.

This time it did not work out but only after a chaotic season in which Maradona endeared himself to his team-mates and infuriated his bosses. It was a tale of bullfighters and ball juggling, private detectives and public partying. And glimpses of that old Diego magic.

THE BACKGROUND 

Bilardo knew he was up against it when he pitched up at Sevilla in the summer of 1992. The club had just finished in the bottom half of La Liga. “We have to accept that the championship is going to be fought out for some while between Real and Barca,” he said.

But the wily old coach had a plan. He was going to sign Maradona.

The Argentine icon, the man whom Bilardo had built the team around at the World Cup in Mexico six years earlier, was serving a worldwide suspension from football for a drugs offence and had no intention of returning to Naples. But the club would not release him.

Sevilla president Luis Cuervas had promised to deliver Maradona but an offer of £2.5m was rejected. Bilardo even threatened to walk out if his star man did not arrive but the season began without him. It took the intervention of Sepp Blatter and FIFA to strike a deal.

The powers-that-be were anxious for Maradona to return in good time for the 1994 World Cup. A five-hour meeting at FIFA headquarters, with Blatter mediating, helped strike a deal.

Much of the £4.5m fee would be covered by Silvio Berlusconi’s Italian media company on the guarantee that Maradona’s Sevilla – as they would surely henceforth be known – would commit to playing a series of showpiece friendlies around the world.

In late September 1992, Diego arrived.

THE BEGINNING 

The Exposition of Sevilla ran throughout the summer in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus setting sail for the New World from the city’s Guadalquivir river. It was closed within weeks of Maradona’s arrival. There was a new circus in town.

Back in 1988, when playing for Argentina in Seville, Maradona had said that he preferred the fans of Sevilla’s rivals Real Betis but that was soon forgotten. Days after his arrival, Sevilla’s membership had jumped from 26,000 to 40,000. The club made £2.2m in ticket sales.

Bilardo explained the situation to the squad in a famous team meeting. He and they were in the background now. This was the Maradona show but if they put their faith in his genius then this wild ride could lead somewhere special. Nobody was about to argue.

Manolo Jimenez handed over the captaincy. In the words of defender Juan Martagon, nobody could imagine Maradona without the armband. Training was moved from the morning to the afternoon on Bilardo’s instruction. Many suspected that there was another reason.

Maradona’s nocturnal habits were not about to change. He turned up with a considerable entourage and, while still living in a city hotel, crashed his Mercedes at 2am.

Soon after, he moved into the villa of Juan Antonio Ruiz Roman, the most famous bullfighter in the world, who went by the nickname of Spartacus.

The real matador was here now.

FIREWORKS AND FRIENDLIES 

It began with a starstudded game against Bayern Munich on September 28, 1992. Maradona made his bow and Sevilla won 3-1.

“It was a friendly,” recalled team-mate Jose Miguel Prieto, “but it was not just any game. It was a great show.”

There were many of them that year. Paul Gascoigne’s Lazio were the opponents in November, with Gazza scoring in a 1-1 draw. Maradona went close with a bicycle kick and almost netted the winner when his free-kick struck the crossbar with two minutes left.

There were games against Sao Paulo and Porto. Against Galatasaray in Istanbul the crowds were worked up into a frenzy by Maradona’s mere presence. Perhaps most memorably of all, Maradona returned to Buenos Aires for a game against his old club Boca.

“I had not seen fanaticism until I saw that,” said Prieto.


Back in La Liga, Maradona was anxious to entertain. He scored the winning penalty on his home league debut against Real Zaragoza but that game is better remembered for the moment when he spotted a tin foil sandwich wrapper when sauntering to take a corner.

The foil had been scrunched up into a ball and that was all the invitation that he needed. He promptly flicked it up and proceeded to juggle with it – much to the delight of the Sevilla fans.

It was vintage Diego.

“He did it several times in training,” said team-mate Rafa Paz.

“He’d see a lemon on the ground and he would pick it up with his foot and hold it until he was bored. Imagine the rest of the team. There were those who tried when Diego was not there. It was impossible.”

THE TEAM-MATES 

It is striking that the prevailing view among his team-mates at Sevilla is that his presence was a gift. Sociable and generous, he endeared himself to them right from the start.

Monchi, later to become the club’s sporting director, remembers Maradona taking one look at his fake Rolex and quickly buying him a real one. Others were given shirts or the opportunity to take one of his many fast cars for a spin. There were late night dinners and parties.

“It was joy and happiness,” said Diego Simeone, the Atletico Madrid coach and fellow Argentine, who was then a young midfielder at Sevilla.

“Maradona’s arrival at Seville at that time was a very important step, an important moment for the team. Many of the young boys felt sheltered by him. It made us grow and I am grateful for the times that I have lived football with Maradona.”

Not all of the highlights were off the field. Monchi acknowledges that Maradona was operating at around 30 per cent of his capacity because of his weight problems after a long lay-off, but Maradona at 30 per cent was still too much for many of his opponents.

A game against Sporting Gijon is still remembered fondly. The 2-0 victory over Real Madrid in December was inspired by Maradona too. He had instructed his barber to replicate his haircut from Mexico ’86 and in those early months he did a good impression of that player.

Davor Suker scored Sevilla’s opening goal that evening and would go on to win the Champions League with Real Madrid, before becoming top scorer at the 1998 World Cup.

“When I was a kid I used to watch Diego on television in my room,” the Croatian striker would later recall.

“Suddenly I found myself sharing breakfast, training and a locker room with him.

“I was hoping he would teach me something and then, finally, he called me.

“He said: ‘I don’t want you to run to the sides or anything. Just keep your head down, run towards the goalkeeper, and I will give it you there’.

“Very few players in the world can say that but he was one.

“If you watch my goals for Sevilla, they always came the same way.

“It is something that will stay with me forever.”

THE PROBLEM

Sevilla were in the top half of the table and looking good for a place in Europe. Unfortunately, it could not last. Problems were on their way and ironically the source of them was the very reason why Blatter and the rest had wanted Maradona back in action.

He earned a recall to the Argentina national team.

Alfio Basile, the manager, could ignore him no longer. After two years out of the team, Maradona was brought back for a series of friendlies and was giddy with excitement.

Sevilla were less keen. Games in La Liga would continue and he was needed by his club for a match against Logrones. Maradona departed without the club’s permission.

The relationship never recovered.

Aggrieved, the visits to training became less frequent. He was at least two stone overweight and the club began to plot their exit strategy. There were reports that he was being tracked by a private detective – a dossier being constructed that would see him denied any pay off.

Maradona was caught by police driving his Porsche at high speed through the city.

It was unravelling.

THE END

Breaking point came in Maradona’s final home game, a 1-1 draw against Burgos. Early in the second half, Bilardo substituted his star player and received a volley of abuse.

He never played for Sevilla again, leaving town on June 23, 1993 with the team having finished an underwhelming seventh and outside of the European places. His final act was to file a law suit because of the unpaid money that he felt he was owed in his contract.

It was a sad end to an adventure that had begun with such optimism but ultimately brought only 26 games and five goals. He did at least make it to his fourth World Cup, scoring with a memorable strike against Greece, but was soon sent home in disgrace for a doping offence.

Even then, just one year on, his time in Seville was just a fleeting memory. But for those who lived it, it is a memory that endures. As Rafa Paz, his old pal from that season puts it, the team won nothing, but just playing alongside Diego Maradona felt like winning a trophy.

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