World Cup Experience: 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994
Clubs: Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Barcelona, Napoli, Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys
By the time Diego Maradona made his debut at the age of 15 for Buenos Aires side Argentinos Juniors in 1976, there were already rumors that something special was on the horizon at El Paternal, but nobody could have projected the sheer greatness that ensued.
At the age of just 16, El Pibe de Oro made his debut for the National Team, and at 17 he led the Argentina Primera with 22 goals in 1978. His sensational form earned him a call up to a preliminary list of 25 for Argentina’s 1978 World Cup side, but coach Cesar Luis Menotti decided that Maradona was too young, and the young Diego was one of the three players cut before the start of the tournament.
“At that point, when I was left out of the final squad of twenty-two, I realized that anger was a fuel for me. It really got me revved up. I played best when I was after revenge,” Maradona recounted years later.
Inspired by the disappointment of missing out on Argentina’s first World Cup title, Maradona led the Argentine First Division in scoring for five straight seasons, before making the move to Boca Juniors.
El Diez arrived at Boca and promptly lifted them to the title in his only season, netting 28 goals and securing a then world record transfer fee of 1 million dollars to FC Barcelona.
At Spain 1982, Maradona and Argentina succumbed to the pressure of having to deal with the label of favorites and the realization that their country was losing the war for Las Malvinas, as the government had reported that Argentina were indeed winning the war.
Although Maradona did play well and scored two goals in the group stage, he was man-marked by Claudio Gentile in a loss to Italy before losing his cool and kicking Batista in the groin, resulting in a red card and an abrupt end to his first World Cup.
At Barcelona, Maradona provided many highlights on the pitch, but off it he lived a wild life and clashed with club directors. A spell of hepatitis was followed by a broken leg thanks to a rash tackle at the hands of Andoni Goikoetxea, who Maradona dubbed the “Butcher of Bilbao.”
In 1984, Maradona left Barcelona to join Napoli for another world record transfer fee (he remains the only man to twice break the world record in transfer fees) where he found himself idling near the bottom of Serie A. Thanks to Maradona, Napoli became one of the giants of the European game.
What makes Maradona’s success at Napoli so remarkable is that the club has never come close to replicating its success under El Diez before or after his presence. This is all the more impressive because, at a time Serie A was the best league in the world, with the likes of Platini, Matthaus, Baggio, Maldini, Donadoni, Zenga and many more. But with Maradona, Napoli became the first club to win the “double” by claiming the Scudetto and Copa Italia in 1987, the first such trophies in club history.
In 1989, Maradona lifted the UEFA Cup knocking out Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Stuttgart on the way to the title. In 1990, Napoli won their second Scudetto and the Italian Super Cup, their last trophy to date.
As spectacular as Maradona was at Napoli, his greatest achievement came at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico where he tormented each opponent on the way to the title and won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. His two goals against England will live on in history as his defining moment and, arguably, the defining moment in World Cup history.
Four years later, Maradona and Argentina were far from their best but reached the Final thanks to a series of improbable results, including a win over hosts Italy in Napoli’s stadium and a victory over Brazil thanks to a trademark Maradona run and pass to Claudio Caniggia.
After Italia 1990, Maradona found himself suspended by FIFA after failing an anti-doping test and, although he made comebacks with Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys, and Boca, his best years were behind him.
That was until the 1994 World Cup in the USA, where Maradona and Argentina were the best team of the group stage, before El Diego failed another anti-doping test, prompting questions of a vendetta against him.
Now, 16 years after leaving the World Cup in disgrace, Maradona is back on the biggest stage as Argentina’s manager and can boast one of the tournament’s most talented teams with the likes of Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuain, and Diego Milito. No one will be surprised if Maradona is laughing, finally gaining revenge against FIFA for USA 1994 and Italia 1990, when he saw the Final stripped from him after a series of questionable calls in favor of the Germans.