The last stand of Diego Maradona

The last stand of Diego Maradona

THE STADIO DELLE ALPI was a cold, cavernous, characterless stadium. The architectural monstrosity was designed by Studio Hutter and built from scratch ahead of the 1990 World Cup. Tucked away on the outskirts of Turin, shortly after its inauguration it became loathed by just every individual unfortunate enough to set foot inside the supposedly ‘futuristic’ looking stadium, above all Juventus and Torino supporters, who had the severe misfortune of having to actually spend several hours inside it every second weekend for 16 years.

The stadium, blighted by the Turin councils’ demand for a running track to be inserted around the periphery of the pitch, made visibility a major issue with spectators. Yet the fans, poor vision aside, were witness to the crowning of Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Baggio and Pavel Nedvěd as the world’s best players. They watched a who’s who of supreme footballing talent in the ‘90s and noughties, such as Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli, Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Christian Vieri and Edgar Davids.

There were also some iconic matches and moments, such as the all-time classic between Juventus and Manchester United in April 1999 in the semi-final of the Champions League and four years later at the same stage against Real Madrid. Who can forget Paul Gascoigne’s tears in the semi final of Italia 90? A match so dramatic and so galvanising, it changed the entire trajectory of the English game.

Another such moment took place very early on in its existence. In fact the stadium had only been opened a matter of weeks and it bore witness to the last stand of a genius from Argentina, a magician in the last throes of his extraordinary greatness. In a game against Argentina’s bitterest of enemies.

In those pre-internet, pre-Serie A-being-shown-on-TV days, everything on the surface with Diego Maradona appeared to be business as usual. He entered Italia 90 a league winner, having guided Napoli to their second – and last – league title, pipping Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan to the scudetto in highly controversial circumstances, scoring a personal best 16 league goals in the process.

Yet dig a little deeper and one would find the reality was far different. This was a man whose life was starting to unravel at the seams, years of cocaine addiction combined with six years of thuggish brutality from defenders the length and breadth of Italy, with zero protection from referees, had taken its toll on his body. No amount of cortisone injections could save the constant pain in Maradona’s ankles (the injections themselves also adding to his physical decline). At 29 his body was ravaged, ready to call it quits, no longer willing to do the commands his brain wanted it to.

The season going into Italia 90 had seen him dropped for the first time in his stint at Napoli, his unpredictability becoming too much for newly installed coach Alberto Bigon. Napoli had bought an unknown youngster from Torres called Gianfranco Zola and the diminutive Sardinian took his chance whenever El Diego was banished to the bench.

Despite hitting 16 goals in the 1989-90 season, his influence on Napoli’s second scudetto wasn’t as profound as the first. Maradona was showing signs that he was now after all human. The mood around Naples was that whilst the first title in 1987 marked the beginning of an era, this scudetto signalled the end of it, a sense of impending Neapolitan doom was hanging in the air; the good times were over.

Argentina opened the tournament at a feverish San Siro against Cameroon, in a match everyone and their dog expected the champions to win. The Africans had never won a World Cup game, in fact they had only ever played in three in the history of the competition; what chance did they have of beating the reigning champions?


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The Indomitable Lions would indeed go on to shock the world, winning 1–0. Maradona and Argentina were comprehensively outplayed and it must be said, out-kicked by the Cameroonians. Due to the rivalry between Napoli and Milan in the preceding years, and the Milanese’s vociferous hatred for the street urchin Maradona and everything he represented, it ensured Cameroon were crowd favourites in the stadium. The Argentine national anthem was loudly whistled and it set the tone for the rest of the tournament.

La Albiceleste scraped through their group, qualifying as one of the best third placed teams in FIFA’s old convoluted 24-team system, following a win over the Soviet Union and a draw against Romania. In all three games the number 10 was a bystander, an injury sustained against Israel in a pre-tournament match rendering him nearly useless. He was a virtual ghost gesticulating around the football pitches of Italy masquerading as Diego Maradona. The only thing of note he did in the three games was to stop a certain Soviet Union goal by sticking out his right hand, the dark arts of Diego’s psyche emerging once more.

Argentina were pitted against eternal foes Brazil in the round of 16. This was the fourth time the pair had squared off in a World Cup, and despite topping their group, Sebastião Lazaroni’s team were excruciatingly mediocre. They featured several players who would later form the nucleus of the team that would win the tournament four years later, including Romário, who was still some years away from his prime. Lazaroni, who was leaving his post to take over at Fiorentina following the tournament, tried to introduce a more European style to the Seleção, implementing a 3-5-2 formation.

In the aftermath of their exit to Italy in Spain 82, Brazil spent the rest of the decade soul-searching for a new footballing identity, realising the days of playing with reckless abandon and winning trophies at the highest level were long gone. Needless to say, Lazaroni’s European way wasn’t winning any popularity contests back in his homeland during the tournament. They had only scored four goals in the group stage, a group that included Sweden, Costa Rica and Scotland. Argentina had scored one fewer. This was not going to be a free-flowing, high-scoring spectacle for the purists.

And so the scene was set for Stadio delle Alpi’s first memorable moment. The match kicked off at five in the evening in truly suffocating Piedmont heat. Argentina – in a tradition that started from the opening game and continued right the way up until the final – with the exception of the infamous semi-final – were roundly booed and their national anthem jeered, with the noise decibel ratcheting up several notches when the 60,000 strong crowd first got a glimpse of Maradona, who was just as despised in Turin as he was in Milan. If there were neutrals in the stadium, it was clear which side they were supporting.

“Nothing is as beautiful as beating Brazil,” Maradona would say after the match. He had history with the Brazilians, getting sent off against them in Spain 82 as he kicked out, literally, after a tournament of being abused and being offered little protection from referees, as Argentina meekly relinquished their crown. They avoided each other in Mexico 86 when he was in his prime, and Maradona probably knew this would be his last chance to knock Brazil out of a World Cup, something Argentina hadn’t achieved in the three previous attempts.

Yet you wouldn’t think he was in a race against time – the only continuity he found was in getting hacked down by the opposition the minute he received the ball. Argentina by the same token were nothing if not consistent in employing their ugly, cynical style of play that won them very few fans the longer the tournament progressed. They were a shell of their 1986 selves.

Brazil dominated the match for lengthy spells of the game, hitting the woodwork three times, once in the first half from a Dunga header and twice in quick succession in the second through Maradona’s Napoli teammates Careca and Alemão. Careca caused the Argentine backline trouble all game; their rugged yet slow defenders failing to deal with his speed and movement.

Argentina’s game plan was simple: absorb all the Brazilian pressure and hit on the counter through their captain, hoping Brazil would leave some gaps exposed at the back. In a tournament already diluted with bad football, everyone except Argentines were praying for a Brazil victory. That gives some perspective on how reviled Carlos Bilardo’s Argentina were in the tournament. Yet the clock was ticking down and with no goal, they poured forward, and gaps were emerging.

And then it happened. For 80 minutes Diego Maradona had done nothing, try as he might. He and Claudio Caniggia were isolated and the number 10 was increasingly going deeper and deeper in search of the ball. In the 81st minute, Maradona’s body obeyed him, one last time.

Naples Maradona Napoli

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Maradona picked up the loose ball inside his own half, just inside the centre circle. Facing Alemão and with another player coming in from the side, it looked like Maradona was cornered, yet for the first time in the match, and for no more than a nanosecond, they backed off. You can almost see the gears grinding in his brain now that the Brazilians had finally give him an inch.

Maradona, in his book El Diego, liked to describe of ‘vaccinating’ his opponents; you can imagine him thinking, “If I can just get my body to perform one last vaccination, this is the moment.” He takes two touches and accelerates past his Napoli teammate, gathering steam as he heads toward the Brazil half.

A scene in the superhero movie classic The Dark Knight depicts The Joker telling Harvey Dent, who is on the verge of transforming into Two Face, of how he is an agent of chaos. You could make the same case for Maradona. A Brazilian player tries to tackle him but he merely bounces off him and lands on his knees.

You can now sense the sheer scale of chaos in the minds of the Brazilian backline as Maradona keeps on running and glides past the hapless Ricardo Rocha as the three remaining players focus on him and lose all track of Caniggia, who darts across the pitch to the wide open gap created by the pandemonium of the Brazilians.

Rocha catches up to Maradona, who begins to drift away from goal to the right, and the defender pushes him downwards. If you somehow watched this sequence without knowing exactly what happens you would logically assume that Maradona has run out of space to run into whilst being pushed to the ground, that nothing could come of it. But what happens next is what separated Maradona from ordinary mortals. Now sliding on his left knee, he plays a beautiful diagonal ball with his right foot, through the legs of defender Mauro Galvão, to a completely unmarked Caniggia on the edge of the box.

It’s now a duel between Caniggia – who could at times pass for an Axl Rose lookalike – and Claudio Taffarel. Caniggia rounds the goalkeeper with ease and strokes the ball home with his left foot. Argentina 1–0 ahead with less than ten minutes left.

Brazil had nullified Maradona for 80 minutes. Every time he touched the ball he was swarmed by one, two and sometimes even three opposition players. They had shackled him, they had kicked him, and yet all it took was six seconds to change the complexity of the game. For six glorious seconds Maradona transported the world back to his halcyon days of Mexico 86, as if saying to younger viewers “let me show you how good I really was.”

It was a true raging against the dying of the light moment; it was daring, it was genius, it was pulsating, it was everything we love about football. It encapsulated the very best of Diego Maradona, and we would never see it again.

Argentina held on for the most unlikely of victories, incurring the wrath of neutrals the world over that wanted their cynical team eliminated at the first opportunity. They would, of course, somehow make it all the way to the final, losing to West Germany. Anybody hoping the old Maradona would be making a full-time return after the Brazil game were sadly mistaken, as his performances mirrored those of the opening three games.

Upon the full-time whistle in Rome as Lothar Matthäus lifted the World Cup, Maradona could take no more and burst into tears, the immense pressure of being the man for club and country bubbling to the surface. There would be no sympathy however, as many saw him as the symbol of everything that was wrong with this Argentina squad; too much thuggery, too much of the dark arts, not enough football. Argentina scored 14 goals in Mexico 86, none of them penalties, but at Italia 90 they only scored five. Maradona scored five times in Mexico 86, four years later he scored none.

He was a broken man, mentally as well as physically, and the World Cup final would mark the beginning of a dark and scandal-ridden decade for Maradona, in which his cocaine addiction for the first time would outstrip his need to play football.

In retrospect, the match against Brazil should be more cherished, the last time the genius from a shantytown wowed the world (drug-fuelled wonder strike against Greece at USA 94 notwithstanding). For six seconds the Diego Maradona everyone aspired to be reappeared at Italia 90, and what glorious six seconds they were.

By Emmet Gates  @E_I_M_G

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