Diego Maradona at World Cup 1994: the fallen angel

Diego Maradona at World Cup 1994: the fallen angel

This feature is part of Diego Maradona: the World Cup diaries

And so to the end of this story, which has intertwined the experiences and narrative of four World Cups, a footballing legend idolised and vilified in equal measure, and the coming of age of boy raised by a single parent, who fell in love with football and subconsciously opted to forgo supporting a team in order to embrace all that the beautiful game had to offer.

The actual story of the 1994 World Cup and Maradona’s part in it is relatively short. His playing time for the entire tournament is restricted to two appearances, totalling 173 minutes on the field of play. It is the build-up to, and the aftermath of, those 173 minutes where the real narrative of Maradona’s fourth World Cup lies.

For myself, after Italia 90 it was a time for some growing up. I was officially an adult and now needed to work for a living. Up until 1990, I had lived a simple but blessed life, which consisted of football and friends and not much else. I was lucky to be a player talented enough that local teams wanted me to play for them. I also went to schools where football was the primary sport and the elevated social standing that being good at football gave you.

Now my time was taken up with work, which at times meant I couldn’t play football on the weekend or watch it on the television.

Between 1990 and 1994 football went through a revolution in England. The introduction of the Premier League in 1992 revolutionised football as a product for consumption, and the Taylor Report addressed the dire lack of consideration given to football fans in this country. This resulted in an overhauling the safety of stadiums and the environment in which football was viewed. These immense social shifts in football as a product are still reverberating around the sport today.

Football was evolving and metamorphosing into a global phenomenon. At the same time, I was shrinking and withdrawing from the ethereal hold it had on me throughout my entire childhood. I was never more disconnected from football as I was between Italia 90 and USA 94. Football was progressing and it was leaving me behind. Football was no longer the most important thing in my life.

If I thought I was having societal issues with the game, it was nothing compared to what Maradona was going through post-Italia 90. Having lost the World Cup final in his adopted homeland, Maradona went back to play for Napoli. Rumours had already been rife about his associations with the mafia and his drug and alcohol abuse while in Naples. Then finally the dam broke.

After a Serie A fixture against Bari in March 1991, the Argentine tested positive for cocaine and was subsequently banned from all football for 15 months by FIFA. Certain sources claimed that Maradona had battled a drug problem since his time in Barcelona; now, finally, all those rumours became a certainty. The term druggie was now thrown around with abandonment, dovetailing nicely with cheat, which was still in vogue with the British press whenever Maradona’s name was mentioned.

The news crushed me: football was changing and I wasn’t ready for it. Now the one constant in my footballing life, the man who had always been there, always turned up every four years without fail to bring joy into my life, had been removed. Maradona was the only fix that could see me through this state of flux and now I was going to have to deal with the withdrawal symptoms.

I may have been 21-years-old but the child in me couldn’t, and probably still doesn’t, reconcile how off-pitch activities tarnish the achievements on the pitch. Maradona was the greatest I had ever seen and probably will ever see.

Read  |  Diego Maradona at World Cup 1982: the innocent devil

El Diego left Italy and headed back to his homeland to see out his ban in splendid isolation. Football was no longer the most important thing in his life.     

Following the serving of his ban, the former Barcelona player signed for Sevilla in La Liga, where he was reunited with his World Cup-winning manager, Carlos Bilardo. Maradona played 26 games for the Spanish side, but at the end of the 1992-93 season, the Argentine returned home and signed for Newell’s Old Boys.

Here we go, I knew my man would be back. Finally, something to alleviate the tedium that was international football in the early 1990s. Paul Gascoigne had the potential to occupy a place alongside the Argentine in my affections until a self-induced injury had put him out of football for a year. But now there was at least a chance of seeing the Argentine one last time on the world stage.

The World Cup in the USA never really sat comfortably with me at the time. It was probably because my stereotypical view centred around why anyone would hold a World Cup in a country that doesn’t appear to care or have an interest in football?

While my independence of club influence and biased nationalistic support is well documented throughout this story, looking back I was clearly a traditionalist. Football was called football. Soccer – in my opinion at the time – was a word invented by Americans for convenience, because they already had a sport called football. World Cups were supposed to be shared between Europe and South America. They were the heartlands of football and that is where the competition should be held if it was to be a success.

Regardless of my opinion, FIFA had opted to award the USA the 1994 World Cup as an alleged sweetener for the poor treatment they received when campaigning to host the 1986 edition. Rumours at the time had persisted that while João Havelange and the FIFA Committee had listened to the hour-long pitch by the Americans to take over the tournament from Columbia, they had already decided it was going to be given to Mexico. 

Two years later, the FIFA president acknowledged the potential for market profits by awarding the World Cup to the biggest capitalist nation on the planet.

England had long since failed to qualify for the first World Cup outside of Europe or South America. The national side’s failure to progress under Graham Taylor was spectacularly documented in the Channel 4 documentary The Impossible Job, or more memorably ‘Do I Not Like That’. In fact, no home nation qualified for the 1994 World Cup. All British eyes turned to the Republic of Ireland for familiar names and players upon which to hang their supportive hat.

Meanwhile, La Albiceleste were also struggling to qualify for the tournament. Losing 5-0 to Colombia in Buenos Aires was a particular low-point in their campaign. Maradona, meanwhile, watched with the rest of his country as a fan in the stands unable to impact on Argentina’s woeful qualifying performances.

Coco Basile had taken over as manger and had decided to stick with the squad that had won the previous two Copa Américas for their World Cup qualifying campaign. As a result, the former captain found himself a frustrated spectator. From a footballing perspective, the decision made sense. Post-Italia 90, Argentina had built a strong national side, which included Gabriel Batistuta, Diego Simeone and the experienced Claudio Caniggia, and were expected to easily qualify for the World Cup.

Read  |  Diego Maradona at World Cup 1986: the archangel

Then it came – the call to arms, the SOS, the prayer to the heavens. Argentina en masse called for Maradona. Basile’s men had managed to secure themselves one last chance to qualify in the shape of a two-legged playoff against Australia. If they were to negotiate this final hurdle they would need El Diego. So once more, like an angel answering the prayers of the mortal, Maradona returned to save his country.

After securing a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Australia, Maradona led his country to a fortuitous 1-0 win in Buenos Aires thanks to a deflected goal. The Argentine populace didn’t care – their side had qualified and their talisman was back to lead them in a fourth World Cup finals.

Despite England not being at the finals in the Land of the Free, all the usual protagonists were in attendance – Brazil, Germany, Italy, Holland, Spain and Argentina – but my boyhood enthusiasm for a month of televised football no longer existed, and for those who truly love football you cannot feign excitement and interest if it is not there.

Before we get to the actual tournament, there are two points of note worth acknowledging. In the lead up to the first game, Maradona pulled out of the Argentine World Cup squad in February, citing too much pressure was being put on him and he couldn’t cope mentally with the expectation of the Argentine public.

The press camped outside his house for two days demanding an explanation for his decision. Maradona opted for actions rather than words and fired an air rifle from his driveway at the assembled news crews. hitting four separate members of the press. The police were called and legal action was taken by the wounded. 

In the days before social media, you either waited for the news at 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 10 o’clock or you checked Ceefax to access information. I did all of the above. I didn’t miss a news bulletin. For me it was akin to Santa going on strike in December. I offered up silent prayers that this would all be sorted out before June. Maradona’s presence at the ’94 World Cup was the only thing it had going for it. 

The other discussion point is the persistent rumour that FIFA were aware of Maradona’s drug taking prior to the tournament starting, offering him immunity from drug testing procedures, essentially giving him a free pass to carry on using banned substances in an effort to get fit for the tournament. This was because FIFA were apprehensive that the tournament lacked a star name.

So finally the XV World Cup arrived. Containing a convicted drug user, who had been the best footballer in the world, and a 21-year-old man coming to terms with his changing relationship with the sport of football and his feelings of apathy towards a tournament that had been the very essence of his being as a child.

Argentina’s first group game was against Greece at the Foxboro stadium in front of 54,000 fans. Despite only just managing to qualify, La Albicelestes were still one of the favourites for the tournament. Unlike previous World Cup competitions, Argentina had a strong squad and wouldn’t be solely reliant on the ageing Maradona.

Maradona’s return to the World Cup momentarily woke me from my almost automated viewing of the tournament. I could feel that old sense of nervous excitement: would the number 10 be able to produce anything magical? Just for a couple of hours it was like being 13 again. But that is what true artists or people who transcend their vocation do. They can make you believe and inspire emotions in you that you thought had gone.

Read  |  Diego Maradona and the reality behind the Hand of God

Argentina were outstanding against a poor Greek side. Two-nil up at half-time thanks to Batistuta, the Argentines were looking good. Maradona had visibly undergone a playing metamorphosis; he was no longer the bullish player, running with the ball at his feet at every opportunity, but was now playing as a one-touch conduit who kept the South Americans ticking along. He was still dictating the pace of the game, albeit with fewer touches.

On the hour mark the renaissance was complete. Six one-touch passes around the edge of Greece’s penalty area saw the ball arrive at Maradona’s left foot. He took one touch to kill the ball, one touch to get the ball out of his feet, and then the third touch saw the ball arrow into the top left corner of the goal. The goalkeeper didn’t even move.

Despite being surrounded by four opposition players, the number 10 still had all the old magic. Several replays showed the ball hitting the back of the net from different angles. The final replay showed the subsequent celebration.

Running to the sideline looking directly into the camera, eyes bulging, mouth wide open with undeterminable noise coming out, before throwing his head forward to the lens. It was like a 3D version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It is footage that has become as iconic as the Hand of God and the 10.80 seconds it took to score his second against England.

I was taken aback at the sight of the celebration. Either with incredible insight or colluding with the British consensus of Maradona, my mum sat there and succinctly commented: “It wouldn’t surprise me if he was taking something.” 

The petulant child in me rose to the surface. “You can’t say that.” I had invested 12 years, over half of my natural life, following this man. It is ok to have an opinion but I took the comment personally. My mum may as well have accused me of drug taking. Besides, he had just demonstrated everything that made him great. 

Maradona was substituted after 83 minutes and left the pitch to a standing ovation. Argentina went on to win 4-0 with Batistuta completing his hat-trick. The qualifying trauma had been forgotten and I had my waning attention momentarily refocused on the tournament, thanks to the diminutive Argentine captain.

Next up for Basile’s side was Nigeria, who also had a good side, with many of their players playing in the big European leagues. Nigeria unexpectedly went 1-0 up after only eight minutes, but the Argentines refused to panic and, after 28 minutes, order had been restored with two Claudio Caniggia goals. The second one was set up by a quick free-kick from Maradona.

Argentina saw the game out to win 2-1. Maradona left the field holding hands with a medical nurse who was responsible for taking the Argentine captain to the drug testing area. It is not a familiar site in football, and certainly not at a World Cup, to see a player escorted off the pitch by the testing authorities. However, Mardona was all smiles and waved to the adoring crowd as he left, still clutching the medics left-hand.   

The game finished, the coverage on the television ended, and I didn’t give the drug test another thought. Instead, I was happy in the knowledge that the only reason for watching USA 94 had just about guaranteed Argentina’s qualification into the knockout rounds. There was nothing to worry about.

Read  |  Diego Maradona at World Cup 1990: the weeping angel

Four days later, on 29 June, that paragon of virtue, Sepp Blatter, announced: “Both analysis of the urine sample have proved positive. The player Diego Maradona of the Argentinian national team has therefore violated the conditions of the doping control regulations, in the match Argentina, Nigeria.”

Maradona had tested positive for ephedrine. I remember the announcement of Ben Johnson’s positive drug test after the 1988 Olympics. The feeling was anger, but not towards the athlete. I didn’t care about  Johnson. It was about the spectacle I had witnessed, the greatest ever 100 metres final, and it turned out to be a sham.

This time I didn’t care about the result or the game. This time I didn’t feel anger – I felt a crushing disappointment for the man whose career I had followed intently from any source possible, a person who, when I was a child, I had naively forgiven for all his misdemeanours. Maradona inadvertently had finally had one more go at killing my indefatigable love of football.

In that moment, I changed from being an eternal optimist about the beautiful game to being a sceptic. Everything to do with football from that point onwards would be questioned or second-guessed. I don’t blame Diego Maradona directly; he gave me far to many positive memories and excitement as player in his prime.

Fortunately – though some may say unfortunately – our lives are inextricably linked, to the extent that many of my football memories and emotions are tied up with his career and his actions.

The man from the slums of Buenos Aires was given another 15-month ban from all football and excluded immediately from the World Cup squad. Basile’s men did not win another game at the tournament. They lost their remaining group game 2-0 to Bulgaria before going out in the next round after losing 3-2 to Romania.

Maradona’s life after his playing career is another story in itself and not one that I am overly concerned with telling. It is Maradona the player who enthralled me as a child and as an adult. I will be forever grateful that my childhood coincided with ‘D10S’ emergence as an international star.

Never has a player’s greatness divided opinion; never has a player been worshipped and vilified in equal measure; never has a player dominated an entire World Cup tournament; and never has a player had such a lifelong impact on a young teenager in Yorkshire, sat at home watching an old black and white television.

It is perhaps most apt to finish this story with the final piece of World Cup commentary regarding the Argentine captain. These final few words of the Argentina-Nigeria game best sum up exactly what he was about and how I will always remember Diego Armando Maradona. Over to match commentator Clive Tyldesley: “Maradona again, oh they just can’t get the ball off him. Can he get a goal? He deserves one. That should be a penalty, surely? Look at this. Nobody can say he is finished.”

Despite everything he has subsequently done in his life, I would never trade in my hero. The greatest compliment I can pay him is that he was the catalyst for the best childhood a boy could have.

By Stuart Horsfield @loxleymisty44

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