Argentinos Juniors have long been renowned in Argentina as the cradle of the stars, a place where several greats have been nurtured and gone on to legend. Some of Argentina’s finest have come through the academy of Los Bichos Colorados, inclusive of Juan Román Riquelme, Claudio Borghi, Sergio Batista, Fernando Redondo and Esteban Cambiasso.
But there is another name that sits above all of those in the pantheon of Argentine greatness, which is also the name that adorns the stadium in La Paternal, not far from the centre of Buenos Aires which Argentinos call home. “Argentinos Juniors is my home. Every time I hear the name of the stadium, I get shivers down my spine,” said the player in question. Their stadium is named Estadio Diego Armando Maradona, with a plaque at the main entrance reading: “The best player of all time made his career debut in this stadium on October 20, 1976.”
Diego Maradona’s time with Argentinos Juniors began when he was eight. One of his childhood friends, Goyo Carrizo, from the Siete Conchitas (Seven Little Pitches) – a barren, hard ground when the young boys of Villa Fiorita played – had gone to train with Argentinos. When the coach, Francis Cornejo, was looking for new blood to come for a trial, Carrizo, one of the best players in Cornejo’s young team, spoke up. “Sir, I’ve got a friend who’s better than me,” he said. “Can I bring him next week?” When he got a positive response, Goyo asked Diego, who was keen, naturally.
A few days and numerous bus rides later, Maradona’s talents shone through at the Las Malvinas training ground of Argentinos Juniors. “They say people witness at least one miracle in their lives, but most do not even realise. I certainly did,” Cornejo wrote in his book, Cebollita Maradona. “My miracle occurred on that rainy Saturday in 1969, when an eight-year-old kid, an age I could not believe, did things with the ball that I’d never seen in my life.”
In spite of his talent, the young Diego’s short stature made the coaches suspect he was younger than eight, fearing he was too young to be included in their youth system. “They gave me a trial, but they thought I was lying about my age and made me bring my papers the next day,” Maradona remembered. Their fears were unfounded, of course, and with a high level of trust developing between the coaches and Maradona’s father, Diego stayed with Argentinos when other clubs would certainly have been more convenient.
As he developed through the ranks, he first became known to the fans of the club when, as a teenager, he was a ball boy in a top-tier match. Maradona was given the ball at half-time and told to show off his skills in the centre circle. He began bouncing it from instep to thigh to head to shoulder and back again, with the crowd enjoying the show from their young prospect.
On another occasion, when doing his thing at half-time in a clash with Boca Juniors, the crowd started clapping along and shouting for him to stay on the pitch even when the teams had come out for the second half. Such was the impact of his impromptu demonstrations that, even at such a tender age, this was clearly a talent destined to make a mark on the game. As his reputation grew, he had to perform his tricks with both the ball and an orange on national television.
Maradona’s rise to prominence with Argentinos Juniors happened remarkably fast. Within the space of a few years he rose from the lowest youth ranks to the senior team. In 1974, aged 14, Maradona’s youth side won their championship. He played a couple of matches at the next level before being moved up to a higher age group. A few months later he was moved up again; a handful more games and he was moved once more, this time to the first team.
On 20 October 1976, still only 15-years-old, the young, diminutive Diego Maradona made his debut for Argentinos Juniors’ first-team against Tallares de Córdoba. During training the week before, the manager, Juan Carlos Montes, had told Maradona he’d be on the bench for this game. But not only that, Montes told young Diego to be well prepared as he’d be coming on.
Early in the second half, with Argentinos 1-0 down, his moment had arrived. Maradona described the moment in his autobiography, El Diego: “Montes fixed me with a stare, as if he was asking me, ‘Do you dare?’ I held his stare, and that was my answer.” Maradona trotted on to the field in the iconic red shirt with white sash, wearing the number 16. Montes’ final words to his young protégé as he was about to embark on the first rung of the ladder to footballing greatness were: “Come on Diego, play like you know how … and if you can, nutmeg someone.”
Maradona did as he was told, dummying and nutmegging his marker Juan Domingo Cabrera to receive an “ole” from the crowd, hailing the arrival of a special talent. He was still a young teenager, just 15, promoted early, playing in a man’s game. But he was a young player with the skills and, importantly, the wherewithal and savvy to avoid the brutality aimed at him on the pitch. “That day I felt I had held the sky on my hands,” recalled Maradona poetically.
Argentinos Juniors lost that first match of his, but as Diego himself described, “I had started a long and beautiful history with Argentinos Juniors, an unforgettable history.” It was the start of an astonishing career that would touch the sky, but the global glory, fame and infamy were still to come.
Before all of that, he spent five years at Argentinos Juniors, scoring 115 goals in 167 appearances, almost all as a teenager following his rapid ascent from the barrio to the big time. In his autobiography, he describes the rise as “too fast”, and it seems easy to suggest that some of his future troubles stem from how quickly he was thrust into the limelight.
The spotlight shining on him from that very first appearance was all because of his age, his astonishing skills, and how well he played. He was loved not just for his talents, but because he epitomised the Argentine myth of the pibe – the street kid with the skills to “make his way through life with a combination of charm and cunning, encouraged almost, never to mature into adulthood,” as described by Jonathan Wilson in Angels With Dirty Faces.
A more apt description of Maradona you would struggle to find, and even in his early career he typified this ideal. That first season saw him play 11 times, scoring twice against San Lorenzo just two weeks after his 16th birthday. A debut with the national team followed in early 1977, with this significant step still coming having only played those initial 11 games for Argentinos Juniors.
As Maradona’s career took off, the huge disappointment at being cut from the 1978 World Cup squad at the last moment scarred him, but also served as a motivational tool. He realised that anger was fuel for him, and he channelled that into his performances for Argentinos. Within a few days of his devastating World Cup disappointment, he starred in a 5-0 win for Argentinos Juniors over Chacarita, scoring two and assisting two others.
His desire to fight his way up, added to his focused anger over his World Cup snub, helped propel him to become better and better. In Argentinos, he had a team that was also fighting continually against the odds; a small fish in a big pond, the footballing metaphor of Diego himself: youthful, small in stature, always fighting his way, always battling his corner.
With a fired-up Maradona, Argentinos’ form picked up, pushing them to fifth in the Metropolitano in 1978, their young attacker the top scorer with 22 goals. With that, further international recognition came his way, initially through the youth team, with senior coach César Luis Menotti heavily involved. It was at the 1979 World Youth Championship, in a squad building towards the 1982 World Cup, that he first came to global prominence.
Shortly before that global breakthrough, Argentinos had declared Maradona non-transferable. However, this prompted the obvious question of how a club of their limited means would manage to pay for Maradona in order to keep him, especially in view of the offers that were by now regularly streaming in domestically and from overseas. A deal was struck with Austral, a domestic airline, to sponsor Argentinos’ shirts, which increased the revenue sufficiently to keep Maradona in the short-term at least. Without that, the Argentinos Juniors story, and indeed the story of Maradona playing in Argentina, would have been a significantly shorter one.
In the 1979 Metropolitano, he scored 22 goals to finish as joint top scorer, a feat which propelled Argentinos to joint second place with Vélez Sarsfield. They had to play a deciding playoff, but Maradona watched from the sidelines as his teammates lost 4-0, disciplinary trouble in a friendly just beforehand leaving him suspended for the big match.
When not in disciplinary trouble, the goals kept on coming: 12 in the 1978 Nacional and 25 in the 1980 Metropolitano, both as top scorer again, keeping his inexorable rise on track. He missed out on a title playoff again, this time through illness, and again Argentinos lost in his absence. It was another disappointment for Maradona and Argentinos, but for a club of their size to come second in a national championship was a remarkable achievement that had come about largely thanks to their still-teenage superstar. Soon after, Maradona would score his 100th goal in early 1980, when he was still only 19.
Further evidence of Maradona being spurred on by anger came in a decisive clash with Boca Juniors in the 1980 Nacional. The Boca goalkeeper, Hugo Gatti, was quoted as saying that Maradona was a good player but overhyped, and that he was “a fatty”. Naturally, Gatti claimed to have been misquoted, and attempted to smooth things over by saying as much to Maradona ahead of the match.
No matter the truth of the matter, though, Maradona used the alleged insult to inspire his performance. He scored four goals past an overwhelmed Gatti, sending Argentinos through to the Nacional quarter-finals at the expense of the larger, grander club. The Boca fans, appreciating the standout performance from the star being formed in front of them, sung Maradona’s name – an act that stirred a profound feeling in Maradona, a burgeoning love that would have a significant effect on his future.
Maradona would again miss the decisive games in the Nacional for Argentinos as the national team came calling, taking part in the Mundialito tournament in Uruguay. It was the start of 1981 and Maradona’s time at Argentinos Juniors was almost at an end. He was rapidly outgrowing them, and the need to move to a club more befitting his new stature was becoming increasingly apparent.
River Plate had already made a significant offer, and the temptation to join the likes of Ubaldo Fillol, Daniel Passarella and Américo Gallego must have been substantial. Had he done so, a club already dominating the domestic scene would likely have ascended further still. Boca, meanwhile, were in financial difficulty and were playing poorly. Maradona, though, was becoming far more at home fighting the odds than having them stacked in his favour. It was the way he liked it, what brought the best out of him. Where, further down the line, Napoli would be a better fit than Barcelona, so too were Boca a better fit than River.
There were press reports claiming Maradona was on his way to Boca, reports which Maradona claimed in his autobiography were planted by his own agent to stir Boca into action. When Argentinos Juniors played River around that time, he was insulted from the stands for seemingly turning them down. It made things more certain in his mind, but with Boca lacking the funds to buy him, a loan deal was struck initially, with payment to follow in due course.
For Argentinos, this was far from ideal. Not only were they losing their star man but they were also missing out on a windfall transfer fee from River, though there would be a subsequent payment from Boca. This was partially mitigated by a hastily arranged friendly match between Boca and Argentinos, Maradona’s last appearance in the red and white, where he played the first half for his old club and the second for his new.
The manner of his departure, and the effect it had on Argentinos, a small club punching significantly above its weight, meant there would be a few run-ins between Maradona and Argentinos fans in the future, but the club that had nurtured him had to let him go. It had been a beautiful beginning but the young maestro was now too big for the place where he discovered his ability to channel his anger as a fuel, and to use his skills to dominate opponents. The tone of his future career had been set, and would never leave him, but Diego Maradona’s time with Argentinos Juniors was at an end.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams