Long before promising Argentine talents were being labelled ‘the new Maradona’, there was the actual Maradona. Forty years on from his Argentina debut at just 16 years old, FFT takes a look back at the early days of Diego’s career
A look back at Diego’s early days
In his 2001 book, Cebollita Maradona, Francisco Cornejo describes perfectly – if somewhat dramatically – how it felt to be the manager who had Diego Maradona “taken away” from him.
“It was almost like a robbery, a violent robbery in which I had no alternative but to hand him over,” he said. “I felt like an artist who, after polishing a rough diamond and then turning it into an almost perfect jewel, feels that the jewel he knows down to every last detail will be borne by someone that doesn’t know it or care for it so much.”
Cornejo had been Maradona’s first coach with Los Cebollitas – The Little Onions – an all-conquering youth team affiliated to Argentinos Juniors. He was the man who had discovered the future world star during a street football kickabout, and was so impressed by his skills that he rushed to the Maradona home to ask his mother for proof of age. He could not believe this boy was eight. Over the next few years, as the side swept all before them, Diego earned a wonderkid reputation. It wasn’t too long before the first team came knocking.
It was Hector Mazzoni, a board member at Argentinos, who broke the news to the young player and his youth team manager that the senior squad wanted possession of this phenomenon. “You won’t go anywhere,” Cornejo barked towards Diego impulsively. The members of the board who had gathered at the club’s training ground were all somewhat startled. “He’s so tiny! So young! If something happens to him, I’ll hold you responsible. He’s not ready yet, you are putting his career in danger.” The coach thought it was too much, too soon, and matters became so heated, it looked like a fistfight might break out. Yet Maradona himself was barely concerned. His eyes were already widening at the thought of the opportunity to play in the Primera.
It was 1976. Early in the year, Argentinos’ first-team boss Juan Carlos Montes had first set his eyes on the little gem causing such a fuss for Los Cebollitas, then just a 15-year-old. He had approved of what he’d seen. Theoretically, Diego still had five seasons in the youth ranks before he would step up to the professional game. But Montes was willing to let the prodigy leapfrog the academy system.
“I knew that sooner or later, the moment would come,” Cornejo, who died in 2008, later explained. “I never imagined it would have been so soon and so painful. It is not that it happened by chance, and I was not surprised, but I still had hopes of delaying having to say goodbye to Diego. When he was promoted into the first team, I felt the same pain and emptiness I would have felt if he had been sold to one of the many clubs that were trying to steal him from us.”
The board eventually realised his youth coach had been at least partly correct. The promotion had been a little too rapid, even for an individual with such bountiful potential. So they opted to make Maradona play a few matches with one of the academy’s older age groups, as well as give him a handful of reserve-side appearances.
His first-team debut was approaching when the other, darker side of Diego – that now well-known ‘competitive streak’ – came to the fore. During a reserve game with Velez Sarsfield, he reacted angrily to a decision going against him. “You’re a master – I’m surprised you’re not given international matches,” was the teenage talent’s cuttingly sarcastic cry to the referee. His lip was enough to get him sent off, charged with misconduct, and a five-match ban followed.
But despite this glimpse into the temperamental issues that would later dog Maradona’s career, the big day still rolled around before his 16th birthday. With Argentinos Juniors stuggling for form during the Torneo Nacional, a spark was needed. Once Diego had served his ban – hurried along by two hastily-arranged U17 friendly games – Montes selected him for his first-ever professional outing against Talleres on October 20, 1976. He was just 15 years, 11 months and 20 days old.
Up until that point he had still lived with his family in the slums of Villa Fiorito; the very day he was called up for his first senior game, the club decided to rent him a small flat closer to the stadium, in Villa del Parque. Maradona’s life was about to drastically change.
A MATCH ATTENDED BY HALF OF ARGENTINA
At 9am on the morning of the match, Diego got on a train, alone (his father was busy working in a factory). Later, he hopped on the 135 bus. His two-hour commute got him to Argentinos’ ground in time for a spot of lunch: steak and potatoes. This trip had become a near-daily routine, but this day was different. After a brief siesta, he was handed the No.15 jersey and told he was about to make his debut. It would be one of the few occasions that he didn’t wear the No.10 with which he’d become synonymous.
Argentinos officially sold 7,577 tickets for that match against Talleres. But like early Sex Pistols gigs or the 1966 World Cup Final, hundreds of thousands of people now claim to have been present, watching the future national idol turn out in his very first pro game.
“Not even the Maracana could have welcomed all the people that say they attended, but we got used to people saying, ‘I was there’,” jokes Ricardo Pellerano, Maradona’s team-mate at Argentinos. The chance to witness this prized player in action had, however, doubled the usual attendance: there was a justified buzz surrounding Diego. That youth side, Los Cebollitas, had earned national fame for going 140 matches unbeaten, with Maradona going viral decades before social media simply by word of mouth. Not everyone had seen him in the flesh, but most were now aware of the scamp who inspired this junior answer to the Harlem Globetrotters.
What’s more, Argentinos at the time were a small club without an illustrious history or notable players. They may now have won three Primera Division titles and be known for having a top academy that produced Fernando Redondo, Juan Pablo Sorin, Esteban Cambiasso and Juan Roman Riquelme – but all that stemmed, ultimately, from Diego Maradona. He was their Big Bang, and the explosion took place at half-time during that game against Talleres.
Unlike Pele, who warmed the Santos bench for two months before getting his first proper taste of the sport, Maradona only had to wait 45 minutes. With Argentinos losing 1-0, Montes hinted that Maradona would be coming on during the second period. “Pibe (kid), do what you know,” his gaffer had apparently announced to nobody in particular. “If you can, try a nutmeg.” Maradona remembers: “When he said pibe, I looked around and I did not see many young players, so I assumed it was me. I started warming up, and 30 seconds later he sent me in.”
Wishing him good luck as he was coming off the pitch was Ruben Giacobetti. “I’m relieved to say that I wasn’t just substituted for any 15-year-old,” says Giacobetti, who later moved into the real estate business. “In fact, I decided to stay on the substitutes’ bench during the second half, because I wanted to see Diego playing. We all knew what he was capable of, and now I feel honoured that my name is somehow connected to Maradona’s career.”
Diego’s first official action was, apparently, indeed a nutmeg, bamboozling gritty defender Juan Domingo Cabrera. Maradona soon learned a lesson in return: Cabrera reacted with an elbow directed to his chin. “Cabrera had already been booked, so Maradona knew he had to try to have him sent off,” recalls team-mate Sebastian Ovelar. Without television footage, the nutmeg has become the stuff of myth and legend, with many people doubting that it could really have been Diego Maradona’s very first action in professional football. “I remember the nutmeg, and it was embarrassing, amazing,” says Argentinos full-back Humberto Minuti. “But I can’t say if it was the first time he touched the ball in the game.”
Argentine newspaper El Grafico once even traced a picture in the archives of the fateful touch: Diego, then living in Cuba, confirmed it as the notorious ‘nuts’ via fax. The photograph was later stashed in an envelope by his victim, Cabrera. “I know I’m part of history as the first man Maradona tricked,” he said in 2001. “It was a quick action, very close to the touchline. Maradona made a U-turn in the blink of an eye, and then I realised that the ball had already passed through my legs, and I felt the stadium go, ‘oooh.’”
The 1-0 scoreline did not change, however. “Not even the inclusion of the surprising, skilful and intelligent Maradona (16 years old) was enough to solve the problem,” wrote Hector Onesime for El Grafico. The youngster was graded with a merely solid 7 – he was ecstatic. “Only once in my career I had the feeling of touching the sky with my hands. It was the day after making my debut,” he remarked.
In the dressing room afterwards, he felt like a Hollywood starlet: a queue of people – team-mates, family members, friends, fans, opposition players and journalists – all wanted a word with Diego. “I’m not 16, I will be 16 in 10 days,” he corrected one reporter.
IT WAS ALMOST OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN
Maradona needed just five matches to score his first club goal. On November 14, against San Lorenzo de Mar del Plata, Diego was deployed in the second half with Argentinos leading 3-2. He put one past keeper Ruben Lucangioli in the 87th minute and added a second goal before full-time.
Despite his bad day at the office, Lucangioli sensed that this was an historic moment. He kept the ball as well as his grasping gloves as souvenirs. “They were in an attic for many years, and as Diego’s miracles grew bigger, we would get telephone calls from different people who knew that we had the ball he scored his first goal with,” recalls Lucangioli’s son Fabian. “But then one day my two-year old brother saw it and took it out to the garden. The dog found it and destroyed it. We’ve got the gloves, though.”
Maradona was already a national phenomenon. Defenders were unable to stop him – despite trying with some high, scything tackles, elbows or headbutts. But the kid was tough: he had already survived his first career-threatening injury – a severe blow to a knee, which had rendered him unconscious and became infected. Blood was removed from the joint with a syringe, and after a course of antibiotics and 28 days in plaster, it healed. Team-mates would act as bodyguards, and as lesser players tried to injure their star, pitch battles would erupt.
Nobody wanted to play against Diego, as old team-mate Pellerano contends. “I’d seen Maradona in action during an a eighth-division match and he made such an impression that I told our manager. A few months later, he was training with us.
“But he played for the reserves – and he’d make us in the first XI suffer so much. ‘Please, coach, make him play for us’, I would tell Montes. It was difficult for a professional player to be ridiculed in the way Maradona did and not react. I’m talking about things that only a team-mate could witness – out-of-this-world movements, goals in which he had dribbled past the entire defence twice. That happened every day.” Pellerano became one of Diego’s assistants when he took over Mandiyu and Racing in 1994 and 1995.
Maradona was soon loved by fans across the entire Primera, and his popularity was boosted by the fact that he didn’t (yet) belong to any of the five big clubs, and hadn’t (yet) done anything controversial. He was an innocent teenage talent, albeit one who had sealed his place in the first team after merely seven matches.
“It was the most lovable stage of Maradona’s career and we were witnesses of it,” says Minuti fondly. “He still played football as if he
“In TRAINING HE WOULD SCORE GOALS THAT WERE OUT OF THIS WORLD – DRIBBLING PAST THE ENTIRE TEAM EVERY DAY. TWICE”
was on the street, without feeling the responsibilities of a professional player. It was the same in training as it was in games. I can’t say how many incredible things he did with the ball.”
The street football comment rang true. He may have been a Primera pro, but Maradona still booted an old leather about with the locals in his new neighbourhood. He’d sit out on the pavement with his family and friends playing the card game truco, too. And it was here, at his casa chorizo (an old house reconverted into seven flats), that Diego would meet Claudia Villafane, the girl who stole his heart and would become his wife and mother of his daughters, Dalma and Giannina. Claudia lived at the end of the hallway. It took him one year to dance with her, in a party at Club Parque, an Argentinos satellite club that later became an elite five-a-side academy.
He was becoming an idol to the local children, and he’d return their affections generously. Maradona would hand out gifts to kids in the hospital; if 30 urchins from a rural municipality decided to pay a visit, he’d open up his front door and let them in.
But he was not distracted from honing his skills. After the scheduled training sessions were over, Diego stayed back for hours to perfect his technique. One of his favourite drills was to try to hit the crossbar four times in a row. Another was to control the ball with the instep, seven times in a row, from a freefall of 20 metres.
He was loyal, too. “It is remarkable that Maradona only signed his first professional contract in 1977,” explains Alberto Perez, the lawyer and Argentinos Juniors general secretary who eventually drew up the documents for Diego to ink. “Until then, he had every chance of taking advantage of an administrative mistake to just walk away – or use the parental rights to move to another club. But he chose to stay, and the day that he left was through the front door.”
They still honour him in the La Paternal neighbourhood of Buenos Aires where Argentinos are based. The club’s dilapidated ground was rebuilt and named Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in his honour in 2003. And Perez later bought the house where Maradona lived in Villa del Parque and transformed it into a living museum, which is still open for public worship, free of charge, every Saturday morning. Some of the original furniture, like Diego’s bed, was still there when he bought it. Other pieces were found in flea markets, or rebuilt using the family photos that now decorate the walls. The result is nostalgic perfection. “The house is exactly as it was in the late ’70s, except for the paintings,” said one of Diego’s sisters on the day it opened in late 2016. “We would come here every Friday and stay over until Sunday.” It’s the first official Diego Maradona museum.
DIEGO AND THE DIRTY WAR
However, while things were going swimmingly for the young player, Argentina was enduring darker days. On March 24, 1976 – roughly around the time when Maradona had started training with the first team – a military coup removed president Isabel Martinez de Peron and installed in her place a fierce right-wing dictatorship that very quickly imposed a state of siege and martial law.
The so-called ‘Dirty War’ against left-wing guerrillas had started in democratic times, but growing terrorism was the perfect excuse to illegally detain students and political activists, take them to camps, torture them and sometimes even kill them. While performing this state-sponsored form of terrorism, the military junta’s nationalistic propaganda campaign focused heavily on sports. So an upcoming World Cup in 1978 was their opportunity to prove to the watching world this was a normal, happy, united country.
Sportsmen couldn’t escape the state’s tentacles, and there were no exceptions. Mario Kempes – Argentina’s biggest icon until the dawn of Diego – was not allowed to name his second daughter Natasha. “They told me it was a Russian name, and that was not allowed, so I had to name her Magali,” he recalls. “I named my third daughter Natasha instead, once the military were gone.”
Thousands joined the ranks of ‘the disappeared’ (30,000 is thought to be the best estimate, although exact numbers remain a subject of controversy). Goalkeeper Antonio Piovoso was among them – the only pro footballer to die at the regime’s hands. He was kidnapped during 1977, possibly by mistake, by soldiers trying to locate a classmate. “I heard a voice tell him: ‘You will also come with us for having long hair’,” claimed a witness to his arrest. Another goalkeeper, Claudio Tamburrini, who had been a member of the Communist Party, was detained for 120 days. He managed to escape using some sheets as a rope, before seeking asylum in Sweden.
Angel Cappa also went into exile, to Spain. The Olimpo de Bahia Blanca player had every reason to worry: he’d been a philosophy student and Peronist party militant. “We had been printing leaflets, and having the leaflets was enough of a reason to be ‘disappeared’,” he says. “One day, we were stopped at a military checkpoint with my car full of leaflets. I was fortunate the soldiers recognised me and didn’t search the car. That was the country we lived in.” Cappa and other exiled compatriots boycotted the World Cup from afar.
A politically naive Maradona dearly hoped to attend the junta’s showpiece, however. He was already the best player for Argentina’s under-20s side: the most driven and the most feared. “I remember after playing a game for Argentina U20s, someone said on the plane: ‘On Sunday, Diego won’t touch the ball because he will be up against Juan’,” recalls Newell’s Old Boys defender Juan Simon. “I instantly felt the panic. Maradona had heard, and that was the worst thing you can do. Even though it wasn’t me saying it, Diego had already taken it as a personal issue – he had to prove someone wrong. It was the worst day I had as a defender, really embarrassing.”
Maradona also claimed that in 1977 he scored “the most beautiful goal of my career. The one against Huracan was even better than the second goal against England [at the 1986 World Cup].” It was another waltzing ballet, containing multiple shimmies, dummies and a nutmeg as the final stunning touch towards the net.
Having played just 11 official games for Argentinos and scored two goals, he made his debut for the national team. Called up by Cesar Luis Menotti for the February 1977 match with Hungary, he would grace the pitch at La Bombonera, the stadium where he would later cement his legend, for the first time. Ossie Ardiles missed a penalty, but Argentina cruised to an easy victory. Diego replaced Leopoldo Luque, who had bagged a brace in the 5-1 win.
He was on fire, but alas, Argentina was burning, too. After Omar Actis, in charge of the 1978 FIFA World Cup organising committee, was found shot in his car, vice-admiral Carlos Lacoste took over and enjoyed a dream come true for dictators: a World Cup organised at home, with unlimited budget and a FIFA seat.
Menotti was also given a unique opportunity for an international boss: the chance to work with his squad for six months before the tournament. They trained every day and contested numerous friendlies. The players didn’t return to their clubs or their homes, sleeping at the training ground. So Maradona played in only two games for Argentinos in the first half of 1978, scoring a hat-trick against Atlanta. Would it be enough to tip the scales in his favour?
It seemed not. On April 19, Argentina took on Ireland and Diego was fielded late in the game, despite the incessant clamour for his presence from the stands. “Fans need to understand that Maradona will play when I feel it is the right time, and not when they feel it,” moaned Menotti. “He is the genuine representation of our country’s football. However, to be the most-rated player at just 17 years old is a risk if you’re not fully prepared to deal with it. Maradona has a great
future ahead [of him], but his consolidation depends on what he does, and the advice that he receives.”
With the summer looming, Maradona had only participated in four international games, with just the one start. He was already a national treasure – and was one of the footballers that could not be sold abroad, by law. National oil companies helped to pay part of his wages, and as Maradona later told Olé: “Menotti was very canny, because he proposed this idea of not allowing young players to be sold. I’d had requests from Arsenal, Barcelona and Juventus, so my head was in a bit of a turmoil.” And further turmoil followed. On May 19, Menotti gathered the 25-man squad and announced the three players that would not be in his plans that summer. “Bravo, Bottaniz and Maradona,” he said, loudly. Ultimately, the manager considered Diego to be only his fourth-choice No.10.
It was one of the saddest days in Maradona’s career. But it could be argued that he was lucky not to be selected. It is thought that vice-admiral Lacoste, who would later become a FIFA executive, was instrumental in Maradona not getting the nod – a River Plate supporter, Lacoste had used his power to ensure River’s Norberto Alonso made the cut. Diego would also be used by the infamous General Videla a year later, after captaining Argentina to an U20 World Cup victory against the Soviet Union: he was forced to talk on live television with the dictator. How this still docile player might have been manipulated politically by the government at the 1978 World Cup is anyone’s guess. And the group of men who eventually won the tournament, beating Holland 3-1 in the Monumental final, were later viewed by many as the secret weapon of the dictatorship, their historic moment permanently marred.
In fact, the omission marked the start of Diego’s sublime career as we know it. Journalist Carlos Ares recalls: “That day, I stayed for dinner in the team’s training ground and when I left, alone, it was dark and cold, and I heard someone crying. It was the strongest image: Maradona, sitting by a tree, sobbing inconsolably. ‘Do you know how many World Cups that you will play in?’, I told him – the kind of things you would say to console a kid. But he would answer, ‘How do I tell my dad?’ He said he’d never forgive Menotti for this’.”
Later, Maradona wrote in his autobiography that the day he didn’t make the World Cup squad was the day he realised that anger could be used as a fuel. This furious youth would score 100 goals before he turned 20. The rest would be football history.