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Hard as it may be to believe, Leo Messi is not the first Argentine superstar to wear the hallowed FC Barcelona shirt. With the Champions League last 16 tie between Barça and Italian club Napoli just around the corner, we take a look at a footballing colossus who represented both clubs during his spectacular, and at times controversial, career: Diego Armando Maradona.
On 4 June 1982 Diego Armando Maradona put pen to paper on a contract with FC Barcelona; the best player in the world was finally a blaugrana. Barça’s pursuit of the Argentinian had begun several years before at the instigation of man who was to play a vital role in bringing the tousled haired, barrel chested genius to Camp Nou: Nicolau Casaus.
The long chase
After becoming FC Barcelona vice president in 1978, one of Casaus’ first official trips was to the country of his birth, Argentina. It was there, in the midst of the country hosting the football World Cup, that the gregarious Barça director first came across Diego Maradona and soon the unlikely pairing had struck up a friendship that was to prove instrumental in bringing the talented midfielder to Barcelona.
Intially, despite Casaus’ enthusiasm for ‘El Pelusa’ as Diego was known in Spanish due to his unkempt mop of hair, the FC Barcelona board thought him too raw a talent at just 17 years of age. The Argentine’s precocious ability was by now no secret in the footballing world and an audacious bid by English Second Division club Sheffield United came close to being accepted until excessive financial demands by Maradona’s then club Argentinos Juniors led the Yorkshire side to sign Maradona’s countryman Alex Sabella instead.
Subsequent Barça attempts to sign Maradona were also hindered by financial demands and the reluctance of the Argentinian FA to see their star player move abroad ahead of the 1982 World Cup to be played in Spain. Nevertheless, the Club’s persistence, and that of Casaus in particular, finally bore fruit and after protracted negotiations, Boca Juniors agreed to allow Diego Maradona to become a blaugrana.
Maradona (centre) on the day of his signing with Nicolau Casaus (far left) and FC Barcelona president Josep Lluís Núñez (third from left)
After a disappointing World Cup campaign with Argentina, the holders lost both their second round group games and Maradona was sent off in the 3-1 defeat against Brazil at Espanyol’s Sarrià Stadium in Barcelona, the new signing began his career as a blaugrana.
Maradona may have been the world most expensive footballer at this point but that did not stop him initially staying at the home of Casaus on his move to Barcelona, with the Argentine later describing the Barça director as his ‘second sporting father.’ In September of 1982 Diego made his debut in a blaugrana shirt in official competition, scoring in a 2-1 defeat against Valencia.
For me, Mr.Casaus was my sporting second father, after my manager, he is the person I love most and trust in most“ Diego Maradona
The form of ‘El Pelusa’ continued to impress the fans at Camp Nou with six goals in his first 13 league games at Barça. Less impressed was the blaugranes’ pragmatic German coach Udo Lattek with whom Maradona had a relationship that was distant and at times overtly hostile. Lattek would rather refer to his star player as ‘este chico, Diego’ (‘this kid, Diego’) with the air of a man who was only too aware that putting up with Maradona’s rather erratic personality was the price to pay for having his genius out there on the field.
At times, however, the Barça coach would assert his authority and one occasion, driven to distraction by the Argentine’s attitude to timekeeping, he ordered the team bus to drive off to an away fixture without their star player. "Once, he didn't turn up on time when the team were due to leave. I had two options: wait for him and lose my authority or go without him," recalled Lattek years later.
Illness and the arrival of 'El Flaco'
Maradona’s encouraging first season at Barça was disrupted in December 1982 when he was diagnosed with hepatitis. In his absence the team struggled and were knocked out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. By the time he was ready to return to action coach Udo Lattek had been sacked by the board and replaced with César Luis Menotti, the man who had guided Argentina to World Cup success in 1978.
Diego’s first game back came on 12 March 1983 against Betis and rather conveniently coincided with Menotti’s debut in charge. With too much ground to make up after their poor start in the league, Barça could only finish in fourth place, six points behind champions Athletic Club de Bilbao. However, Maradona ended the campaign with 11 goals in 20 matches and his performances in domestic cup competitions played a significant part in saving Barça’s season.
In early June the blaugranes claimed the Copa del Rey title, beating Real Madrid 2-1 in the final played in Zaragoza. Later in the month Barça claimed the Copa de la Liga title over two legs against the same opposition. Maradona’s goal in the Santiago Bernabéu drew applause even from the Real Madrid fans and left Juan José on the verge of losing the ability to father children after the Argentine’s deft control saw the defender collide with the post in eye-watering fashion.
Ahead of the 1983/84 season, Maradona and FC Barcelona seemed set to challenge on all fronts with the Argentine’s blossoming on field relationship with German midfielder Bernd Schuster a cause for optimism for the fans and fear for opponents. Off the field, with Maradona ensconced in a palatial home in the Pedralbes area of the city, it appeared that in countryman Menotti the striker had a slightly more accommodating boss than in Udo Lattek.
A lot of things went on with Maradona. We even changed the training timetable so he could sleep in in the morning“ Josep Lluís Núñez
‘El Flaco’ (‘The thin one’) as the chain-smoking Menotti was nicknamed, programmed training sessions for the afternoon and evening, citing the players’ ‘biorhythms’ as responding better to such a timetable as matches tended to be played in the evening also. The reasoning appeared sound but years later the president at the time, Josep Lluís Núñez, admitted what many had long suspected to be the truth. “A lot of things went on with Maradona. We even changed the training timetable so he could sleep in in the morning,” revealed the man who signed the Argentine.
Maradona may have been happier with Menotti as coach but there were still moments when he tested the patience of ‘El Flaco’. Early in the 1983/84 season Barça were away at Mallorca for a league fixture. In the dressing room before the game, however, Maradona was not a happy camper. ‘El Pelusa’ had brought no less than six pairs of boots yet somehow none were satisfactory to the Barça star. With time running out and Maradona steadfastly refusing to get ready for kick off, ‘El Flaco’ had to use all of his avuncular charm to get his countryman out on to the field. Menotti’s reward was a 4-1 victory with one of the goals coming from the boots of a now placated Maradona.
Maradona in training with César Luis Menotti
Unfortunately, less than a week later, Maradona and Barça’s season took a turn for the worse. In a game at Camp Nou against league champions Athletic Club, the Argentine was stretchered off with a serious ankle injury following a terrible challenge by Basque defender Andoni Goikoetxea, the so-called ‘Butcher of Bilbao’, who had injured Bernd Schuster in similar fashion a couple of years previously.
The volatile midfielder was at a crossroads but to his credit Maradona worked hard on his recovery and was back playing in January of 1984, surprising even the harshest of his critics as he scored twice in a 3-1 win over Sevilla on his return after more than three months out. Despite 11 goals in just 16 appearances in the league, Barça finished third in the league just a point behind champions, Goikotxea’s Athletic Club.
The two clubs came face to face again at the end of the season in the final of the Copa del Rey in what was to be Diego Maradona’s final game as a Barça player. Tensions had been boiling over in the run up to the game due to the recent history of meetings between the teams, most notably due to the incidents involving Goikoetxea, Maradona and Schuster. After an ill-tempered 90 minutes of football in which Athletic claimed a 1-0 win, Maradona, who had been tormented and abused throughout the game, finally could stand it no more and lashed out at Athletic player Miguel Sola. The ensuing battle on the field between the two sets of players was an unedifying way for the Argentine to end his Barça career and in the recriminations that followed, Maradona was banned from Spanish Football for three months by the FA.
‘El Pelusa’ never got the chance to serve his ban as in the summer of 1984 he left Barcelona to continue his career at Serie A side Napoli. Disillusioned with life in Spain and at odds with the FC Barcelona board, Maradona saw a lucrative move to Italy as a way out of the impasse in which he found himself. He had won a Copa del Rey, a Copa de la Liga and a Spanish Super Cup at Barça and scored an impressive 38 goals in 58 matches for the blaugranes.
Maradona with the Copa de la Liga won against Real Madrid
Maradona went on to enjoy his greatest success in terms of silverware during his time at Napoli. Two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup victory converted Diego into a living legend in Naples, a status that has not diminished over the years. On the world stage he led Argentina to their second World Cup title in 1986 in Mexico, cementing his reputation as the greatest player of his generation.
Nevertheless, it was with Barça that the mercurial talent announced himself on the stage of European Football, the greatest Argentine player ever to don the blaugrana shirt until the arrival of the current occupier of the number 10 Barça jersey.
Maradona and Messi.
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