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The greatest World Cup tragedies: Diego Maradona, USA 1994

South American football specialist Marcela Mora y Araujo tells us about the traumatic scandal that still reverberates through Argentinian football.

Source: EMPICS Sport

IN 1995, ERIC Cantona discussed his admiration for Diego Armando Maradona.

“In the course of time, it will be said that Maradona was to football what Rimbaud was to poetry and Mozart to music”.

It was an interesting comparison. All three were complex, contradictory figures. Rimbaud, the angry, rebellious teenager who furiously wrote his best works between the ages of sixteen and twenty, would eventually turn his back on poetry and his attacks on the powerful and go on to amass a tidy fortune in colonial Africa instead. Mozart, creator of such divine music, something wondrous and beautiful, lacked basic social skills and bemused many with his wild tomfoolery. As for Maradona, his genius was undone by an unquenchable thirst for self-destruction that came to a head on June 30th 1994.

His previous few years had been lost to what seemed like an everlasting white line. Later, much later, Maradona would say that drugs were ‘practically brought to me on a tray’.

But this was different. This was ephedrine, a performance-enhancer. Asthmatics take it to clear their respiratory system and it can also aid weight-loss. In the days leading up to Argentina’s second Group D World Cup game against Nigeria in Boston, Maradona had been struggling with a cold, bunged up with a blocked nose and sought the help of ‘The Prof’ to give him something for it.

The ‘Prof’ was Fernando Signorini, his long-time trainer. Together with Daniel Cerrini, the pair had looked after Maradona’s personal fitness regime for almost twelve months prior to the 1994 World Cup. Having returned to South America after an unhappy stint in Spain with Sevilla, Maradona needed fine-tuning. He was overweight and unhappy.

He was introduced to Cerrini, a bodybuilder, and happily engaged in the crash diets, vitamin supplements and heavy training. He began to feel good again and that meant Cerrini stayed around, permeating Maradona’s ‘inner circle’. But Cerrini had been involved in a doping scandal in 1989 and Signorini was suspicious of the potential influence he could wield on a vulnerable Maradona.

He was suspicious too of Cerrini’s short-term approach to Maradona’s weight-loss and feared Cerrini placed far too much emphasis on how well Maradona looked rather than how he’d play in the searing and energy-sapping conditions of an American summer.

But before he left for the US, Maradona said: ”I am tired of all those who said I was fat and no longer the great Maradona. They will see the real Diego at the World Cup.”

Before the Nigerian game, Maradona took an assortment of drugs to help combat his sinus problem, his weight and his diet. It worked. Despite Argentina going behind to a Samson Siasia goal after just eight minutes, they hit back quickly. From a free-kick, Maradona teed up Gabriel Batistuta whose shot was spilled by Peter Rufai, the error pounced upon by Claudio Caniggia.

Just seven minutes later, Maradona rolled a quick set-piece into Caniggia’s path and he expertly curled his shot inside the far post to give Argentina a lead they never relinquished.

Source: tonaldo11/YouTube

Maradona lasted the full ninety minutes. Afterwards, he was asked to provide a urine sample along with three other players (two from each team). Five days later, news filtered through. Maradona had failed his drugs test. Redemption had been brief and a nation began to weep.

According to South American football specialist Marcela Mora y Araujo, the trauma of the incident still resonates today.

“A book about the entire ephedrine incident, El Ultimo Maradona, was launched last month. During the presentation, the event was described as “the saddest day in Argentina”.

It’s certainly one of those ‘everyone remembers where they were when they heard’ moments, iconic and sad.

It had been going too well, of course. Maradona had transitioned from pariah to hero with one isolated performance against Greece just days before. It had been a triumphant return. An emphatic 4-0 victory for Argentina, special headlines reserved for the third goal, spectacularly scored by Maradona.

Redondo played a quick one-two with him and then with Caniggia on the edge of the Greek’s area. A calm side-foot inside to Maradona followed. The first touch killed the ball, a second pushed it away from his body, the third wrapped his left foot around it and sent a powerful shot straight to the top corner.

And then there was the celebration. He stretched out his arms and ran wildly towards a television camera. The microphones pitch-side picked up his screams. His eyes bulged. His gold-chain bounced around his neck. The skin seemed tight around his face.

Source: Ludwig Rosenberg/YouTube

It looked like a version of Maradona. A maniacal version, more dark and menacing. But the version had just scored a wonder-goal in a World Cup. That, for the moment, seemed enough. He was back.

In the late evening of Thursday, 30th June, another version sat in the Sheraton Park Plaza Hotel in Dallas, Texas. Surrounded by the world’s media, Maradona cut a sombre figure. He spoke quietly and took dramatic pauses between answers. His brow furrowed, his head bowed, he seemed tired. It had been a long day. He didn’t raise his voice.

He was calm, calculated and composed. But he was desperate.

“They’ve [FIFA] cut my legs off. This is a real dirty business. I’d like to believe in [Joao] Havelange and [Sepp] Blatter but after this…well, I don’t want to say anything.”

He had already said more than enough. He hinted at a wider conspiracy, that darker forces had sabotaged his World Cup. That he had been duped, conned, stabbed in the back. But, like so many times before, Maradona was over-reaching. For many, he had put his destiny in the hands of other people. They failed him. He failed himself. But there was a bigger picture and back in Argentina, Maradona still had the support of his people.

Source: SiR OMARTV/YouTube

“The jury is still out as to whether he was treated unfairly by FIFA and the USA organising committee, but I don’t think Maradona failed to take responsibility for his actions at all,” Mora y Araujo says.

“Many Argentines revere him, particularly his playing days, but as he has survived many stumbles and picked up and carried on he has become increasingly human. So people are able to both admire and idolise him as the greatest player there ever was and take him with a pinch of salt.

“And as for who is to blame for the ephedrine incident? Well, probably Maradona, his medics, and FIFA/US organising committee in equal measure. Probably. A thorough poll might indicate otherwise, but that’s my guess.”

In many ways, Maradona’s past made the narrative so much easier to string together. He was already a drug cheat. Now, trying to fuel an optimistic comeback, he lost his way and turned to illegal stimulants to push him to the Promised Land.

Source: AP/Press Association Images

But, when the FIFA World Cup Organising Committee met in Zurich to decide on what Maradona’s punishment should be, they concluded that he didn’t consciously take the drug to enhance his performance. FIFA, inevitably, looked at Maradona’s previous indiscretions and his on-going battle with drugs when making their decision. After all, he had previous. Cerrini was also held accountable and both received fifteen-month bans from football.

Others were complicit. The Argentine camp was aware of Maradona’s delicate condition and his work with Cerrini – the diets, the vitamins. But no one cared enough to get involved and work directly alongside Cerrini to make sure everything was above board. They cared for the Herculean storyline but distanced themselves from the main protagonist.

Maradona was allowed wield substantial influence and was afforded the space to do as he pleased. There were no restrictions. Like he had been for his entire career, Maradona was in a bubble. He was wrapped in cotton wool because Argentina needed him.

1993 was a bad year for Maradona and the national team. In June, his one-season spell with Sevilla in Spain came to an end in ugly fashion. In a league game against Burgos, a chunky, clearly unfit Maradona was substituted with half an hour to play. He ripped off his captain’s armband and strutted towards the touchline. He screamed at his manager and furiously headed straight for the tunnel.

His manager was Carlos Bilardo, the man who coached Maradona and Argentina to World Cup victory in 1986. The man who rescued Maradona from his Hell at Napoli. The man who offered him another chance. But Maradona was indulged too much. One evening, he was stopped from entering a local nightclub because he wasn’t wearing formal shoes. Maradona asked the bouncer, ‘Who do you think you’re talking to? People kill themselves to kiss these shoes’.

ARGENTINA MARADONA Maradona and Bilardo in happier times. Source: AP/Press Association Images

After the Burgos game, Maradona told reporters that he was going to talk about his substitution with Bilardo ‘man to man’ if, he added, Bilardo was indeed a man. The pair clashed again shortly afterwards and Maradona punched Bilardo. It was over.

In truth, Maradona’s mind was already made up long before suffering the ignominy of being replaced after an hour of a nondescript Spanish league game. He was tired of Seville, with its rules and regulations. It was too much for a free spirit like him. His parting words echoed that very sentiment.

“I’m going because they don’t love me. But you know what I really love? To be with the gypsies.”

It was a dark period for Maradona. He was lost, depressed and sought solace in an old flame. In Jimmy Burns’ brilliant biography ‘Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona’, the plight Maradona experienced at this juncture of his career is disturbingly illustrated.

“As always when he’s decided to snort cocaine at home, Maradona makes his way to the bathroom, in the dark so as not to disturb the children or Claudia. It is four o’clock in the morning. He is setting out the cocaine lines, one alongside the other, when he hears a gentle tap on the bathroom door. ‘Dad, can I come in?’ whispers a little girl’s voice. It is his elder daughter Dalma. He is taken so much by surprise that he can hardly utter a word. He throws the cocaine into the toilet. ‘What’s wrong, Daddy, why are you like this and not asleep?’ Dalma asks.”

Diego Maradona 1991 Maradona leaves a Buenos Aires police station after he was charged with drug possession and distribution of drugs in 1991. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Maradona went home and immersed himself in family and fishing. He found a new club, Newell’s Old Boys and when he was unveiled in typical uproarious fashion, he strolled onto the pitch with Dalma and his other daughter Giannina, by his side. With Cerrini now part of his team, he went on a binge of crash diets and vitamin supplements. Within weeks, he had lost 30lbs. One more time, he was reborn.

The novelty wore off quickly. He played only a handful of games but it didn’t matter. Something bigger was brewing.

Just a week before Maradona arrived at Newell’s, Argentina were humiliated in a World Cup qualifier by Colombia at Estadio Monumental. Freddy Rincon and Faustino Asprilla both scored twice with Adolfo Valencia adding another.

In their own backyard, Argentina had been torn to shreds. El Grafico, the Argentinean magazine, appeared the following week with a black cover to mark the turbulent and traumatic national incident. The headline that accompanied the design didn’t say much but said it all. ‘Disgraceful.’ During the game, the Argentine supporters began to chant Maradona’s name. They wanted him back. They needed him back.

Alfio Basile, the Argentina manager, had brought Maradona back before. He hadn’t played for the national team since the World Cup final in 1990. In 1991, as his empire in Naples came crashing down, he was randomly selected for a drugs test and failed it. Traces of cocaine were found in his urine. The worst-kept secret in football was out.

Shamed, he was banned for fifteen months and re-surfaced at an unfashionable Spanish club in 1992, desperately attempting to repair his reputation and resuscitate his career. In early 1993, Basile called him up for a friendly against Brazil and Maradona captained the side. A few days later, he turned out again for a game against Denmark and then nothing. Maradona was furious.

Diego Maradona Maradona kept busy by playing indoor football in Buenos Aires while serving his ban. Source: AP/Press Association Images

“I wouldn’t play for Basile again if he came begging on his knees,” he said. But, it was logical. Maradona had come unstuck in Seville, was out of form and out of shape. Basile stuck to his band of tried and tested performers for the remainder of the World Cup qualifiers. Until that disaster against Colombia.

Argentina were forced into a two-legged play-off against Australia. On 31 October 1993, Maradona played his first competitive game for his country in over three years. On 37 minutes, his marauding run down the right side was brought to an end. But he won the ball back, turned onto his left foot and curled in a perfect cross for Abel Balbo to head home the opener. But Australia equalised just five minutes later and the game ended 1-1.

In the return fixture, Argentina got lucky. Gabriel Batistuta’s cross was deflected by the boot of Alex Tobin, looped over the head of Robbie Zabica and nestled in the far corner. Maradona was, it appeared, a conquering hero. But at 33 and having proved largely unimpressive in his brief appearances for Newell’s, Maradona’s revival was overstated. Still, there was a fanfare and a renewed sense of optimism. But, with a World Cup return on the horizon, Maradona pushed the self-destruct button again.

In February 1994, Maradona goes to stay at his country house and journalists camped outside, seeking an update on the breakdown of his relationship with Newell’s. Maradona is disinterested and wants to relax with friends. He asks the journalists to leave. They don’t. Maradona picks up an air rifle, aims it at the front gates and shoots at the journalists. Four are injured and two sue him.

His actions divide opinion. In some quarters, people questioned his sanity. In other, more influential sectors of society, excuses are made. Maradona, people say, needs to be left alone. He’s a victim of circumstance, people say. He’s paying a high price for his celebrity, people say. He was within his rights to take matters into his own hands, people say. On the eve of a World Cup, Maradona was courting controversy and dividing opinion.

Diego Maradona Maradona got himself fit for the World Cup - but at what price? Source: AP/Press Association Images

After the mess in Naples and Seville, one wonders why Maradona wasn’t more careful in orchestrating his final swansong. It was a glorious story. Broken bad-boy goes home in search of solitude and stability. He finds it, gets it and moulds it into a pathway to resolution. Somehow, Maradona was back at a World Cup, captaining his country. The surroundings hyped him to step above his lack of fitness and his bizarre weight-loss and still offer much to his team. He had scored and created. Argentina had won both their games with Maradona in the side. Since his return to the national fold, Argentina were unbeaten.

Once he was banished from the World Cup, it all began to unravel. In their final group game, Argentina were beaten 2-0 by Bulgaria and finished third. In their next assignment against Romania, they lost 3-2 and crashed out of the tournament.

After flying home with the team Maradona said: ‘I’m the only one responsible’. As always, he was a contradiction. The words belied his feelings. He felt betrayed, double-crossed by those around him who had used his name and profile to further their own careers.

He didn’t wish to retire from the game hiding in a Spanish backwater, overweight and unhappy after being chased out of Naples. He wanted to live the fantasy and be the hero of another fairytale. He wanted the spirited comeback, the against-all-odds recovery. And despite the broken body, he got it.

But Maradona’s life and career has always been precariously balanced on a knife-edge. The boy from the shanty-town never really grew up. He dodged ticket inspectors on local trains as a child. Similarly, trouble never seemed far enough away as he got older. He surrounded himself with people who clung to his coat-tails as he became seduced by the bright lights and dizzying heights of stardom. He became an impudent brat, full of attitude and lacking in humility despite his upbringing.

Soccer WCup On This Day Source: AP/Press Association Images

But the ‘inner circle’ knew better than to reprimand. He was indulged and entertained. He was adored but never loved. At the 1994 World Cup, Maradona’s playing career imploded. It was never likely to do anything else.

“A nation cannot be defined by a single event, and certainly not by this one,” Mora y Araujo reflects.

“I think Argentina – a country with over 30 million people – exhibits much of the traits and conflicting views as most other groups of humans. Socially, economically, and politically it has known both turmoil and bonanzas, but in terms of football the overall outcome is mostly positive.

“Is the sense of pride derived from Maradona being an Argentine national central to the footballing identity of fans? I think so.”

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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