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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Alamy Stock Photo Diego Maradona pictured at the 1994 World Cup.
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'His weight fluctuated, the end looked nigh for Argentina’s most famous number 10'
Read an extract from USA 94: The World Cup that Changed the Game by Matthew Evans.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from USA 94: The World Cup that Changed the Game by Matthew Evans.

Diego Maradona looked up to the stands for his wife, Claudia. Their eyes met and he gestured with a smile towards the woman who was now escorting him from the pitch as if to say, ‘who’s she?!’

The woman was a nurse, resplendent in white with a lanyard swinging from her neck and a green cross emblazoned on her chest.

Her role was to take Argentina’s captain to submit a drugs test following their hard-fought match with Nigeria at the Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts.

A happy Maradona took her hand and strode off the pitch without a care in the world.

Life for El Diego was good again, a tumultuous few years in the rear-view mirror.

It was the fourth time that the late Diego Maradona had appeared at the World Cup. It still rankled that he was overlooked for the home World Cup in 1978 with more experienced players picked ahead of the precocious 17-year-old.

The move paid off as Argentina won their first World Cup amidst one of the most politically charged tournaments ever held.

By 1982, the secret was out and Maradona was expected to shine at España 82 having secured a multi-million-pound transfer to Barcelona ahead of the 1982/83 season.

However, the 1982 World Cup didn’t go to plan for Maradona and he seemed to buckle under the pressure of being billed the best young footballing talent on the planet.

Having finished runners-up to Belgium in the first of two group stages, La Albiceleste were eliminated from the latter, suffering two defeats in Barcelona, to eventual champions Italy and rivals Brazil.

Four years later he would finally live up to all expectations.

The 1986 World Cup will always be remembered for Maradona’s performance in the quarter-final win over England. It demonstrated the best and worst of his game as his ‘hand of God’ goal gave Argentina a controversial lead before he slalomed through the England team for an inconceivable second four minutes later.

He realised a boyhood dream by lifting the World Cup trophy, Argentina’s second, after an absorbing 3-2 win over West Germany in the final at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City and promised that ‘they’ would have to tear it from his grasp at Italia 90.

The cut and thrust Argentina showed at Mexico 86 had been replaced by a more cynical unit in Italy four years later.

Maradona had experienced a whirlwind four years in Italy, winning two Serie A titles with Napoli. Naples and Maradona were made for each other, a love reciprocated; to fans of I Partenopei, El Diego was God.

Argentina made their second consecutive World Cup Final where they faced a familiar foe in West Germany in a dismal match punctuated by two Argentinian dismissals, an Andreas Brehme penalty enough to ensure Argentina wouldn’t repeat the feats of Mexico.

The disappointed South Americans returned home as the first team to fail to score in a World Cup Final and the first defending champions to reach the final and lose.

Off the pitch, Maradona’s life had begun to spiral out of control in southern Italy, his links with organised crime were now well known and his appetite for cocaine had grown exponentially. Maradona felt untouchable.

He mixed with the most powerful people in the city but to those living in the slums, he could do no wrong. His house of cards came crashing down though when the government set out to smash the Camorra and bring an end to the organised crime syndicates that had ruled southern Italy for decades.

With his protection removed, a failed drug test resulted in a 15-month ban and brought an end to Maradona and Napoli’s love affair.

Whilst Maradona licked his wounds, Argentina added to their 1991 Copa América triumph by also winning the King Fahd Cup, a precursor to the Confederations Cup.

Argentina were flying and under new manager Alfio ‘Coco’ Basile they were unbeaten in 23 matches.

By this time Maradona was back playing but nowhere near his previous best. He was now in Spain with Sevilla but overweight, out of shape and approaching his 33rd birthday.

The Argentine public, however, still believed in El Diego and, despite their successes without him, Basile recalled Maradona to the national team to face Brazil where he resumed his position as number ten and captain.

Maradona’s time with Sevilla ended and he sought succour in what he knew best: cocaine. This time he was saved by his parents with whom he stayed to get clean.

His career was circling the drain, he was without a club and, with the national side now boasting an array of young stars, any hopes of returning to his previous best looked slim.

He gradually worked his way back to fitness and joined Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario, almost 300km (186miles) away from the distractions of Buenos Aires.

Football was moving on, however, and with Newell’s high-pressing style, games were passing Maradona by.

As his weight fluctuated, the end looked nigh for Argentina’s most famous number 10.

All of that would change when La Albiceleste faced off against Colombia in the final South American qualifying match for USA 94, knowing they needed only a point to advance.

In the earlier stages of qualifying, Argentina had suffered a brief wobble away to Colombia followed by a draw with Paraguay which threw automatic qualification into doubt.

An unthinkable defeat to Colombia at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium would send Argentina into an unenviable play-off with Oceania champions Australia. Hopes for the Colombia game were high, however. Argentina would be at home and backed by a raucous partisan crowd at the home of their 1978 World Cup Final win.

Maradona was back in Buenos Aires and decided to attend the game as a fan, walking the ten blocks to the ground with his father and a friend. They joined disbelieving fans looking on as their heroes capitulated to an unfathomable 5-0 home defeat.

As the goals poured in the home fans’ attention turned to their former captain who was watching on in horror from an executive box. Soon the chants started: ‘Maradooo, Maradoooo, Maradooooo!’

The game over, a victorious Colombia celebrated qualification and left Argentina to regroup quickly as a two-legged pan-Pacific play-off with Australia awaited in two months’ time.

DARIEN / YouTube

Surprisingly Basile remained as manager, although this didn’t stop a root-and-branch investigation into what happened on that miserable night in Buenos Aires.

Argentine sports magazine El Gráfico’s next issue featured an all-black cover with the word ‘Vergüenza’ (‘disgrace’) emblazoned across it.

Although Basile had survived the knives were out and anything but victory over Australia would not be tolerated. The first leg was in Sydney and the under-fire manager bowed to public pressure by recalling El Diego.

His impact was instant. Having brushed off two defenders, Maradona delivered a cross for Abel Balbo to finish. They allowed Australia back in though and Aurelio Vidmar equalised, sending the game back to Argentina and El Monumental level as La Albiceleste looked to vanquish the ghosts of the Colombia debacle.

Argentina did enough in the second leg, stumbling to a 1-0 win courtesy of an Alex Tobin own goal around the hour mark. Qualification was secured and a huge sigh of relief could be heard across the country.

Captain on that fateful night against Colombia, Óscar Ruggeri, attested to the difference having Maradona back in the squad for the Australia games: ‘After losing to Colombia we felt a lot of shame, but when Diego joined us after his sanction, we lifted ourselves up,’ he said. ‘We were strong as a team and Maradona covered up all that had happened, he brought us new air.’

Maradona left Newell’s after playing only seven games and again found himself injured and without a club, leaving the nation’s press eager to uncover his plans with the World Cup looming.

He took particular umbrage with some photographers and peppered them with rubber bullets from an air rifle he kept at his country retreat, injuring four of the lensmen.

Charges were pressed and Maradona was in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons again.

Previously, such problems would have seen Maradona turn to cocaine. This time he had a World Cup to help focus his mind. He was severely out of shape and had run away from all responsibilities since Italia 90.

USA 94 would be his last chance to lead Argentina on the world stage and one he wasn’t about to give up.

Maradona travelled to Recife with the national team for a friendly with Brazil, three months before the World Cup began. He sat on Argentina’s bench for only the second time in his career, overweight and miles away from where he needed to be to compete with the best.

Only too aware of the situation, Maradona told Basile that he would inform him by the end of the week whether he would be available for the World Cup.

Five days later the call was made. Maradona declared he would be ready and requested that he train on his own, initially to get himself up to speed before joining the rest of the squad.

Accompanied by his long-time friend and accountant Marcos Franchi, Maradona set about putting together a crack team of fitness specialists controlling everything from his diet to a workout regime.

A one-week training camp was set up for a high-intensity programme that would elevate Maradona to somewhere near the same levels of fitness as his teammates.

Basile visited and enquired whether his captain would be ready for a friendly match with Morocco. He was and managed 75 minutes before being substituted, scoring a penalty in a 3-1 win. The goal was incredibly his first for Argentina since before Italia 90, having gone an incredible 1,255 minutes without finding the net for his country.

Just as normality appeared to have returned, Maradona was denied entry to Japan for a pre-World Cup tournament.

In a sign of solidarity, the rest of the squad refused to travel leaving the Argentine Football Association (AFA) with little choice but to cancel the trip.

Another hastily arranged tour took place involving Ecuador, Israel and Croatia, the three games split with a win, draw and defeat apiece.

Despite the chances afforded to him by Basile, Maradona was still not happy. He complained about not only the team’s performance but also the itinerary of the tour, overlooking the fact that the first one to Japan was cancelled to accommodate him.

Either way, the AFA appeared to listen and upon arrival ahead of the World Cup had organised for the squad to train at the privately owned Babson College 350-acre campus in New England.

Perhaps with one eye on keeping Maradona out of temptation’s way, the squad settled in at a Sheraton hotel on the outskirts of Boston. Maradona wasn’t the only player to have courted controversy between World Cups. Caniggia had just been reinstated after serving a ban for cocaine use so both players had targets on their backs and a point to prove.

Despite being winners and runners-up in the previous two finals, Argentina headed into their opening match with Greece as anything but tournament favourites.

Maradona was ready, he had lost weight and whilst he may not have had his previous physical ability, his speed of thought remained.

Basile catered for him by selecting a supporting cast of willing runners in Batistuta, Caniggia and Balbo, with World Cup debutants Fernando Redondo and Diego Simeone shoring up the midfield.

It seemed the perfect scenario for Maradona; Basile’s instructions were clear: ‘We didn’t need to defend. We defended with the ball,’ Maradona revealed in his autobiography, El Diego.

‘If we keep possession of the ball and we adapt to being each other’s shadow, filling in for each other, taking turns, the thing is going to work.’

RptimaoTV2 / YouTube

Whilst Greece were anything but ideal opponents to judge against, the first game was a rousing success.

In contrast to the rest of the country, the Foxboro Stadium was engulfed with downpours and both sides had to adjust to the inclement weather.

Argentina settled the quicker of the two, taking the lead in only the second minute. A quick counter-attack started by Fernando Cáceres down the right side saw Maradona flick the ball back to Batistuta who bore down on the Greek goal.

With a return pass to Maradona looking the more likely, goalkeeper Antonis Minou hesitated just as Athanasios Kolitsidakis lunged in.

Shaken into a decision, Batistuta awkwardly poked the ball through the defender’s legs and past the prone stopper into the far corner.

It was a dream start for the team in blue away shirts, who had been greeted with a ticker-tape welcome.

Bits of paper clung to the damp pitch as the grey skies above threatened more rain. Argentina were cutting Greece to pieces; Batistuta was key to the chances, first getting on the end of a neat pass from Balbo only to see his shot go wide.

The Roma attacker then found Maradona with a backheel who in turn released Simeone, but the man known as Cholo could only drive the ball wide.

The Argentine midfield dictated both the play and tempo with the Greeks some way off the pace of the game.

With one minute remaining in the first half, the patient play of Redondo and Simeone released defender José Antonio Chamot who rampaged forward playing the ball into Batistuta’s feet looking for a quick one-two.

Instead, Batigol took a touch before unleashing a swerving shot with the outside of his right boot leaving Minou with no chance as the ball careered into the top corner of the goal.

With 45 minutes gone, it looked as though Argentina had rediscovered their magic.

As the second half kicked off, Greece looked further and further out of their depth. Argentina toyed with them, the midfield’s intricate triangles left their Greek counterparts chasing shadows, and two substitutions from manager Alketas Panagoulias did little to stem the tide.

With an hour gone, Argentina scored a third. The goal was sublime, as Maradona described it in El Diego: ‘one-touch, tac, tac, tac, like a machine gun, one-two, Redondo, me, golazo’.

It really was that simple, a series of short passes culminated in the ball resting at Maradona’s feet.

He naturally shifted the ball on to his strong left side before bending a shot into the opposite corner that Batigol found; this time Minou could only watch.

Maradona raced away in jubilation, all the pent-up anguish and frustration from the last four years was released as he roared manically down a camera lens at the side of the pitch. His eyes bulged as veins popped in his head and neck before he was embraced by his teammates.

Caniggia and Batistuta wasted several other chances whilst Greece finally managed to muster a couple of their own.

With seven minutes to go and the game won, Maradona was replaced by Ariel Ortega, touted as his heir apparent in some quarters.

Batistuta rounded off the game in the last minute completing his hat-trick from the penalty spot, giving Argentina a resounding 4-0 win and three points.

Despite Batistuta’s goals all the talk after the game was of Maradona’s return.

Nigeria were Argentina’s next opponents, having also raised eyebrows in their opening-game demolition of Bulgaria. The match was touted in the Washington Post as being a ‘changing of the guard’.

After the heroics of Cameroon at Italia 90, Nigeria were eager to prove that the improvement in African football was no fluke.

The early exchanges seemed to be pointing that way when Samson Siasia received the ball from striker Rashidi Yekini and lifted a shot over the advancing Luis Islas in the Argentine goal after only eight minutes, to give Nigeria the lead.

Argentina had created two chances before going behind and it wasn’t long before they were level as Caniggia, who spurned several attempts against Greece, made no mistake on 22 minutes.

With the ball placed for a free kick, Maradona angled to shoot but instead backheeled the ball into Batistuta’s path. Peter Rufai in the Nigeria goal could only parry the stinging drive where Caniggia, anticipating a rebound, was on hand to bring Argentina level.

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Maradona was conducting the orchestra in his deeper role and looked to unleash the ever-willing Caniggia down the left wing with a chipped pass before Swedish referee Bo Karlsson called play back for a free kick.

Whilst the Nigerian defence organised itself, Maradona took control and rolled a pass into Caniggia, throwing the Nigerian defence off guard.

Caniggia had time to look up and open his body to arch a right-footed shot around Rufai and high into the net. Argentina had turned the game around in the space of seven minutes and Nigeria looked shell-shocked.

Rufai made up for his early gaffe by denying Batistuta from adding to his first-game hat-trick, whilst the final chance of the game fell to Yekini who saw his effort snuffed out by Islas.

Argentina were heading to the top of Group D with six points. Maradona was taken away for a drugs test happy that his country was performing well and, against all the odds, so was he.

firo-football-25-06-1994-world-cup-1994-argentina-nigeria-2-1-diego-maradona-portrait-after-this-game-he-was-convicted-of-doping-here-he-will-be-led-to-the-doping-rehearsal-after-the-game-it-w Alamy Stock Photo Diego Maradona, portrait, after this game he was convicted of doping. Alamy Stock Photo

As Argentina prepared for their final group match with Bulgaria, Maradona was at ease.

Basile had given the squad a few hours off, away from the incessant heatwave that had engulfed most of the country.

He sipped maté in the college grounds with his teammate Sergio Goycochea and their wives.

His two daughters were nearby and during games, El Diego had taken to wearing a captain’s armband with pictures of their faces on it.

Perhaps Maradona should have realised that nothing in his life seemed to stay settled for long. As his friend Franchi approached, things were about to take a turn for the worse.

The drug test after the Nigeria game had come back positive. Not for cocaine, as would have been widely expected, but for a cocktail of five drugs that included ephedrine, a substance that was on Fifa’s banned list.

There was a second test that would be examined at a laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, the same used during the Olympic Games of 1984.

This would eliminate any doubt there may have been with the first, but El Diego knew his World Cup was over.

For Maradona, first came the tears, then the anger. ‘I busted my balls, I worked my arse off like never before and now this,’ he documented in his autobiography.

It had been reported that Maradona had lost close to 12kg in weight between joining the squad in April and the tournament opener.

The Bulgaria game was the following day and would have seen Maradona make a record 22nd World Cup appearance.

With the result of the second test not yet known the players set off to Dallas and by the afternoon, the squad had arrived at the Cotton Bowl to take in the surroundings ahead of their final group game.

Maradona was away from the others, however, alone in his thoughts at one end of the pitch.

Shortly after 8pm, Argentine team spokesman Washington Rivera approached Maradona. After they spoke, the number ten made the sign of the cross before exiting the stadium.

The news of the positive test was out, AFA president Julio Grondona appeared amongst a throng of assembled media and, pre-empting any move from Fifa, he had already removed Maradona’s name from the Argentina squad list.

When Maradona faced up to the media, he pleaded his innocence, detailing all of the effort and hard work he had gone through to get to this point and swore that he hadn’t taken any performance-enhancing substances.

Grondona told the press that Maradona had used a nasal spray sold over the counter in Argentina which contained ephedrine. It was a claim refuted by Dr Michel d’Hooghe, a member of Fifa’s executive committee, who stated that there was not one single medical product that contained the five substances that had raised the red flags on Maradona’s test.

Fifa didn’t state how much of each substance was in Maradona’s system but ephedrine alone can increase blood pressure, heartbeat, and adrenaline. It was widely included in asthma and cold cure medication but in its purest form was a go-to drug for cyclists and sprinters looking to gain an advantage.

Maradona was the third player to be sent home from a World Cup after failing a drugs test; Haiti’s Ernest Jean-Joseph in 1974 and Willie Johnston of Scotland four years later both fell foul of the testers.

The next day a press conference confirmed the second test was positive, just six hours before Argentina were set to take the field against Bulgaria.

The previous results would stand. The tournament would go on for Argentina but not for their captain. Maradona continued to refuse accountability, accusing all and sundry of waging a plot against him, from Grondona to Fifa president João Havelange.

He eventually claimed his trainer supplied him with the American version of a supplement he took in Argentina that unbeknownst to them contained ephedrine.

Whatever the truth was, his Argentina career was over with another lengthy ban likely to be handed down after the World Cup.

Ruggeri was named captain for the Bulgaria game, the stalwart of three World Cups regaining the armband he had been given when Maradona returned from his previous suspension.

‘I had already played in many games for Argentina,’ he said. ‘I felt as always that we were representing, with very few players, an entire country. I kept a cool head and tried to focus on the game.’

Leonardo Rodríguez took Maradona’s place in the starting XI but without him, they folded, Bulgaria ran out 2-0 winners, and, with Nigeria beating Greece by the same score, Argentina crept through in third place.

An article in the Los Angeles Times wondered whether this was a blessing in disguise as Argentina avoided Italy in the last 16 and headed west to face Romania at the Rose Bowl.

Romania, led by their own Maradona of the Carpathians, Gheorghe Hagi, passed and countered La Albiceleste into submission in a 3-2 win regarded as one of the tournament’s best games.

Without Maradona, Argentina wilted. In El Diego, the magnitude of his absence was evident when Maradona recalled what an emotional Redondo said to him after the Bulgaria game: ‘I was looking for you on the pitch and I couldn’t find you. I looked for you the whole match.’

Two straight defeats and for Argentina, the tournament was over.

Inexplicably Maradona remained in the USA, to commentate for TV station Channel 13, picking up a lucrative $1.3m in the process.

In his autobiography, El Diego spoke of how his country was robbed of their hopes and dreams as he continued to refuse to take any responsibility for his actions, an all-too-often character flaw of the man.

Fans watched Argentina take Greece and Nigeria apart and anticipated them going head-to-head with the likes of Italy and Brazil later in the tournament.

‘We were a team that played football very well,’ said Ruggeri. ‘I think if the Maradona situation hadn’t happened we would have been a serious candidate to win the tournament.’

We never knew just how good that Argentina team of 1994 could have been and after the spirit-crushing exit of Maradona, we sadly never will.

The enigmatic king of Argentinian football sadly passed away in November 2020 and, despite all his flaws, his contribution to the game will never be diminished.

USA 94: The World Cup that Changed the Game by Matthew Evans is published by Pitch Publishing. More info here.

For the latest news coverage on the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, see here >

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