Sitting in his Andalusian office, newly appointed Sevilla manager Carlos Bilardo plotted an audacious reunion with a god.
A man that inspired a Southern Italian city to heavenly heights and united a politically volatile South American nation under one flag, Diego Armando Maradona.
Before Maradona in Napoli, there was Saint Paul. After lifting the Neapolitans above the Italian bourgeoisie clubs, there was Maradona and Saint Paul. Never before had one sportsman inspired such devotion, dedication to a man born out of a place still so dangerous, you need an armed escort to visit.
Napoli's tribute to Diego Maradona.
They will rename their San Paolo Stadium after him. pic.twitter.com/ekMtxxAlZ9
— The Blizzard (@blzzrd) November 26, 2020
In 1992, however, he was clubless and at a crossroads in his career. After serving a 15-month ban for failing a drug test, the adopted Neapolitan was missing the one thing he craved more than any substance – football.
World Cup winning Bilardo, Maradona’s coach for seven years with Argentina, was waiting to swoop.
An aspect of Maradona’s charm is his boyish character, he is the dirty faced El Pibe that never grew old or was allowed to.
Every aspect of his life had been played out in front of the public since he was 15. And, unlike the major sports superstars of today, he wasn’t blessed with the huge team of handlers and fresh-faced media types that see the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo shielded from the grubby hangers-on. No, this boy from a corrugated iron town in the outskirts of Buenos Aires was sold for a world record fee, flown have way round the world, paid millions and was expected to fend for himself at Barcelona.
Jump forward 10 years and he was still the same boy, but used, abused and spat out by Naples’ underworld.
Amid interest from Real Madrid and Marseille, a similar city to Naples, Maradona joined Sevilla in the Frying Pan of Spain. Bilardo had recommended the signing of Maradona on his arrival in July of 1992, but it took until September for him to arrive officially.
Negotiations took months, wrangling with the complexities of his ban and contract at Napoli. With talks stalling, Bilardo delivered an ultimatum to Sevilla President Luis Cuervas.
“If Diego does not come, I will just get my suitcases and leave.”
The deal was sealed not long after with the help of Sepp Blatter, with FIFA anxious the icon wouldn’t return in time to make the 1994 World Cup.
He might have still been one of the best players in the word at the time, but Sevilla, unlike a lot of big clubs took the gamble on bringing in a player they knew arrived with a lot of baggage and a travelling media circus.
On his arrival, training was soon changed from morning to afternoon, giving Diego time to recover from his nocturnal habits. Meanwhile, days after his presentation, Sevilla’s membership jumped from 26,000 to 40,000 and the club made £2.2m in ticket sales.
Given his profile, stars like Maradona have been known to rub their teammates up the wrong way. But Diego, on the whole, has always been adored by his colleagues. His energy and loving nature just swept those around him off their feet.
Suffocated by mobs of fans wherever he went in Seville, Maradona began walking with teammate Monchi in the early morning. Neither were very good sleepers, for different reasons of course. One constantly ruminating on the machinations of football business, the other trying to escape the madness of perpetual substance partying. The two soon struck up an unlikely close relationship and when Diego saw his friend wearing a fake Rolex, he arrived at training the next day with a brand new Cartier timepiece for Monchi.
Saying: “No friend of mine wears a fake.”
On the field, Maradona was not at his sparkling best but was starting to shrink down to his normal size after arriving in Spain even stockier than usual. Looking back on his time with Maradona, Monchi admitted Diego was operating at ‘around 30 percent of his capacity’ after a long layoff.
After a string of top performances for Sevilla, Argentina manager Alfio Basile called Maradona up to the national team – two years since his last cap.
However, the very reason FIFA were keen to bring him back to club football, proved pivotal in cracks appearing between the Argentinian enigma and Sevilla.
Without the club’s permission, he joined up with Argentina while the Andalusians were still playing league games. Maradona’s appearances at Sevilla training became less frequent and he soon put on at least two stone.
Eager to cut their losses, there were reports the club hired a private investigator that would compile a dossier that would see him dismissed without a payoff.
Meanwhile, Maradona was compiling a dossier of his own, that being a criminal one after being caught speeding through the centre of the city.
It was all unravelling for Maradona and, on the 23rd of June 1993, he left Spain and never played club football in Europe again.
It might have come to a sour end, but those who lived through it loved it, especially his teammates.
Ultimately, FIFA’s goal of preparing him for the 1994 World Cup was a success, he was ready. But so were doping control.
Diego never played for his beloved nation after 1994 and spells with Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors ended his club career in 1997.
‘God is Dead.’ Tomorrow’s front cover of L’Equipe. pic.twitter.com/yxktPp97Dw
— Alex O'Henley (@OHenleyAlex) November 25, 2020
Maradona is a rare case of being able to celebrate an outstanding football career, while also wondering what could have been. What if he was born 20 years later, with the benefits of player protection on and off the field? What if he didn’t relish bending the rules?
It just wouldn’t have been the same. Diego’s vulnerability and mistakes make him adored, it is part of his legend. People saw the eternal child in him and recognise that in themselves.
As the world mourns the loss of Diego Armando Maradona, millions grieve as though their god is dead.
In Buenos Aires there exists the Iglesia Maradoniana, boasting over 200,000 members.
Its fifth commandment?
“Spread the news of Diego’s miracles throughout the universe.”
As generations yet to come discover the genius of El Pibe de Oro, The Church of Maradona’s doors will open and convert millions more. Saints never die.