The year before The Queen experienced her annus horriblis, Diego Armando Maradona was in the grip of one of his own, during what would be a particularly grim decade for The Greatest Footballer of All Time. 1991 brought drugs and sex scandals, a humiliating arrest in his homeland on possession charges, and, worst of all, a 15-month FIFA ban after testing positive for cocaine.
With his ban set to expire in July 1992, Maradona knew only one thing: he wanted out of Napoli. Though he still had three years remaining on his contract, his love affair with the southern club he’d dragged from relative obscurity to two Scudetti had soured dramatically. He had managed to alienate club president Corrado Ferlaino and new manager Claudio Ranieri. Then there were his alleged connections with the city’s feared Camorra. He had to get out.
There were two problems. First, there was precious little interest in a player, even one of Maradona’s divine talent, who was the wrong side of 30, hadn’t played for so long and was widely perceived to be damaged goods. Second, Ferlaino, under increasing pressure as Napoli’s debts mounted, was adamant he wouldn’t go down in history as ‘the man who lost Maradona’.
By 1992, the only clubs to show any genuine interest were Bernard Tapie’s Marseilles (who’d come close to signing him a couple of years earlier), Diego’s beloved Boca, and La Liga outfit Sevilla. The Argentine offer was an immediate non-starter – Boca simply couldn’t afford him. He was tempted by Tapie’s overtures and the chance to play in the Champions’ League, but ultimately concerns about having to learn a new language at that stage in his career deterred him. That left Sevilla. Though not a massive club, they were ambitious, had some talented young players emerging (countryman Diego Simeone, Croatian hotshot Davor Suker), and, most significantly, were managed by Carlos Bilardo, the man who’d got the very best out of Maradona in steering Argentina to world cup glory in Mexico six summers previously.
Though he later confessed to having reservations about the move (expressed in his autobiography ‘El Diego’) concerning whether or not Sevilla were ‘big enough’ for him, and he’d endured an unhappy couple of years in La Liga a decade beforehand with Barcelona, Diego decided to head for Spain.
A tug of war then ensued. It seemed that Napoli were more eager to keep hold of their number 10 than Sevilla were to purchase him, and Maradona grew increasingly frustrated as the Spaniards dragged their feet. Meanwhile, Napoli continued to send him messages demanding that he return for pre-season training. Eventually, in an unusual move that underlined the influence Maradona’s name still carried, FIFA interjected themselves to mediate the situation at their headquarters in Zurich. It was there, after a five-hour meeting between representatives from the governing body, the two clubs and Maradona’s legal team, that progress was finally made. Maradona vowed to return to Napoli only if they met a list of demands that would embarrass your average Bond villain, allegedly including double his wages, a private villa on the isle of Capri, and a helicopter to travel to training.
The ultimatum gave everyone what they wanted. Ferlaino saved face – he couldn’t meet the demands and could blame the player’s greed for his failure to bring him back. Maradona, knowing full well the conditions wouldn’t be met, would have his freedom. And Sevilla would have their man.
A strong start in Spain
Eventually, after yet more wrangling, a deal was struck. The Andalusians would pay the considerable sum of £4.68m for his services. However, what they were getting was not the famed genius capable of defeating teams single-handedly (literally so, in some cases), but an overweight, 31-year-old drug addict who hadn’t kicked a ball for the best part of two years.
That said, Maradona made a promising start to life in Seville. He made his competitive debut for the club in October 1992 away at Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés Stadium, where he’d been infamously ‘butchered’ by Andoni Goikoetxea while at Barca. Milking the home fans’ catcalls, he swerved a fantastic free kick on target that the Bilbao ‘keeper couldn’t hold on to, allowing Marcos to give Sevilla the lead. A week later, he settled a game with Zaragoza from the penalty spot. With a goal and an assist in his first two games and the club raking in an extra £2.2m in ticket and merchandising revenue since his arrival, Los Nervionenses’ deal was beginning to look inspired.
Though he was milkfloat-slow and tired easily, Maradona continued to show flashes of his brilliance. Usually operating just behind the strikers, he thundered in a glorious free kick against Celta Vigo, scored a glorious volley against Sporting Gijon and, around Christmas, masterminded a win over Real Madrid with a man of the match display. ‘The Maradona of Mexico has returned’ screamed one spanish newspaper. He was the talk of football again.
The inevitable crash
Gradually though, those moments of quality were glimpsed ever more rarely, and inevitably things started to go downhill both on and off the pitch. His fitness further deteriorated, he began to put back on the weight he’d lost in the early months of the season, and, plagued by a catalogue of aches, pains and long-term injuries from a whole career of being scythed down by defenders, he was simply unable to dominate games in the way he once had.
An early example of his growing frustration came in January’s 3-0 humbling at the hands of Tenerife, in which the on-off feud between Maradona and Fernando Redondo (supposedly over the latter’s attitude towards international duty), led to the former furiously stalking the referee to seek retribution for a Redondo tackle, only to talk himself into a red card.
The first seeds of dissension behind the scenes manifested themselves just months into his stay and concerned his tendency to fly back to Argentina at a moment’s notice – something that happened with increasing regularity as he tried to rekindle his international career. Napoli had been prepared to indulge Maradona in this area, given his importance to the side. But this pale, chubby, only fitfully impressive version didn’t carry the same currency with Sevilla’s top brass. The idea that he might not be allowed to do precisely whatever he wants whenever he wants has always been greeted with abject horror and disbelief by the man himself, and he was soon butting heads with club president Luis Cuervas and other directors when they attempted to limit his trips home.
When Maradona was called up for Argentina friendlies against Brazil (in the AFA’s Centenary game) and Denmark (in the highly prestigious Artemio Franchi Cup) in February 1993, Sevilla gave him permission to play in only one, insisting he forego the game against the Danes to be present for a league match with Logroñés three days earlier. Instead, Maradona defied Cuervas and played in all three, jetting from Buenos Aires back to Sevilla and then to Mar del Plata. Worse, he transparently phoned in a listless display in the 2-0 defeat to Logroñés, eager to save himself for his Albiceleste travails. Such brazen prioritising of country over club appalled supporters and management alike in Andalusia.
To compound matters, it wasn’t long before El Diego’s old appetites resurfaced. Cuervas hired a team of private detectives to follow him round during his nocturnal activities – in reality, all he needed to do was pick up a newspaper. Tales of misdemeanours ranging from speeding penalties for thrashing his Porsche through residential areas at 200mph, to late-night brothel visits and nightclub brawls were commonplace throughout late 1992 and early 1993.
A friendship at breaking point
Every failed fitness test, missed training session and unscheduled excursion to the motherland ate away at the star’s previously close relationship with Bilardo. In many ways it was strange that the bond between the two should ever have been so strong – on paper they were polar opposites. As a player, Bilardo had been psychopath-in-chief of the infamous Estudiantes side of the late 1960s, a player with a penchant for violence so strong that he was rumoured to sneak a needle onto the pitch with which to jab opponents; as a manager he had a reputation as an arch-pragmatist, synonymous with anti-football. There shouldn’t have been any room for an artist like Maradona in his team.
But the man known as ‘El Narigon’ (‘big nose’) was also incredibly smart, and instead, on taking the helm of the Argentine national side, he opted to build his whole team around his number 10 from the outset. His first move was to make him captain (putting Daniel Passarella’s nose out of joint in the process). At training camps, Maradona was allowed to go anywhere, do anything, with anyone he wanted. On the pitch meanwhile, Bilardo sought to give Maradona the maximum amount of freedom, developing an innovative hard-working 3-5-2 formation with wing backs – ‘the last great tactical innovation’, as described by Jonathan Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’. The system afforded Maradona the protection he needed to completely dominate the tournament in a manner not seen before or since, as he carried the side all the way to the trophy.
At Sevilla however, Bilardo was not in a position to cater to Maradona’s every whim. His paymasters wouldn’t allow it, and besides, his performances didn’t justify it. He had been the man to push for Los Nervionenses to make the deal with El Diego, and he now felt let down by the player’s lack of effort or concern for the club’s cause.
Everything came to a head during Sevilla’s penultimate game of the season, at home to Burgos. Troubled by the resurfacing of an old knee injury, Maradona asked to come off at half-time, only for Bilardo to ask him to take a pain-killing injection and play on. According to Maradona, he took three such painful injections in his knee, yet within just 10 minutes of the restart, he could only stare in disbelief when Bilardo took him off anyway. Furious at the apparently unnecessary injections, and apparently believing that this was some sort of revenge exacted by El Narigon for his tardiness and poor performances, the number 10 stormed off the pitch, firing some choice invective in the manager’s direction, and proceeded to smash up the dressing room before leaving in a rage. A few days later, Bilardo confronted him to demand an apology. Predictably, the two instead came to blows. “We kicked the shit out of each other,” Maradona would recall.
Maradona never played for Sevilla again. Both sides wanted out – Sevilla were struggling to pay him (he was reportedly owed £625,000 in wages on departing) and pay for him. Besides, they were fed up with his antics. Vice-President José María del Nido complained that Maradona “wasn’t fit enough to play table tennis”. The player, meanwhile, hinted that the whole affair had knocked his confidence as he struggled to come to terms with his fading powers: “I’m leaving because they don’t love me”, he declared.
No winners in the aftermath
Though Sevilla, in spite of the Diego sideshow, actually had a decent season, finishing 7th (an improvement of five places on the season before), it was downhill for all concerned from that point on. Maradona went back to Argentina and set himself on the path to another drug disgrace at USA ‘94. Bilardo also left after just a season in Andalusia, and has only managed sporadically since. Sevilla’s outlay on Maradona meanwhile, was but one aspect of their mismanagement, and within two seasons the parlous state of their finances saw them demoted to the Segunda, only to be reinstated on appeal. By 1997, they’d managed to relegate themselves anyway, having been forced to sell their stars.
Ironically, all would bounce back around the same time as well. Having been promoted back to La Liga in 1999, the 21st Century started brilliantly for Los Nervionenses, with two UEFA Cup wins, one Copa Del Rey and an unlikely title challenge in 2007, finishing just five points behind Real Madrid and Barcelona in third. The following year, the reconciled dream team of Maradona and Bilardo took on the challenge of guiding Argentina to the world cup…before falling out again after their quarter final humiliation at the hands of Germany.
Ultimately, Maradona’s year in Seville was football’s equivalent of Elvis’ Vegas years – an all-time great reduced to a fat, shambling parody of himself, only capable of glimpses of his once-almighty talent.
Soon after his arrival, Maradona moved into a huge mansion that had once belonged to one of the most famous matadors in the city’s history. It was only a matter of time, however, before everyone in Seville was sick of his bullshit.