It was late October 1993 when Golden Boy came to Sydney.
Diego Armando Maradona may have been 33 years old at the time, but on the pitch he still had almost all of the energy and abilities of his younger, all-around self.
That alone was enough to convince nearly 44,000 people to head to the Sydney Football Stadium on Sunday evening to witness the first leg of Australia’s 1994 World Cup qualifying play-off with Argentina.
The stakes may be high for the Socceroos with the first World Cup since 1978 nominally at stake, but the drawcard is undoubtedly Maradona.
“The whole of Australia is really behind Australian football for the first time because of the interest in Diego Maradona,” said Graham Arnold, who played in the game and now coaches the Socceroos.
This is the first time that mainstream media has taken the lead alongside Socceroos and Maradona.
“They even saw him train. Nobody paid attention to us, it was all about him and Argentina.”
In 1993, Maradona’s career began to fall apart due to scandals and substance abuse. Years removed from his bitter absence from Napoli and a 15-month doping ban, he has returned to Argentina for what will prove to be a brief stint with Newell’s Old Boys.
However, she is still Maradona. He is the talisman of an unspectacular Argentine side that still has the likes of Gabriel Batistuta and Fernando Redondo, and the hope of returning home is quick and smooth progress to the 1994 World Cup in the USA.
“I remember seeing him for the first time in the tunnel before we ran out, and I remember looking out of the corner of my eye and saying ‘wow, you’re only small – but you look big to me’,” said Paul Wade, who had a tough job as a role. important in Maradona that night.
“It was about the last time I saw him in person. All I saw was the number 10 on the back of his shirt – he wouldn’t give me a kick.”
The Socceroos survived the initial nervousness and adjusted to the match, proving from the start that they couldn’t go smoothly.
As his shadow that night, Wade followed Maradona wherever he went. But, as many have learned before, it only took the Argentine an instant to change the game.
“One tackle I won, they scored a goal from,” said Wade.
He went to the right and I just crossed and tackled him and the ball went [Socceroo] Milan Ivanovic.
“Maradona got up, went after him, let him go, crossed him, and they scored.”
These are Maradona’s best traits in a single goal, his perfect balance and skill combined with an attitude and determination that will never beat him.
Away goals are essential to Argentina’s chances of progress – they count as two goals if the game remains level two legs – but Australia is not ready to lie down.
The Socceroos equalized before the half through Aurelio Vidmar, who was put down by his brother Tony after Ned Zelic’s ball had cut into the Argentine defense.
Despite a spirited second-half effort, neither team could find a winner. Maradona appeared to have picked up a hamstring injury in the second half but played out of the game, albeit under pressure and without the impact expected.
“I was criticized for not kicking it harder,” said Wade.
“But I would never go around and kick the greatest player to play the game, right?”
Two weeks later in Buenos Aires, Argentina booked their tickets to USA ’94 with a 1-0 win in the second leg, ending Australia’s hopes of qualifying – but not the story.
In 2011, Maradona admitted on Argentine television that the team had used illegal drugs before a match with Australia, and accused former FIFA vice president and Argentina FA chief Julio Grondona of knowing this.
“What happened was to play against Australia we were given a quick coffee. They put something in the coffee and that’s why we ran a lot more,” said Maradona.
“Why aren’t there anti-doping controls in the match with Australia if we have them in all the other games?
“We take whatever the doctor gave us. I say it now because Grondona is talking about drugs as if he knows nothing about drugs in football and the illnesses I have.”
At the time, Wade said he was surprised to learn the entire team had been doping, but said that could be taken as “praise” for the Socceroos and proving “they must be very afraid that we will knock them out of the World Cup”.
But despite the ensuing controversy, players and fans alike looked back on that evening in Sydney with great affection.
Maradona gave Australian fans a glimpse, however swiftly, of the genius that had defined his extraordinary career, and for that moment the country was mesmerized.
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