Diego Maradona’s laces were undone.
Even when it was virtually done, even when the drugs ban was lifted 15 months after he had left Naples, even as Sevilla FC and Napoli negotiated his transfer, the Italians forced to the negotiating table by FIFA and the Spaniards bankrolled by Silvio Berlusconi’s millions, even when it had been all over the media and a plane had set off from Buenos Aires with El Pelusa on board, Sevilla forward Davor Suker didn’t believe it. He wouldn’t, he said, until Maradona was actually out on the training pitch with them. And that day at last he was, his boots untied.
The things you remember. If there is a detail that has lingered in the mind, an image that those there return to, it is that.
“That first session he went out full of enthusiasm with his boots untied, laces dangling, which isn’t a great idea: you fall, you can’t hit the ball properly, it’s dangerous,” then-club-captain Manolo Jimenez tells ESPN. “But not to him. He didn’t fall. Instead, there was mastery. He was different.”
A crowd had gathered to watch in awe, and that included his new teammates. Diego Armando Maradona, the finest footballer of all time, was actually here at Sevilla Futbol Club. It was 1992, the year of the Expo, the year Spain’s first high-speed train reached the city, and now he had too. Seven hundred fifty million pesetas, around $7.5m, brought him back from suspension and back to Spain, the chance for redemption in an unexpected place.
Unexpected but for one thing: Sevilla’s manager was Carlos Bilardo, the coach with whom Maradona had won the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Bilardo had come up with the idea, telling the president that this was worth pursuing, that Sepp Blatter could be persuaded — turned into an ally, in fact. In the end FIFA pushed Napoli, where he was still under contract, into accepting a transfer. And here he was.
In the office that Sevilla’s sporting director Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez Verdejo, has at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, there is a photo that he is especially fond of. In it, he appears alongside Maradona in 1992.
“The last monkey,” as he calls himself, “the least important person there,” a 23-year-old substitute goalkeeper at the time, he stands with the best player there has ever been. “This was a cup game, which is why I was playing and that’s why I had the photo taken: I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity,” Monchi explained. “To be able to say I was Diego’s teammate is something else.”
He is even more proud to be able to say that he was Diego’s mate, full stop. And he is not the only one.
Monchi did not play with Maradona often, nor did anyone at Sevilla: he spent just one season there, making 29 appearances, and it didn’t end as they would have liked, redemption becoming perdition. But if Maradona’s time there was fleeting, the fondness wasn’t. The warmth remains, at least among those who shared that year with him.
“To live alongside him was a privilege,” Monchi told ESPN. “He was a childhood hero of mine, so you can’t imagine what it was like when he became a teammate.
“I remember the first day he came. We’re all in the dining room of the team hotel and in walks Diego, and we all thought the same thing: ‘He’s come to play with me!’ ‘He’s going to be on my team!’ Then you get know him day-to-day and he was just incredible.”
Almost the first thing they gave him was the captain’s armband. Jimenez and the club’s other vice-captains Rafa Paz and Juan Carlos Unzue had unanimously agreed. It was just the right thing to do, they thought. A way of integrating Maradona, respecting him, embracing him.
“A recognition of hierarchy,” as Paz puts it. “He was way above us.”
Yet if Maradona was different — and there was no escaping the fact that he was — he didn’t always want to be. Beyond the reverence, talk to teammates and there is a recurring theme: how normal this entirely abnormal man was.
“We were nervous, we didn’t know what he was going to be like, we idolised him, but from the first minute he came in, he wanted to be just another player,” Jimenez says. “We all knew his level, that he was better than us, but as a person he wasn’t. There was an admiration for his simplicity, his nobility. It didn’t matter if it was a head of state or the kit man, he would treat them the same.”
“It is not by chance that everyone says the same about him, that we all talk about his generosity. He rose from poverty but never, ever forgot where he had come from. You’d see him in the street try to help people who were down and out,” Paz says. He recalls that initial sense of intimidation: “Not a complex as such, but a sense of responsibility, the doubt that you’ll be up to this”. But he also recalls it vanishing. He wondered if he could return Maradona’s passes in that first session only for the Argentinian to tell him not to be so stupid — of course he could.
“If he gave you a pass and then you went and lost the ball, he would be the one saying: ‘My fault,’” Jimenez notes.
“People think of him as this great individual but that forgets that he was also very much a team man,” Monchi said. “He stood alongside his teammates and believed in the importance of that solidarity. He was the first one to stand up and fight for win bonuses for the team even though it was probably nothing to him and survival for me. If there was a problem with our travel, he was the first one to make sure it was put right. He was a 10 out of 10 as person. And we know that as a footballer he was a 20.”
At times, he really was, too. Maradona turned 32 in Seville. He arrived overweight and out of the game — 15 long months without a game, remember — but he had what Paz calls “a complicity with the ball” that no one else had, an assuredness in every touch. And there were glimpses of the genius.
It all started against Bayern Munich, one of a series of suddenly agreed, lucrative friendlies from which Maradona fought for teammates to get paid what he got paid.
Then, when it came to competitive football, it began at San Mames, a place he said that season “smells of football.” The opponents were Athletic Bilbao, the team against whom his Barcelona career had ended with a full-scale fight at the end of the Copa del Rey final eight years earlier, karate kicks flying. There was a wedding in the same hotel the night before; Maradona went down to congratulate the bride and groom.
Maradona brought his fitness coach out, rented the home of a bullfighter called Spartacus, and for a while his teammates believed this could work. Sevilla climbed into the top three, close to the leaders. Against Real Madrid, especially, Maradona excelled in leading them to a 2-0 win.
That day he led Jimenez onto the pitch, too, an anecdote that the club captain insists says much about the man.
“I was injured and hadn’t played for 40 days before that and didn’t play for 40 after it,” Jimenez says. “I had no muscle and could hardly kick the ball 15 metres, but he encouraged me: it was enough for me to stop Michel touching it, he said. He could really motivate you. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have played that game.”
Things were not easy, though. And Maradona had his demons, addictions that he could not control. The darker side of Seville’s nightlife called to him. Things slipped from him again.
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“The euphoria gave way, and there were obstacles in the way,” as Paz puts it.
He missed training, missed games and his team missed him, like their motivation had gone with him. Distance opened, in part because it had to. Distrust grew between the people around him and the club. There was an argument over international duty, Maradona caught between club and country. Teammates increasingly saw that his life was not like theirs; that his life was no life at all, perhaps. The pressure could be overwhelming.
“You dream of reaching the top, of being the best in the world, but it comes at a price and we saw that with Diego Armando,” Paz says. “You might dream of being Maradona, but that costs; there’s no privacy, every act is watched, and you need huge mental strength to deal with that. We tried to help and we even had strategies to do so, but he had tendencies he couldn’t control. He was very strong and there were times he was doing well but others when it overcame him. He recognised his situation and didn’t want anyone else to suffer as a result.”
“A Nobel Prize winner is more important than a footballer, but society seeks out enthusiasm, dreams, people to admire, to idolise. He had to take that on,” Jimenez says. “It’s not easy to live with. We understood that he was different in that sense. People might see someone react badly and think they’re selfish, but you have to understand it. Someone touches you, fine. Two people do, OK. A hundred, no problem. A thousand do, and it gets to you. ‘Hey, don’t touch me.’ And then people say they’re arrogant, stupid. No.
“I think he was happy, in his own way. He was very happy when he was with the ball, but maybe he needed people very close to him who could have helped him for real,” Jimenez continues. “There was a group of us whom Bilardo trusted in and we spoke to him as much as we could, tried to help.”
It should never be forgotten that Maradona was ill, Jimenez insists, his mistakes punishing him more than anyone else.
“He had a problem, he admitted that and wanted to fix it. He tried thousands of times and couldn’t. There were moments when he was OK. [Wife] Claudia was there with him. But there were bad moments too, and when he got into that spiral, when the problems came, it was hard to get out. He was a rebel. He had good days and bad ones. He did bad things? Yes, but he was a prisoner of his problems, his illness.”
As things unravelled, Maradona told teammates he felt like he was being followed, which he was: Sevilla had hired a detective. A divide had opened up, things breaking between the club and the player. His relationship with Bilardo would become strained. Maradona backed away from the group, too.
That was a service, Paz suggests.
“Our daily reality was not his,” he says. “We had to accept that. There was a certain reticence between his people and the club. He had integrated, but things were going into a different phase. He told us. He told us if he wouldn’t come in, couldn’t join us. The situation was beyond our control, and he was the one that said it shouldn’t affect us, damage things for us. It had become a little sullied, maybe.”
Amid it all, results slipped, too, cause and consequence of the breakdown. At one point there had been optimism, but Sevilla finished seventh and by the end of the season Maradona’s time in Europe was coming to a definitive end. The club sought a way to draw a line under it, bring it all to a close. There was a hint of regret.
“There was a slight bitterness that we had not won anything or got a European place,” Paz admits.
Yet nothing will ever take that year from them, even as Maradona has been taken too young.
“A dreadful year could not have ended worse, with the loss of an icon and a friend,” Jimenez says. “I will always say, ‘I played with Maradona,’ and for me that’s like winning a trophy. To be able to play with him, talk to him, listen to him, have him listen to you — not everyone can say that. That’s a medal. He taught us a lot, in good times and bad.”
Maradona departed. What was the overriding feeling like at that farewell meal?
“Nostalgia,” Paz says. “The whole group was there, and there was reconciliation with Bilardo too. You can fall out with a player, but he was a special player and they had won the World Cup together. We continued our paths, apart. He left sad that he could not have embraced his city more: he loved it. There was a certain nostalgia in his departing.
“If Diego and Maradona were two people, they were as great as each other. As a human being, as a teammate, I enjoyed those moments with him. As a player, he was the best ever. He played like the angels.”