FEATURE | Pantomime Villains, the Military and a Crisis of Identity: The Dark Side of Diego Maradona’s time at Barcelona

“If they’d given Diego seven days to live,” says Lobo Carrasco, “he would have gone to the Bombonera and the Stadio San Paolo in Naples. He also would have paid a visit to Argentinos Juniors’ ground and the Azteca stadium in Mexico City where he won the World Cup.” He pauses, then continues. “He would have swung by Barcelona as well, but only to see old friends – he wouldn’t have bothered going to the Camp Nou.”

Almost 40 years on from the moment his career in Blaugrana came to a spectacularly violent end after that final against Athletic Club, the question of why Diego Maradona’s time at Barcelona, while eventful, was ultimately to end in disappointment, remains largely unanswered. Although recent weeks have shown us that many in the Catalan capital wish for and choose to remember a player at the top of his game, the reality is that the man himself would have never given utterance to such a sentiment.

“I went to Naples knowing that Barcelona had been a bad experience for me – a disaster. I played two seasons with them and I couldn’t finish either one because of illness and my ankle injury.”

The fact that his two-year stay in Spain was marred by poor health and frequent injury problems – from shattered ankles to hepatitis B – has often been presented as the decisive stumbling block to Maradona’s success at the Camp Nou. In recent years, however, significantly more attention has been afforded to the argument that he simply arrived at the wrong time, playing out those years as a member of a Barça side which floated aimlessly in the no-man’s-land between two Johan Cruyff-inspired revolutions at the club. Last week, the Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia published an article on the subject of El Pelusa’s time in their city with the title “Maradona at Barça: Too broken, too soon.”

Josep María Minguella, the agent who secured Maradona’s transfer to Barcelona, has long since positioned himself on the “too soon” side of the argument. “The timing of everything was screwed up from the beginning,” said Minguella in a 2004 interview with La Vanguardia.

“The first time I tried to get him to Barça, he was 17 years old. President Montal thought that the price of $100,000 that Argentine club Argentinos Juniors were asking for was too much for someone so young, so we left it.”

Wrong president, wrong time. In 1979 they went after him again. The club’s new president, José Luis Núñez, gave Minguella the green light. However, Barça now had a problem: by stalling their negotiations with Argentinos Juniors, they had allowed too much time to pass, and the Argentine military government had since caught wind of the situation. Minguella and the club he represented would now have to enter into a very different world if they were to have any hope of securing the young Maradona’s signature.

“They weren’t letting him go anywhere until after the 1982 World Cup, so we had to wait. In order to get him, I had to approach Admiral Lacoste. After a few days of hanging around the hotel Sheraton in Buenos Aires, I received a call.”

“Be here next Tuesday at 5 pm.” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

Minguella did just that. “I went there and rang the bell. The small door flew open and a soldier appeared. I told him that I had come to see Admiral Lacoste, and after a few minutes, they allowed me to enter. I was led down a tunnel towards Lacoste’s office, and that’s where the deal took place. Years later, I found out that I had been in the School of Navy Mechanics, where they tortured those people who had disappeared.”

The military dictatorship that followed the bankrupt government of Isabel Perón in 1976 bore the ponderous but obscurely menacing title of the Process of National Reorganization, and it took power with a clear sense of purpose and an entire philosophy of repression. Located in the heart of Buenos Aires – approximately two blocks from the 1978 World Cup stadium – La Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) was among the most chilling symbols of the dictatorship period. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 people were tortured and killed there between 1976 and 1983.

As far as those in charge were concerned, the carnival-like atmosphere of Argentine football was a handy source of distraction for the people at a time when forced disappearances and repression of political opponents were in full swing. The players themselves were therefore caught up in the madness, and Maradona was no exception. The fact that his transfer to Barcelona was finalised in the ESMA shows the extent to which the military had assumed control over almost every aspect of life in the country.

According to Minguella, it was the desire of the military to have their young star playing for an Argentinian club for when the national side inevitably won the World Cup in Spain. The potential of the team to repeat the success of 1978 was an ideal opportunity to excite feelings of nationalism and civic pride at a time when the country itself was struggling. Maradona had narrowly missed out on Argentina’s triumph four years earlier, but the government wanted him front and centre this time around.

As it turned out, the fate of Argentina would serve as a foreshadowing of what was to come in the years immediately following the event, both for the player and for the nation itself. Maradona was ruthlessly man-marked in all four games; most famously by Italy’s Claudio Gentile, who inflicted foul after foul upon the number 10 as the defending champions crashed out in the second group stage to the side who would eventually go on to win the tournament. For the dictatorship, it was more than a loss; it was a disaster as they were left without the much-needed boost in patriotic sentiment following their own defeat in the Falklands only weeks earlier.

It was fitting that Argentina’s exit from the competition should take place in Barcelona, and Gentile’s pantomime villain approach to the encounter was prescient of the now infamous treatment that Maradona would go on to receive in the Spanish league. “I studied him for two days, watching videos and realising there was a strategy I could use against him,” recalls Gentile. “That was to make sure he was so well marked that he couldn’t get the ball from his team-mates because once he has possession that’s when he becomes a problem.”

Andoni Goikoetxea would go on to repeat the feat one year later at the Camp Nou; Maradona suffered ligament damage and a broken ankle while “The Butcher of Bilbao” was served a ten-match ban by the Royal Spanish Football Federation. Back in Diego’s native Argentina, suffering badly from the fallout of the Falklands war and sensing that their time was up, the military began 1983 by shredding evidence of their murder of up to 30,000 dissidents – students, academics, trade unionists and other suspected political subversives – committed during what is now known as the Argentine Dirty War. It was a violent time in politics and in football.

And yet, despite everything, it could be said that all the stars appeared to have aligned at the time of Maradona’s signing – at least from a footballing perspective. To add to a group that already boasted players as prolific and magnetising as Quini and Julio Alberto, Barcelona also possessed the league’s finest passer of the ball over 50 metres in Bernd Schuster and a young, vibrant manager committed to total football in Udo Lattek. The arrival of the world’s most talented footballer, in theory, provided Lattek with all the makings of a classic team; yet they would achieve no higher than a third-place league finish during Maradona’s time there.

Many point to the fact that although Lattek had a clear idea of how he wanted the team to play, the club itself lacked the infrastructure in order to facilitate the desired transition. Nowadays, Barcelona is a club whose footballing identity is every bit as significant as its cultural role as Catalonia’s de facto national team – but this wasn’t always the case. It had been years since Johan Cruyff had left his mark as a player, and years before he would do so again as manager. As Lluís Canut of Mundo Deportivo puts it, “There was a definite identity crisis at Barça during that time. Until Cruyff arrived, ‘the Barça style’ simply didn’t exist.”

Too broken, too soon. The conclusion – at least for fans of Spanish football who have spent any considerable time over the last few weeks reflecting upon the sensational and at times miraculous career of Diego Armando Maradona – is likely to remain a source of continued frustration. Now that he’s gone, the truth surrounding the man is as perplexing and complicated as it ever was while he was alive. Perhaps, in the end, that’s how it ought to be.

Tommy Hay

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