FEATURE | The time Celta Vigo turned down a 16-year-old Diego Maradona

The legendary career of Diego Armando Maradona could have changed completely in the summer of 1977 along with the story of LaLiga club Celta Vigo. The paths of the Galician club and the Argentine star were on the verge of meeting that year, but doubts over the teenager’s promise were strong and prevented the Argentine from landing in Vigo at the age of 16. One can imagine that club members at Celta have pulled their hair out for years over the decision and perhaps that is why this story never became well known in the coastal city of Vigo.

Celta had just been relegated to Segunda on the last day of the previous season, something that could have also influenced the club when making such an important decision. The club were looking for an attacker to bolster their squad in Spain’s second division in order to achieve immediate promotion back to the top-flight. An Argentine contact offered them two potential options. The first was a 16-year-old prospect, who had made his debut a few months earlier in the Argentine premier division, and the second was a proven goalscorer. Diego Armando Maradona was the 16-year-old prospect. The second option was Juan Carlos Nani.

The negotiations held in the Balaídos offices were intense during those days. On one hand, there was excitement building with the idea of betting on a young talent, who was beginning to light up Argentine football and whose references were extraordinary. On the other hand, a more experienced player was also tempting, with experience in teams such as Boca Juniors and Lanús.

After several days of deliberation, Celta ended up opting for the more experienced Nani, for which the club had to fork out between eight and nine million pesetas (about €50,000). El Gringo, as he was known in Argentina, scored two goals in the 18 games he played with Celta. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Maradona burst onto the scene as a star at Buenos Aires outfit Argentinos Juniors and became part of the Argentina squad for the 1978 World Cup.

That season Celta did, however, achieve promotion back to the first division, but there was huge regret at the club for not taking the opportunity to sign Maradona. November 23 marked the 28th anniversary of Maradona’s only ever visit to Balaídos. He arrived with Sevilla in the 1992-93 season and scored a goal from a free-kick in Sevilla’s 2-1 victory against Celta. Celta finished the game with just seven players after receiving four red cards. The story could have been very different that day if fifteen years earlier they had taken the chance to sign one of the greatest football players the world has ever seen. Maradona gave them a taste that day of what they missed out on.

After the 1982 World Cup, Maradona joined Barcelona for a then world-record fee of $7.6 million. Maradona eventually moved to Spain after a successful stint at Argentine giants Boca Juniors. The No 10 played 75 matches for the Catalan club, scoring 47 goals along the way. In the 1982-83 season, the club won the Copa del Rey, Copa de la Liga and in 1983, the Spanish Super Cup.

In the 1983-84 campaign at Barça, Maradona fractured his ankle after a nasty challenge from Athletic Club player Andoni Goikoetxea. The Argentine reappeared before the end of the league season, but Barça were out of the title race by then. The club also lost the Copa del Rey final to Athletic in a match that went down in history, due to a mass brawl between both sets of players after the final whistle.

At Barcelona, Maradona contracted hepatitis, which saw him ruled out of action and spend several months on the sidelines. His relationship with the club’s board led to him forcing his way out and join Napoli in Serie A. He subsequently went on to win two league titles, an Italian Cup and a UEFA Cup.

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