On March 24, 1991, Diego Maradona would play his last ever match for Napoli, where they beat Sampdoria at the Luigi Ferraris 4-1. A week prior, after a match against Bari, he had been selected for a random anti-doping test. The results were published after the match against Samp; he had tested positive for cocaine. The Italian Federation sought to impose a harsh punishment on him, suspending him for 15 months.
Maradona took the opportunity to settle back in Argentina. At first, things would go smoothly. He would even organise a friendly game for the benefit of the family of recently deceased footballer Juan Gilberto Funes. Since Maradona was banned from all football activities, FIFA threatened bans of more than a year for all the players who decided to take part. In order to circumvent this, the match had to be played outside the scope of the association football, with referees from outside the entity acting and the throw-ins executed with the feet.
However, Maradona’s situation would rapidly worsen. On the 26th of April, the Argentinian police raided his home and found drugs. Maradona ended up being arrested in front of a horde of journalists, who had been alerted to the fact. “I was working as a producer at AM 950 Radio news program”, recalls Néstor Centra, a journalist with a long career in Argentine media, “Suddenly, I answered the phone and an anonymous voice told me: ‘Pay attention and write down this address and this time, Franklin 896, Caballito. At 3 in the afternoon they will arrest Maradona’. I was shocked”.
The sight was indeed shocking: Maradona, visibly confused, dishevelled, with a long stubble, was taken away by three policemen to the patrol. For many, it was the strings of politics that had moved, not the police agent. Days before, the Argentine Secretary of Sports, Fernando Galmarini had spoken on the “Diego issue”: “Maradona is a bad image for the country, an embarrassment for Argentina, and the government is concerned about its bad example for Argentine children”. With the country embroiled in a number of crises, it was a good distraction. Maradona would later be released on bail, but it became clear he was persona non grata for the Argentine government; a return to Europe was necessary.
Still, with the sentence set to expire on July 1, 1992, it became increasingly clear Maradona wanted to leave Napoli. The Italian club, however, did not want to let him go. Corrado Ferlaino, the club’s president, could not be seen giving his star away, and was set on driving a hard bargain.
Two clubs emerged as the leading candidates to become Maradona’s third European home, Olympique Marseille and Sevilla FC. The Spaniards, however, had a trick up their sleeve. Earlier in the season they had signed former Argentina manager Carlos Salvador Bilardo, with whom Maradona had won the 1986 World Cup. El Diez rejected Marseille in favour of a return to Spain and a reunion with his former coach; that meant all that remained was reaching an agreement with Napoli. This, however, was the trickiest part of all.
Ferlaino demanded proper compensation for one of the world’s best, but Sevilla were hesitant to pay a top fee for a player that was entering the last years of his career. However, after Sevilla president Luis Cuervas told Bilardo it wasn’t going to be easy, the Argentinian manager was very clear:
“If we don’t sign Diego, I’ll pack my bags and return to Argentina”.
With the deal stuck and going nowhere, Sevilla got some help to get it over the line. As the 1994 World Cup grew larger in the horizon, Sepp Blatter and FIFA pushed for the move, as they didn’t want the world’s biggest star to miss out. At one point, Blatter even threatened Ferlaino and the Italian Federation’s president that should the clubs not reach an agreement, he’d personally intervene, setting up a committee to determine the value of the player, and giving Maradona a provisional transfer so he was able to discuss terms with Sevilla even before Napoli had agree to the deal.
In the end, an agreement was met, with a transfer worth 750 million Spanish Pesetas, or 7.5 million dollars. Once again, Sevilla required some aid to get things done. In this case, it was Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset who owned Spanish TV channel “Telecinco” and paid the lion’s share of the transfer fee in exchange for the rights to any friendly the Andalusian club played with Maradona in their lineup. On September 22nd, 1992, Maradona became a Sevilla player. On the plane to Seville, Maradona was so riddled with anxiety that he slept the whole of two hours, such was the tension of the situation, such was his desire to get back on the pitch.
The Argentine’s debut was indeed a friendly, matching up against Bayern Munich. He was out of shape and sorely lacking in competitive rhythm, but clearly retained all of his quality, and undoubtedly retained his appeal. Regular journalists and squad players alike were astonished at the circus that followed Sevilla from the day Maradona signed. “From one day to the other you started having hundreds of journalists waiting at the club’s doors. From England, from Japan, from all over the world” said one journalist who covered the club. Teammate Rafa Paz had an even closer look at the fenomenon: “‘Where Diego is, is the news’” Carlos told us. He asked us to try to adapt to the new situation that was coming, because it was going to be different. Little by little we saw what Carlos had told us, because when he arrived he magnified everything that for us up to that moment was normal. He became different in every way”.
“For me, Diego was very generous with his teammates”, Paz explained to an Argentine newspaper, “But not in that aspect of giving away Rolex watches, but from the human side and his caring for others. I witnessed it when we were neighbours; he approached a homeless man to give him money and food. He got out of the car to care for him, to ask him what was wrong and how he could help; he assisted the homeless man in everything he needed.
“It was the generosity that I liked the most”, carried on Paz. “He helped a Sevilla youth player who was training with the first team and he treated him like one of the others. The boy was not having a good time personally, and Diego gave him a lot of encouragement. He was constantly talking to him. He gave him a lot of advice and treated him like one of the group. He didn’t look down on anyone. He transmitted to that boy normality. Diego didn’t believe he was above anyone. He was the most important of all but he didn’t make you feel it”. Of course, outside things were different. “We lived just 300 metres away. We didn’t even have the opportunity to go have a pint in the neighbourhood” Paz said, “You couldn’t go out on the street being Maradona, and Diego suffered from that situation”.
And yet, his early days in Sevilla were his happiest. Sevilla toured Europe and the world with their new star. The most fascinating of those friendlies would be played on October 14. It was agreed that Sevilla would play two friendlies in Argentina against Boca, the second of which would be at La Bombonera. “If I have to play against Boca I’ll die”, Maradona had said over a radio interview weeks before, so a deal was struck. That day, Sevilla faced the Boca Juniors best starting eleven, but after half time they would also face one of their players. It was agreed that Maradona would play one half with each team; once the referee blew for half, El Diego would run back towards the dressing rooms and change into the Boca shirt, the first time he wore it since 1982. With the match 2-1 for Sevilla, Maradona would score the 2-2 for Boca Juniors, and La Bombonera roared like few times. The final result (3-2 to Sevilla) was meaningless.
Slowly but surely, El Diego regained his shape and started to perform better and better. At one point he reportedly asked his hairdresser to give him back his Mexico 86 cut, perhaps as a declaration of intent. In a side that included Croatian goal machine Davor Suker and a young Diego Simeone, they soared high when Maradona was on his game. There is no article, video or documentary covering this time of his life that fails to mention his performance against Real Madrid on December 19th, 1992. It would be, however, the high point of his time in Sevilla.
Things started to go sour in February 1993, when Argentina manager Alfio Basile called Maradona back into the team. The albiceleste were playing in two friendlies, first against historic rivals Brazil in a match to celebrate the AFA’s centenary, and then against Denmark in the Artemio Franchi Cup, a clash between themselves as winners of the Copa América and Denmark as European Champions. Sevilla denied him permission to play both matches, as they felt that would clash with their own game against Logroñés. Maradona said he was going anyway, renting a plane to meet Argentina and then to return on time, also taking Simeone (who was also called up) with him.
Maybe no one would have cared had he produced an iconic moment of magic on his return. Maybe things would’ve been water under the bridge and made for a fun anecdote. But his performance against Logroñés was atrocious, and so the snowball began rolling. Maradona had always been on a much longer leash than the rest of the team, with his regular missing of training sessions a known secret. His teammates and the staff were aware and accepting of the fact, but for the board, it was beginning to feel like too much.
A grudge started to grow between Cuervas and Maradona, and the board even hired a private detective to follow him around. He was a known detective in the area, who was a friend of a Sevilla director, but the man had to pass on the job to a younger man, who went by the name “Charlie”. “[The older guy] owned a white Ford Escort, and Maradona drove a Porsche. He left him behind” commented Charlie to a Spanish newspaper years later. “We were hired because we were an agency of young people. He needed people with motorcycles. And we put a device to control Maradona”. “We counted around 20 Italians and Argentines coming and going. The issue is that Maradona was not going to training. He was there up until 6 in the morning”, says the detective.
His relationship with Bilardo was also hitting the rocks. On September 13, 1993, Sevilla was hosting Burgos CF for a league match. At half time, Maradona was injured, but Bilardo insisted that he take a shot and carry on playing. However, it was short lived, with the World Cup-winning coach taking his star off after just 8 minutes. Feeling used, Maradona exploded: “I don’t know what the f*ck you played me for, you motherf*cker”. Bilardo would recall the moment years later: “I didn’t realise what he had said on the pitch. That night, I heard on television what he had said. I went to his home. He wasn’t there, he had gone to Madrid. On Tuesday morning, when I arrived at training, I told the boys: ‘Today they do the physical training, I’ll stand here watching’. I was waiting for Diego. In the afternoon I went to his home again and we fought, we grabbed punches. Immediately Claudia and Franchi (Maradona’s representative) separated us. But those days, between Sunday and Tuesday, I did not sleep”. After that moment, Maradona never wore the red and white again, and left without having played the last La Liga game.
When the Argentine left the club, the board refused payment of his full contract, claiming it was rendered void due to his unprofessional lifestyle, of which they had accrued plenty proof. Maradona’s career would continue in Argentina, with a coaching spell in between and plenty more controversy until his official retirement in 2001. That, however, is a story for another time.