On May 13 at Wembley Stadium in London, England's national soccer team had just beaten World Cup champion Argentina by a comfortable 3-1 margin in front of 92,000 fans, an occasion, one might think, for hectic waving of the Union Jack by Fleet Street's sportswriters, who are no slouches when it comes to chauvinism.
Well, there was some of that, certainly. But, once the requisite cheers for the home side were dispensed with, the superlatives were lavished on a player for the losers, a 19-year-old from the slums of Buenos Aires: Diego Maradona, short—only 5'6"—but heavy-shouldered, thick-chested, massively thighed, a mop of black curls surmounting features that have the sullen, near-expressionless Indian look that his countryman, Carlos Monzon, the fighter, habitually wore.
Prima Maradona! read one headline. But the supreme accolade did not appear until five days after the game, when the London Sunday Times moved the kid out of the sports section and gave him an entire page in the main body of the paper. "About once in 20 years," the article portentously began, "a footballer of genius emerges. The last was Pelé, the great Brazilian player. Now there is another—Diego Maradona of Argentina."
Overshadowed by all this was one David Johnson, who had put England on the winning way with two fine goals. But even Johnson was under Maradona's spell. "I shudder to contemplate what he might have done with a little help from his friends," Johnson said.
Indeed, once in each half, Maradona had slalomed alone through the whole English defense. The first time, in a five-second burst, he left three players, baffled by his speed and footwork, behind him before hitting a low, left-foot shot that went inches wide of the far post. In the second half, he again glided by a couple of defenders before a desperate, foul tackle by Left Back Kenny Sansom brought him down. Maradona had had a splendid game.
Yet he wasn't happy. "I would have preferred, a thousand times over, to be my team's worst player, on the condition that the squad would have won," he said. "That way I would be the happiest guy in the world. But here I am, flaked out." The loss of the game was only one of the things bothering Maradona. A few days earlier at Barajas airport in Madrid, while the Argentine team's plane refueled before flying on to London, he had hidden in the upper cabin of the 747 while the rest of the squad met with reporters. The flight from Argentina had taken 12 hours, and on the previous two nights Maradona had lain sleepless at his home in Buenos Aires. He was exhausted and depressed. And not surprisingly so. Few athletes had ever faced the special kind of stress that he was then undergoing.
Four days before leaving Argentina, on May 3, Maradona had signed to play soccer for the Spanish club, Barcelona. The price paid to obtain his services for six years was a scarcely believable $12 million, a sum unparalleled in the history of sport.
And as he fretted aboard the plane in Madrid he was aware that the deal had produced angry reactions in Spain, a country racked by economic problems. In the Cortes, the Spanish parliament, the news of the contract had prompted the Socialist and Centrist parties to demand a government inquiry and legislation to ban such transactions. A Madrid newspaper, Sabado Gráfico, reported that the Barcelona players were planning a strike, having declared the contract to be "an incredible sign of contempt for the other professionals." A Basque newspaper testily pointed out that $12 million was enough to keep the bulls running at Pamplona for 20 years.
Certainly the fiscal details of the arrangement were startling. Maradona's club in Buenos Aires, Argentinos Juniors, would get $4 million now and another $1.15 million over the next two years. For Maradona himself there would be an immediate payment of $2.9 million with $4 million to come in 1983. In between, he would be paid $2,000 a month walking-around money, plus $2,000 each time Barcelona won at home and $4,000 when it triumphed on the road. If the club won the Spanish championship he would collect a bonus of $200,000. And there were a few little extras for Maradona: a new Mercedes, a suite of offices and a house with a swimming pool large enough for his eight siblings, his parents and his fiancée, all of whom would be coming with him.
Fortunately for Maradona, he had only to hold out for 40 minutes in the plane. His contract doesn't call for him to play for Barcelona until the Spanish season starts in August. By then, he hopes, the controversy will have died down.