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Maradona's first World Cup: How Diego was used by Argentina's murderous dictatorship

12:00 IST 07/09/2019
Maradona Argentina 1979
Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of Diego winning the World Youth Championship, a triumph that was taken advantage of by the infamous Jorge Videla

Before Argentina's kids travelled to Japan in August 1979, Diego Maradona was just another promising youngster hoping to make his name at the elite level. By the time that team came home with the World Cup in hand, the curly-haired 18-year-old was ready to conquer the planet.

Even today, exactly 40 years on, the Albiceleste's exploits at the second World Youth Championship retain legendary status in Diego's home nation. For Maradona himself, it was a giant step on a career that would thrill and outrage in almost equal measure.

The story in fact begins just over a year earlier in the Buenos Aires suburb of Jose C. Paz. Maradona was just 17, but already boasted two full seasons as a first-teamer with first club Argentinos Juniors and the clamour to include him in the squad for the 1978 World Cup on home soil had reached fever pitch.

Coach Cesar Luis Menotti, however, turned a deaf ear to those cries. Having earned a place in El Flaco's 25-man preliminary squad, Diego was informed in the AFA training base that due to inexperience he would not make the final cut. El Grafico journalist Carlos Ares was covering the team in Jose C. Paz and remembers the teenager's despair at being left out.

“That day I stayed for dinner and when I left the base alone it was dark, it was very cold and I heard someone crying,” Ares recalled in the book Vivir en los Medios. “I saw the strongest image I can remember: it was Maradona, sitting next to a tree crying his eyes out. I told him what was obvious: 'You know how many World Cups you're going to play, right?' But he answered me, weeping: 'How do I tell my dad?' He said he was never going to forgive Menotti”.

“There, when I was left out of the 22-man list, 'because I was too young', I started to realise that anger was a fuel for me,” Diego himself wrote in his autobiography. Thankfully for the history of Argentine football, Maradona and Menotti were able to overcome that early setback in their relationship, and when the World Cup-winning coach took the reins of the youth side 12 months later Diego was his star forward and talisman.

Qualification for the World Championship was secured in January 1979, when Maradona's team finished second behind hosts Uruguay; a side inspired by their own magical No.10, future Internacional, Racing Club and Genoa star Ruben Paz. Alongside the Albiceleste prodigy was Ramon Diaz, later to star in Italian football and as player and coach for River Plate; together, the pair made a formidable striking duo.

Menotti's plans for Japan faced early, and potentially serious, hurdles. In 1979 Argentina remained in the grip of a military dictatorship, which would later gain infamy worldwide for its 'disappearances' of citizens and the 'flights of death' where drugged prisoners were thrown out of planes into the Rio de la Plata.

Authorities continued to enforce obligatory military service, known informally as the Colimba (a portmanteau of the Spanish words Run-Clean-Sweep), and six members of the squad were due to enter that year: Juan Simon, Juan Barbas, Gabriel Calderon, Sergio Garcia, Osvaldo Escudero and Maradona himself.

At the end of April the teenager entered induction, which caused him to miss several Argentinos games – not to mention shear his trademark curls. Two weeks later he granted an interview to Argentine state television: “I'm very happy because I've been treated well, but always trying to comply as much as I can. I have freedom to keep training and to meet up with the national team.”

Thanks to their privileged status, however, not to mention the dictatorship's fondness of using sporting success for its own ends, Argentina's young stars were spared the worst privations of military service. “I never stood guard, I didn't even touch a weapon,” Juan Simon told Clarin of his stint in the Rosario Military District. Barbas added: “I didn't even get as far as the physical.” By the time of the World Cup Maradona and Co. were given leave from the colimba, on the proviso that they report back for duty once the tournament was over.

Argentina's first test in Japan saw the Albiceleste face footballing novices Indonesia, who were easily dispatched in a 5-0 walkover. Diaz hit a hat-trick, while Maradona chipped in with two goals of his own. But they were made to sweat a little more in the next encounter, a tense clash against Yugoslavia decided by Escudero's solitary goal.

First place in Group B would be decided with a clash against heavyweights Poland, who boasted a host of young talents that would go on to take bronze in the World Cup three years later in Spain and who had breezed past Yugoslavia and Indonesia without conceding a single goal. Nevertheless, it took Maradona just seven minutes to break down the Europeans, firing in a brilliant left-footed effort from outside the area to beat Jacek Kazimierski between the posts.

From there a potentially tricky clash was all too simple. Calderon and Simon were both on target before half-time, with Andrzej Palasz also striking for Poland; and after the break Calderon added his second of the game to seal a 4-1 win that was a warning to the rest of the competition. The quarter-finals proved similarly straightforward, Maradona again opening the scoring before Diaz struck with his second hat-trick of the World Championships as Algeria were destroyed 5-0 to book a place in the last four.

Like their Rioplatense neighbours, Uruguay had also taken Japan by storm. The Celeste won all four of their opening matches to make the semis, Paz scoring three along the way while keeper Fernando Alves (a future Penarol legend and member of the 1986 and 1990 World Cup squads) remained unbeaten in goal. The two South American sides now clashed in Tokyo in a game that was expected to decide the winner of the competition outright.

This time it was Argentina who came out on top. Diaz scored early in the second half with a clinical finish past Alves, before Maradona finished off a blistering counter-attack by heading home the second to kill off the contest. Now only the Soviet Union stood in the way of the Albiceleste and a second world title in as many years.

“Men, you are already champions, I don't care about the result of this game, you have already shown you are the best in the world. No fouls or crazy stuff. Go out, play and entertain the 35,000 Japanese who are in the stands.” With those words, Menotti sent his young charges out on September 7, 1979 in front of a capacity crowd in Tokyo's National Stadium, which had been enraptured by the Argentine side in general and Maradona in particular over the preceding weeks. They did not disappoint their admirers.

Despite falling behind to Igor Ponomarev's opener, Argentina came roaring back. Hugo Alves levelled 68 minutes in and Diaz completed the comeback moments later, but inevitably it was Maradona who had to have the last word. Ten minutes from time the Argentinos prodigy stepped up to fire in a tremendous free-kick from the edge of the area to make it 3-1, confirming his nation as world champions. Celebrations in Tokyo, though, were short-lived.

The dictatorship's insistence on taking the young team's achievements as their own marked a slightly bitter post-script to the story. Once back in Buenos Aires the Argentina side took part in a public celebration of the title alongside the murderous de facto president Jorge Videla (pictured below). In a morbid twist, the ceremony was timed to coincide with a visit from the International Court of Human Rights, sent to Argentina to investigate reports of disappearances and other grave violations of international law, countered by a massive campaign declaring that the nation was, in fact, “Human and right”.

Maradona and his five colimba colleagues, meanwhile, were forced to resume national service as soon as they returned to Argentine soil, including a meeting with the dictator himself in army headquarters.

“Although we were champions of the Youth World Cup in 1979, that bastard Videla used us as an example,” Maradona fired on Instagram in a 2017 post. “He made us cut our hair and do military service. And that was with us bringing him the World Cup from Japan!” Escudero added: “In time we worked out that we had been used.”

That forced celebration was particularly galling for Jorge Piaggio, who had seen limited playing time in Japan. Piaggio's cousin was among those officially labelled 'detained/disappeared', having gone missing while carrying out military service in 1978. He remains missing to this day.

“Imagine the celebrations in my town and how I was received; a big fuss because a world champion had arrived,” he said later of his return to Argentina. “There I found out that my aunt had been in the square, with [protest group demanding information about those disappeared] the Madres (de la Plaza de Mayo), and that she had been attacked by police. She was in Buenos Aires trying to find out where her son was.

“The return from Japan was very strange. We celebrated in Japan and clearly a phone call arrived: 'You have to come back'. I remember we returned in haste; the Interamerican Human Rights Commission was already there, but we did not know. We didn't even know who they were. We had all the innocence in the world.”

That triumph in 1979 had another, rather happier legacy. As the first major international tournament hosted in Japan the World Championship kindled a new love of football in the country's population, a phenomenon consolidated the following year when the Intercontinental Cup between Europe and South America's champions was moved to the far east.

Superstars like Zico, Renato Gaucho, Ricardo Bochini and, more recently, the likes of Boca idols Juan Roman Riquelme and Carlos Tevez electrified Japanese fans, with the Xeneize in particular gaining a cult following in the country thanks to their exploits in the first decade of the 21st century in beating Real Madrid and AC Milan. But it all began with Menotti, Maradona and that unforgettable young Argentina team that made the Albiceleste world champions at both senior and junior level.

Many of those players, as is inevitable, failed to make much of an impact in their professional careers, leaving Japan 1979 as the pinnacle of their footballing achievements. For Maradona, though, the best – and worst – was still yet to come.