'Diego is a Martian' - Maradona marks 40th anniversary of professional debut

The little genius made his bow for Argentinos on Oct. 20, 1976, and at the tender age of 15 took the first steps of a career that would transform the world of football

Some time after Diego Maradona walked out on the pitch for the first time, journalist Eduardo Carpio ventured out to 2257 Lescano street. The quiet thoroughfare located in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Paternal was the home of the Maradona family, and Diego's brothers Lalo, 10, and Hugo, nine, were quizzed on the teenager that was already on his way to becoming an idol at Argentinos Juniors. 

The year was 1979, three years after Diego had made his debut for El Bicho, and in the wake of his majestic performances to bring Argentina the inaugural Junior World Cup title in Japan, Hugo, a budding footballer himself in the Argentinos Juniors youth ranks who would go on to forge a wandering career that included spells in Italy, Spain, Austria and Japan, was asked if he thought that one day he could play as well as his brother. 

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"No, I never thought I could go that far. My brother is a Martian, that is out of the question," the youngster fired, closing definitively the line of questioning. Diego had been marked for greatness, and had a talent that was evident even in his first-ever game as a wiry 15-year-old promise. 

October 20, 1976. Again, in La Paternal. In a stadium that, years later, would be re-baptised with the name of its most famous son, Argentinos were gearing up to host Talleres de Cordoba in the eighth round of the Nacional championship, Group D. After winning their first three games the Bicho had reached a plateau, and entered the clash on a three-game winless run. Talleres, meanwhile, had set off on the opposite course, and went into the encounter on the back of three wins that had established the side as one of the favorites for the competition. 

Juan Carlos Montes' home side was undoubtedly in for a tough afternoon. But the coach had a surprise up his sleeve. On the substitutes' bench sat a kid who was already winning a reputation in his neighborhood despite being 10 days short still of his 16th birthday. That boy was, of course, Diego Armando Maradona. Pelusa, the superstar of the Cebollitas youth side, would soon be the talk of the entire football world. 

As early as 1971 he had gained recognition for his tricks and juggling performed at halftime in La Paternal, to the point where Clarin newspaper mentioned him in an article erroneously named "Diego Caradona." He had risen from the Under-13s to the first team in just over two years, and now waited for his chance to make his mark on the Nacional. 

Talleres began as the better side, and took the lead through Hacha Luduena. Montes had planned to flood the midfield with players and suffocate the Cordoba side, a tactic that did not bear fruit. At halftime, the coach turned to Maradona and told him he would be coming in for Ruben Giacobetti. "Go on, kid. Play like you know how and if you can, nutmeg somebody," Diego was told, it is said, by way of his first-ever team talk. Wearing the No.16 shirt and with his curly locks bouncing ungainly on top of his head, he took to the pitch. 

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Maradona took Montes' advice to heart. With the first ball he received, marker Juan Cabrera was the victim of the first of an infinite number of nutmegs that made defenders around the world feel and look foolish. There were around 7,000 spectators present that day, and they knew they were seeing something special - although the number that claim to have seen his debut and that trick soon ballooned to include hundreds of thousands of apocryphal Bicho fans. 

Dieguito was the boy that took on a man's job, and carried the team from the outset. The Bicho started to dominate the encounter, although despite numerous chances the equalizer refused to materialize. But football had been changed irreversibly that afternoon, 40 years ago to the day - a new king had been born who would go on to become possibly the greatest player ever to set foot on the field. The "martian" had come to earth, and nothing would ever be the same again.