Diego Maradona emerged as the best player in the world in the 1980s and the ongoing G.O.A.T debate still centres around he, Pele, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
But rarely has an individual has ever carried his team to success in the way that Maradona did, both at international and club level. His role for Argentina at the 1986 World Cup is the stuff of legend, while his impact saw Napoli crack the previously unbreakable north/south divide in Italy.
The story of his 21-year club career is well known: Argentinos Juniors, to Boca Juniors, to Barcelona, on to Napoli, then Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys and a final spell back at Boca.
He famously struggled at Barcelona, suffering a broken ankle at the hands of notorious ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ Andoni Goikoetxea. It was also at that time his lengthy drug addiction allegedly began.
A perhaps unexpected move to Napoli in 1984 resulted in two Serie A titles, the first club from southern mainland Italy to win the scudetto, as well as a Coppa Italia and a UEFA Cup.
Interspersed with that was a glittering international career that started at 16 in 1977. He was only left out of Argentina’s victorious 1978 World Cup squad on home soil because coach Cesar Menotti considered him too young, but he was already a star by 1982.
1986 saw him lift the World Cup in the most dominant performance from a single player any elite tournament has arguably ever seen, while Argentina also returned to the final in 1990.
Maradona never played in England during his career, but he did come close in 1978.
It was not Liverpool, Nottingham Forest or other top clubs of the day who wanted him, but Sheffield United, then slumming it in the Second Division after a recent relegation from the top flight.
The most commonly told version of the story is that Blades manager Harry Haslam travelled to Argentina on a scouting trip, during which he came across Maradona and quickly engineered a deal for the 17-year-old with a £200,000 price tag.
The proposed transfer is said to have fallen through when the Sheffield United board didn’t come up with the money, although the club did wind up with another Argentine in the shape of Alejandro Sabella. He was slightly older at 23 and spent two years at Bramall Lane, the first of which resulted in relegation to Division Three, before briefly moving on to Leeds and heading back to Argentina.
Veteran forward Pedro Verde, a teammate of Sabella’s at River Plater, also joined in 1979.
However, an alternative and even more intriguing version of events has also been unearthed more recently, as told by long-serving Blades employee John Garrett to Yorkshire Live earlier this year.
With Argentina at the forefront of people’s minds off the back of the World Cup, the trip was a joint venture between Sheffield United and Tottenham, who also had their eye on players.
It is said that rather than Sabella being an alternative to Maradona, agreements with River Plate over he and Verde were already in place. Sheffield United already had contacts in Argentina thanks to coach Oscar Arce, who had first moved to England a decade earlier to play for Aston Villa.
Aside from Sabella and Verde, the Blades are even thought to have had deals in place for World Cup winners Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa ahead of time. But in conversations with Spurs officials on the plane over to South America it is alleged that they decided to step aside, paving the way for the pair to become cult heroes at White Hart Lane instead.
Then came the encounter with Maradona. But rather than a £200,000 deal, Garrett claims it was actually only £150,000 and that Sheffield United were happy with the price.
The problem that emerged was when Haslam got a knock on his hotel door the night the deal was agreed. In front of him was allegedly someone from the military police representing the controversial military junta regime in Argentina at that time, ultimately responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of nearly 9,000 people and other human rights violations.
They apparently wanted another £150,000 as a payment for allowing Maradona to leave the country. Although the money – £300,000 in total – was a significant outlay for an untested teenager, it is said to have been more the political twist and the thought of effectively having to bribe a military regime to allow the deal to happen that unsettled Sheffield United and saw it fall through.
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