An overweight Maradona sat in the stands that day. He had had not played international football since the 1990 World Cup final.
His career at Italian club Napoli had ended in disgrace after a 15-month ban for testing positive to cocaine and a series of investigations into his tax evasion and links to organised crime. In the years since, he’d only played one season at Sevilla and a handful of games at Newell’s Old Boys.
But rumours had been growing stronger that Maradona would make a comeback to help restore the honour of Argentina’s struggling national team – and by the end of the game, they were as good as confirmed.
“I remember speaking to Graham Arnold on the phone that night. I said ‘can you believe it? We’re going to play against Maradona!'” recalled Socceroo Robbie Slater.
His best days were well behind him, but Maradona was still one of the famous people on the planet, as Sydney would soon find out – and his sheer presence was enough to change the outlook of Argentine football.
But before the mainstream media could even lay their eyes on him, SBS sent reporter Kyle Pattison and two Spanish-speaking cameramen to Auckland airport to get the first interview with Maradona and beat them all to the punch.
“It was like James Bond,” Patterson said. “We had to wait until their plane arrived from Buenos Aires, somehow talk our way into whatever [lounge] they were in and find a middle man who would get a message to Diego.
“We managed to do it … we might have bought him a koala or something like that to give to his kids. He comes back and he says, ‘I have to go duty free shopping first.’
“So we’re outside this duty free shop and he’s buying half the team gifts and everything, because he’s obviously a multi-millionaire. He finally comes out, but the plane’s getting boarding calls … he goes, ‘dos preguntas’, which is two questions. I go, ‘f***ing hell, there goes my 20-minute exclusive.'”
Patterson’s second question was the one on everyone’s lips: how did you get so fit, so quickly? Maradona, who turned 33 the day before the first leg, had dropped what must have been close to 15kg in a matter of weeks.
“Everyone knew something was up,” Patterson said. “We found out later how he did it – basically a mixture of amphetamines and diet pills.”
When Maradona eventually landed in Sydney, it was bedlam. Around 2000 fans had gathered to greet him at the airport, waving banners, banging drums and growing increasingly restless as they waited for their idol to emerge.
“The police were a bit concerned, they were keen on sneaking the team out the back way with a bus,” said Ian Holmes, then-chief executive of the Australian Soccer Federation.
“But Maradona to his great credit came up to me, spoke through the interpreter and said he was happy to go out the front and wave to the crowd.
“We walked out the front and some idiot threw a bag of white powder – it landed between Maradona and I. I don’t think he saw it.”
Argentina shacked up at the Crowne Plaza in Coogee, and with serious business to attend to, Maradona resisted his natural urge to party, spending most of his 14 days in the city within the hotel’s confines.
Except, of course, when the team trained inside the dog track at Wentworth Park – where the local press was mesmerised by his effortless control of the ball and the enormity of his personality. TV crews banged down the doors of nearby warehouses for permission to set up on the roof and get the perfect shot.
“I think he brought football here for, really, the first time,” said Graham Arnold. “That’s no disrespecting ’74 – massive achievement, qualifying for [Australia’s first] World Cup. But for a long time we hadn’t had anyone of that stature here in Australia.”
“Up until then, you were lucky to get football close to births and deaths at the back of the newspaper,” said then-skipper Paul Wade. “All of a sudden we were front page, back page, TV, radio – everywhere. It was the best circus to ever hit this country.”
With everyone’s focus on La Albiceleste, the conditions were ripe for an upset. Eddie Thomson, the Socceroos coach, changed his tactics – instead of playing the usual two strikers, Arnold was the lone man up front, and Wade was handed the unenviable task of minding Maradona everywhere he went, even if he went to the bathroom.
“I’ve got some vision of me taking the ball off him three times. Well done me,” Wade said. “I was behind him all the time, I never saw the ball. It was almost like I was chaperoning him everywhere.”
Wade did a decent enough job, but all Maradona needed was a half a slip-up to make Australia pay. When it inevitably came, he dispossessed Milan Ivanovic, whipped in a cross, and Abel Balbo headed it past Mark Bosnich. 1-0 Argentina.
But the Socceroos fought back, and five minutes later, an exquisite pass from Ned Zelic unleashed the Vidmar brothers. Tony crossed to Aurelio, and in front of a jam-packed Sydney Football Stadium, the scores were level.
That’s how it finished, but with an away goal in their pocket and the home leg to come, it was advantage Argentina. Maradona, meanwhile, lavished two Socceroos players with praise in the media – Wade and Slater, the red-haired midfielder from French club Lens, who each were gifted one of Maradona’s jerseys.
“I had the game of my life, let’s be honest,” Slater said. “He gives me all this praise, he’s blowing my tyres up massively. The direct quote was ‘he runs like the wind, he should be playing with the millionaires in Italy with me’.
“He’s given me this nickname, El Colorado. I didn’t ask, I didn’t really know what it meant. I remember thinking, this must be some sort of mythical Argentinian god or something.
“I get to the hotel in Buenos Aires and I ask one of the staff, ‘mate, what’s El Colorado mean?’. He went, ‘that just means, ‘the red one”. I went, ‘That’s it? That’d be right.” Everyone found it very amusing.”
Maradona’s affection for his experience in Sydney appeared to be very real. He begged and pleaded with Argentinians not to boo the Australian national anthem – because the SFS crowd hadn’t booed theirs in the first leg. During the stopover in Auckland, he even signed autographs and took photos with Socceroos players.
Perhaps they got too caught up in the fanfare. In front of a manic and expectant El Monumental, the Socceroos battled manfully, and at the break, it was 0-0. But 15 minutes into the second half, a rather hopeful cross from Gabriel Batistuta deflected off the leg of Alex Tobin and into the back of the net. The curse continued.
A despondent Wade and assistant coach Raul Blanco went to a television station post-match for a live interview, where the hosts were trying to explain to the viewers how close Argentina had come to being beaten by a bunch of mostly part-timers.
“As we’re doing this interview, Maradona rings up,” Wade said. “The floor manager is running around, you’ve got cameramen looking at each other going ‘really?’
“They put him to air … he said to me and Raul, ‘your tears of sorrow today will be tears of joy sometime soon.’ It took until 2005 for that to happen, but I thought to myself, he was bothered enough to ring while we were live on air and say congratulations for your performance.
“I thought, there is a human side to this gigantic person.”
The mood of the playing group further improved later that night when a man approached Arnold in the lobby of their hotel to invite them to party with Maradona.
“He had about 15 cabs lined up, and he said, ‘Mr Maradona wants you to go to to Raffles Nightclub, he wants all the Australian team to come. The night is on him,'” Arnold said.
“I went upstairs and said to the players, ‘Listen, there’s a guy downstairs – seriously, some random guy who’s got 15 cabs lined up and wants us all to go to this nightclub and Maradona and all of them are there.’ The players said, ‘let’s go, let’s have a crack.'”
True to his word, when they arrived, Maradona came out and beckoned the Socceroos to the front of the lengthy queue.
“I wish we had mobile telephones in those days,” Arnold said. “I went to the toilet and standing at the urinal alongside me, on one side I had [Fernando] Redondo, and on the other I had Maradona, Batistuta and [Diego] Simeone.”
But while Maradona was footing the bill, none of the Socceroos could get close to him. In any case, only one could actually talk to him – Aurelio Vidmar, an Italian speaker, who soon received a tap on the shoulder from a security guard.
“He gives me the flick with his finger to come with me – I didn’t know what was going on but he was much bigger than me, so I’m walking with him,” Vidmar recounted to Optus Sport earlier this year.
“We go into a private room. He opens up some curtains and Maradona is sitting there with two blonde girls either side of him.
“We had a chat for about 15 minutes, speaking Italian to him and it was great. We spoke about his time in Napoli, the game. He said that we were unlucky not to qualify. We hugged and then we left.”
Did Maradona offer him anything other than a drink? “He did … but I passed,” said Vidmar.
Maradona revealed in 2011 that the Argentinian team was given performance-enhancing “speedy coffee” before the second leg, in collusion with their national federation.
At the 1994 World Cup, of course, Maradona would be sent home for failing a doping test – suggesting that they may indeed have been boosted by some sort of substance against the Socceroos.
But not even those suspicions – or the pain of yet another failed qualifying campaign, and the knowledge of what success would have done for the code in Australia – can spoil the memories.
“I have no shame in saying that all of us involved in that campaign – of course, we were focused and thought we would win,” Slater said.
“But I won’t deny the excitement of playing Diego Maradona. I won’t lie about it. I know from that team, the players who were involved that night – when I see anyone from that game, that’s all we talk about.
“The hype in Sydney was never seen before. In some ways, we got caught up in it. It’s just so sad … today I felt like I’ve lost a member of the family.”
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.