From Argentina on sturdy legs comes Diego Maradona, a 19-year-old with the alltime richest sports contract



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 Pelè, 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 Gràfico, 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 fiancèe, 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.

He hopes that the reaction will have subsided on the streets of Buenos Aires, too. There, news of the deal brought charges that Dieguito, little Diego, had turned traitor. The Argentine Football Association clearly felt that way. It had bluntly declared that Maradona wouldn't be permitted to transfer to a foreign club until after the World Cup of 1982.

The spring had brought heavy floods and much suffering to parts of Argentina, and this, too, was turned into a whip with which to flail Maradona. "I don't deserve all these accusations," he said before the London game. "I feel shocked to be compared with the people who have been flooded out. They are saying and writing that while I think about all the dollars I can make, my countrymen are dying of cold, hunger and exhaustion." Meanwhile, and prudently enough, he has taken the Argentine Football Association to the labor courts: he has a constitutional right, he says, to work where he wants.

In the weeks before the Barcelona deal was made, Maradona had lived in a kind of state of siege. One fascinating manifestation of it could be observed at the Cafè-Bar Lascano, across the road from his modest home in a respectable working-class section of Buenos Aires called La Paternal.

The clientele is mostly comprised of taxi drivers and deliverymen, who can take a little time off during the day. A stranger walks in, and they look him over carefully. Then one of the bolder ones makes the universal money gesture, rubbing thumb and forefinger together and smiling. "¬øItaliano?" he asks. He mimics the writing of a check, gets up and dribbles an imaginary soccer ball.

Light dawns. The stranger has been taken for the representative of one of the big Italian clubs whose ruling body has just permitted them to sign foreigners. The boys think the newcomer is the first checkbook off the Rome flight.

That misconception cleared up, the Lascano regulars let loose with the man-in-the-street view. "Used to come in here to eat," says one. "Eat free. Don't see him anymore. La marea se le subió a la cabeza." It's high tide in his head.

"Hey, look," another says, "there are his mother and sister going shopping." All gaze respectfully at the pair in black.

"Got his sister's husband a job in the broom factory. Big deal," says the first man.

But cynicism is not a majority view. To give the visitor a truer impression, a couple of cabbies break into song, the one they sing at the Argentinos Juniors stadium nearby:

Y ya lo ve, y ya lo ve,
Es Maradona y su ballet.

(You can see it here, you can see it here/Maradona and his ballet.)

The stadium Maradona calls home is right out of a Graham Greene novel. That night the humid sky sweats out sparse raindrops as one chooses between standing on an earthen bank, with most of the capacity crowd of 15,000, or sitting in a ramshackle wooden stand. Both places reek of sewage. Between the spectators and the field there are a high fence topped with barbed wire and a line of steel-helmeted police, each with a Doberman on a short leash; the other hand grips a bastón, an outsize nightstick. "The ideology of the regime," a fan mutters, recognizing an English-speaking stranger.

Five minutes into the game, though, and all this is forgotten. The stocky kid in the No. 10 shirt, who ran onto the field with short, almost mincing steps, is doing amazing things with the ball and his body.

He passes a defender by bouncing the ball three—no, four—times on his knees as he runs. A few minutes later that same defender, having been baited like a bull for a quarter hour, despairingly grabs at the seat of Maradona's shorts so that the crowd howls with laughter. Then, suddenly, Maradona has twisted his upper body like an eel, two fullbacks are sitting on the grass though no one has touched them, and the goalie is out of position at the far post. With a formal, almost contemptuous flick of the left foot, Maradona taps the ball into the net.

The crowd breaks into song. Maradona y su ballet. Indeed there is something compellingly balletic about the way he plays. As he dribbles the ball, often his right hand is held high, fingers half crooked. It is a device intended to distract his opponent, like a matador's cape. Rick Davis of the Cosmos played against Maradona a couple of times, and Franz Beckenbauer gave Davis some advice: Don't go with his eyes. Or watch the tiny, hypnotic movements designed to put you off balance.

The new Pelè? Something like that. Elements of the 17-year-old Pelè dazzling the Swedish crowds in the World Cup of '58 are evident in Maradona. There's something, too, maybe in that hypnotic body swerve, of the young George Best, before the hard men clobbered him out of the game and onto the booze. But Maradona is different from either. Different, but no less remarkable.

The speed of his rise to fame has been as stunning as that $12 million, but it could have been even faster. In May of 1978, only four weeks before the start of the World Cup finals in Buenos Aires, Maradona, 17 then, was the last player to be cut from the national side. Cèsar Menotti, Argentina's austere and brilliant coach, recalls the scene, "I told him that he would be great, very great. But he could not bear the blow. He cried like a child."

The decision had nothing to do with the boy's already extraordinary skills. Menotti had wisely decided that Maradona was too young, too physically vulnerable, for the World Cup, in spite of the Pelè precedent. Since 1958, international soccer had become much harder. Maradona needed more seasoning.

His roots are classic ones for a world-class player. Just as the Rotterdam wharves brought forth Johan Cruyff and the favelas of S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo spawned Pelè and the slums of East Belfast begat Georgie Best, so Villa Fiorito—in spite of its pretty name, a shantytown on the edge of Buenos Aires where the streets turn to rivers of mud when it rains—produced Maradona, the eldest of eight children of a "Spanish" family. Argentina is a Spanish-speaking nation, but to be of Spanish (or worse still, Spanish-Indian) descent, rather than of Italian, German or English extraction, is to be at the bottom of the social order.

"There was always something on the table," Maradona says now, defensively. There was probably little to spare, though. In Villa Fiorito the kids regard soccer as a way out of poverty, just as black youngsters in Harlem look on basketball as the escape route, except that in Argentina it happens earlier if it is going to happen at all. Diego was only nine when he took his first step toward steady eating.

That was when he was spotted by a coach named Francisco Cornejo, who recruited Diego to play for his crack kids' team, Los Cebollitas, the Little Onions, competing in the equivalent of the Little League. Diego had been a Little Onion for less than a year when River Plate, one of Argentina's most famous clubs, made an offer of nine million pesos to the Onions for him.

Cornejo turned River Plate down. Maradona stayed with the Onions for five more years, making a torturous two-hour bus trip from Villa Fiorito to Paternal, where the Onions were based, for each practice, each game. In Paternal, Maradona met a boy two years older than he, who followed the team and even tried to play soccer in spite of a bad limp, a legacy of childhood polio. The kid's name was Jorge Cyterszpiler (pronounced SEA-ter-speeler) and since then no one has had more influence on Maradona's life. An unhappy influence, many Argentinians believe, and one that could still end in disaster.

At first, though, the friendship was a little one-sided. "When we met, one of my brothers who played soccer had just died of cancer," Cyterszpiler says. "I got to know Diego. I saw his passion for the ball, and I felt that once again I had a brother." From their first meeting Jorge paid court to Diego. By comparison he was a rich kid, and when the Little Onions had a late game he would take Maradona home for a hot meal and a bed for the night. Other times he would take the bus out to Villa Fiorito to visit his friend. Diego called him "El Cabezón," the big-headed one. To Jorge, Diego became "Pelusa," or "Fuzzy."

The odd couple is still together, but the balance of the relationship has changed drastically.

Traditionally, before each game, Argentine soccer teams go into what they call a concentración, holing up in a hotel or camp where no distractions of any kind are allowed. The rule is clearly not imposed too rigidly on Maradona.

During one such concentración a few weeks ago at the Hotel Torre in midtown Buenos Aires, Maradona appears in the coffee shop at noon with his 16-year-old girl friend Claudia Villafane. The scene is downbeat: the hotel seedy-contemporary, the garish paper murals of sunny Alpine scenes peeling a little. A small black-and-white TV in the corner is showing a West German soccer game. When they sit down, Maradona is silent, moody, restless. And then Cyterszpiler limps in, looking self-important.

He draws up a chair and, ignoring Claudia, begins talking animatedly to Maradona. Maradona seems to come alive for the first time. The physical contrast between the two is striking. One thinks of Caliban and Ariel. Jorge's head looks too large for his body. At 21, he has developed an impressive belly. His complexion is bad.

That weekend, the first rumors of the Barcelona deal were being heard around town, and when a writer approached Maradona he at first appeared willing to talk. Instantly, without ceremony, Cyterszpiler cut the interviewer off. Maradona laid an apologetic hand on the shoulder of the inquirer but trotted obediently off behind his friend. Or his agent. Or his puppet master, some would say.

Since 1975, when the 15-year-old Maradona graduated from the Little Onions to play for Argentinos Juniors in the Buenos Aires First Division, Cyterszpiler has scarcely left his side. He appointed himself Maradona's secretary, general factotum and agent, quitting his economics course at the National University to do so. But his domination of his friend really began in the months following the '78 World Cup, when Maradona first received international notice.

In the summer of 1979 Maradona went to Japan as a member of the under-21 Argentine side that won the Junior World Cup tournament there. In 1979 he was voted South American Player of the Year, and that summer, at last a member of the full Argentine national team, he took part in a tour of Europe that was meant as a celebration of Argentina's world championship. The European fans had groaned when they looked at their programs and saw that Maradona's name, then unknown, had replaced that of Mario Kempes, the hero of the '78 World Cup. By the tour's end the spectators were ecstatic, as was the sporting press. "The new Pelè" became the new clichè.

After Maradona returned to Argentina, offers from foreign clubs started to roll in, rising faster than the inflation rate. The figure was soon more than $5 million. The deals were all rebuffed by his club, which was paying Maradona $20,000 a month. The public utterances of Juniors President Prosper Consoli ranged from arrogant ("I am tired of answering questions. Maradona is not, repeat not, transferable") to gushing ("Dieguito is a little angel God has sent to bestow happiness on Argentinos Juniors and Argentine soccer").

All of this sent Maradona into a kind of frightened retreat. "I dream of a soccer field where only children are allowed to go," he said revealingly last summer, "where even the program sellers are children." And less poetically, "I always loved to play, but now I find myself mixed up in a lot of trouble."

Cyterszpiler, though, would have none of that nonsense. Maradona, he said, "would have to resign himself to accept the rules of the game." And the game he was referring to wasn't soccer. Swiftly he put out a price list. "For by-lined stories," he announced, "we collect $1,000. TV appearances will be $5,000." By this time, Maradona had installed his family in a house a block away from that of Cyterszpiler, who announced further that he and Maradona and their respective girl friends were planning a double wedding.

All this was taking place during a kind of hiatus in Maradona's career. Last year Argentinos Juniors were in no position to sell their little angel abroad—he was doing his time in the army. Neither was a transfer to one of the classier Argentine clubs—River Plate or Boca Juniors, for instance—possible. They couldn't hope to match the European offers or pay the salary Maradona could command. Traditionally, all the great Argentine soccer stars have sought their fortunes abroad. The members of the '78 World Cup team headed back to their European clubs almost before the golden FIFA trophy was installed in a glass case at AFA headquarters. Kempes returned to Spain. Osvaldo Ardiles, Ricardo Villas and Alberto Tarantini went to England. Daniel Passarella, the captain and the player Maradona admires most, was an exception. He had stayed at River Plate, collecting a $6,000-a-month salary. That would be nowhere near enough for the new Pelè.

By this spring Maradona was out of the army—released early for "exceptional conduct"—and the situation had changed. The draggle-tailed, unremarkable Argentinos Juniors tried their best to keep their star, going through all manner of strange contortions to pump his income up. In particular, the Juniors hauled him all over Latin America to play in exhibition games; for example, in February, in Santiago, Chile, 80,000 fought their way into the National Stadium to watch him. For this Maradona apparently received $10,000 in addition to his regular salary.

But it was Cyterszpiler who was providing Maradona with most of his income, through a company El Cabezón had set up called Maradona Producciones. Open a newspaper in Buenos Aires and you will see Dieguito, smiling for once, telling you what a great tooth-paste he uses. He drinks Coca-Cola, you'll note, and flies Austral, the Argentine domestic airline. These endorsements and others for sportswear, soccer gear and the like bring Maradona about $20,000 a month. The office suite that is part of the Barcelona deal will house Maradona Producciones when it moves to Spain. With Cyterszpiler in charge, of course. In Barcelona you can already buy a Maradona T shirt.

Until now, Maradona has managed to slough off onto Cyterszpiler much of the unpleasant, non-soccer part of his career. Un buen muchacho, Maradona calls him, a good boy whose only interest is the happiness of his friend. But now, with that huge Spanish contract in hand, Cyterszpiler's relative inexperience, combined with his street-smarts, is beginning more and more to look like a disaster waiting to happen.

When the news of the Barcelona deal broke, Cyterszpiler appeared on a Buenos Aires radio talk show. The insurance premiums on Maradona, the interviewer suggested, must be horrifying. "Insurance?" El Cabezón asked, as though surprised. "We can't afford insurance." (Neither could the Juniors, and the idea of Maradona crashing around a soccer field without insurance didn't appeal to Barcelona, which agreed to take care of the coverage.) Another economy Cyterszpiler practices is not to have a telephone in his office. To make calls, his secretary has to run down to a shop on the corner.

And in Europe, Cyterszpiler already is beginning to make the wrong kind of name for himself. Two weeks ago, in Dublin, where Argentina played Ireland and won 1-0, he demanded $4,300 from a journalist from the Irish Independent (circulation 189,000) who wanted to talk to Diego. The Irishman complained to Coach Menotti, who is already becoming disenchanted with his star. ("If I had that much money," he had said on hearing the details of the Barcelona deal, "I wouldn't buy Maradona, I'd buy a boat.") Menotti angrily censured Cyterszpiler and Maradona.

"The interview would have taken up an hour of Diego's time," the unabashed Cyterszpiler explained.

Menotti blistered him. "I'm boss here," he said. "From now on you will not ask for money. If you like that, fine. If not, push off, keep away from the squad."

When Maradona gets to Barcelona next fall, terrifying pressures will greet him, pressures that affected mature stars like Cruyff and Johan Neeskens when they played for that club. He will be much less protected from fans and the press than he was in Argentina. And, at 19, he will carry two huge extra burdens: the $12 million contract and the "New Pelè" label.

About which, incidentally, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the old Pelè, is a little waspish. "I don't like comparisons," he says. "Michelangelo was Michelangelo. Pelè was Pelè. Maradona will be 21 when the next World Cup is played. At this age Pelè had been on a world championship side twice, in '58 and '62. Nothing can diminish the brightness of what has gone before."

But Pelè adds, "Part of Maradona's greatness will be measured by how he is able to avoid injury." Pelè was perhaps recalling how he himself had almost literally been kicked out of the '66 World Cup in England by savage marking. And this, of course, is the biggest test Maradona faces.

Let Rainer Bonhof, the great German midfielder, have the last word. "If Maradona can get through a World Cup against heavy marking, good backs, then he is the best player in the world."

Meanwhile, desperate attempts are being made in Argentina to keep the hero at home. There is talk, with little substance, that a syndicate of rich businessmen will try to match the Barcelona money. There are even rumors—and, again, there is no substance to them—that the Argentine government might step in to ensure the retention of this national treasure. But Maradona is already calling himself a member of the Barcelona club, and Cyterszpiler has reportedly been advanced $250,000 to set up Maradona Producciones in that city.

And in a Dublin hotel last weekend, Nicolau Casaus, vice-president of Barcelona, seemed on excellent terms with the official party from the Argentine Football Association. "Barcelona is potentially the most important club in the world," he said. "We are not used to interference." On the field, neither is Diego Maradona, who may well dominate the whole next decade of world soccer.


Maradona, the $12 million man, and his youthful agent, Cyterszpiler, stroll the streets of London.


Dad will be on hand for Diego's reign in Spain.


Menotti kept Maradona out of '78 World Cup.


Maradona didn't score against England, but he dazzled the Wembley crowd with two solo sweeps.