Already a superstar at home, the 18 year old’s subsequent performance in a mesmerising 3-1 victory over Scotland in Glasgow, in which he scored his first international goal, established Maradona as Pele’s heir apparent
June 2, 1979: The day Diego Maradona announced his arrival as the greatest player in the world
In 1979, Argentina’s football team embarked on a summer tour to Europe, determined to show they were worthy world champions following their controversial World Cup triumph on home soil a year earlier.
Among the party was Diego Maradona, who had been surprisingly excluded from that victorious squad.
Already a superstar at home, the 18 year old’s subsequent performance in a mesmerising 3-1 victory over Scotland, in which he scored his first international goal, established Maradona as Pele’s heir apparent and he recorded his tour experiences in a diary for influential Argentine magazine El Grafico.
The diary, rediscovered by The National, shows the teenager’s dedication to his family back home in Argentina, recounting six-hour conversations with his mother and his perennial search for gifts for his sisters and girlfriend Claudia, whom he would later marry.
Born into poverty on October 30, 1960, Maradona grew up in the slums outside Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. Aged 10, his talent was already well known, appearing at half time during an Argentinos Juniors game to show his ball juggling skills.
So impressed were the crowd they shouted “let him stay” when the players returned to the pitch, according to Jimmy Burns’ Hand of God: The Life of Diego Maradona.
He made his debut for Argentinos Juniors 10 days before his 16th birthday on October 20, 1976, becoming a full international the following February. Those landmarks were achieved amid political turmoil in Argentina; six months prior to Maradona’s professional bow, the military had seized power, installing a murderous right-wing dictatorship.
Few foreign fans travelled to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, which the junta saw as an opportunity to improve its international standing. Euphoric scenes at Buenos Aires’ Estadio Monumental marked Argentina’s 3-1 win over the Netherlands in the final, a victory that provided momentary escapism for a brutalized society.
“To this day, many Argentines feel conflicted about celebrating the triumph of the national team in 1978,” said Rwany Sibaja, assistant professor of History at Appalachian State University, whose research specialises in football and identity formation in Argentina.
Aside from moral and political considerations, Argentina’s World Cup success was tainted by doubts about its sporting legitimacy, the junta widely suspected of having helped arrange a thumping victory over Peru that earned the hosts a place in the final.
Those misgivings made it all the more important for Argentina to succeed on its 1979 tour and team did just that, earning draws against World Cup runners-up Netherlands, fourth-placed Italy, and Ireland, before trouncing Scotland.
Manager Cesar Menotti had told Maradona he would be on the bench against Ireland, according to the teenager’s diary entry on Tuesday, May 29, 1979.
“They whistled our national anthem a little, though afterwards applauded our best moves. At half time, Cesar told me I was going to play and that I shouldn’t be scared. I went in very relaxed,” Maradona wrote.
“I want to play always, but Menotti knows what he’s doing … They hardly hit me - I just have a bruise from [Frank] Stapleton on the right leg that still hurts.”
The following day, the squad travelled to Scotland, during which Maradona was shown cuttings from El Grafico that called him the new Pele.
“I’m not going to deny that I loved the good opinions, but I know that I’m not Pele. I’m not in the position to be compared with the best player of all time,” wrote Maradona.
He complained of suffering chest pains and was diagnosed with blocked bronchial tubes, an affliction he credited for arriving punctually for breakfast for the first time that tour the next morning.
“I couldn’t sleep because of the cough,” Maradona wrote on Thursday, May 31, 1979, revealing he received two injections to cure his chest. “I had to stay in bed on doctor’s orders. I saw colour television all afternoon.”
The following day, Maradona had recovered and trained with the team at Hampden Park before the game that would change his life.
Scotland’s team, although scarred by its failure in Argentina a year before, were no mugs. Captain Kenny Dalglish had scored the winning goal for Liverpool in the previous year’s European Cup final, while clubmate Alan Hansen was a peerless centre-back, and the likes of John Wark and David Narey were stars in the making.
Those credentials counted for little, however, as Maradona ran the Scots ragged in front of a crowd of 62,000.
Collecting the ball 40 metres from goal, Maradona skipped past one tackle, driving forward to evade a despairing sliding challenge before playing in Leopoldo Luque who checked inside and clipped home the opener from the edge of the penalty area on 31 minutes.
“I saw Luque running in. I waited for his position to be better and I passed the ball. He changed feet and then put it in the goal without any problems,” Maradona wrote.
Luque added a second on 61 minutes, while nine minutes later Maradona put Argentina 3-0 up.
“[Jose] Valencia was almost unmarked and he played a long pass. I took the ball and looked at the goal. The goalie stayed on his line and the defenders came to close me down. I fooled them I was going to shoot high. The goalkeeper thought I was going to do that and I kicked it slowly at the centre of the goal,” wrote Maradona.
“Did you see how I screamed? What emotion I felt. It was unforgettable. Afterwards, the crowd started to scream 'Argentina'. I couldn’t believe it. I took a good look at the stands to convince myself I was in Glasgow and not Buenos Aires.
“I don’t think this has ever happened before. The opposition made a guard of honour to applaud us as we left the pitch and the Scots in the stands gave us a standing ovation.
“A cameraman called me to do an interview. I felt a lot of emotion when he shook my hand and told me that he was grateful for what I’d done in the name of all Argentinians.”
In 2008, Scotland’s Hansen recounted facing Maradona that sweltering Glasgow day.
“He was just magnificent,” the former Liverpool captain told the BBC. “Unbelievable, and just a kid as well. The ball was almost stuck to his feet. And he was so tough. He just had everything. We all knew that day that this was a player who was going to be the best in the world and he proved us all right.”
British newspaper The Observer was similarly exultant in its match report, lauding Maradona for possessing an “incomparable combination of physical and intellectual strength which distinguishes the immortals from the merely great”.
The Guardian too, heralded football’s new king: “Word that he was the new Pele had been received with skepticism, but long before the halfway stage of Scotland’s torment we knew it to be true. Maradona is formidable even to behold; dark, stocky and a middleweight’s muscularity. He moves so quickly that the spectator gets eye strain.”
El Grafico was the most important publication in Argentina, shaping Argentines’ view of their own brand of football, and it too heaped praise on Maradona and the team’s achievements.
“The national team that has always been a victim of insults like 'animals', at Hampden Park it made the crowd give a standing ovation screaming 'Ar-gen-ti-na',” the magazine wrote in an editorial. “We demonstrated that we didn’t win the World Cup because it was played in our country but because we’re capable of playing clean and great football.”
Victory against Scotland was particularly meaningful because Alexander Watson Hutton, a Scottish immigrant, is considered the father of Argentina football.
“There’s always an extra specialness if an Argentinian squad can win in Europe, particularly against a Scottish or English side,” Sibaja said.
Later in 1979, Maradona captained his country to victory in the Under 20 World Cup in Japan. The Argentines, under the tutelage of Menotti, were untouchable, scoring 20 goals and conceding just two in six matches, all victories. Maradona netted six times and was named player of the tournament.
"Everyone in Argentina loves the story of the pibe [kid] who can get out of a rough neighbourhood, or a life of poverty, and find success,” Sibaja said. “It’s a narrative that’s been prevalent since the 1920s.
"The promise of Maradona already existed in 1977-78, the U20 tournament confirmed the meteoric rise of this pibe.”
Maradona’s performances in Europe and then Japan elevated the status of the Argentinos Juniors playmaker, establishing him as a bona fide international star long before he played his club football for the likes of Barcelona and Napoli.
“People were really drawn to Maradona because he wasn’t only talented but had picardía – the ability to pull one over you – as well. He casts such a large shadow that it’s often overlooked how that U20 squad really captivated people back home because it was the promise of a new generation,” Sibaja added.
“A lot of the players from the ’78 team were at the peak of their careers so the question had been whether they could sustain this moment or would 1978 prove to be an aberration.
“The U20 victory cemented the notion that Argentina was the present and the future of soccer.”
Maradona, of course, went on to captain the senior team to World Cup glory in 1986, seven years after that epic match in Glasgow, of which he wrote: “It will stay forever in my most precious memories”.