We almost published this on the strength of the title alone, turns out it's also a great little story...
The year was 1992. I had just finished my studies and like all good Aussies, I threw on a backpack and set out to see the world. Unlike most Aussies, however, I was and remain a football (soccer) nut.
After a few months in North America, I headed to Europe to experience the beautiful game first hand. England was fun - Stamford Bridge, Loftus Road to see my beloved Spurs in action, and Gascoigne's comeback game for England after his knee troubles at the old Wembley. Milan soon became my home base and in addition to seeing a very good Inter side featuring Zenga, Bergomi and a very young Bergkamp, I had the distinct privilege of seeing one of the truly great club sides of our time - the Dutch triumvirate led AC Milan. The names are too many to mention (Baresi, Donadoni et al) but I was in the San Siro the night the best pure striker ever, Marco van Besten scored a wondergoal.
It was against IFK Gothenborg and unlike regular Serie A matches, European Cup games had even more home tifosi - about 80,000. The noise volume following that goal, bordered on real pain. But I didn't care a jot.
Milan had become my home base mainly because in London, I had met a friend of a friend who worked for Barclay's bank in Milan. He said I could stay at his apartment in downtown Milan any time - so i did, quite often actually. He was a Geordie and Kevin Keegan was his hero. Keegan had just taken over as Manager of then second division Newcastle United and as chance would have it, Newcastle was playing against Luchese in the little known Anglo-Italia cup - a tournament for Second division English teams and Serie B Italian teams. A quick phone call by him to work that day letting them know of his dire illness and we were shortly thereafter on the road headed to the walled Italian city of Lucca. We arrived about an hour before kickoff and were pretty much the first ones in the stadium. We instantly spotted a rather bored looking Keegan pacing the sideline. My mate was too awestruck to speak so I dragged him up to King Kev and introduced ourselves. He was happy to have some company. We chatted for about 15min and then watched a pretty dull match play out.
I next headed to the eternal city to see Inter take on Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico. A not very memorable game did yeild a pretty spectacular and memorable goal from the decent striker, Beppi Signiori. I coninued south and after paying homage to Diego's legacy in Napoli, I boarded the overnight train to catch the Turin derby. My amusingly broken Italian caused me to be adopted on the train by a group of Neapolitan Juventus supporters who immediately made me an honorary Juve Ultra. I was given my paper vest and song sheet for the day and after tear gas dulled pre-match riots, we watched a Baggio and Vialli led Juventus beat Torino.
Maradona's drug ban had just been lifted and Napoli had begrudgingly transferred him to Sevilla. But a financial storm was brewing. Sevilla had yet to make full payment on the transfer fee and Napoli was now petitioning UEFA to ban Diego from playing until such time as Sevilla made good on the full payment. I had two days to make it from Milan to Seville or risk not seeing Diego play if a ban did in fact take effect the following week. So after about 30 hours on multiple trains I was in Seville a few hours ahead of Kick-off time. I found a cheap hotel, dumped my gear and was at the stadium a couple of hours before kick-off. As I entered, there was Diego, being interviewed on the sideline. I was completely mesmerized. I simply could not look away. His performance that night was more mortal than magical but every touch on the ball still had a little something special. In the end, however, Sevilla lost to a Bernd Schuster led Atletico Madrid.
I had read in La Gazzetta Dello Sport that you could watch the Sevilla team train on weekday afternoons. It gave no more detail than that so on the Monday after the game, I headed to Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium to see what I could see. I walked around for about an hour looking for any signs of life but there was literally no-one at the stadium. Then, at around 5pm a large bus pulled up. The doors opened and out stepped Carlos Bilardo, the then manager of Sevilla and former manager of the World Cup winning Argentina team. Great, I had an opening.
I walked up to Signor Bilardo, introduced myself in my broken Spanish and asked if they were headed to the training ground. They were. I immediately asked if I could join the team on the bus (I was ballsy back then). He said no. So I asked where the training ground was. "Far away" was the answer. Ok, but where, I asked. "Very far away" came the second response. Ok, but please tell me where. "Por favor scribero" I implored Bilardo as I handed him a pen and paper. He was good enough to write down an address and then re-boarded the bus as they took off to head for the training ground. It took me about 15 minutes to find a taxi but once I did I simply jumped in, handed the piece of paper to the driver and asked him to go to that address - fast.
When we arrived at the prescribed address, the cab driver asked me what was there. "Entrenamiento de squadra de Sevilla" I responded. "Maradona?" he asked. "Si" I responded - not knowing if Diego would be there. He immediately parked the taxi and got out with me (I think he was now done for the day). Fifty yards away was the entire Sevilla squad training. But without Diego. He was there, just not training with the rest of the team. I watched him perform a feat of ball control mastery that would have been beyond belief, but for the fact that I was watching it. He was standing around the penalty spot and proceeded to chip the ball over the un-netted goal with enough spin to have it come back to him at the penalty spot. He kept doing this. And it kept coming back to him perfectly every time. At one point, he was carrying on a conversation while doing this and wasn't even looking at the ball as it came back to him. He just instinctively knew where it was and chipped it perfectly every time.
As the players left the training ground about an hour later I knew my chance was now. I calmly walked up to Diego and said "Hola Diego, mi nombre Pedro, mi vivo Australia, y viejar Sevilla solamente a ver Diego Armando Maradona. Por favor tu firma esta foto" - like my Italian, my Spanish was good enough to be understood and bad enough to be mildly endearing. I handed him an aged photo of himself I had purchased from a street vendor in Naples and he signed the back of it. But I could tell that it was not photo time. I didn't want to push my luck. I knew I would have another chance.
That chance came the very next day. In the absence of a better idea, I got in another taxi and headed back to the training ground at about the same time. The team was again there but unlike the previous day, they were now on another pitch behind a tall metal fence. There was no way in. So I simply hung around and watched the training session hoping for my opportunity. And it came. One of Diego's teammates had a friend who had a young son who wanted a photo with him. He acquiesced and they let him through. That was my cue. I summoned sufficient confidence to look like I was meant to be there, walked straight in and took my chance as soon as the kid was done. I grabbed a nearby reporter, handed him my camera, walked up to Diego, put my arm around him looked at the reporter and said, rather loudly, "ahora"!. He snapped the shot. As I walked away, there was a football on the ground. Diego was still looking at me, somewhat bemused. I looked back, said "gracias" and kicked the ball to him. Naturally, he flicked it up with his left foot and started juggling it. I retrieved my camera, left the training ground and headed back to town to find the nearest one-hour photo shop.
I have been nervous many times in my life. But never in quite the same way as when I opened the packet of photos I had just picked up. It had to be there.
It HAD to be there.
And there it was.
A little blurry.
But then, so was I.