Everyone has a story about how they once faced the great Diego Maradona. This is Australia’s…
On October 31, 1993 Australia was preparing for perhaps the biggest game in its modest football history to date as it attempted to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA.
A massive 43,967 people squeezed into the old Sydney Football Stadium, which was an achievement in itself, given the maximum capacity at the time was actually 41,159.
But of that then record crowd for the now demolished ground at Moore Park, not many were actually there to watch the Socceroos.
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Diego Maradona was playing his first competitive game of international football for three years having come out of retirement to answer the pleas of Argentines up and down the country to help them qualify for the World Cup – and every man, woman and child was determined to see it.
As were the world’s media, who swarmed the hotel where Argentina were staying in Coogee, hoping to get a glance of the best player in the world – and perhaps that had ever lived.
It was a rare moment where Australia, born on the outskirts of the footballing epicentres of Europe and South America, were treated to a taste of the madness and chaos that followed him wherever he went.
Socceroos captain Paul Wade was one of those who followed him wherever he went, more closely than anyone else, as he trawled after him on the Sydney turf, somehow managing to keep him quiet as Australia claimed a historic 1-1 draw in the first leg.
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“I remember standing in the Sydney Football Stadium tunnel and thinking ‘wow, you’re not that big… 5ft 5,’” he told Fox Sports News. “And then I thought ‘have a look at the size of him – how strong is that.’
“We went out there and I remember shaking his hand and it nearly killed me. I don’t know what he was trying to say but I wished him a happy birthday – I wanted to be on his good side, but he never gave me a touch.
“I thought if he’s not going to give me a touch, I’m going home. [Some things he did], I’m thinking ‘what is going on here, how does he do that?’ He played a couple of passes and I thought ‘you’re never going to stop that.’”
It put Australian football on the map, and allowed it to stand on its own two legs in a sporting landscape dominated by rugby league, Aussie rules and cricket.
“We were normally next to births and deaths in the newspaper, that’s how far back we were,” he added. “It was on the front of every newspaper, every news bulletin started with Diego Maradona, even if it was him juggling the ball without his boots done up. That’s how big he was.”
It was a massive moment in Australian football and an even bigger one for Wade’s fellow Socceroo Robbie Slater personally, whose life was changed forever by that one night in Sydney.
“We got very close [to beating Argentina],” Slater told Fox Sports News. “He played that night, and set up the goal for the 1-1 draw.
“The impact he had on me in 1993… it was a special night for me. Sometimes you just have nights when you can run forever and that was one of the nights for me. We drew 1-1 and I had quite possibly the best game of my career, certainly for the Socceroos.
“After the game, he gave me his shirt – well, his wife at the time Claudia gave me her shirt and demanded my shirt and I didn’t really know what was going on, but who was I to deny Maradona’s wife at the time? I gave it her and walked up the tunnel with no shirt.
“A little while later, the manager came into our dressing room and asked if I would come into Argentina’s dressing room. I went into the dressing room and he gave me his shirt.
“He spoke about me in the press for the next two weeks ahead of the return leg, and when I say it changed my life… when Maradona speaks, a lot of people listen and I got a lot of offers after these games. It got me a move to Blackburn Rovers where I won the Premier League.”
Argentina went on to win the second leg in Buenos Aires 1-0, breaking Australian hearts now fully invested in the Socceroos’ World Cup venture and leaving those draped in green and gold with tears rolling down their faces.
But Wade recalled what was said to him by Maradona in those moments afterwards, amidst the wild celebrations in a country where football is a religion, rather than a sport.
“He said to me, ‘your tears of sorrow today, will be tears of joy some time soon’. From 1993 to 2005 was a long time and we did celebrate with tears. But for him to do that for all Australians of all corners… it was amazing.”
And it’s for the moments like those why Maradona is so fondly remembered by anyone who has ever kicked a ball, because even though he was seen as a God, he only ever know how to act as a human.