Diego Maradona was a footballing force of nature, a one-man whirlwind capable of transforming games, clubs and even players with a simple sway of the hips, kick of the ball or wise word in the ear.
Even when he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, Maradona could make the difference.
He may be best remembered for his superhuman exploits at Napoli and with the Argentina national team, but it was during a less celebrated stint with Sevilla that El Diego put in motion the career of one Europe’s great strikers.
Davor Suker was already a rising star by the time a bloated and be-mulleted Maradona rocked up at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in the summer of 1992. However, the future World Cup Golden Boot winner was in danger of stalling at Sevilla.
Signed from Dinamo Zagreb a year earlier, Suker had averaged better than a goal every two games back in his homeland, where his distinctive languid style caught the eye of scouts across the continent.
Sevilla eventually won the race to sign Suker and looked to have pulled off quite a coup after he scored twice on his full La Liga debut against Real Sociedad. Yet that proved to be something of a false dawn, with the Croat scoring just four more times across the remainder of the 1991-92 season.
It was clear that Suker needed something to kickstart his career in Spain, but few could have predicted an overweight and out of form Maradona would be the one to provide it.
In truth, incoming Sevilla manager Carlos Bilardo was the catalyst. Arriving at the club after a season in which the Andalusians had underwhelmed, finishing 12th in La Liga, Bilardo pinpointed the signing of Maradona as crucial to reviving the team’s fortunes.
It wasn’t difficult to see why Bilardo wanted Maradona onboard. Together they had enjoyed unparalleled success as manager and captain of the Argentina national side, winning one World Cup and reaching the final of another.
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But Maradona was a long way from the player he was then, having only just recently completed a 15-month drug ban incurred after he tested positive for cocaine.
Sevilla president Luis Cuervas initially pledged to bring Bilardo his man but soon balked at the idea after an initial £2.5million was rejected. Bilardo stuck to his guns though and even threatened to quit the club if Maradona was not signed.
It ultimately took the intervention of one of football’s great bastions of integrity, Sepp Blatter, to get the deal over the line.
Eager for Maradona to get himself fit in time for the 1994 World Cup in America, Blatter mediated a meeting between representatives from Sevilla and Napoli at FIFA headquarters. After five hours of negotiations, a deal was struck whereby the Spanish club agreed to pay £4.5million to acquire Maradona’s services.
In a unique twist, it emerged that much of the fee had been covered by Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset broadcasting company on the proviso Maradona would play in a series of showpiece friendlies around the world.
Maradona, for his part, rebuffed reported interest from Marseille to sign for Sevilla, telling reporters as he arrived in Spain that he had come there to win La Liga.
Arriving with the season already in full swing, Maradona was handed the captain’s armband and was expected to lead by example.
Yet when Bilardo instructed that training sessions be moved from the morning to the afternoon, many began to suspect Maradona time in Spain would be marred by the kind of infamous nighttime sojourns that were a hallmark of his time at Napoli.
Maradona did little to assuage such ideas. Regularly photographed out and about with a sizeable entourage, he even got himself in a spot of bother with local police after crashing his Mercedes at 2am one night.
There was still some of the Maradona of old though; a man who lived by the ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra.
Eager to return to something approaching his best, he brought his personal fitness coach with him to Seville and rented a villa belonging to Juan Antonio Ruiz Roman, one of the most famous bullfighters in the world, who competed under the name of Spartacus.
Maradona then set to work regaining the fitness levels needed to effectively utilise his enduring skills on the ball and eye for a killer pass. While the mullet remained, Maradona cut a slightly trimmer figure by the time he took to the pitch for Sevilla.
For Suker, El Diego’s arrival was a dream come true. A dream he never thought would become a reality.
“He was one of my idols as a kid,” Suker said years later. “When it began to be rumoured in Seville that he could arrive, I thought, ‘Until I see him in the dressing room I don’t believe it.’”
In Maradona’s absence, Suker had started the season with a bang, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-3 win over Albacete. But even then he knew bigger tests were to come and he would need the guidance of his 32-year-old strike partner and footballing hero.
Maradona took time to find his feet, adjusting to the rigours of training and locker room life at Sevilla over the first few weeks – but those wise words soon came.
Playing alongside Suker, Maradona took the young Croatian aside one day to offer him some observations and advice.
“I was hoping he would teach me something and then, finally, he called me,” Suker later said. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to run to the sides or anything. Just keep your head down, run towards the goalkeeper, and I will give it you there.’”
Suker might have rubbished such advice if it had come from anyone else, but this was Maradona. To his way of thinking, Suker was trying to do too much. Better he focus his efforts on scoring the goals and let his team-mates, and Maradona in particular, provide the bullets.
What followed was a dynamic partnership that burned brightly, if briefly, in La Liga. Like with Careca at Napoli and Claudio Canigga for Argentina, this time Suker was the main beneficiary of Maradona’s unique, if slightly fading, magic.
Injury and ill discipline meant they only played 22 times together for Sevilla, but there were still memorable performances and brilliant goals along the way – some of which are brilliantly captured in a six-minute YouTube highlights reel.
Maradona’s crowning moment came on matchday 15 with a virtuoso display against Real Madrid that had the Sevilla faithful in raptures.
Maradona bossed the game like the days of old while Suker opened the scoring with a sublime finish from an almost impossible angle. Sevilla ran out comfortable 2-0 winners, a result that saw them climb into the top three. Suddenly talk of a title tilt didn’t seem quite so ridiculous.
The best showcase of the telepathy Maradona and Suker enjoyed came a few weeks later against Valencia. Already trailing 1-0 to Los Che, their special connection came to the fore on 27 minutes when Maradona floated the ball over the Valencia defence and directly into Suker’s path.
Suker, who had anticipated such a pass, was duly on hand to lift the ball over the oncoming keeper and restore parity.
Nine minutes into the second half, the pair combined again, with Maradona this time launching a pinpoint long ball from the centre of the field all the way over to the edge of the Valencia box.
There he found Suker, who expertly controlled the ball with his chest before striking it low and hard past Valencia’s Jose Gonzalez to send the Sevilla fans wild all over again.
Suker was in thrall of his strike partner and remains so even today.
“When nobody expected it, Diego would appear because he was capable of imagining what no one else saw,” he said. “I remember those assists he would give and he made us all enjoy it.”
Those goals put Suker into double figures for the first time in La Liga. He went on to hit 10 or more goals in each of the next five successive campaigns, first with Sevilla and then Real Madrid.
But this was as good as it got for Maradona at Sevilla.
Despite improving his form and fitness, El Diego had done little to vanquish the demons that had increasingly dogged him at Napoli. There were reports of him continuing to race his Porsche around town while the nightclub excursion never ceased throughout his time at the club.
While his partnership with Suker provided plenty of highlights, he simply didn’t have the capacity to party and play in the way he had done as a younger man.
Off the pitch, matters reached a nadir when it emerged that Luis Cuervas had hired a private detective to keep tabs on Maradona and his nighttime exploits.
On the pitch, things were turning sour too. Increasingly unfocused, Maradona began to lose all sense of professionalism.
At the start of 1993, he found himself sent off against Tenerife after deliberately targeting Argentina team-mate Fernando Redondo for retribution after he was clattered in a tackle.
His sudden recall to the national team won him few fans in Spain as well, with Maradona opting to miss several key La Liga games in order to turn out for the Albiceleste in a series of meaningless warm-up friendlies ahead of the World Cup.
An increasingly peripheral figure, Maradona began to regularly skip training and, at one point, was said to have become as much as two stone overweight.
‘We kicked the shit out of each other’
The final straw came in the penultimate game of the La Liga season against Real Burgos.
With Sevilla leading 1-0 at half-time, Maradona asked to come off amid concerns over an existing knee injury. Bilardo was having none of it though, instead asking Maradona to take a painkilling injection on the affected area and see out much of the second half.
Reluctantly, Maradona agreed but was later left incensed when, with just a few minutes of the second period gone, he was subbed off by Bilardo. Maradona stormed off the pitch, shooting daggers in Bilardo’s direction and taking his frustrations out on the Sevilla changing room.
Any attempts at reconciliation in the days that followed blew up when plans for a face-to-face apology ended up in fisticuffs. Or as Maradona put it: “We kicked the shit out of each other.”
Branded “not fit to play golf” by club vice-president Jose Maria del Nido, Maradona left Sevilla under a cloud of acrimony and claims and counterclaims of unprofessionalism and unpaid wages from both sides.
Despite the Maradona melodrama, Sevilla ended the season in a respectable seventh.
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Heading back to Argentina, where he signed with Newell’s Old Boys, El Diego’s well-documented fall from grace duly came at the 1994 World Cup, where a failed drugs test served as the final chapter in a glittering career on the global stage.
But Maradona had set something special in motion at Sevilla. Buoyed by the tutelage of the Argentine, Suker scored 24 goals in La Liga over the course of the 1993-94 campaign, second only to Barcelona’s Romario in the Pichichi Trophy standings.
Twenty or more goals followed in each of the next two campaigns before Suker departed for Real Madrid, signing off with a flourish courtesy of a hat-trick against Salamanca. Champions League and La Liga glory followed with Los Blancos before Suker was crowned top scorer at the 1998 World Cup with Croatia.
Even so, Suker always credited the advice of Maradona in helping shape the striker he went on to become in Spain.
“If you watch my goals for Sevilla, they always came the same way,” he said. “It is something that will stay with me forever.”
When news of Maradona’s passing at the age of 60 broke, the Croatian’s tribute was a touching one.
“I am proud to have shared the dressing room with him during our days at Sevilla FC,” he said. “Now, when in these difficult moments I remember those times, I see images of him – he with the assists, and I with the goals.
“It was a privilege to play with Diego and celebrate victories together.”
By Jack Beresford