The Forgotten Story of when Diego Maradona 'Signed' for Scotland’s Dundee

The Forgotten Story of when Diego Maradona 'Signed' for Scotland’s Dundee

Wednesday, 7 February, 2018 - 12:00
Argentine football legend Diego Maradona. (AFP)
London - John Ashdown
Diego Maradona’s road to Dundee began, in a way, in Luton. Ivano Bonetti had played in a European Cup final with Sampdoria in the early 90s but by the summer of 2000 he was perhaps best known to British football fans as the victim of Grimsby manager Brian Laws’ flying chicken wings at Kenilworth Road in 1996. The incident left him with a fractured cheekbone and a battered reputation – one that was little repaired by a two-game spell in the bizarro world that was Attilio Lombardo’s Crystal Palace two years later.

He returned to Genoa and drifted around coaching in the lower leagues. That seemed to be that. But in the SPL, Dundee had ambitious new owners who wanted to infuse a little glamour and excitement into the club. Raise the profile. Make a few waves. By June 2000, the steady hand offered by manager Jocky Scott was no longer the order of the day. They wanted more and, having interviewed Bernd Schuster and spoken to then France Under-21 coach Raymond Domenech, opted to take a punt on the inexperienced but well-connected Bonetti, whose only management experience had come at Sestrese of Serie C.

Armed with buckets of charisma and a transfer budget the envy of his predecessors (though one that didn’t seem quite such a good idea when the club went into administration with close to £20m of debt in 2003), Bonetti set about bringing a little razzmatazz and a host of new signings to Dens Park.

They kicked off the season at Motherwell with a starting XI comprised of four Italians, three Scots, two Argentinians, a Spaniard and a Georgian – the sort of cosmopolitan lineup at that time usually the preserve of the Old Firm. But things did not go according to plan – Bonetti, the player-manager, was sent off on his debut and by mid-October the Dark Blues had won only three league games.

Bonetti was being assisted by his brother Dario, himself a European Cup finalist with Roma in 1984, who looked to solve the club’s striking shortage by putting a call in to the Argentinian forward he had met and befriended when the pair played at Hellas Verona in 1988-89. Claudio Caniggia, 33, former Argentina international, without a club and having played only intermittently since 1996, signed up for six months.

El Pajaro (“The Bird”) made a goalscoring debut away at Aberdeen (a moment somewhat overshadowed by Dundee United chairman Jim McLean doing this over at Tannadice) and by the winter break had established himself as a terrace hero, the centerpiece of what appeared to be an increasingly successful experiment. ESPN had even broadcast Dundee’s away game at Dunfermline Athletic live in Argentina.

From the moment Caniggia arrived the name of his best mate, one Diego Armando Maradona, had been whispered around Dens Park. In early January, a week after Caniggia signed a new two-and-a-half-year deal (“My wife Marianna loves Dundee, she is even looking to buy a castle here”), they were whispers no more – Maradona was lined up to play for Dundee in a friendly against Napoli. “In relation to continuing speculation in the media,” the club said in a statement, “Dundee Football Club can confirm there was recent correspondence between Diego Maradona, his representatives and Dundee Football Club that outlined both parties’ desire for Maradona to play for Dundee in a one-off glamour friendly.

“We hope we are in a position to settle upon further details, such as a date, time and place for the game within the next few days. But it is looking increasingly likely that any match involving Maradona (and Dundee FC) will take place at Dens Park.”

The town, already gripped by Caniggia fever, lost the run of itself. “This will give the city the profile we’ve been striving for,” said Colin Smith, chief executive of Dundee’s tourist board. “It’s pretty gobsmacking. Dundee is always known as the city with the two football clubs on the same street, but this is incredible.”

It appeared a done deal: Maradona would leave Cuba, where he had been receiving treatment for cocaine addiction for the best part of a year, and head to the east coast of Scotland for his first game in the country since 1979. “As far as I know, Maradona has already sent his agreement by fax and is being paid £250,000 for one game,” said midfielder Georgi Nemsadze. “The possibility of Maradona squeezing into a Dundee shirt has been discussed ever since Caniggia signed for the club in October,” The Scotsman opined. “Many playfully envisaged the legendary figure taking a seat in the Dens Park main stand, and perhaps indulging in a few keepie ups in the center circle. Instead, the increasingly insane environment that is Dens Park has thrown up a story that dwarves even this: Maradona will play for the club.”

But just as local councilors were cheering “a morale-booster for the city”, Maradona was arriving at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. He had planned to attend Napoli’s game against Verona and meet with Napoli director Corrado Ferlaino to discuss a role with the club. Instead he was greeted by police and told he was being investigated for alleged tax fraud of £16.6m.

Maradona reacted the only way he knew how – an all-night bender. He emerged from his Rome hotel room late the following day. And he was not happy. “Ferlaino has betrayed me again,” he said. “He told me the club would have resolved this. I’ve spoken to my lawyers who have told me Napoli has to pay.”

That left Dundee’s hopes of a money-spinning match in tatters. “I do not see the possibility of a game involving Diego going ahead during this season,” said Bonetti. “The truth is that we have spoken to him and he indicated his willingness to play. However, any game with Diego Maradona involved would have to be against top-quality opposition.”

The plan foundered, dying for good in May when Caniggia left for Rangers. The Bonettis lasted another year – bringing in Zurab Khizanishvili, Fan Zhiyi, Temuri Ketsbaia and Julian Speroni as the Dark Blues’ international experiment continued – before departing, and by the end of 2003 the club were in administration. As for Maradona? Napoli are apparently still prepared to offer him a job at the club … once he settles his tax bill.

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