Athletic Club Bilbao defender, Andoni Goikoetxea, lunges towards the bushy-haired Argentinian golden boy. It was the start of an acquaintanceship that would end in a similar set of circumstances.
The warm air surrounding Camp Nou was crowded with trepidation and gasps aplenty. The stadium was heaving. The concourses resembled the hustle and bustle of the tree-lined La Rambla street in the height of summer.
Onlookers of a Barcelona persuasion were joined together in worry as their sights fixed on Barcelona’s £5m record signing and the Goikoetxea welcome he was about to receive. September 1983, and we’re smack-bang in the middle of an era where hard tackling is commonplace. A crunching tackle is almost expected by those situated higher up the pitch for their respective sides.
Diego Maradona is cruising in the 3-0 display, but he’s soon to be hounded by Goikoetxea and his set of studs. Now sprawled out on the turf, Maradona’s season looks in jeopardy. A horror tackle belonging to the eighties and one that is somehow only worthy of a yellow card. Camp Nou holds its breath as Barcelona’s talisman clutches his ankle in agony.
Goikoetxea’s reputation in Spain preceded him. A burly, uncompromising mountain of a man. The recklessness of his mistimed tackle played into his destructive narrative and prompted journalists to serve up a new nickname for the hard-hitting defender: the butcher of Bilbao.
Stretchered off down the tunnel with a broken ankle, Maradona would be out of action for the foreseeable future. The butcher had sent the South American, and unbeknownst to him, Barcelona’s title hopes, to the slaughter.
Barcelona manager, Cesar Luis Menotti, calls for Goikoetxea’s head after the game. A plea to Spanish officials to get the centre-half banned from football for life. The enraged Argentinian wanted retrospective action on the heinous crime executed on his compatriot. Menotti went as far as saying the Athletic Club defender was part of a race of ‘anti-footballers.’
This particular anti-footballer would prove a commanding presence on 39 occasions for Spain’s national team and win four pieces of silverware at San Mames. Still, Menotti’s stance on Athletic Club’s football and those who were a part of it led to an unharmonious relationship with Athletic boss Javier Clemente. With the Spanish press utilised as a go-between, both managers regularly voiced their distaste for one another.
Fit and firing
Thirteen league games later, Barcelona’s star man is back. Maradona returns after the three-month rehabilitation period on the sidelines. The Catalan club had struggled to cope without him, overseeing five wins in thirteen dull Maradona-less games. Barcelona are now third in La Liga, a position they would fail to better all season.
The first game back in front of his adoring fans, and he duly delivered. A brace for the Buenos Aires native as the hosts trump Sevilla 3-1. Osasuna’s 4-2 win over a disappointing Barcelona side in the next game produced another two goals for Maradona. He was fit, and he was firing.
“I am Maradona, who makes goals, who makes mistakes. I can take it all. I have shoulders big enough to fight with everybody.”Diego Maradona
With a glare of intent locked on the upcoming Bilbao fixture, Maradona can only lead his side to draw in Mallorca.
Meanwhile, at the heart of Bilbao’s defensive line, Goikoetxea had played eleven consecutive league games since his eight-match suspension. Menotti didn’t quite get his wish in the end, although justice was arguably served in terms of retrospectively overturning the laughable yellow card for the monstrous tackle in Barcelona.
January 1984, Catalonia meets the Basque Country; the butcher meats Maradona. The return fixture was poised to be a cracker. Menotti’s Goikoetxea plea, that tackle, the nickname, the ongoing feud between both managers, and Maradona’s return to goalscoring form – the scene was set.
However, this wasn’t a fixture that needed additional malice or bad blood to sell tickets or garner interest. It didn’t require post-match comments to attract an audience. Athletic Club, the champions of La Liga, were gunning for their second title in as many years. Last season’s victory, their first in just under 30 years, had given the butcher and company a meat-free taste.
Barcelona sat on nine La Liga triumphs. Athletic Club? Just two behind. Fourth-placed Barça travelled to Bilbao, who sat pretty at the top of the tree at the turn of the year.
Maradona fittingly opens the deadlock after 12 minutes. Subsequently, a Barcelona winner soon drowns out the goalscoring reply from Athletic Club’s Estanis Argote. Finally, San Mames was silenced as the boy from South America decided the fate of the fixture. An expected end to the Basque-Catalonia match-ups this season, right?
The footballing gods often have different ideas, and they usually veer away from the norm. The two clubs would, in fact, meet again.
Diego Maradona and the Copa Del Rey
The fixture reuniting both sides would come after the final La Liga game of the season. Athletic Club had clinched the title for the second successive year, but now their attentions were deviating towards a possible cup double.
On this occasion, they meet in the nation’s capital. The coveted prize up for grabs? The Copa Del Rey. Athletic Club looked to engineer a 24th cup triumph at the hands of Maradona and Menotti’s Argentinian-infused Barcelona.
Barcelona’s dominance this term wouldn’t continue. Marshalled by the butcher, Athletic Club Bilbao reigned victorious in a game consisting of one solitary goal.
The 1984 Copa Del Rey final wouldn’t be remembered for its football, not really. The most avid Athletic fan will attest to that. However, the aftermath of the final whistle would cast a shadow so big it would engulf the Bernabéu and the ninety minutes before it.
Maradona and his invisible black belt saw red in the Copa Del Rey arena. A moment of madness as Maradona’s on-field brilliance turns to on-field criminality. The beast outweighed any beauty as the epitome of violence donned Barcelona’s number ten.
Animalistic in his approach, Maradona plants his knee into the head of Athletic midfielder Miguel Sola. The moral of the story here? Refrain from taunting a highly-strung sore-loser following a cup-final defeat; it may end with one knocked into another dimension.
Anarchy ensues as Sola’s limp body crashes to the floor. Athletic and Barcelona colours portray a scene usually attributed to a Bruce Lee action-thriller.
Maradona flies through the air, delivering kicks to unsuspecting players. Shockingly, he was backed up by his teammates, who reaffirmed his actions.
The butcher of Bilbao, as you would expect, adds his stamp to proceedings. The recent history between Goikoetxea and Maradona now has a fiery new chapter. The butcher returns the favour as he delivers a blow on behalf of those in red and white.
Maradona had kicked his last ball, and opponent, for Barcelona. The best team in Spain that year played their season-long part in ending a Catalan love affair with Diego Maradona. Naples beckoned.