Zico v Maradona, and the perfect dress rehearsal

Napoli Udinese

How Zico’s farewell game in Italy, against Diego Maradona’s Napoli, ended up serving as a dress rehearsal for one of the most infamous events in football history.

On 12 May 1985, thousands of fans flocked to the Stadio Friulli with a sense of anticipation; that it was an occasion not to be missed. Udinese’s final home game of the 1984-85 season brought with it inevitable attention for two reasons.

Firstly, the visitors were Napoli – and the mouth-watering prospect of watching their spectacular Argentine Number 10, Diego Maradona, face off against the home side’s very own spectacular Brazilian Number 10, Zico.

Secondly, and more importantly for the home support, it was strongly rumoured that Zico was leaving Italy at the end of the campaign, which would make this his last home game. As things turned out, this would be his last game for Udinese, full stop.

Missing Brazil and alleged judicial problems with the tax authorities made it likely that Zico’s Italian adventure would come to an end after just two seasons; the second of which had been severely interrupted by injuries. But events on the field of this match – and the fallout after it – served to confirm his departure.

With Napoli out of the European qualification picture and Udinese clear of the relegation zone, both teams lined up without the pressures of having to play for anything other than pride. Fans were hopeful of a spectacle being provided by two giants of the game, who were not only two of the three best No10s in the world at the time, but two of the three best players in the world: Zico being World Player of the Year in 1983 and Maradona to be crowned in 1986 (the other player, in both instances, was Michel Platini, who won the award in both ’84 and ’85).

The two had already met a few times before, on both the international stage and at South American club level during a Boca Juniors v Flamengo clash, however as the excellent 4Dfoot.com put it:

Confrontations between Zico and Maradona tend have an element of unfairness about them. Their 7.5 year age gap means that duels between them run the risk of being skewed by either immaturity on Maradona’s side (Brazil vs Argentina 1982 comes to mind), or a lack of youthful explosiveness on Zico’s side.’

Whilst the 32 year old Zico was about to depart Serie A, the 24 year old Diego was completing his debut season. With the script set and in the midst of a carnival atmosphere, the preeminent No10s did not disappoint the watching masses.

It took just 4 minutes for a South American dead-ball specialist to put the ball in the back of the net from 20-plus yards out. Disappointingly for the home support, the strike came courtesy of Maradona’s left boot rather than the right of Zico’s. It was a kick of curling beauty, sent spinning into the top corner and leaving the Udinese keeper clasping thin air as he sprung to his left.

Zico responded for the home side almost immediately with a free-kick of his own – his shot towards goal, taken close to the corner flag, caused chaos in the Neapolitan penalty area after ‘keeper, Castellini, could only parry the effort; Galparoli eventually turning the loose ball home in the resulting pinball scramble to make it 1-1.

As the game progressed Udinese looked the more likely to take the lead, battering the woodwork on a number of occasions and Zico pulling the strings from all areas of the pitch. The Brazilian wanted to leave the Friuli faithful with something special to remember. Lining up a free-kick in the second-half, from almost the same spot as where Maradona had struck, he perhaps surprised Castellini by rolling the ball left to the onrushing De Agostini who smacked the ball into the net.

Not passing up a second opportunity, Zico struck another fine free-kick late in the game but was denied by the woodwork – unable to add to his season’s three-goal tally. And for all Udinese’s endeavour, Napoli, with Diego creating chances out of nothing, remained dangerous on the break.

Overall, the game ebbed and flowed as the two titans vied for the ball in an intriguing battle to influence the outcome of the match. Watch it back and you can see a kind of sub-match quite overtly taking place – Udinese v Napoli becoming Zico v Maradona, just as many had hoped.

Though it might be a touch cruel to relegate all other players on the pitch to mere ‘supporting cast’ status – particularly during pre-match hype – the two headline acts only served to re-enforce the notion out on the pitch: Don’t believe the hype?…you do now.

Spectators were treated to a true fantasista feast: an assortment of nutmegs, flicks, pinpoint passes, through balls, dribbles, feints, assists, goals…and a hand of God.

With the clock ticking down towards a Zico-inspired win for Udinese, it was Dieguito who produced the most memorable trick in the match… causing a controversy that would be repeated on an even grander stage just one year later.

In the 88th minute, Maradona appeared to out-jump the Udinese ‘keeper to nod home the equaliser after the ball had rebounded off the crossbar. The protests were almost immediate and the replays confirmed it. Before his magic in Mexico, Maradona had managed to successfully test out a prototype of his new goalscoring weapon – his hand.

In real-time it was difficult to see the stealthy hand snake out, and Maradona’s instant reaction of running and jumping for joy in celebration caused doubts of any wrongdoing in the mind of the officials – not least when he presented an angelic look in the midst of the Udinese protests when Zico apparently told him: “If you’re an honest man, confess to the referee that you used your hand!”

The match finished 2-2 and the fallout was instantaneous and immense. A furious Zico, who was seen openly arguing with the referee Giancarlo Pirandola, let rip with his frustrations after the game, airing his conspiracy theories:

I have seen wrong things like that in football. With the referee Pirandola there was mistreatment in the [Udinese] game against Como and in the encounter with Juventus in Udine. It ruined the most beautiful race of Udinese [in the league]. Against Napoli [we] deserved to win big , however at the last minute the referee allowed Maradona to equalise with a goal spoiled by handball.

I think that Udinese in recent years, and [in] this game has been shown to be impaired – many things that we all see – and that it is impossible to sweat all week, working to make big efforts, to get to Sunday [and then] comes one incapable [referee].

After these words, Zico was given a six-match ban by the Italian authorities, and never played in Italy again. Incidentally, Giancarlo Pirandola only refereed six top-flight matches in Italy – three of which featured Udinese. They didn’t win any.

Maradona, for his part, continued to vow the legality of the goal – at least until many years later when he admitted to using it as the dress rehearsal for the “Hand of God”.

I never regretted scoring that goal with my hand [against England], and what’s more, I scored another one like it playing for Napoli against Udinese.

Zico, who was playing for them, asked me if I didn’t feel it was wrong and I said absolutely not. I’d often done it before, when I was starting out.

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