The 2018 World Cup is days away and the usual debates are in full swing. Who will win it? Who will be the dark horse? Top scorer? And, of course can either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo truly be called the world’s greatest ever football without winning the biggest trophy of all?
For now, the man who can strongly make a claim for that accolade remains a certain Diego Maradona.
So naturally, this story begins in the northern English town of Sunderland. Or, at Sunderland AFC.
Four years after The Black Cats had lifted the FA Cup – to this day the biggest shock in the competitions long history – after beating the goliath Leeds United in 1973 – the Mackems were having an all too familiar period of instability.
Starting the year battling for survival, unsuccessfully as it would happen, in the old Division One, (now the Premier League), news of an Argentinean wonderkid was reaching the shores of Wearside in the summer of 1977.
Word had spread fast about a teenage sensation lighting up stadiums up and down Argentina, with an abundance of trickery some said was matched by no other.
Whilst many clubs were hearing the name for the first time, Sunderland had heard enough. Enough to take a chance on Maradona.
As outrageous as that may sound, and it still does, Sunderland placed a bid on the hottest young talent on the planet. Comparable to modern-day Sunderland attempting to acquire the services of a young Messi or Neymar, it really does put in perspective how bizarre an event it was.
Or was it?
When word of the bid reached the Argentine’s camp, it was met with wholly unexpected reaction. The young Maradona wasn’t just interested, he was excited.
It was an opportunity to move to England, still regarded as a footballing hotbed that had relatively recently won a World Cup of their own. That intrigue and excitement was enough to have a young man dreaming of a life on the shores of Sunderland.
But that dream seemed short lived. In a country experiencing fierce political unrest, spearheaded by a brutal dictatorship, Maradona was told categorically he would not be allowed to make the move.
Most men would have given up at that point, but Maradona wasn’t most men.
Convinced his future lay on Wearside, Maradona demanded a move to Sunderland, and was once again met with refusal, before finally laying down the biggest threat of all.
“Let me move to Sunderland or I will retire”.
Now there’s a sentence never repeated in half a century since. Jokes aside, this was a potentially monumental turning point for Argentina; the country’s future was in turmoil, and now so was their football team.
The incredible revelation came about during Joe Pearlman’s filming of “Bring Me the Head of Diego Maradona” after he spent weeks tracking the history of the South American icon.
Something had to give, and fortunately for Argentinean football fans everywhere, it was Maradona himself.
There were other disappointments for Maradona. Despite scoring 26 goals in 35 games for his first club Argentinos Juniors, national manager César Luis Menotti deemed him “too young” to go to the 1978 World Cup, despite the tournament being held in Argentina itself. His time would come eight years later.
It was clear from a very young age that nothing was going to stop Maradona’s quest for world domination.
But one thing is for sure, if any club could have derailed that potential, it would have been Sunderland.
For the uninitiated, Sunderland has quite the history with South American footballing sensations.
On the one hand, there is Julio Arca, a club legend on Wearside who dazzled fans with his agility, passion and Argentinean flair.
Either side of that, however, are two cautionary tales.
Ricky Alvarez signed for the club on loan in 2014 from Italian giants Inter, only to make 13 appearances, amassing a grand total of zero goals. Not so bad, you might think. Wrong.
Sunderland were then forced to pay a reported £10 million for the attacking midfielder, only for him to never kick a ball for the club again, before joining Sampdoria the same season for free.
It couldn’t get any worse I hear you say? It already had, much worse.
In 1999, 23 years after Maradona came agonisingly close to making the biggest mistake of his career, a young man by the name of Milton Nunez was signed by then manager Peter Reid from Greek club PAOK.
In two years on Wearside, he managed two appearances. A fall out with the manager? A bad injury?
No quite. Reid had in fact signed the wrong player and had instead ended up with a player who wouldn’t look out of place in your local park on a Sunday morning.
With the benefit of hindsight, a career that included playing for Boca Juniors, Barcelona and Napoli should give Maradona some solace that he didn’t get the opportunity to don the famous red and white and stun Roker Park with his magical feet.
The goals, trophies, memories and lifestyle ensure at least some of his nights aren’t sleepless with regret. But who knows, if the move had happened, and maybe the “Hand of God” hadn’t, England would have two gold stars on their shirt.
And Sunderland? Well, Sunderland would probably still be same old Sunderland.