Following the recent death of Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, we’re taking a moment to remember him by looking back at the first time he lifted a World Cup as captain of his country. No, not the famous Mexico 86 tournament but in Japan in 1979 when the brilliant number 10 inspired his side to victory at the FIFA World Youth Championship.

A game to remember

The opening game for La Albiceleste was against Indonesia in front of 15,500 fans at the Omiya Stadium in Saitama. Maradona gave the crowd a glimpse of his frightening ability just before the 20-minute mark. Picking the ball up around 35 yards from goal, he went past two defenders as if they weren’t there, put the ball through the legs of another before slipping it past the keeper. It was his first goal in an international competition for Argentina. His second came 20 minutes later. Cutting in from the right, he brilliantly dribbled past two players before venomously firing home from inside the box. Striker Ramon Diaz bagged a hat-trick that night as Argentina destroyed the Indonesian side 5-0, however, it was the captain’s performance that had most people talking.  

Anger as fuel

The Lanús-born genius was the undoubted star in a team bursting with talented players, including top-scorer Diaz, who went on to win 22 caps for the national side and Gabriel Calderon who represented Argentina at the 1982 and 1990 World Cups. The impressive squad was coached by Cesar Luis Menotti, manager of the Argentine side that triumphed on home soil at the 1978 World Cup. Despite winning what many describe as the greatest prize in sport, he decided to demote himself to youth team coach so he could work with the player seen as the future of Argentinian football. 

“He’s the best there’s ever been.” — Lionel Messi

Fourteen months earlier, the situation had been very different. Maradona said he would never forgive Menotti for leaving him out of the squad for the 1978 World Cup. Though only 17 at the time, he had already been playing with the Argentinos Juniors’ first team for two years and many believed he had the ability to take the tournament on home soil by storm. The manager, though, resisted the temptation to include the teenage playmaker, fearing the weight of expectation might be too much for him to shoulder. “There, when I was left out of the 22-man list, ‘because I was too young,’ I started to realize that anger was a fuel for me,” wrote Maradona in his autobiography.

Highs and Lows

Fortunately for the youth side, the pair patched things up and Maradona became Menotti’s key man in Japan. After a tight 1-0 win over Yugoslavia, the team in blue and white clinched the top spot of their group with a convincing 4-1 victory over a Poland side that featured several players who went on to help their country finish in third place at the 1982 World Cup. Maradona opened the scoring with an absolute belter from around 30 yards out. A second hat-trick of the tournament from Diaz helped Argentina romp to a 5-0 win against Algeria, though it was Maradona who once again scored the first with a powerfully hit free kick into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. His fifth goal of the competition was a header past Fernando Alves in the semi-finals as La Albiceleste overcame South American rivals Uruguay 2-0 in a hard-fought encounter. 

Now only the Soviet Union stood in their way. More than 50,000 were in attendance for the final at the National Stadium in Tokyo with all eyes on Argentina’s rising star. The opposition tried to double-up on him, but it didn’t work. Time and time again, he fended off their tackles to go on his famous mazy runs. With a quarter of an hour to go and the South American side leading 2-1, Maradona curled a beautifully hit free kick into the bottom left corner of the net to make it three. It was a wonderful way for the player of the tournament to seal the victory. 

The squad briefly celebrated their success in Japan before being summoned home. The Human Rights Commission was in Argentina and de facto president Jorge Videla, who was under investigation for various crimes against humanity, including kidnapping, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture, felt it was the perfect opportunity to stage a public celebration and show that all was well in the country. 

“Although we were champions of the Youth World Cup in 1979, that bastard Videla used us as an example,” Maradona wrote on his Instagram in 2017. “He made us cut our hair and do military service. And that was with us bringing him the World Cup from Japan.”

Maradona returned to the Far East three more times as a player, first with Boca Juniors in 1982, then with a South America XI in 1987 and finally with Napoli in 1988. In the early nineties, there were strong rumors about him becoming Grampus Eight’s marquee signing for the start of the J-League. A deal worth 1.5 billion yen was reportedly agreed with the Nagoya team, but then owners Toyota decided to pull out due to the player’s positive test for cocaine and resulting 15-month suspension in 1991. England striker Gary Lineker signed instead. 

In 1994, the government of Tokyo refused to grant Maradona a visa to play in the Kirin Cup, so Argentina subsequently pulled out of the competition. “I asked the boys to think things over and do what was best for them, but they told me if I was not traveling, no one was traveling. I thought the Japanese knew how to understand people, but with this they demonstrated that they are idiots,” Maradona was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. 

Later that year, the controversial attacking midfielder was sent home from the USA World Cup after testing positive for ephedrine. It was the lowest point of a remarkable career, the highlight of which came in 1986 when he won, almost single-handedly, the World Cup for his country. Those who witnessed him in Japan seven years earlier must have known what a special player he would go on to become. A God-like figure in Argentina and Naples where he won two Serie A titles, Maradona will be remembered by many as the greatest to have ever played the game. 

“Even if I played for a million years, I’d never come close to Maradona. Not that I’d want to anyway. He’s the best there’s ever been.” — Lionel Messi