Diego Maradona was once close to moving to Olympique de Marseille. The move never happened in the end, but one of the Argentine legend’s less glorious moments of his time at Napoli did come about on French soil.
Maradona’s death on Wednesday at the age of 60 has left the entire football world in mourning. The pain is felt most strongly in his native Argentine and in Naples, where supporters gathered to pay tribute to him in the city streets and outside Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo. El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Kid) scaled his greatest heights in leading Argentina to World Cup glory in Mexico in 1986, while at club level his finest moments came with Napoli, where he won two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990 as well as the UEFA Cup in 1989.
Yet it was after that latter victory, secured in the final against VfB Stuttgart, that Maradona could have joined Marseille, potentially changing the course of footballing history. OM had just won a league and cup double, their first silverware in more than a decade sparking a period in which they dominated the French game and went on to win the Champions League in 1993. Maradona could have been a part of that success.
Asif Kapadia’s acclaimed 2019 documentary about Maradona features footage of the player’s on-pitch interview after Napoli’s 1989 UEFA Cup final win in which he revealed his desire to leave. And Marseille were seemingly first in line.
Marseille 'offered to double my salary'
“The Marseille board contacted me and offered to double my salary,” Maradona recalled in an interview with France Football magazine published only last month. “I was at Napoli and the president (Corrado) Ferlaino had told me that if we won the (UEFA) Cup he would let me leave.”
Marseille president Bernard Tapie and Michel Hidalgo, the former France coach who was working for the club in an upstairs role, both travelled to Milan to meet Maradona and try to complete a deal.
“They came to Italy to make me an offer and so that we could have discussions,” Maradona added. “When I went back to Naples I said to Ferlaino ‘thanks president for all these great years, I’m off’. But he started playing dumb, as if he didn’t understand, and went back on his word. That was the end of the story.”
Tapie even appeared on TF1’s cult show Telefoot to talk openly about the deal he was trying to push through.
“For several months there have been three protagonists. First of all the player, who at the end of last season said he didn’t want to stay at Napoli and had expressed a desire to come to Marseille,” Tapie says.
“There was me, who was very happy to welcome him to Marseille because I think he is the best player in the world, and then there is Napoli who hold his contract and have said they will not let him go elsewhere.”
In the same interview Tapie is reminded that he already has the maximum three foreign players in his squad, in keeping with rules at the time, in the Brazilian Carlos Mozer, Chris Waddle and Enzo Francescoli.
“If Mozer, Waddle and Francescoli win me the European Cup, in that case Maradona and I can go off on holiday together, but if that’s not the case then we’ll need to find another solution,” Tapie says before claiming that he is ready to pay Maradona 20 million francs a year. “That’s nothing. It’s much less than paying 50,000 to a player from Laval.”
When Toulouse beat Maradona's Napoli...
Three years earlier Maradona did play in France. He was the biggest draw around in October 1986 - having led his country to World Cup glory a few months earlier - when he turned out at Le Stadium to play Toulouse in the UEFA Cup first round, second leg with Napoli.
The Italians had scraped a 1-0 win at home in the first leg in their first European tie since signing Maradona for a world-record fee from Barcelona in 1984. And so they were favourites to secure progress in the return, even if Toulouse were a decent team at the time and had finished fourth in the league in the previous campaign. Jacques Santini was their coach. Two of their players - goalkeeper Philippe Bergeroo and striker Yannick Stopyra - had gone to the Mexico World Cup with France. Toulouse even had the Argentine left-back Alberto Tarantini, who won the 1978 World Cup.
...and Diego missed a penalty
In front of almost 35,000 fans, Stopyra’s 15th-minute goal put Toulouse ahead on the night and levelled the scores on aggregate. With no further goals they went to penalties where, incredibly, Maradona missed Napoli’s last kick. His strike hit the post then struck the thigh of Bergeroo and rebounded away, to send Toulouse through.
The Maradona-era Napoli did have better luck on their other visit to France though: they were drawn against Girondins de Bordeaux in the UEFA Cup third round in 1988-89 and came away from the Parc Lescure with a 1-0 win in the first leg. A 0-0 draw in the return secured Napoli’s progress, and they went on to lift the trophy before the saga of Maradona’s move to Marseille that never was played out.