In a different timeline, Japanese soccer would have been driven into the professional era not by Zico’s Kashima Antlers, but by Diego Maradona’s Nagoya Grampus Eight.
Instead of “The House That Zico Built” nestled in the backwaters of Ibaraki Prefecture, perhaps Toyota Stadium, which Grampus has called home since 2001, might be known as “The House of God” in honor of one of the greatest players the beautiful game has ever seen.
That is, of course, not how things came to pass. While Maradona, who died Wednesday of heart failure at the age of 60, never suited up for a J. League club (though his younger brother Hugo did, for Avispa Fukuoka and Consadole Sapporo in the mid-1990s), his legacy has repeatedly touched these shores and lives on through generations of fans and players who had the fortune to encounter him at his peak.
The first chance Japanese soccer enthusiasts — then still a minority in a country dominated by baseball and sumo — had to see him in the flesh came in 1979 at the Japan-hosted World Youth Championship, FIFA’s first tournament in Asia.
Maradona, who one year earlier had missed out on the World Cup in his native Argentina, was named Most Valuable Player for his performance throughout the under-20 competition, which included six goals, countless pinpoint passes and a flair that would remain etched in the memories of Japan’s early generation of soccer fans for decades to come.
“Maradona and (Argentina teammate) Ramon Diaz became the model for Juan Diaz and Pascal in ‘Captain Tsubasa,’” artist Yoichi Takahashi told Soccer King in 2016 of Maradona’s impact on his globally beloved soccer manga. “That was the impression he made on the pitch.
“I like drawing lively play scenes such as cartwheels going into backflips going into overhead kicks. Maradona might not be able to do that much, but I drew Juan Diaz as though Maradona had entered the world of ‘Captain Tsubasa.’”
Maradona returned to Japan three more times as part of the near-annual Xerox Super Soccer event, which pitted Japan’s national team or Japan Soccer League selections against some of the world’s most famous clubs. The first such trip was in 1982, when Boca Juniors beat Japan twice and drew once at games held in Tokyo and Kobe.
“His body was like a rock, even if you hit him he wouldn’t stumble,” Hideki Maeda, who captained Japan in that series, told Jiji on Thursday. “But the ball was stuck to his feet and he danced like a butterfly.
“Playing him, you just felt that this person was different. He’s a god.”
Former Verdy defender Satoshi Tsunami added: “It was like he moved me around. There was no chance to win the ball. He was a different breed and I’m proud to have played against Maradona during his heyday.”
Two more visits followed later in the decade: In 1987 as part of a South America XI that defeated a Japan Soccer League XI, and then once more for Napoli on Aug. 12, 1988.
That win over Japan, played in front of 41,000 at the National Stadium, turned out to be Maradona’s final appearance on a Japanese pitch, just four years before professional soccer arrived here. Under different circumstances, he could have been a part of that renaissance, rather than a forerunner.
While Grampus had reached an informal agreement to sign Maradona ahead of the much-hyped launch of the J. League — a deal worth ¥1.5 billion (roughly $11.1 million at the time) — his positive test for cocaine use in 1991 and subsequent 15-month suspension from international soccer was a deal-breaker for club owner Toyota, which instead gave its stamp of approval for Grampus to bring on squeaky clean England star Gary Lineker.
Maradona’s infamous struggles with substance abuse earned him a ban from entering Japan. His return to international soccer ahead of the 1994 World Cup forced Argentina to withdraw from that year's Kirin Cup tournament, with Australia instead joining Japan and France.
His attempt to attend the 2000 Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo between Boca Juniors and Real Madrid was rejected by Japanese immigration officials, who did not show the lenience they had offered to Paul McCartney a decade after the Beatles singer's 1980 arrest and deportation for marijuana possession.
But two years later, Maradona was able to shake off the defense one last time with a timely assist from the Argentine government, which sent him to the 2002 World Cup final as a tourism and sports envoy after his request to enter Japan as a commentator for Mexican television had been denied.
Media reports described the 41-year-old's "bulging waistline" following his arrival at Narita Airport, but his charisma still drew fans seeking greetings and handshakes. On July 1, one day after Brazil defeated Germany at International Stadium Yokohama, Maradona said the Japanese government "looked like fools" for trying to keep him out of the country.
"(I was banned) even though Americans who dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and (former President of Peru Alberto) Fujimori, who hurt countless Peruvians, are allowed to freely walk the streets of Tokyo," Maradona told the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, according to Kyodo. "But thanks to many people in Japan and South Korea who invited me I was able to watch the final, and I thank them from my heart."
With the more extreme aspects of his personal life largely filtered out of local media reports, Maradona remains an icon among Japanese fans who remember his standout play for club and country, including the infamous “Hand of God” goal against England — and the strike minutes later that was voted World Cup Goal of the Century by fans — in the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
“Mexico 1986 was ‘The Maradona Tournament,’” Takahashi said. “It wasn’t just the England game; that whole tournament will go down in history as Maradona’s, just as 1978 belonged to (Argentina’s) Mario Kempes, 1982 was (Italy’s) Paolo Rossi’s, and even 1974 was (the Netherlands’) Johan Cruyff’s.
“In recent World Cups I feel like we haven’t been able to say that. Maybe (Lionel Messi) if Argentina had beaten Germany in the 2014 final. But lately the concept of one player dominating the tournament has faded.”
In an era before the internet, it fell upon intrepid journalists such as Yoichi Togashi, one of the global game's greatest ambassadors to Japan who died in 2006 while covering the African Cup of Nations, to feed local demand for Maradona news. Togashi, the founding editor of Serie A magazine Calcio 2002, interviewed Maradona during his time at Napoli for his 1988 book “Maradona’s Super Soccer,” which now sells for ¥5,000 ($48) or more on the rare occasions copies can be found online.
“Togashi always looked so happy when he talked about Maradona, and his passion inspired me to focus on Serie A and fly to Italy over 80 times to cover the league,” wrote Yoshihiro Iwamoto, the former chief editor of Soccer King and current general manager of J. League aspirant Nankatsu SC, on Thursday.
“I hope he and Maradona will meet again in heaven.”
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