Cosmos Lament The Death of Maradona

Cosmos Recall The Other #10
Published Nov 26, 2020

It only took five minutes for the Cosmos to recognize his brilliance. Just four days after his 18th birthday, Diego Maradona lined up against the Cosmos with Tacuman All-Stars/Argentina Youth National Team, beginning preparations for the FIFA World Youth (U20) Championship the next fall. On a worldwide postseason tour, the back-to-back NASL Champion 1978 Cosmos boasted many of the world’s established icons. The teenager exchanged pennants and pleasantries with Franz Beckenbauer.

Then a few minutes later, a freekick provided him the opportunity to demonstrate the legendary potential of his left boot, his swerving shot sailing around the wall and past goalkeeper Erol Yasin. Just three minutes later, a second goal made clear the phenomenon ready to claim his place among the game’s greats. A tuneup for the next year’s FIFA World Youth Championship in Japan that would prove his global coming-out party, a red card to Carlos Alberto meant a 10-man Cosmos could only muster a Giorgio Chinaglia goal to make the scoreline respectable. For the Cosmos that played him that night in Tacuman, his genius was evident.

By the time they played him again the next year, Maradona was being heralded as the next Pelé. Asked by reporters how he compared with the recently retired Cosmos #10, Maradona demured: “He was the greatest ever, and there will never be anyone who will be the same. Obviously, every player in the world would like to be like him.” For many in Cosmos Country, it seemed an inevitability he would one day call Giants Stadium home, even if Maradona insisted, “I want to stay all my life in Argentina. The national team is my future.”

The task of marking Maradona fell to the young American holding midfielder, Rick Davis. Though in just his second-year with the Cosmos, Davis recalls Maradona “at that time, was a pretty young up-and-comer. Hadn’t obviously notoriety-wise earned much of the acclaim of his talents and stuff until later in his career. But he had all of the talent and all the potential and people were starting to notice it.”

Davis had been told by the coaching staff: “If he does nothing in the game, you’ve done your job. If he does anything in the game you’ve failed in some manner or another.” The American was stunned by what he encountered. “In some way or another I always thought these one-footed players are really pretty limited. They can’t be that good if they can only do most of their great stuff with one of their feet. So he was obviously a very left-sided dominant player. But oh man! It wasn’t as easy as I thought in terms of playing against that kind of a player.”

Cosmos went on to lose to the defending World Cup Champions 0-1, but Davis remains proud of “a great performance for the team as a whole, playing against World Champions. We as a team were totally wired because of the opportunity. For many of our international players this was a bigger deal and a bigger opportunity to show how good the team was, that these guys could still play. That was always the joy, the marvel for me, I knew no different. It was a great game, a great performance.”

Keeping the teen prodigy off the scoring sheet earned Davis special praise, even if he hadn’t earned an Argentine friend in the process. “At the end of the game, Diego didn’t want my jersey. He ended up trading with Franz. And so when we got into the locker room he tossed me the jersey and said, “Here, you should have this. It was your encounter.” He kind of gave me the nod of job well done. So I felt good in that regard, not only that I had I done my job, he didn’t score a goal in that game.”

The next time the Cosmos faced Maradona was a year later in a torrential downpour against Argentinos Juniors at the Velez Sarsfield Stadium in Buenos Aires. Conditions were treacherous. Once again, Davis was tasked with marking Maradona. By now, the soccer world was well aware of the Argentine teen’s ability from his breakout performances at the Youth (U20) Championship in Japan, and his confidence had grown. Davis noticed:

“There was a little bit of showmanship to his play. In the game at one point he received the ball way over on the side of the field, and in fact right near midfield. I was on him, I had good position, was in a good place or whatever. He sort of flicked the ball up in the air, he literally, with me being on him, I couldn’t knock the ball away or steal possession, he juggled the ball the whole length of the half of the field from where he received it, keeping the ball in the air with nothing but his left foot. And then eventually he crossed the ball and it didn’t actually turn out to do anything. But just the idea of being able to do something like that… I remember after the game talking with Franz, Carlos Alberto and a couple of the other guys. Franz being Franz thought there’s nothing great about that, because in the end what did it do? That was just Franz. Whereas Carlos was a little more open to creativity and that kind of stuff, he said, “yeah that was really pretty good,” I think because he knew and I knew that I was doing everything I could to try and take the ball away. He still managed to hold me at bay and move the ball down the field. That taught all of us about what the talent was there, how really gifted as a player he was.”

Davis was determined to keep his composure and contain Maradona’s creativity, but the phenomenon was able to pick his moment:

“He did end up scoring a goal. We were playing the ball out of the back and it got taken away. And I had actually moved away from him, which was one of the few points in time that I would, in order for me to be a passing option, so I obviously wasn’t staying close to him. Well, turns out the ball ends up deflecting off of somebody and going right to him. He’s like 35-yards from the goal. I’m on the wrong side of him. I’m actually upfield versus being between him and the goal. I’m not gonna live up to that ‘if he does nothing in the game,’ so I’m doing everything I can to get back in position and he proceeds to dribble around [Birkenmeier] and puts the ball in a way that I truthfully believe in hindsight that he was baiting me. He knew I was coming. He knew that I was trying to get into the goal. He took his shot from off at an angle only about 12-15 yards out, but didn’t hit it with much pace. So I’m dying trying to run back to get to it and slide. In the end, realizing I’m not going to get to it, and I’ve got to stop, but I’m going full boar, and I’ve got to stop. I literally hit the goalpost with both my legs. Right in the middle of my shin. You hear this big snap and I thought I just broke my legs, maybe even both of them. Turns out, it was just my shinguards that had broken. Anyway, he got the goal of the game. But I was forgiven because the coaches realized at that point I was in a different play and there wasn’t anything I could have done to stop it. But I still felt bad.”

For the rest of the match Maradona could not shake free from Davis, with cover from Alberto and Beckenbauer playing as double sweepers. A forty-yard freekick from Beckenbauer found the head of Chinaglia for his second goal in the 1-2 Cosmos win. 

Another rainy encounter saw Maradona back in Cosmos Country for the opening round of the Trans-Atlantic Challenge Cup, as captain of Barcelona on Memorial Day, 1984 (though rumors were already swirling that a deal had been reached to send him to Napoli). A crowd of just under 38,000 braved the elements to see what kind of magic Maradona might display against a struggling home side. Four Cosmos players reluctantly agreed that week to renegotiate reduced salaries or face leaving a club facing financial uncertainty. Barça seemed primed to exploit the weakened Cosmos. In the 4th minute, Maradona collided with Eskandarian to set up the opening goal by Husillos. In the 11th minute again Maradona dashed through midfield and played a deep through-ball past a pressuring Johan Neeskens to feed Husillos for his second goal, and it looked like Maradona would lead Barça to a blowout of the Cosmos.

With Davis no longer with the team, the task of marking Maradona fell to Canadian Gerry Gray. “But he didn’t,” commented Coach Eddie Firmani afterward, “So when Maradona had the ball our players went to him allowing open men.” Despite dominating midfield, Maradona was restricted to spraying passes to dazzle the soaked crowd. In a display of pride and professionalism that took Cosmos Country by shock, the home side battled back, and (thanks to a couple controversial calls) found themselves battling back to take a 4-2 lead. But the match was far from over when the superstar finally got his best chance to score in the 73rd minute, having fouled by Gray in the penalty area.

Maradona stepped up to the spot to duel American goalkeeper, David Brcic:

“The only thing I can really remember about it is what was going through my mind. We had about 40,000 people there and they all came to see Maradona. At that time he was probably the greatest player playing. He’s going to try to fake me and I’m gonna go down and he’s going to tuck it the other way like, ‘hey, no big deal, this is easy.’ So this is what was going through my mind. And I said, ‘well, maybe I should try to fake him and see if it works in reverse.’ I faked to the right and he tried to tuck it into my left and wasn’t that successful. And that’s it. We had a little time to think about it. I kind of tried to turn the tables on him a little bit and that’s what I did and that’s how it worked out. That’s all I could think of was what he was thinking and what I assumed he was going to try to do.”

The Cosmos held on for 5-3 Memorial Day win, the major highlight of an otherwise forgettable 1984 season.

Rick Davis still treasures the Argentina #10 jersey he earned marking Maradona. A day after celebrating his 62nd birthday, Rick Davis is grateful for having experienced the challenge of playing against one of the game’s all-time greatest legends. “It’s terrible news. He was a marquee person in our game. When you lose someone like that, for whatever reason, it’s sad, but we all have great memories.”

All told, in four games against the Cosmos Maradona scored three goals, winning twice and losing twice. For decades now the debate has raged among fans as to which player most deserves the title of Greatest of All Time between Pelé and Maradona. Cosmos Country remains loyal to our #10, but the creative genius and competitive drive of the Other #10, so evident in his four encounters against the Cosmos, from the promising teenage phenomenon to a legend at the height of his powers, Maradona leaves a legacy that inspires admiration and awe among all who love the Beautiful Game. We are blessed to have witnessed his greatness.

Requiescat in pace, Diego.