Buckley recounts Monumental experience going toe-to-toe with Maradona

by Dave Donnelly

Dig deep enough on Youtube and you’ll find soundless video of Argentina taking on an Irish side at River Plate’s famous Monumental Stadium in Buenos Aires in 1980.

The venue ordinarily holds 75,000 but it’s likely many more packed in on the day – as they had when the Albiceleste defeated the Netherlands to lift the World Cup on home soil two years earlier.

The game was unofficial – the League of Ireland XI facing them weren’t an official international team – but there was unique attention for the presence of one Diego Armando Maradona.

There is a book to be written about League of Ireland sides playing month-long tours to sold-out venues in South America in the 1970s and ‘80s, but this game was special.

Maradona, who passed away following a heart attack last week, is regarded as one of the best – if not the best – player ever to grace a football field.

Back then, he was a far-from-callow 20-year-old at Argentina’s most famous club, Boca Juniors, and already recognised as the future of Argentinian football.

He had controversially been left out of the ’78 squad due to his youth – and he nursed the grudge for years as he was denied an opportunity to win a World Cup on home soil.

Though he almost single-handedly hauled Argentina to the title in Mexico in 1986, he would tell reporters that Napoli’s 1987 Serie A title was his proudest moment as he won it at home.

In 1980, though, while many in Argentina knew just how special the barrell-chested number ten from the impoverished Dique Lujan slum outside Buenos Aires was, the world had yet to catch on.

“I didn’t know too much about him at the time,” Liam Buckley, who played in the League of Ireland select that day, tells the Dublin Gazette.

“He wasn’t included in the ’78 team that won the World Cup because he was too young. They left him out, and they won the World Cup, but then they brought him in and the rest is history.”

Buckley, who went to star for Ireland and play on the continent with Waregem in Belgium and Racing Santander in Spain, was, like Maradona, just 20 years of age at the time.

“I remember being interviewed along with him, just two young kids in a senior squad,” says Buckley, who saw his Sligo Rovers side bow out of the FAI Cup to Shamrock Rovers on Sunday.

“I didn’t communicate with him at all, but I knew after the game, he scored the goal and they won 1-0, that he was going to have some sort of career.

“The talk was that he was going to go to Europe, and then his next move was to Barcelona. They had a serious team, in fairness to them.

“It was some of the squad who had won the World Cup the previous year. The place was full. The ’78 World Cup, Holland against Argentina, it was an experience watching that.

“And it was the exact same when we played them the following year, and I have no doubt they were expecting and looking for the new kid on the block, Maradona.

“And he did really well in the match. The ticker tape [was on the pitch] and you could hear the anthem in the background.

“It was the first time I experienced that sort of level, and it was really motivating and emotional, and a great occasion altogether.

“It’s a sad week for football. He was a terrific footballer. It was a great occasion going back to 1980. It was a wonderful experience.”

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