They won FIFA U-20 World Cup titles almost 20 years apart: one at Japan 1979, the other at Malaysia 1997. Another two decades on, Diego Armando Maradona and Pablo Cesar Aimar met up this week in Suwon for the Official Draw for the next edition of the competition: Korea Republic 2017.
The Argentinian idol and his faithful disciple got talking football, and FIFA.com was there to put some questions their way.
FIFA.com: Diego, what memories do you have of those world youth finals in Japan?
Maradona: I remember that what saved us was having [Cesar] Menotti as our coach, because we didn’t have a strong team. El Flaco [Menotti’s nickname, “The Thin One”] didn’t travel with us and we could barely put a foot on the ball in our first training session. But then Cesar arrived and everything changed. He said to each of us: ‘You’re going to represent your family, your friends, your flag and all the people who love it. So go out there tomorrow and smash that ball.' We wanted to get out on the pitch there and then.
What was the tournament like?
Maradona: It was good because there were some strong teams around: Russia, Uruguay, the old Yugoslavia, who ran rings round us in the first half. But what happened? The Argentinians had a No10 who got this side and that of their centre-halves, and in the end we won 1-0 (laughs).
Aimar: Can you remember what round that was?
Maradona: That win over Yugoslavia took us into the next phase. That’s a good question, Pablo, because the boys grew in belief with every round, because they were kids. It’s not like the World Cup: the boys were scared because they were only 19. But El Flaco got hold of you, took you on a stroll round the pitch and gave you a whole different mindset.
Aimar: Did you know that I’m called “Cesar” after Menotti?
Maradona: And do you know why El Flaco came to coach us? Because things were going badly for him with the senior team.
Aimar: He’d just won the World Cup with Argentina and that was a bad year?
Maradona: 1979 was a terrible year. We couldn’t even beat Bolivia.
Diego, going back to the World Youth Championship (as the U-20 World Cup was previously known), Argentina went a goal down in the final.
Maradona: Yes, but we came back. We went 2-1 up and we started to put them under pressure. We kept taking the ball off them and they couldn’t get past the halfway line. That was the day I realised that the best form of defence is when you keep the ball, not the other team. Then I scored the third from a free-kick. It was fantastic because we’d never celebrated anything like that, in another country. When we lifted the trophy the whole stadium was singing: ‘Ar-gen-ti-na! Ar-gen-ti-na!’
Pablo, what’s the first thing you remember about that World Cup in Malaysia?
Aimar: How much I enjoyed it. I was 17. Everything’s so exciting for you at that age. You’re still more of an amateur player than a professional. We were almost like kids the night we celebrated winning the title. We were just coming out of childhood, adolescence, and were about to become men. That’s what I remember: being so excited about everything. I remember all the national team gear very clearly, for example!
Maradona: Yes, that’s the best thing! You never got anything with your club and then you get to the national team and they give you a bag that’s taller than you are. You say to yourself: ‘I never want to leave here’. And just when you think that you have to give it all back, they tell you you can take it home with you (laughs).
Pablo, do you remember the teams you came up against?
Aimar: Yes, I remember them all. I even remember playing a warm-up match here in South Korea, in Seoul, on a superb pitch, just before the World Cup. In Malaysia we played Hungary, Canada and Australia in our group, and then we beat England in the last 16 in a fantastic match in the rain. We beat Brazil in the quarters, Republic of Ireland in the semis and Uruguay in the final. Youth World Cups are great tournaments!
Maradona: Do you know why? Because in youth tournaments, you expect defenders to make mistakes. In senior tournaments you might see a player make one mistake every 20 matches. But in youth matches you get mistakes: the kid who can’t make the covering tackle, the kid who can’t head the ball, the kid who doesn’t know who’s behind him.
What is the secret to developing young players?
Maradona: I think you have to go back to grassroots football. There are some clubs who don’t have reserve and youth teams, which is a shocking state of affairs. You have to give kids the opportunity to play.
Do you have any advice for the players who will be taking part in this U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic?
Aimar: The U-20 World Cup is fantastic. It’s an amazing competition. The people who are coming to play in it have to be excited about it and enjoy it, because it goes by very quickly. A World Cup is over in a flash, so fast in fact that if you’re not careful, you might miss out on enjoying the whole experience. If there’s one thing I’d tell them, it’s that: to enjoy it as much as they can.