Snapshot: Maradona at the Bratwurst stand

Believe it or not, Diego Maradona’s first match on European soil was against the village team SV Meppen.

Diego Maradona made the big leap over the pond to play football in Europe at the gentle age of 21 in 1982. The Gaucho had decided to accept FC Barcelona’s offer and leave Boca Juniors. Barca spent 11,5 million DM to secure the Argentinian boy wonder’s services. Maradona went on to lead a successful career, which consisted of many moments of utter brilliance, mixed with an inordinate amount of scandals.  Such is the life of el pibe de oro.

During his long and lustrous career Maradona played against German teams on several occasions. Most German football fans are probably aware of the two World Cup finals Maradona has played against Germany, whilst Werder fans in particular are looking back fondly on SSC Napoli’s meeting with their side. A youngster by the name of Dieter Eilts kept the world football icon quiet over two legs in 1989, but Maradona’s first meeting with a German club happened 7 years previously.

Udo Lattek’s plan

The entire Barca ensemble prepared themselves for the upcoming 1982/83 season in a training camp in the Netherlands after Maradona had joined them. The Catalonians coach Udo Lattek wanted to see what his players had learned during said training camp in a friendly match, but there was just one element of the Dutch way of playing football that scared him. Lattek was convinced that Dutch opposition, even from a lower tier, would play a physical brand of football that could lead to injuries. Since Lattek could do without any injuries he asked the club to find an opposition that was close by in Germany.

The town of Meppen is not far away from the Netherlands, and back in 1982 SV Meppen were a mid table third tier side. The team from the tiny village of only 30,000 inhabitants was a perfect opponent. When the SV received the request from Barcelona the officials at the club weren’t sure what to do. Barca demanded 75,000 DM for their appearance against Meppen.

This was a massive chunk of money for a team like Meppen. After a few very long discussions in the boardroom the officials decided to agree to the friendly. What followed was a circus the small city hasn’t experienced ever since. Word about Maradona and the rest of the Barca team coming to town got out quickly and the 18,500 tickets were sold out within two days.

The turnout of 18,500 spectators is to this very day still the record attendance for a home match of the SV Meppen. Former Meppen coach Hans-Dieter Schmidt thinks that there were even more people at the match. 22,000 people were watching the game according to his estimate.

The running track around the pitch had to be filled with an improvised seating arrangements consisting of freshly assembled tree benches and empty beer cases. Hans-Dieter Schmidt is still in awe of the huge crowd which turned up that day, he told 11 Freunde:

The stadium was jam-packed, there wasn’t a single empty seat, even on the trees surrounding the stadium. Maradona, Bernd Schuster, Allan Simonsen – everybody wanted to see that. Many journalists had made the trip as well. It felt like there were 100 press people from Spain alone. Everybody wanted to know: Who is going to play against Maradona?

The game itself

On August 3rd 1982 the big day had arrived. The atmosphere itself was special already during the warm up sessions. Maradona was escorted onto the pitch by a number of policemen. Hans-Dieter Schmidt remembers that some fans wanted to follow the Argentinian as closely as possible:

He grabbed a ball, and started dribbling between the box and the mid circle. Feet, upper thigh, head, neck – he showed off a whole bag of tricks. Within moments there were 100 fans who had gotten onto the pitch following his every move. Every time he turned around to move into the other direction the fans provided him with an alley and he danced right through it. Afterwards they went into the same direction as he did. It was simply an incredible scene.

When the game had started 23-year-old midfielder Hermann Eiting followed Maradona’s every move, doing a very good job according to his coach. Eiting had been instructed by his coach to do his very best, and to avoid playing dirty. Those tactics worked out rather well. Maradona scored a goal from the spot after Barca had been awarded a penalty following a hand ball in the box in the 13th minute, but otherwise there was little in the way of danger coming from the Gaucho.

The main goal of the match was that every Meppen player on the pitch should enjoy himself according to coach Schmidt:

I knew that we weren’t able to reach Barca’s level from a footballing point of view, of course. But, what we wanted to do something else than blindly hammering away at our opponents, simply reacting to what our opponents were doing. The audience should enjoy the game.

Meppen lost the game 5-0 in the end. Maradona had played for 45 minutes and shown off some of his skills. The city of Meppen had experienced one its most memorable days in its history.

After the match

The Meppen locals had been in for a treat, watching Barca showing off some of their skill against their local football team. Maradona’s man marker, Hermann Eiting, told Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung that the fun was far from over after the final whistle had blown:

Something that has really burnt itself into my memory is how liberal-minded the players were back then. The Barca players gave autographs right after the match. 2-3000 kids were on the pitch. This sort of thing wouldn’t have been allowed to happen today.

Maradona himself didn’t seem to mind the attention at all according to Hans-Dieter Schmidt. The Meppen coach managed even to exchange a few words with the playmaker after the match:

I sat almost 30 minutes in the Barca locker room and I talked to Maradona during that period. He was a nice man who barely could speak English.

Schmidt and Maradona talked about the 1982 World Cup and the life changes after playmaker’s transfer to Barca. After having spent some time in the locker room together, the pair went to the Bratwurst stand outside to get something to eat.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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