The day Maradona stole the show at Leichhardt Oval – as a punter

Diego Maradona graced some of the most famous stadiums on the planet – from La Bombonera in Buenos Aires to the Nou Camp in Barcelona and, of course, the San Paolo in Napoli, which will soon be renamed in his honour.

But during his memorable two-week stay in Sydney back in October 1993, he also took the time out to visit a slightly more modest venue: Leichhardt Oval.

Diego Maradona caught an NSL match at Leichhardt Oval during his brief stay in Sydney.

Diego Maradona caught an NSL match at Leichhardt Oval during his brief stay in Sydney.Credit:Simon Alekna

And while the Argentinian superstar never set foot on the hallowed turf of what Wests Tigers fans regard as the eighth wonder of the world, he still managed to steal the limelight.

A week out from Argentina's World Cup qualifying clash with the Socceroos at the SFS, Maradona and his teammates made the pilgrimage from their hotel in Coogee to the jewel of the inner west to catch a National Soccer League match.

It was Sunday, October 24, and Sydney Olympic - who called Leichhardt Oval home back then - were at home to the Morwell Falcons in the opening round of the 1993-94 season.

Aware that they were in the city, Olympic had sent a rather hopeful invitation to the Argentinian camp to come along - if their training commitments permitted - to catch a glimpse of Australia's domestic product.

Diego Maradona once blessed the eighth wonder of the world, Leichhardt Oval, with his presence.

Diego Maradona once blessed the eighth wonder of the world, Leichhardt Oval, with his presence.Credit:Steve Christo, Leichhardt Oval

Greg Howes, the club's accountant, told his amateur soccer teammate Glenn Price to be there just in case they actually showed up.

"Greg said, bring your nephew along, come and sit in the box - we think they're going to turn up," Price said. "We weren't sure – but the whole bloody lot came in their tracksuits. It was incredible."

Olympic's Glen Johnson (obscured) tries to control the ball in front of a Morwell Falcons opponent in 1995.

Olympic's Glen Johnson (obscured) tries to control the ball in front of a Morwell Falcons opponent in 1995.Credit:Tim Clayton

As murmurs began to spread across the ground that a legend was in the building, the crowd began to turn their backs on the game and gawk at Maradona.

Price suddenly found himself in the same room as football's all-time greatest player – and a few others like Gabriel Batistuta, Fernando Redondo and Oscar Ruggeri, who were also pretty handy in their own right.

"There weren't that many people at the ground – maybe 1000 or something – but everyone came up as close as they could to that box," he said.

"Everyone's back was to the football. It was like everything else was inconsequential. I went up and shook hands with a couple of the guys – I didn't get to Maradona. They were just polite, respectful.

"They were speaking Spanish of course but just nodded and acknowledged us. It was a non-descript game, I don't know what they thought of it. But they all marched in and behaved themselves.

"It was very special, just to be there – a little moment in Australian football that shouldn't be forgotten. I just wish we'd had mobile phones back then so we could take pictures!"

Legend has it that the late Jim Kelaiditis, the former Sydney Olympic president, did manage to get a word in with Maradona.

"I'm so excited – Maradona spoke to me!" he told friends, according to an anecdote that has done the rounds for many years in Sydney Olympic circles.

"What did he say?" one of his mates asked.


"Black with one sugar," Kelaiditis replied.

For the record, Olympic beat Morwell 2-1, courtesy of goals from Ivan Kelic and Branko Milosevic and a red card to John Markovski, who opened the scoring for the Falcons.

The Herald spoke to a handful of players from that game but they had only vague knowledge of the fact that Maradona watched them play, much to their own frustrations, and none of them managed to catch up with him afterwards.

But the story checks out – the Herald's Mike Cockerill gave Maradona a passing mention at the bottom of his match report, and the two of them are probably now playing a pick-up game together on the big football pitch in the sky.

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