‘Australia got behind football for the first time’: Arnold recalls Maradona’s impact
Socceroos coach and former striker Graham Arnold has recalled the impact Diego Maradona had on Australia when Argentina landed in Sydney to play the first leg of the FIFA World Cup 1994 playoff.
Australia were drawn against Argentina after the South American giants finished second in their qualification group.
A record crowd of 43,967 packed the Sydney Football Stadium for what was Maradona’s first competitive international in over three years.
With a World Cup within touching distance, it was Australian football’s biggest ever match and the world’s greatest player only added to the occasion.
Arnold, who made 54 appearances for the Socceroos over 12 years, described the chaos and madness that occurred when Maradona arrived.
"The whole of Australia really got behind Australian football for one of the first times because of the interest in Diego Maradona," he recalled.
"It was the first time the mainstream media led with the Socceroos and Maradona.
"They even watched him train.
"No one watched us, it was all about him and Argentina."
The excitement and interest only grew when the match finally kicked off, as the stadium was teeming with fans trying to get a glimpse of the star attraction.
"At the time, I think the capacity of the old Sydney Football Stadium was 41,000 and they announced it as 44,000 or something.
"The staircases were jam-packed, everyone somehow just got in."
Despite the fanfare, the Socceroos were not overawed by the atmosphere and played out a hard-fought 1-1 draw.
Captain Paul Wade was given the job of keeping Maradona at bay for the majority of the match.
"We put on a fantastic performance," Arnold said.
"I remember Eddie Thomson giving Paul Wade the job of shadow marking Maradona.
"He said to him ‘Wadey, if he walks off the field and goes to the toilet, you go with him'
"So, he just tracked Maradona all game and man-marked him.
While Arnold admitted that they never expected to play Argentina in the first place, the result proved that they could compete with the worlds best.
But it did not come without its challenges.
Half of Australia’s squad was based in Europe and with no FIFA international breaks at the time, the odds were against them.
"The hardest thing for us was that we were playing in Europe at that time and there were no FIFA windows," Arnold remembered.
"I played in Belgium on the Saturday and flew back to Sydney to play Argentina on the Wednesday.
"I then had to fly back to Belgium to play on Saturday and then to Buenos Aires to play Argentina the following Wednesday.