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Diego Maradona: Argentine legend almost played for Dundee during Bonetti era

Diego Maradona almost played for Dundee.
Diego Maradona almost played for Dundee.

Football legend Diego Maradona will forever be associated with Dundee in death as in life.

Maradona, who has died at the age of 60, played his first game in Scotland at Hampden Park for Argentina in 1979 and he almost returned in 2001 to play at Dens Park when he agreed to play in a glamour friendly against Napoli.

Maradona’s name had been spoken about in the corridors of Dens Park from the moment his best mate and former international strike partner Claudio Caniggia arrived at Dundee in October 2000 which was a signing which stunned the world.

Phone call

Caniggia said: “As soon as I signed for Dundee I was on the phone to Diego to tell him I was back in football.

“Diego told me he plans to come to Scotland within the next few weeks to see me play.”

Argentine stars Diego Maradona, right, and Claudio Caniggia kiss after Caniggia scored Boca Juniors’ second goal in their 4-1 match against River Plate in 1996.

Sales of replica Dundee strips began flying out the door of the club shop with Caniggia’s name and number 33 on the back.

Sales were only stopped when the shop ran out of the letters N and G but not before one had been sent to Maradona who had requested one.

The package was sent out the next day in the post to the man, who, along with three-time Brazilian World Cup winner Pele, was considered the greatest player of all time and even the Hand of God was now in Dundee’s corner.

Caniggia proved he was still at the top of his game and Dundee matches against the likes of Dunfermline and Hibernian were suddenly being shown live in South America, Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies.

He grew to love the city and signed a new deal in January and talked of finishing his career in Dundee.

Sensational rumours

The new year also brought sensational rumours that Maradona would arrive in the city to line up alongside him.

There were reports that during their regular telephone conversations the pair had hit on the idea of the partnership that had steered Argentina to the final of the 1990 World Cup being reawakened in Scotland for one game only against Maradona’s former club Napoli.

A club spokesman said: “I can confirm there was written correspondence between Diego Maradona, his representatives and Dundee Football Club which outline both parties’ desire for Diego Maradona to play in a one-off glamour friendly for Dundee.

“We hope to settle upon other details such as date and time of game within the next few days, but it’s increasingly likely that any match involving Maradona will take place at Dens Park.

“That is obviously great news for Dundee fans.”

Confidential matter

The terms agreed between Maradona and Dundee would remain “a confidential matter between both parties” although reports suggested he would be paid a quarter-of-a-million to play.

Diego Maradona scores against Greece in the 1994 World Cup before he tested positive and was sent home in disgrace.

“To be precise Diego suggested it and I said I’d arrange it,” said Caniggia.

“He’s now looking after himself – in Cuba most of the time – and I was pleased to find him in good shape.

“I know Diego like no one else does and he’s a very nice guy.”

The thought of Maradona arriving from Havana to turn out at Dens Park unsurprisingly made headlines around the world.

But just a day later the Dark Blues were brought crashing back down to earth.

Maradona stepped off a plane in Italy and straight into the middle of an ill-timed tax fraud scandal.

Police were patiently waiting at Fiumicino airport in Rome where they informed him that he was being investigated for an alleged tax fraud of around £16.6m.

Welcoming party

A Dundee spokesman later admitted he was just as surprised and shocked as everyone else at the welcoming party Maradona received on his arrival in Rome.

He said the conclusion of the fraud probe being carried out by the Italian authorities was just one of a number of “significant factors” that might derail the showcase match.

Maradona and Caniggia are still hero-worshipped by the Argentina fans to this day.

Caniggia eventually left Dundee to sign for Rangers in the summer of 2001 after just one season.

Caniggia said it was just bad luck that stopped Maradona watching him play at Dens.

The striker insisted he would be inviting him to watch him play for Rangers.

He said: “He promised to fly over to see me when I played with Dundee.

“But I’d moved from Dens Park before his trip could be organised.

EXCLUSIVE: Diego Maradona saluted by Paul Hegarty as Dundee United hero recalls facing legend at Hampden in 1979

“Maybe we’ll have better luck this time.

“I hope so.”

Sadly he never did return to Scotland.

But he will always be linked with a crazy season in Dundee’s history.

Dundee’s then-owner Peter Marr summed it up best when he said: “Every day seemed to bring something else you never thought possible.”