The day Argentina's World Cup-winning team came to Windsor Park on the eve of Italia '90

Argentina were in the final stages of preparation for the 1990 World Cup, Linfield were preparing for an Irish Cup semi-final against their fiercest rivals. Neil Loughran looks at the story behind how these two teams would cross paths just weeks before the reigning world champions began the ultimately doomed defence of their title in Italy...

Argentina's Gustavo Dezotti skips away from Linfield's Michael Hayde during their April 1990 friendly clash at Windsor Park. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE more years that have passed, the more obvious it has become. The hair – it has to have been the hair. How else could you explain the beginning of Diego Maradona’s untimely demise as Argentina hurtled towards the defence of their World Cup crown in the summer of 1990?

Sure, you could point to the truckload of drugs consumed, or the rising pressure of his links to the Camorra, the notorious Neopolitan mafia who helped feed Maradona’s habit.

And who could forget the late night carousing around his adopted home city, throwing the kind of shapes that would - 30 years on - spawn a dedicated Twitter page synchronising his moves with everything from Put ’em under Pressure to Come out ye Black and Tans.

None of that sits easily around these parts though. No matter what way you turn, the link between hair and plummeting performance is unavoidable. Look at the footage of Mexico ’86, Maradona’s finest hour. The bounce, the spring, shimmying this way and that, holding us all in thrall. It was a beautiful thing.

There was potentially even more volume when he led Napoli to Lo Scudetto the following summer, those curly locks still glistening in the cool night air as they landed the Uefa Cup in May 1989.

Within a year, though, it had all started to go wrong. Short back and sides, a bit of designer stubble and a crucifix earring; the George Michael look was a disaster for Diego.

By the time the World Cup rolled around, he was a shadow of the player we had watched open mouthed four years earlier. Consequentially, Argentina were also a vastly diminished force.

Next Monday marks 30 years since their disastrous opening day defeat to unfancied Cameroon at Italia ’90. How that team ended up making it to the final remains one of the great mysteries of our time.

The cracks had begun to appear in the 12 months before after a string of poor performances in friendly matches. Bizarrely, one of those came against Irish League Linfield just two months out from the big kick-off.

Before we even get to the match though, let’s rewind a second. Linfield? Reigning world champions Argentina? How? Why? The answer is a son of east Belfast who had brought his influence to bear Stateside.

Noel Lemon (right), who helped organise the friendly match between Linfield and Argentina, with Blues chairman David Campbell

Noel Lemon was a former Glentoran player (his brother Jim played for Linfield) who became a key figure in American soccer circles through the 1970s and ’80s. First he played for a handful of clubs in Philadelphia before becoming general manager of Tulsa Roughnecks, a franchise of the ill-fated North American Soccer League (NASL).

Along with former NASL executive Clive Toye, Lemon founded the Mundial Sports Group and became a major player in promoting international matches - “providing much-needed competition for the US national team and keeping outdoor soccer alive the years between the end of the NASL and the launch of MLS”, according to Soccer America magazine.

The Marlboro Cup, which he helped kick-start, was one of the first events that tapped into the market for international matches in the United States and proved of huge benefit as the USA ended a 40-year drought by qualifying for the 1990 World Cup.

That same year, Lemon also helped organise Argentina’s Italia ’90 preparation. The plan was straightforward – Guatemala, a couple of games against Mexico in Los Angeles, then off to Europe.

Scotland would be first up on March 28, followed by a glamour tie with Johann Cruyff’s star-studded Barcelona side at the Nou Camp. When that fell through at the 11th hour, however, alternative options were thin on the ground.

The Argentines were desperate to schedule another outing in Europe during the international break, so Lemon looked a little closer to home.

“The game in Barcelona was scheduled to be the opening of the new Olympic Stadium but when it emerged that the stadium would not be ready in time, it was cancelled,” writes Dan Brown in his book, Every Other Saturday.

“As Argentina had the match in Scotland, there was a wish to continue preparations in the UK. At this point Lemon offered Linfield the game with the World Cup holders.”

Just like that, Argentina found themselves heading to Belfast, not Barcelona, for a game on April 3. Penny for the players’ thoughts when that news dropped.

Could Diego Maradona do it on a Tuesday night at Windsor Park? One that would inexplicably bring sun, sleet and snow, all in the one evening? We were about to find out.

Except, of course, we weren’t. My memories of the time are fleeting, beyond the BBC highlights programme that night, but there was definitely some ‘will he, won’t he?’ debate doing the rounds in the papers during the lead in.

Unfortunately Maradona was never going to travel to Ireland, let alone play.

He had scored two first half goals in Napoli’s 3-1 win over Juventus on March 25 (mustn’t have been to the barbers by then), but played no part in his country’s 1-0 defeat to Scotland at Hampden Park three days later.

A promotional tour to Japan was the official reason given at the time, with Maradona back in sky blue as Napoli defeated Atalanta on April 8 – a campaign that would end in Serie A triumph.

“Oh my goodness, it would have been fantastic to have someone like Maradona there,” says Roy Coyle, who was Linfield manager at the time.

“But even the fact you were playing Argentina at Windsor Park, that was a big enough thing looking back. You would never see that happening today. It was a tremendous coup for the club.”

The Argentina team - containing 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano (pictured centre) - get ready to face Linfield at a half-empty Windsor Park

The South Americans arrived in Belfast on March 30, and actually ended up playing two games during their short stay – the first a hastily-arranged, behind-closed-doors affair against Linfield Swifts. Argentina won 8-0.

For their date with Coyle’s side, Carlos Bilardo named four men who started the 1986 World Cup final win over West Germany in his starting 11 – goalkeeper Nery Pumpido, Jose Luis Brown, Sergio Batista and striker Jorge Valdano, who had come of out of retirement at the turn of the year.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a hold of Pumpido for this piece. To be fair, he probably wants to banish this particular period from his memory. The year after that triumph in Mexico he almost lost a finger when his wedding ring caught in a hook on the crossbar during a training match, while 1990 turned out to be a disaster on the field.

In that opening World Cup game against Cameroon, he somehow allowed a harmless-looking header from Cameroon’s Francois Omam-Biyik to slip into the net. Pumpido played 11 more minutes after that, breaking his leg early on against USSR in the next game.

Up stepped a young gringo with matinee idol looks to fill the void. Sergio Goycoechea would emerge as the country’s unexpected hero that summer, repelling everything hated rivals Brazil threw at him in the second round before becoming the penalty shootout saviour against Yugoslavia and hosts Italy on an emotional night in Naples.

Even in the final, his fingertips were just millimetres away from saving Andreas Brehme’s spot kick that sealed World Cup glory for West Germany.

I tried to get Goycoechea for this too, more for the craic than anything else. Well, ‘tried’ is maybe stretching it slightly. I messaged a fellow journalist who had interviewed him back in 2007 to see if there might be an ‘in’. This was his reply three days later.

“I have absolutely no memory of this happening.”

Hmm, not a great start.

“But I have checked and apparently it is true. I did talk to him. I have no idea how. It was 13 years ago after all. Sorry.”

That was that then. No ex-Argentina goalkeepers were harmed in the production of this article.

Anyway, I digress. Actually, hold on, there’s a bit more digression to come so buckle up.

The visit to Belfast also marked a homecoming of sorts for Jose Luis Brown, who has long been at the centre of a claiming rights battle between Ireland and Scotland.

Scotland’s link appears to be exclusively to do with the comic strip The Broons, where apparent family ties to Mayo-born admiral William Brown – fondly recalled as ‘the father of the Argentine Navy’ thanks to an impressive 3-0 record from the wars he led them into - leave just enough tangential wriggle room for Ireland to cling to, even if the Foxford native died 129 years before Jose Luis would rise like a River Moy salmon to head home Argentina’s opener in the 1986 World Cup decider.

If that was the apex of an impressive career for a man who sadly passed away in August last year following a battle with Alzheimer’s, then the campaign leading into Italia ’90 was one filled with frustration.

Argentina arrived in Belfast having failed to score a goal in any of their previous nine games, five of which they had lost.

For Linfield, meanwhile, this was a showpiece occasion but nothing more. Despite a last gasp charm offensive, just over 6,500 paying punters turned up at Windsor on the night – a sign of the troubled times as much as anything, especially considering 51,537 had welcomed Argentina to Hampden Park days earlier.

For Roy Coyle and the Linfield players, their focus was elsewhere too as the following Saturday they were to face ‘Big Two’ rivals Glentoran in the semi-final of the Irish Cup. Already out of the title picture, it was to be a season-definer for the Blues.

“Glentoran was the priority, without question,” said Coyle, “but the Argentina game was an opportunity to let the supporters see a world class country and world class players.

“When you play those sorts of games you know it’s not going to be really physical. It wasn’t a very competitive game, I remember that; I don’t think we were allowed to tackle.”

Coyle laughs as he utters that last line, but admits he feared the worst when Nestor Lorenzo opened the scoring just four minutes in.

“I thought we might be in for a tanking, but we did very well after that.”

Lorenzo’s strike turned out to be the only goal of the game, and Linfield could even have snatched a draw had Pumpido not managed to block Darrin Coyle’s goalbound effort after a corner caused panic.

Young goalkeeper Brian Hanley also came off the bench to make a name for himself, replacing George Dunlop for the final 22 minutes and pulling off a smart double save from Pedro Troglio and substitute Claudio Caniggia.

The front cover of the match programme, featuring a picture of Linfield club captain David Jeffrey, who didn't play that night

Watching on from the dugout, meanwhile, was Linfield club captain David Jeffrey.

It was his face that adorned the front cover of the match programme, yet Jeffrey would play no part in the game. With a niggly back injury, it was decided – after consulting Coyle and sports therapist Terry Hayes – that he would be held in reserve for the derby.

Thirty years on, Jeffrey is still waiting.

“We looked at what was the greatest need, and at that stage we agreed that while it would have been absolutely fabulous playing against the world champions at Windsor Park – what an occasion that would be – Glentoran was the big one. So I made the decision not to play, to make really sure I was fit and ready for the Saturday.

“The irony of the story, however, is that Roy Coyle left me out. We ended up getting chinned [Glentoran won 2-0] and the ultimate indignity, I can say this now as I’m obviously well over it – maybe I’m not! – was Coyler bringing me on for the last 15 minutes to go and play up front, to be a battering ram.

“I was a centre back and nothing else. Looking back on it now, I’m gutted because I didn’t get to play against Argentina, but even more gutted for not getting playing against Glentoran having taken the precaution.”

Abderrahmeme Dehnoun has fonder memories of the evening in question. The Algerian midfielder spent a year with Linfield and has never forgotten the night he came face to face with some of the best around.

“This was their scene – plenty of time to play the ball, no hard tackling,” wrote Malcolm Brodie of Dehnoun and compatriot Hocine Yahi in the following day’s Belfast Telegraph.

“I really like what Argentina represents in football, but on the pitch they were ordinary people,” said the 58-year-old from his Barcelona home.

“I enjoyed that game for how they play in South America with a lot of skills, not like Irish football at that time, although I believe that nowadays this has changed.”

He would love to have shared the same stretch of grass with Maradona that evening, but it wasn’t to be. Oddly enough, even though he wasn’t there, you can still buy the number 10 shirt the world’s greatest was supposed to wear against Linfield.

“This is one of the last preparatory matches played by the Argentina national team before the 1990 World Cup in Italy,” proudly boasts

“The shirt was prepared to be used by Diego Maradona but he finally did not participate and shirt number 10 was not used. The shirt belonged to a former Linfield player which was sold to a Scottish collector.”

The Argentina number 10 jersey that Diego Maradona didn't wear at Windsor Park in April 1990. The Napoli ace was apparently in Japan on a promotional tour at the time

Argentina left Belfast with their visit having barely registered in the conscience of a city with more on its mind than World Cup fever. There was a bigger crowd at Windsor as Linfield fell to the Glens four days later, a result which effectively sealed the end of Coyle’s successful 15-year reign.

It would be easy for him to look back now and bemoan the inconvenience of staging a glamour friendly in the week of such a crucial clash. Coyle, though, can only see it for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity it was.

“Playing against a team like that, world class players like that - if you can’t learn something from that then there’s something wrong with you. They’ll have that memory for the rest of their lives.

“To play against Argentina, against the reigning world champions... how many Irish League players can say that?”

Tuesday, April 3, 1990 (Windsor Park)

Linfield 0 Argentina 1

Linfield: G Dunlop (B Hanley, 68), M Hayde, A Dehnoun, L Doherty (capt), J Spiers, D Coyle, J Grattan, (P Mitchell, 61), L McKeown (H Yahi, 61), M McGaughey (S Baxter, 59), J Kerr (J Magee, 59), S Burrows.

Argentina: N Pumpido, S Batista (capt), JL Brown, P Monzon, N Fabbri, R Diaz (J Olarticoechea, 62), N Lorenzo, Calderon, P Troglio, G Dezotti (C Caniggia, 62), J Valdano.

Goal: Lorenzo (4)

Referee: Norman Loughins



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