Maradona, although he didn’t know, served as the midwife for this change. In 1987, at the height of his fame, his Napoli team faced Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup. It was a delicious matchup: the Italian champions against the Spanish champions, the Neapolitan line of strikers from Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca – the Ma-Gi-Ca – against the Real from Emilio Butragueño and his Quinta del Buitre.
Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of A.C. Milan, greeted the draw with horror. Why on earth would football allow this, he thought: The game of the year was thrown away in the first round of a competition when it could be a suitable final, a showpiece around which the season can be built.
Berlusconi commissioned Alex Fynn, who then worked with the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, to work on a concept for the so-called European TV league, in which such games would not only be saved more often, but until the later rounds. It would turn out to be the idea that five years later led to the creation of the Champions League and the start of the new football.
As it turned out, not only would this football not have a place for Maradona, the player, but it would not be able to bring the idea towards Maradona. The concentration of power in the hands of a few superclubs and the rush of money into the sport would spark an arms race in tactics, coaching and recruitment. Within a few years it would rid the game of its ferocity and improvisation and renegade trail.
Maradona and everything he represented would be a thing of the past. He would become an avatar for soccer in his later years to instill nostalgia for everything we lost. It meant so much to so many – even to those who had no memory of it – because it symbolized the climax, the peak of what it used to be.