Maradona, though unaware of this, served as a midwife for the change. In 1987, at the height of his fame, his Napoli team drew against Real Madrid in the first round of the European Cup. It was a stunning duel: the Italian champions against the Spanish champions, the Neapolitan front line Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca – Ma-Gi-Ca – against Real Emilio Butragueño and his Quinta del Buitre.
Silvio Berlusconi, owner of AC Milan, welcomed the draw with horror. Why on earth would football allow that to happen, he thought: the game of the year was thrown in the first round of the competition, when it could make the appropriate finals, a show around which the season can be built.
Berlusconi tasked Alex Fynn, then working with Saatchi & Saatchi, to develop a concept for what he called the European Television League, in which games like this would not only be more frequent but also preserved until later rounds. It would turn out to be an idea that resulted, five years later, in the formation of the Champions League and the dawn of new football.
That football, as it turned out, not only would have no room for a Maradona player, but could not satisfy Maradona’s idea. A concentration of power in the hands of a few super clubs and a rush of money into the sport would trigger an arms race in tactics and coaching and recruitment. Within a few years, he would release the game of wildness, improvisation, and renegade lines.
Maradona and everything he represented will be committed to the past. In later years, it will become an avatar for football as it once was, encouraging nostalgia for all that we have lost. It meant so much to many — even to those who did not remember it — because it stood as a symbol of culmination, the pinnacle of what it once was.