Diego In Tokyo

Argentina U20 vs USSR U20, World Youth Championship 1979 Final

First Diego Armando Maradona catches your eye. Then he captures your imagination. When watching him aged 18 leading the Argentine Under 20 side to glory you get the feeling it was always preordained. It was always about El Pibe de Oro, the Golden Boy, winning his first major trophy. His teammates, albeit talented, look a mere supporting cast. Ignorance renders the eleven Soviet opponents in the final into nameless adversaries to be overcome — like villains in many an action movie of the time.

Diego Armando Maradona in the final of the World Youth Championship 1979. (Photo: public domain)

But it is the leading man’s name on the marquee that ensures you buy a ticket to watch the picture. Diving into football history it is Maradona’s name that makes you pull up a nearly four decades old youth match. And then you are left marvelling at what you see because it is all still on display today: Maradona’s athleticism, his vision, passing, balance, and control. Oh, that control. And most importantly the promise of more. The World Youth Championship 1979 was only to be the beginning.

Maradona & Menotti

In Japan Maradona may have announced himself to the world. But by 1979 he was already a bonafide star in his native Argentina. Learning to play on the streets of Buenos Aires and in the youth system of local side Argentinos Juniors Maradona quickly rose through the ranks. As a pre-teen he had caught the public’s attention at Argentinos matches performing ball tricks during the half time break. Before turning 16 he debuted for the senior side. After eleven appearances he earned his first Albiceleste cap. Leading 4:0 against Hungary the Buenos Aires crowd urged their national team manager to bring on the pibe. Cesar Luis Menotti obliged.

That Menotti left Maradona out of his World Cup squad a year later was understandable given the numerous alternatives in the forward role; all of whom were more experienced and emotionally matured. Success ultimately proved Menotti right. For 17 year old Diego, though, the omission caused much distress. The perceived snub almost made the talented youngster hang up his boots altogether. But play on he did — and how.

Maradona at Argentinos Juniors

Argentine league football was for quite some time broken down into two seasons played over one calendar year. During the 1970s and early ’80s these were known as Metropolitano, played in the first half of the year, and Nacional, played in the second half. Having been joint top scorer for the 1978 Metropolitano Maradona extended his prowess over the whole calendar year in 1979.

He also pulled double duty in the Under 20s and senior national team. In January Argentina finished runners-up to Uruguay at the South American U-20 Championship. Both sides punched their ticket for the World Championship held in August and September. In between Maradona took part in a European tour with the seniors, going undefeated against Holland, Italy, Ireland, and Scotland. At Hampden Park Maradona broke his scoring duck.

Copa or Japan?

Menotti presided over both these Argentine teams and tight scheduling forced him to make a decision. Four days before the start of the World Youth Championship the senior side faced a crucial match against Brazil. Failure to win would mean missing the Copa America semi-final. Maradona had scored in the match previous against Bolivia. Menotti sent him to Japan anyway and Argentina drew 2-all with Brazil.

What reads like a major demotion from a contemporary European vantage point was quite the opposite. As Jonathan Wilson relays in Angels With Dirty Faces, Maradona actually feared Menotti would retain him in the senior side and thus keep him from achieving glory once again. Maradona relished the World Youth Championship as his stage. Menotti in turn hedged his bets on the pibe as the centerpiece of a squad rich in talent. After winning the World Cup 1978 the tournament in Japan was to be a demonstration of the strength of Argentine football.

Sticking point against Yugoslavia

Fortunately footage of perhaps their most pressing challenge during the tournament survived. Having brushed aside Indonesia (5:0) Argentina faced Yugoslavia in their second group stage match. A game of two halves, Yugoslavia dominated the first. Argentina started defensively, employing a counter attacking style. Maradona floated in and out of the action. Favouring the left wing he needed to start runs in the deepest third of the pitch to get involved. Once he got near the Yugoslav box two or more defenders converged on him. Argentina were bogged down by sloppy passing, lost the numbers battle in midfield and hardly created any chances. Yugoslavia’s pressure culminated in a goal line clearance by Rubén Rossi just before the end of the first half. Two weeks Maradona’s junior Rossi was the only player in the side who was younger than the captain

Menotti rallied the troops during the break. They may as well have stayed at home if this is how they wanted to portray Argentina and its football. From the re-start his side responded, moving the ball much quicker. Within the first minute Osvaldo Rinaldi had a go from 25 yards out, hitting the post. Argentina forced their tempo upon Yugoslavia which upped the latter side’s error rate considerably. Maradona too became more lively but failed to make the match truly his. Ten minutes of attacking flurry provided the sole goal, courtesy of Osvaldo Escudero.

Argentina finished off their group stage with a more decisive 4:1 over Poland. In Group D the Soviets followed up drubbings of Hungary (5:1), and Guinea (3:0) with a narrow defeat against Uruguay (0:1). In the knockout stage Argentina were hardly bothered by Algeria (5:0) before disposing of their arch rivals Uruguay in the semi-finals (2:0). The USSR needed penalties to make their way past Paraguay, and advanced to the final in minimalistic fashion, beating Poland 1:0.

Favourites vs holders

Standing 5’5’’ (1.65m) Maradona looks diminutive lining up against the USSR. On the day he would have no equal. Having won the previous, and first, edition of the World Youth Championship the Soviet Union enter the final as title holders. And they catch a lightning start, stirring up trouble inside Argentina’s box within the first minute. Miscommunication among the Argentine back-line had been a problem against Yugoslavia. Here it is showing again early.

Argentina line up before match. (Photo: public domain)

A first bit of reprieve comes from Maradona dragging the ball into the final third earning a throw in high up. The captain starts on the left wing and stays up top. From the start Maradona is heavily involved and actively sought by his teammates.

Size advantage favours the Soviets across the board. While Argentina prefer to move the ball along the ground and thus position lots of bodies in the middle of the pitch; the USSR seek to get it into the first line of attack more quickly. High balls up top are not a bad choice anyway considering that the pitch, especially on the side Argentina defend, is in dire condition. Ten matches had been played at the National Olympic Stadium of Tokyo in less than two weeks.

General set-up

After only a few minutes Argentina settle into a rhythm and look comfortably in control. A rather washed out video makes it hard to pick out individual players; but the staccato of Argentine names from the enthusiastic Spanish commentary keeps the viewer informed about the Albicelestes. For the USSR, though, it’s mostly ten red and white shapes in coordinated defence, with one figure in green and black at the rear.

Maradona quickly takes up position at centre forward, forcing Ramon Díaz to drift out to the wings or drop deep into midfield. A first shot on target from Diego goes straight into the arms of Viktor Chanov (9’). In central midfield Escudero and Rinaldi dominate proceedings as the USSR try a higher press. Once or twice in the opening the Soviets show their pace on the counter.

Nerves hit both sides, though, the USSR much more so. They dribble straight into touch, miss easy stops in comical fashion, and just make too many unnecessary mistakes. Of course they wouldn’t have made it to the final if they weren’t good. At 19, 20 this is in all likelihood the match of their lives. Plus: Argentina aren’t lighting the match on fire either.

Too one-dimensional in attack

Argentina pluck away at Chanov with long range efforts. When Díaz has a go from 25 yards midway through the first half it becomes apparent that Argentina have yet to try a through ball into the box or an overlap run on the wing — anything to pick and pull the USSR back-line apart. It is all very much head down, beat your man type stuff. As long as the USSR manage to push Argentina away from the final third they can rest somewhat easily.

Oleg Taran, Ihar Hurynovich and Yaroslav Dumansky break off an Argentine corner kick and end up with a free shot at goal for Dumansky who inexplicably misses the target altogether from 12 yards out (24’). Another swift attacking move leaves Dumansky with another clear look at goal. This time, from 20 yards out, he actually keeps his shot on target. It bothers Sergio García enough that he spills the ball. But the Argentine goalkeeper can reclaim it immediately (31’).

It is surprising how few touches Maradona has. He is all over the place during some phases, not necessarily in a good way. He drops deep into his own half to get involved, or stays up top trying to facilitate play. Diego is certainly more involved than against Yugoslavia and is Argentina’s sharpest weapon. Most times it spells danger for the opposition when he gets the ball. But he is also not running them riot just yet. The last of a handful of efforts from the edge of the box comes in the closing minutes of the first half. Diego buys himself a bit of space against two or three defenders and forces Chanov into a save.

Out on the front foot

Argentina are out early for the second half and have already been on the pitch for a couple of minutes as USSR emerge from the tunnel. Maradona who had been talking to teammates intently gives away the ball right from kick-off. It is not a sign of things to come. Argentina start the second half running and never look back.

Maradona floating across the pitch. (Photo: public domain)

Running is the theme as Maradona and others drag the ball into the final third, dribble at their marker, and — something not seen in the first half — actually get into the box repeatedly like that. It is hardly more finessed than before, just the same tactic dialed up to eleven. Especially Maradona starts to shine even though not everything he tries comes good. The USSR defence is best served to always send a second defender over to help. In those situations Maradona is aware enough to switch the play’s direction with a flick to a teammate thus using that momentum in the defence to his side’s advantage.

Not in the script

Ten minutes into the second half Igor Ponomaryov uses commotion in the Argentine line-up to his side’s advantage. Menotti had brought on Juan José Meza and Alfredo Torres for Rinaldi and Escudero. With Argentina still finding their rhythm in the new formation; Ponomaryov exploits a giant gap in the centre of defence with a clever run forward. Sergei Stukashov delivers a punctual cross from the right wing. Ponomaryov makes a header from about 12 yards out look easy, and puts the USSR 1:0 up (52’).

Argentina go right back to attacking. Without Rinaldi, and chasing the game, they gap the midfield quicker. Maradona now pops up on either wing getting outlet passes sooner. Full back Hugo Alves joins into the fun and basically acts as another winger.

Dumansky and Viktor Yanushevsky are replaced by Mikhail Olefirenko and Vladimir Mikhalevsky. The substitutes are swept up in the one way traffic towards Chanov’s goal. Maradona drags the Albicelestes forward. The captain is more involved than ever as the others search for him on every play. His runs from midfield are most devastating. Lots of red jerseys in the final third test his decision making with mixed results. Juan Barbas proves himself equally skilled at avoiding some of the rash challenges when running at the defence.


Though easily half a dozen shots had peppered Chanov’s goal in the ten minutes since the opener, most of them couldn’t really bother the Soviet goalkeeper. With less than a quarter hour to go Díaz forces him into a fingertip save with a great long range effort. From the ensuing corner Argentina are awarded a penalty. As the replay of Díaz’ shot is still broadcast when the whistle sounds; a best guess as to what happened would be handling as everybody is still on their feet. Alves opts for brute force from the spot, catches Chanov flat footed, and equalizes down the right side.

Ramón Díaz slicing through the USSR midfield. (Photo: public domain)

Argentina go for the second goal straight away. Maradona is denied by Chanov after combining with Torres on the right wing. Díaz tries one of those runs from deep for himself, skipping past a lunging Ashot Khachatryan tackle. Sergey Ovchinnikov had been chasing him for 40 yards, finally catches up inside the box, goes in for the tackle 5 yards out, but Díaz squeezes a shot through him and Chanov for the 2:1.

Menotti, unmoved after the equalizer, is now leaping up with the rest of the bench, hugging his coaching staff, yet always mindful of the cigarette still in his hand.

Maradona on the scoresheet

The second goal in quick succession saps the remaining energy out of the USSR players. Argentina, even at an average age of 19 are wily enough to take the tempo out of the game, play keep ball and see out the victory. Though not before Maradona crowns his performance with a thunderous free kick from the edge of the box, blasted right past a hapless Chanov.

As influential as Rinaldi was in the first half, switching up the style towards a more speed focussed, rushing football worked well in the chase after the 0:1. Maradona was the standout in the deciding twenty minutes during the second half. But Argentina had just so many options in attack that the USSR needed to be wary off: Maradona, Díaz, Torres, Alves, Calderón, Barbas could all beat their man with pace. It would always be a long shot to keep all of them quiet for long.

Interestingly, five players would earn caps for Argentina’s main side; Simón, Díaz, Barbas, and Calderon made a combined 91 appearances for the men’s team — exactly the amount Maradona achieved during his career. For the axis of this side the future looked bright, for their captain the sky was the limit.