About two years before I moved to Inter Milan in 1988, three or four men from Naples came to visit me on a Saturday night in Munich.
I’d played a game for Bayern against Cologne and arrived back in Munich at about 9pm or 10pm. My management and the people from Naples were all sat together in an Italian restaurant.
It was my friend’s restaurant and it was usually closed on a Saturday night, but he opened it just for us. Our visitors wanted to talk in private.
They told me, ‘Diego Maradona sends his regards, and his wish is to play in the same team as you.’ They asked if I wanted to join Napoli. They said they would give me a three-year contract, and that they also had cash.
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The cash was in a bag under the table. It was one million Deutsche Marks, and it wasn’t my salary. It was just for my signature. The cash was at least twice my annual salary at Bayern – possibly three times higher.
I wasn’t sure about it. I’m clean, and it was too much money. Was I ready to go to Napoli? Was it the right time to change clubs? I decided against it, but it was a really good feeling to know that Diego Maradona, the best player in the world, wanted me in his team.
Myself and Maradona have always had respect for each other, right from our very first meeting back in 1982. It was my fourth game for Germany and we played Argentina on March 24 – I remember it very well!
He was only a few months older than me, but at 21 he was already a superstar. I was on my way to being a national team player. He was many steps ahead.
He was the best player in the ’80s because of his personality, his quality, his speed, his technique… everything. He was a perfect player – a team player, too.
I don’t see anyone who’s dominated a World Cup like Maradona did in 1986. In the final, I was asked to man-mark him. Franz Beckenbauer had seen how Diego played in previous games – especially against England – and said if we wanted to win, first we had to stop Maradona.
I had to be concentrated. I had to disturb him when he first received the ball, and attack him immediately. When he had control of the ball, it was hard to stop him. He respected that I tried to stop him fairly – I never tried to hurt him like other players did.
For 70 or 80 minutes of that final, you didn’t see too much of Maradona. Unfortunately we went 2-0 down, so I was given a more attacking role for the final 20 minutes. We levelled the game at 2-2, but then Maradona came into the game with one great pass and Jorge Burruchaga scored the winner.
Our countries faced each other again in the 1990 World Cup Final, although I had a more attacking role that day. That time, Germany won 1-0.
I played against him in Serie A, too: on the day we won the league with Inter in 1989, we were playing Maradona’s Napoli. I still have a picture at home where I’m celebrating scoring the free-kick that won the Scudetto, and Maradona is in the background, looking at the grass.
Once we even played in the same team, for the Rest of the World against France in Michel Platini’s farewell game. Diego gave me the ball and I scored – on the field, that’s the nicest memory we have between each other.
Off the field, we had parties – when he joined Sevilla in 1992, I went with Bayern to play a friendly. Afterwards, there was a never-ending party until 7am or 8am. Maradona was dancing on a table, he was talking with everybody, he was very happy to be back in Europe!
After that, we were always happy when we saw each other – although when I last saw him at the World Cup in Russia, he looked sick. That made me sad. When he was at Napoli, I heard stories about people who lived off his money. I think many people surround him because he’s Diego Maradona, not because he’s their friend.
On the field, he was magic. When he came to Munich to play in my farewell game, it meant a lot. I was invited to his farewell game, too. That said everything about the feeling we have always had for each other: complete respect.
This column appeared in the July 2019 issue of FourFourTwo
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