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In the first of a brand new series examining footballing brothers whose careers were mostly spent as adversaries, Mark Godfrey, remembers one of the shortest rivalries – the half an hour when Maradona took on Maradona.
One had the name that would make anyone sit up and take notice. The other was the name; the brand, the persona, the icon, the legend.
It may have lasted a mere 32 minutes, but on the late summer afternoon of September 20th, 1987 during the meeting of Italian champions S.S.C. Napoli and Ascoli Calcio at the former’s Stadio San Paolo, two brothers came in direct competition with each other. Their respective professional careers could hardly have been more contrasting – mediocre to magnificent, journeyman to superstar. This was Hugo versus Diego; in fact it was Hugo versus El Diego – the latter having achieved virtual deification in Naples and his homeland. The one thing they shared, that made them equals, was that name: Maradona.
The more famous of these two siblings needs very little introduction (a third brother, Raul, was also a footballer but at a much lower level). Diego was – and possibly still is – the greatest player ever to grace the game. He courted kings and controversy in equal measure, winning the plaudits for himself and the reflected glory for the masses who idolised him. The World Cup victory – often attributed solely to Diego – in 1986 and the 1987 Serie A title secured him immortality in the eyes of the Argentine and Neapolitan peoples.
Hugo’s route to this point was significantly less exalted; how could it possibly compare? Eight and a half years Diego’s junior, he would barely have been at the stage of kicking a ball around the streets of Villa Fiorito when his elder brother was attracting attention in the junior team of Argentinos Juniors. He was of a similar height and stature to Diego; short, squat but slightly less stocky. The features were also similar – the jet black hair and swarthy complexion – yet his face was more angelic. Diego had the devil in him.
Hugo also began his football journey at Argentinos Juniors as a midfielder. He participated in the World Under-16 Championship in China alongside Fernando Redondo, scoring twice against Congo in a group match. In 1987, after 19 appearances and one goal for the first team at La Paternal (the stadium now named after Diego), Hugo got the opportunity to join his brother in Italy – then the undisputed best league in the world where all the top players wanted to test themselves and earn a pretty penny in the process. He wasn’t snapped up by one of the northern powerhouses or even Diego’s Napoli; his destination was unfashionable Ascoli – a town in the Marche region situated on the eastern side of the Apennines.
The football club escaped relegation by just two points the season before Hugo’s arrival, so it’s unlikely they expected a similar reversal of fortunes as seen in Naples after Diego landed from Barcelona. In just the second fixture of the campaign, they would get their chance to pit their wits against the reigning champions. Ottavio Bianchi’s side was about more than just their talismanic Maradona – there were Italian internationals Ciro Ferrara, Fernando De Napoli and Salvatore Bagni – but they were constructed to serve and protect him; give him the ball and let the magic happen.
Hugo had no such pressure on his shoulders – he started the game on the bench, absent from its most remarkable action. Napoli went ahead in the seventh minute through Bagni who latched on to a defence-splitting pass from you know who before sliding a left-footed shot past Andrea Pazzagli. Eleven minutes later Lorenzo Scarafoni’s scruffy effort levelled the scores after some slackness at the back by the hosts. Parity was short-lived.
Before half time, Diego’s fingerprints were once again all over Napoli’s second, and eventual winning goal scored by Bruno Giordano. His role in that team and the influence he exerted over Italian football in general can never be understated. It took huge investment on high profile foreign imports by Juventus, Milan and Inter to match and eventually surpass what Napoli were doing.
After the break, the game took on its secondary relevance with the introduction of young Hugo on 58 minutes. He was still just 18-years-old, and yet here he was saddled with the unenviable task of trying to stop his famous brother in his supreme pomp. Diego schemed, Hugo chased.
Both sides had great chances to increase their tally; Hugo himself came into the game more and had his opportunities but failed to show the necessary technique and composure at the vital moment that came as routine to Diego. Their one and only competitive encounter finished 2-1; Diego’s shadow was cast long and wide over the San Paolo that day, Hugo knew more than anyone how it felt to be enveloped by it.
He lasted just one underwhelming season in Italy before being moved on, this time to Rayo Vallecano in Spain. Two years spent in Madrid saw the club promoted to the top flight and then promptly relegated straight back down – Hugo, again, was in and out of the team. Brief spells followed at Rapid Vienna and Deportivo Italia in Venezuela before he made the move to Japan to capitalise on his family name at the inception of the J League, although most of his success there (and a reasonable amount of goals) with PJM Futures, Fukuoka Blux, Avispa Fukuoka and Consadole Sapporo came in the second division. He retired in 1999.
Diego’s career needs very little summary. It incorporated the highest of highs and plunged the lowest of depths. For those 32 minutes their relationship to one another was encapsulated perfectly; Diego’s own gravity was all powerful. The game, the crowd and Hugo held perpetually in his orbit.