Magical Day: A memorable Canadian one-off with the mighty Maradona

It's a play that remains fresh in soccer coach Peter Pinizzotto's mind even though it happened nearly 25 years ago.

Argentine great Diego Maradona — making a one-off appearance to play with brother Lalo in an exhibition game for Pinizzotto's Toronto Italia team — set the ball on the grass at Birchmount Stadium for a corner kick.

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He used that famous left foot to curl the ball into the net for the winning goal.

"He scored from a corner kick and he was celebrating like he was a young kid still," Pinizzotto recalled Wednesday after news broke that Maradona had died at age 60.

"You could see how much he loved to win. He hated to lose."

A person close to Maradona told The Associated Press that he died Wednesday of a heart attack. Maradona was released from a Buenos Aires hospital two weeks earlier following brain surgery.

The legendary midfielder led his country to a World Cup title in 1986 and is considered one of the sport's all-time greats. A junior star in the mid-1970s in Argentina, he later played for Barcelona, Napoli and Sevilla before retiring in 1997 after a three-year run back home with Boca Juniors.

Maradona was well past his playing prime when he came to the Ontario capital in September 1996 to visit his brother, who spent a few seasons with Toronto Italia in the defunct Canadian National Soccer League.

Team owner Pasquale Fioccola suggested to Lalo that perhaps his brother might like to dress for the exhibition game against the CNSL all-stars.

With Diego on board and the necessary hurdles cleared, No. 10 eventually trotted out on the modest pitch — some 6,000 spectators packed the stands — in Toronto Italia colours.

"It was unbelievable," Fioccola said from Toronto. "I still don't believe it now, that I had Maradona play for my team."

For a player who had shone on the sport's biggest stages in front of massive audiences, this exhibition in a lower-level league was a tad different. Still, Maradona was passionate and energetic on game day, making sure that he warmed up properly and that team motivation was high, Pinizzotto said.

"For him, it was almost like another important game," he said.

Maradona's second-half goal ended up being the difference in a 2-1 victory.

"He was friendly. He didn't play a show-off," Fioccola said. "He was normal, friendly (with) everybody. He shook hands with everybody and he gave (an autograph) if anybody asked him for it."

Maradona came off as a substitute with a few minutes left to play, mainly to avoid the crush of fans at game's end.

""I remember all our players were so excited," Pinizzotto said from Woodbridge, Ont. "They all wanted to be a part of being on the field with him. He was not what he was when he was a few years younger but you could see that he still had magic.

"For him to score out of the corner, he still had the left foot that was like magic."

Fioccola said Maradona, who grew up in a poor area near Buenos Aires, told him he didn't have proper shoes when he first learned how to play and that he'd kick a small rock instead of a ball.

"He became the best because he played with his heart," he said. "One thing I've got to say about Diego, when he had a uniform on he played for the uniform he wore. He didn't play just for money. He gave his heart when he played."

On one memorable day in 1996, he played for the Toronto Italia uniform.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2020.

With files from The Associated Press. Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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