It was hard to know what to make of Luciano Hector Becchio when he came for his trial at Leeds United. He was, after all, just one of a string of obscure foreign trialists to come to Thorp Arch in the days of Blackwell, Wise and McAllister. There was something different about this one, though. For one thing, McAllister was desperate to sign him. For another, he had played for Barcelona ‘B’ and Boca Juniors youth, surely a good indication. An Argentinian, he brought back fond memories of Alex Sabella, a player whose hair had suited the late 70s Admiral kits even if his play hadn’t suited the team; and of the heady rumours in 1988 that Wilkinson was going to sign Maradona. We could only find one video of Luciano, as he was known in Spain, on YouTube, but it was a good one: a goal scored for Merida, the ball dropping on the edge of the box, volleyed crisply home by Luciano. The game, one assumed, was an important one, as while the commentator screamed Luciano’s name all sorts of things were happening in the stadium: crowds of people on the pitch, ticker-tape, fireworks, Luciano himself disappearing under a scrum of players and unidentified civilians; off-camera, one could imagine marriage proposals made in haste, babies named in honour. If that happens every time he scores, I thought, we could be on to something.
As a player, Becchio has been a revelation. Eschewing the stereotypes that always attach to foreign players, he emerged in League One as an industrious, strong and committed striker, looking like a clean Iggy Pop and scoring so many goals that the Spanish ticker-tape industry must have regretted his departure. Modifying his hair this year so that he now resembles Iggy Pop when he used to prowl Berlin with Bowie in the 70s, he has found goals harder to come by – the old ‘tricky second season’ syndrome coupled, one suspects, with new fatherhood. His daughter is named Bianca, perhaps with a nod to the rose of their adopted county and the shirt of his adopted club; but as Becchio hasn’t mastered the English language, much less the Yorkshire language, we can’t be sure. Off the pitch, he has remained quietly enigmatic. I look at Becchio sometimes, thousands of miles from his home of Cordoba in Argentina, relying on Mike Grella to translate for him, battling with third division defenders to try and score a goal, and, more than I do about any other footballer, I wonder what he might be thinking. For a few seconds against Tottenham the other night, I think I know.
I think he was thinking about Diego Maradona’s goal against Greece at USA ’94, the one where he swept the ball into the top corner and ran, his face contorted, to a pitchside camera, running headfirst into the homes of everyone watching on TV. Maradona was sending a message; a message to the doubters, to the haters, to all those who said he was washed up, and to the fans, too: he was sending a message to the world, to Argentina, that said, “I am Maradona.”
Becchio’s goal to equalise Defoe’s opener wasn’t a classic by any measure, but in the moment, it was wonderful. And as he ran away to celebrate, I am sure Becchio was thinking, “I am Maradona”. In front of a sell out crowd in one of England’s greatest stadiums, “I am Maradona”. Under the floodlights in the freezing cold, “I am Maradona”. Thousands of miles away from home, with his wife, with his new daughter, “I am Maradona”. Against top-flight opponents, in the world’s most famous cup competition, with a worldwide TV audience, wearing the shirt of the world-famous Leeds United, “I am Maradona”. As he told Snodgrass and Johnson to stand back – as he ran towards the camera at the side of the pitch – as he filled the TV screens back home in Cordoba with his interpretation of one of the most iconic images in Argentinian football – as he fulfilled the fantasy of every boy in every school playground in Argentina – Luciano Becchio was thinking, “I am Maradona”.
And as his name was sung by the 40,000 inside Elland Road in one of the most spine-tingling celebrations I’ve ever experienced as a Leeds fan, I thought: nobody deserves to be Maradona more than Luciano Becchio.
From The Square Ball magazine 2009/10 issue eight.