Maradona backs Branco's claim of 'drug-laced' bottle at Italia '90

 

Worldscene: This week, FIFA president Sepp Blatter may find a curious dossier on his desk. It will contain accusations of cheating at a World Cup tournament, evidence of water bottles "laced" with tranquillisers (for opponents' use only) and it will focus on one of world football's keenest rivalries, namely that between Argentina and Brazil.

For those of us who covered the Italia '90 World Cup finals, that competition will long be remembered for the abysmal quality of the Rome final in which West Germany beat Argentina 1-0, thanks to an 84th-minute penalty from Andreas Brehme.

Argentina had been one of the tournament's enigmas. As reigning champions led by the peerless Diego Maradona, they had been expected to produce some fireworks. Yet from their opening match loss to Cameroon onwards, their progress owed more to defensive grit, dogged battling and the very occasional flash of Maradona genius.

When Argentina drew Brazil in the second round (thanks to having finished only third behind Cameroon and Romania in their group), we sagely nodded our heads and suggested this time Argentina would be found out.

Brazil, coached by Sebastiao Lazaroni, were not the most flamboyant Brazilian side of all time but with players such as captain Carlos Dunga, goalkeeper Taffarel, defender Jorginho, midfielders Alemao and Valdo, not to mention strikers Romario and Careca, they had looked title contenders.

Argentina, too, were greatly handicapped by the serious ankle injury Maradona carried through the tournament and which required painkilling injections for him to play. In the end, of course, Maradona turned the game, sending Claudio Caniggia away with a telling pass (hit with his right foot, given the left was hors de combat) for an 80th-minute winner. We "experts" had got it wrong again.

A colourful footnote to that game had been provided by Brazilian defender Branco who told journalists afterwards he had been "drugged" from a water bottle given him by the Argentine bench during the first half. (The match was played on a June afternoon, with the temperature at 30 Celsius). Reporters listened sympathetically but even the Brazilian hacks discounted Branco's accusation.

Branco let the matter drop there and then but, two years later, he came across the Argentine defender Oscar Ruggeri at the airport in Rio de Janeiro: "Ah, Claudio, that was a good trick we pulled on you back at Italia '90, wasn't it?" the Ruggeri said to him, confirming there had indeed been a "special" bottle, identified by a different coloured top, in the Argentine kit that afternoon in Turin.

The story might have ended there were it not for Maradona. Fourteen years on, speaking last month on the programme Mar de Fondo on Argentine channel Tyvc Sports, Maradona admitted Branco's accusations were true. The Argentine bench did indeed have a "special" water bottle ready for the Brazilians, laced with the tranquilliser Roipnol, and it was this bottle that was offered to Branco when he shouted across at the Argentine bench for a drink.

Branco claims the effect of the drink was so lethal he felt dizzy, that his legs felt "funny" and that he almost fainted. At half-time he asked to be substituted but coach Lazaroni asked him to stick with it and he played all of the second half. Branco was the "Roberto-Carlos-style" Brazilian free-kick specialist of the day, yet at the Stadio delle Alpi he failed to produce even one decent effort on goal.

What about the other protagonists? Interviewed this month by the Argentine review Veintitrés, Argentina coach of the time, Carlos Bilardo, gave a strangely guarded answer when asked about the "laced" water bottle, saying: "I don't know but that doesn't mean that it didn't happen, I can't say for certain that it didn't happen."

The Argentina team "physio" Miguel Di Lornenzo, contacted by Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paolo, said he knew nothing about the business.

In the meantime, however, Marco Antonio Teixera, general secretary of the Brazilian Federation (CBF) has said his federation have prepared a dossier on the whole business, a dossier due to be sent Blatter's way. "This is an extremely grave accusation. and we would expect some serious action from FIFA, given their belief in fair play," he said