Beyond the tackle: Goikoetxea’s journey from ‘Butcher of Bilbao’ to Maradona’s admirer

The former Athletic Bilbao defender, known as ‘Butcher from Bilbao’ terms the legendary Argentine as ‘the greatest player’.

Published : Jan 17, 2024 10:25 IST , BILBAO - 4 MINS READ

Andoni Goikoetxea.
Andoni Goikoetxea. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Andoni Goikoetxea. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Try eliciting a detailed response on the topic, and Andoni Goikoetxea, with his arms wide open, is prompt in clearing the air - “For me, [Diego] Maradona is the greatest player.” The embracing ear-to-ear grin that accompanies gives no inkling that this is the ‘Butcher from Bilbao’.

“I could never see Pele or [Alfredo] Di Stefano. Even [Johan] Cryuff was there. But Maradona was special. He was different,” Goikoetxea says.

The admiration for the Argentine grew on him during the Napoli years between 1984 and 1991. The two league titles in Naples and the 1986 World Cup for Argentina prompted a change of heart before Goikoetxea finally decided to bury the hatchet in 1992.

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“When he came back to Bilbao [to play for Sevilla], I sat with him over drinks and talked about his life and family. So, it all ended very well,” he says.

The amicable conclusion must have seemed inconceivable, for both Maradona and Goikoetxea, after their encounter in 1983 had marked an ill-tempered and tumultuous chapter between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao.

“It was always said that football is a contact sport. It is different now. The teams want to play out from the back and there is hardly any contact. Back in the day, it was harder, faster, and had more turnovers,” Goikoetxea says.

Goikoetxea’s justification for his unrelenting, no-holds-barred football philosophy is fair given it helped him forge a central place in Javier Clemente’s Athletic team that had claimed the La Liga titles in 1983 and 1984, including a domestic double in the second year.

It was business as usual for Athletic Club and Goikoetxea on a trip to Barcelona in September 1983. Athletic was the reigning Spanish champion and, early in its title defence, three points at Camp Nou promised to be rich spoils. However, with Athletic trailing 0-2 in the second half, Goikoetxea, in an attempt to close down Maradona and retrieve the ball near the centre circle, lunged into the Argentine. 

“I just felt the impact, heard the sound – like a piece of wood cracking – and realised immediately what had happened,” Maradona wrote in his autobiography. The talismanic forward was stretchered off and would not play another game that year. Goikoetxea was reprimanded with only a yellow card but was subsequently banned for 18 games before it was chopped down to six.

Diego Maradona underwent a two-hour surgery to mend his left ankle which was broken during a match between Barcelona, and Athletico de Bilbao.
Diego Maradona underwent a two-hour surgery to mend his left ankle which was broken during a match between Barcelona, and Athletico de Bilbao. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Diego Maradona underwent a two-hour surgery to mend his left ankle which was broken during a match between Barcelona, and Athletico de Bilbao. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

“How do I see what had happened? Injuring the best player of the time was tough. It was a hard time for me, my family, and the club,” Goikoetxea says. The term ‘Butcher from Bilbao’ was the aftermath of this tackle and has stuck with the centre-back since.

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Reports claimed that Goikoetxea had saved the boots he wore in the game and, as a prized possession, put them on display in his living room - a gesture fitting for a proverbial butcher. But the story is far from the truth, Goikoetxea explains.

“After my suspension [was announced], the next match was the European Cup second against Lech Poznan at the San Mames. I scored the first goal. After we won, my teammates lifted me on their shoulders. The entire stadium was chanting my name. 

“It was an emotional moment for me. I have only played against Maradona twice, and injuring him felt bad. The crowd realised I was going through a tough time and applauded me. So, as a souvenir from that match, I decided to keep the boots. Not because I injured him. The nuance is important,” Goikoetxea says.

Maradona had his retribution in the reverse fixture at the San Mames when his brace handed a 2-1 victory to Barcelona. But the bitterness continued to spill over. In the Copa del Rey final in May 1984, after Barcelona conceded the game 1-0 to the Basque club, Maradona instigated a mass brawl between the players and backroom staff. Goikoetxea was involved too. Both players were sanctioned and faced lengthy bans. The Argentine was transferred to Napoli after the incident.

Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, Goikoetxea feels the two games were merely blips in Maradona’s storied career. “I injured him in 1983. Thankfully, he was back and won the titles in Italy and won the World Cup three years later. So, it seems that we fixed his left ankle a little bit so that later he would be a champion,” Goikoetxea says with a chuckle.

Goikoetxea’s influence on the illustrious Athletic side earned him a place in the national team. Others from Clemente’s side accompanied him in La Furia Roja during the 1986 World Cup. Unfettered by the public perception, Goikoetxea persisted with his hardline football. “I will stick with the football of the past,” he still says.

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