The World’s greatest ever footballer? It is a perpetual debate that rages on. Diego Maradona, arguably the most famous Argentinian to ever play in Serie A is an ever present in that list, despite the off field problems with which he has become equally synonymous. Unlike the 1934 Oriundi and Juventus legend Omar Sívori before him, Diego Armando Maradona did not arrive in Italy straight from his homeland of Argentina. Catalan giants Barcelona paid a World record fee of £5million to secure his services from Boca Juniors in the summer of 1982, just before the World Cup was held in Spain.
Despite Maradona’s reputation, his spell at Barça did not prove to be fruitful. Injury, and a bout of hepatitis hampered his progress, as did numerous disagreements with club president Josep Lluís Núñez. An involvement in a mass brawl in front of the Spanish King in the final of the Copa Del Rey served as confirmation that his days in Barcelona were over.
It was his next move to Naples that would initiate a relationship between player and fans that is completely unique in footballing history. The adoration of Maradona amongst fans of the Partenopei transcends the ‘normal’ hero-worship status – therefore, aside from his well-documented footballing genius, why did Napoli provide such a perfect fit for the player from Argentina?
The relationship between El Diego and the Napoletani was passionate and fervent from the outset. The rabid applause when the player was unveiled in front of 70,000 supporters at the Stadio San Paolo in 1984 was not just in support of his obvious footballing talent. The supporters immediately identified the Argentine as one of their own, with parallels easily drawn between the City of Naples’ tumultuous past and Maradona’s impoverished upbringing in Buenos Aires. Naples was in recovery after the devastating effects of the Irpinia earthquake of 1980, which killed more than 3,000 people; many of whom were partaking in Sunday night mass in church, and left more than 300,000 homeless. Furthermore, the regional north-south divide was increasingly apparent in Italy – and in footballing terms, no team in the south had ever won a Scudetto – emphasising the feeling that inhabitants of the industrial and wealthier North looked down upon their poorer compatriots in the South.
Maradona’s move to Serie A – again for a World Record fee of £6.9million – was to change all that as they romped to a first ever Scudetto and a Coppa Italia trophy in 1986-87. A city held in contempt for its reputation as a ‘city of thieves and cholera sufferers’ had secured the world’s best player and now had something to instil a sense of civic pride. Their first Serie A title was viewed by many in Naples as a symbolic victory over the north of Italy. The message from the Napoletani was clear – “May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated, a new empire is born.”
Of course, Napoli had spent money on other players, but Maradona had captained the team to success. He was the Partenopei’s talisman and the man that fans saw as their saviour and idol. The celebrations in Naples continued for over a week after their triumph and Maradona was elevated to god-like status.
Another Scudetto in 1989-90 was to follow, along with the UEFA cup in 1989 and the Italian Supercup in 1990. In his six seasons with Napoli, Maradona scored 115 goals and remains the club’s top goal scorer, but statistics do not reveal the full story of why he was adored. His off the field problems only served to increase his veneration among the tifosi. By living in the crowded streets of the chaotic city, they could identify with his anarchic attitude and flawed genius.
World Cup Italia ’90 was to see the lines between Argentina and Italy blurred, a competition in which Maradona made an audacious attempt to exert his considerable influence within Naples. When Italy met Argentina in the semi-final of Italia 90, the stage was set for Maradona. The game was being played at the Stadio San Paolo, home of Napoli and as importantly their adopted Argentinian son.
There was increasing speculation before the match as to whether the fans would root for their own country or for the country of their hero. Diego tried to canvass support for Argentina, reminding the fans of the north-south divide stating “The Neapolitans must remember one thing, Italy makes it [Naples] feel important one day of the year, but forgets about it the other 364.”
Despite fears that many would support Argentina that day, it was only a small minority in the San Paolo that diverted their allegiances. One banner in the stadium read “Maradona, Naples loves you – but Italy is our country.” The final drama fell to El Diego as he stepped up to take what turned out to be the decisive penalty. There was to be no World Cup win on home soil this time for Italy as Naples’ hero coolly side footed his penalty past Walter Zenga in his own club’s stadium.
By 1991, Maradona’s off the field problems had started to affect his on field performances. He was keeping poor company by partying with the city’s organised crime ring, the Camorra, being pictured in a Jacuzzi with high ranking bosses. His drug abuse and weight gain were affecting his fitness and he was frequently fined for missing training sessions. In 1991, he was eventually sentenced to a 15 month ban after failing a drug test for cocaine, and ultimately left Napoli in disgrace.
Although the end of his Napoli career had been tarnished, Diego Maradona’s presence is still ubiquitous in Naples. The Spanish quarter is abundant with murals, shrines and graffiti dedicated to their hero and souvenirs bearing his name and image are available to buy everywhere you look.
At Ciro Ferrara’s testimonial in 2005, the San Paolo was once again filled with 70,000 fans applauding Maradona, who had returned to the stadium for the first time since leaving in 1991. His off field problems have nonetheless continued – as recently as 2013, the Italian government pursued him for tax evasion on a large scale. Despite the controversies, however, the extraordinary relationship between one of the world’s most famous footballers and one of Serie A’s most renowned clubs once again highlights the link between Argentinians and Italian football.