Football is quite an obsessive sport. That’s hardly a revelation; digested, dissected, debated and played by billions around the globe, football has a grip over people’s imagination that’s unrivalled across the sporting genre. An all consuming force that has the ability to unify cities, countries and continents unlike anything else. Teams become immortalised, players elevated to deity-like figures.
Yet even within the sphere of the game, it’s difficult to think of another relationship between a city and a player quite like Naples and one Diego Armando Maradona. To think of a city, and a team, so indebted to a single individual. Further still, it’s even harder to quantify – in any tangible way – how much the Maradona aura permeates Naples; his presence seeps through almost every crack, corner and crevice in the city.
You only need to spend a few hours in Naples to feel it. Traverse down the very narrow – and at times unbearably suffocating – historic center of Naples, named Spaccanapoli, and you’ll see locals selling just about anything that can adorn Maradona’s face. Make your way to the similarly claustrophobic Spanish quarter, walk up the steep, cobbled streets that bustle with everyday life, and you’ll see the famous wall-size mural of Naples’ adopted son. Order yourself a Neapolitan-style caffè in Bar Nilo on the corner of Via San Biagio, one dedicated to all things Maradona, and gaze at your surroundings, complete with a single strand of Maradona mane, stolen from his headrest whilst on a flight back to Naples from Turin, and vials supposedly filled with tears of locals who cried upon his rather undignified exit from the Italian game in March 1991.
San Gennaro may well be the patron saint of Naples, but it’s Diego’s city.
We all know the story: Maradona arrives inside the Stadio San Paolo on that legendary summer day in 1984 to a crowd estimated to have been (judging by the sheer volume of people claiming to have been present) between 75 to 150,000 people, promising to give his all for a club that saved him from his Catalonian torment. Slowly, he brings a team who had previously won close to zero in its history to the cream of the crop, winning two league titles, the UEFA cup and a Coppa Italia. For a golden – and brief – period of time, the balance of power in Italy swung in favour of the impoverished south at the expense of the powerful north, and all during a time when Italy was the strongest domestic league the game has ever known.
What’s lost – or sometimes glossed over – in the Maradona/Napoli fairytale epic is the fact that when you get to the core of it, when you strip away all the drama, the scandals, the drugs, the rumours of Camorra associations and the general anarchy that continually clings to Maradona like Claudio Gentile circa 1982, the greatest player in the history of the sport had to produce magic between those four white lines every Sunday. And he did.
As the sun was about to rise on the 1986/87 season, Maradona was entering his third term at Napoli. The first two, whilst trophy less, saw the Partenopei make steady progress up the table. In 1984/85 they finished eighth, followed by a top three finish in 85/86. In the intermittent period there was of course the small matter of the World Cup, and Maradona decided that he’d quite like to win it, and so ultimately put on the greatest show of individual genius the tournament had seen. Whilst not winning it single handedly as legend now has it, there can be no disputing that a Maradona-less Argentina wouldn’t have got close.
Napoli made several key signings in a bid to challenge for the scudetto. The ironically named Fernando De Napoli arrived from Avellino to add some steel behind Maradona in midfield, and Andrea Carnevale was signed from Udinese, tasked with unburdening Bruno Giordano and Maradona in front of goal.
The season kicked off in mid-September, something that happened regularly throughout the 1980s and ‘90s but seems somewhat strange in 2018, with Napoli travelling north to play newly promoted Brescia at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti.
To say Napoli weren’t particularly liked in the north of the country would be quite the understatement; on Maradona’s introduction to Serie A, an away game to Hellas Verona, he was given a taste of northern attitudes to Neapolitans. The Hellas ultras infamously unfurled banners that read “Welcome to Italy” and “wash yourselves”. Maradona and Napoli promptly lost 3-1, and he would never forget those taunts.
While only 70km separates the cities of Verona and Brescia, there was nothing of the Veronese hatred for Diego and co inside the stadium. In fact, having spent the previous campaigns bouncing between the extremities of Serie B and C1, slugging it out with the likes of Arezzo, Campobasso, Rimini and Ancona, the Bresciani were quite euphoric about seeing some genuine quality. “Brescia salutes Napoli,” read a banner from the Curva Nord.
The friendly atmosphere in the stands didn’t translate to the pitch, as, this being the mid 80s, both teams clattered into each other with no margin given. Maradona, as always, was marked out for preferential treatment by the opposition.
Napoli really should’ve scored early on, with Bruno Giordano somehow blazing over from inside the six-yard box after a De Napoli corner was flicked on by first Maradona and then headed onwards by a very young Ciro Ferrara.
Brescia offered little of an attacking force, this being calcio pre-Arrigo Sacchi and the arrival of the three Dutchmen, and therefore sat deep in a vain attempt to nullify Napoli, and more importantly, Maradona. In the 40th minute however, Maradona exploded into full, well, Maradona brilliance.
Napoli roam into the home side’s half of the pitch, with Giordano, unopposed, shifting the ball centrally to Salvatore Bagni. Bagni strides forward and is met by a Brescia player, but the Napoli midfielder executes a brilliant little nutmeg to advance further before his path is blockaded by a swarm of players in blue shirts.
With two players standing between Bagni and Maradona, Bagni, in a moment of simple-but-brilliant ingenuity, bypasses them via lifting the ball over their heads towards Maradona. What comes next was the Argentine at his breathtakingly unparalleled best.
Maradona, prior to the pass, had floated into a central position from the right of the penalty area and is followed by a Brescia defender marking so tightly he could’ve smelled what aftershave Maradona was wearing. He jumps and instantly kills the pace from Bagni’s lobbed pass with that barrel-sized chest. As soon as the ball hits the turf, Maradona is off; the ball glued to his foot, like it always seemed to be.
He leaves three players eating dust in a matter of milliseconds. As he races into the penalty area, Maradona’s confronted with another defender. He takes three touches; all at spitfire rate, all with his left, all immaculately controlled, slithering like a snake around him with such frightening ease.
With only the goalkeeper, Roberto Aliboni, left to add to his list of humiliated players, Maradona leaves the best feature of the run to the very end – the strike. If any mere mortal were presented with this opportunity, in all likelihood they’d continue running towards the goalkeeper before attempting to rifle the ball home at close range. There’s nothing wrong with that logic, it’s simple (on paper at least) and gives the keeper little chance to save the ball with the distance reduced to mere feet.
But Maradona didn’t play the game like a mortal, nor thought like one. With hardly any back lift, he hits an angled shot across the penalty box, to the corner Aliboni has covered, giving the keeper no time to set himself. The ball nestles into his bottom left hand corner. He had fashioned a goal out of thin air. The entire sequence took all of four seconds. Four.
Aliboni looks around as if to portion the blame to his beleaguered defenders, but there was simply nothing they, or any defender at the time – possibly ever – could do against the Diego Maradona of 1986. This was peak Diego, the mightiest of footballing peaks. An irresistible force of nature that lifted average sides to greatness. All you could do was simply stand and admire the incomparable genius that was contained within that squat-but-muscular 5ft 5inch frame. “When he was on form, there was almost no way of stopping him,” Franco Baresi said of Maradona.
It would prove to be the winner, and set Napoli on a run that wouldn’t see them lose in the league until a 3-1 loss to Fiorentina at the turn of the year, and would only lose three games all season. They would complete a double over reigning champions Juventus, and would secure their historic first title in the reverse against La Viola in May. The city of Naples erupted into celebrations that lasted for days, with mock funerals held throughout the city for their title challengers. The number of babies named Diego in the city skyrocketed.
“We have a lack of houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona,” proudly declared a local newspaper.
Indeed they did. Maradona and Naples; the perfect match.
Words by Emmet Gates: @EmmetGates