“Thank you to my sources of inspiration: Federico Fellini, Talking Heads, Martin Scorsese and Diego Armando Maradona,” professed director Paolo Sorrentino on stage at the 86th Academy Awards. It’s not often a footballer features in an Oscar acceptance speech.
Sorrentino had just won the Best Foreign Language Film award for his 2013 masterpiece La Grande Bellezza, and, hailing from Naples, the acclaimed filmmaker understands better than most what Maradona gave to the city.
Perhaps no player in the history of the game is so imbedded into the very fabric of a city quite like Maradona in Naples. You only have to pay a visit to see his image everywhere.
Negotiate your way through the narrow ‘Spaccanapoli’ region of the city and you’ll see Neapolitans selling just about anything that can adorn Maradona’s face; Make your way to the similarly claustrophobic Quartieri Spagnoli district, walk up the steep, cobbled streets that bustle with everyday life, and gaze at his wall-size mural; order a Neapolitan-style caffè in Bar Nilo on the corner of Via San Biagio, dedicated solely to Maradona, and observe 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 acrimonious departure from Italy in March 1991.
For a time, it was the perfect match: Maradona needed a home, and Naples needed a saviour. San Gennaro may well be the city’s patron saint, but Maradona obtained deity status. From 1984 to 1991, 515 children were registered as having the name Diego, with 12 receiving the full ‘Diego Armando’ treatment. “We have a lack of houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona,” proudly declared a local newspaper.
To celebrate Maradona’s 60th birthday, here’s six of his finest for the Partenopei.
Three months had passed since Maradona emerged from the bowels of the Stadio San Paolo greeted by 80,000 trophy-starved Neapolitans on a humid July day.
Despite being the world’s greatest player, Maradona faced an immediate uphill battle. The Napoli of 1984/85 was a middling outfit who’d finished 10th and 11th in their previous two campaigns. A young Ciro Ferrara and future Derby County cult hero Ciccio Baiano were amongst the ranks, in addition to stalwarts such as defender Guiseppe Bruscolotti and goalkeeper Luciano Castellini. According to Maradona, they were a ‘Serie B team’.
Maradona had already scored twice in Serie A for his new club – a penalty against Sampdoria and a neat run and finish against Como – as they headed into the fifth game of the season against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico.
Lazio, containing a young Michael Laudrup, had taken the lead in the first half. Six minutes into the restart, Maradona equalised. Situated on the periphery of the penalty area along with compatriot Daniel Bertoni and surrounded by three opposition defenders, Maradona produces a remarkably intricate give-and-go with Bertoni that takes two defenders out of the equation.
Maradona runs into the path of Bertoni’s lofted return pass and controls the ball with his chest, before – in an instant – effortlessly volleying it into the opposite corner, as it kisses the post en route. It was Italy’s first glimpse of Maradona’s genius. There was plenty more to follow.
Maradona wasn’t finished tormenting Lazio in 84/85. The return match saw the No. 10 score a hat-trick, including this marvel (given serious consideration for the list) and this cheeky effort. Unfortunately for Lazio, they were relegated at the end of the season. But there was an advantage to relegation; they wouldn’t have to face Maradona for a further three years.
Maradona seemed to save his best goals for Milan. In fact, the Rossoneri are tied with Sampdoria as the two teams Maradona scored against most during his time in Italy. This list could’ve easily just contained his goals against Milan (I present exhibits A, B, C and D, your honour). They simply brought out the best in him.
Milan emerged as Napoli’s biggest rivals for the Scudetto in the second half of the ‘80s, as Juve faded away in the aftermath of Michel Platini’s retirement. Bar a brief interlude from Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter in 1988/89, Milan and Napoli were Serie A’s two best teams, and regularly traded blows at the top of the table.
Matches between the pair were simply box office: Marco Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard against Maradona, Careca and Alemao. Goals and drama were in no short supply.
The previous season, Sacchi’s side had done the double over Napoli, by an aggregate scoreline of 7-3 (a cricket score in the binary world of 1980s Serie A). The second match, which Milan won at the San Paolo in May, has remained clouded in controversy, with rumours swirling for years that a number of Napoli players essentially downed tools towards the end of that season, due to interference from the Camorra. They lost four of their last five games after having only lost two of their previous 25, and ceded the title to Milan.
Fast-forward six months and Maradona had revenge on his mind. The pair met at the end of November and after slaughtering Juventus 5-3 in Turin the previous week, Napoli motored through Milan also, winning 4-1.
Maradona led the charge, of course, scoring the opener. Whilst on the aesthetics scoreboard this goal doesn’t rank as highly as several of the others he scored against Milan, it does highlight two things: the first is Maradona’s astonishing ingenuity, and secondly, the revolutionary highline that Sacchi instilled at Milan, hitherto unseen in Italian football.
“He [Maradona] used to score against us often,” Franco Baresi told FourFourTwo magazine in 2009. “We had to be very well organised; put pressure on him, doubling up, tripling up even to limit his talents. Because if it was one-on-one, you’d lose. When he was on form, there was almost no way of stopping him.”
Maradona’s final moment of greatness for Napoli. The rose was very much off the bloom by this point. As the 88/89 season was drawing to a close, Maradona felt, accurately, that he’d nothing left to prove at Napoli. An historic domestic double had been achieved in 1986/87, and he’d just guided Napoli to the UEFA Cup final. Maradona had agreed personal terms with Bernard Tapie to join his Marseille revolution.
Maradona believed a move away from the intense pressure of playing in Serie A was best for his state of mind. He wanted more tranquil surroundings than the loving-but-equally-suffocating environment of Naples (although how he imagined a move to Marseille being less intense is up for debate, given the similarities between the two cities). According to Maradona, club president Corrado Ferlaino agreed that should Napoli win the UEFA Cup, he wouldn’t stand in his way.
Maradona duly obliged, with Napoli beating German side Stuttgart 5-3 in the two-legged final. However the dream of leaving on the highest of notes was shattered by Ferlaino, who whispered mere minutes after lifting the club’s first European trophy in Stuttgart that he wasn’t going anywhere. The deal to Marseille was now off. “I wanted to smash the cup over his head,” wrote Maradona in his 2000 autobiography, El Diego.
Much like the Barcelona/Lionel Messi saga that played out last summer, Ferlaino didn’t want to go down in history as the president who sold Maradona. He knew that a decision to let Maradona leave would’ve resulted in citywide chaos, and, probably, Ferlaino fleeing the city behind Maradona.
Maradona felt betrayed. “I was pissed off,” he said in Asif Kapadia’s absorbing documentary last year. Looking for any form of escapism, Maradona buried himself in cocaine, alcohol and hedonistic debauchery. As he relayed in Kapadia’s documentary, Maradona would play for Napoli every Sunday afternoon, and then go on a drink and drug-fuelled binge until Wednesday, at which point he would sweat the toxins out for the rest of the week. Rinse and repeat throughout the 1989/90 season.
The lithe frame of the early Napoli years had given way to a more rotund figure, but Maradona’s body could still comply with his brain’s demands, just. Against Bologna at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara on the penultimate day of the season, Napoli raced into a third minute lead thanks to the vastly underrated Careca. Six minutes later, Maradona made it two.
Running on to a throw-in from Massimo Crippa, Maradona cuts in from the right-hand side and carries the ball along the outer edges of the area, evading not one, but two, challenges before beautifully arcing a long-range shot into the bottom corner of Nello Cusin’s goal. Maradona would later slip through a pass for midfielder Alemao to put the seal on a 4-2 win.
It speaks to the extraordinary force of Maradona’s personality that he could not just function but operate effectively at the highest sporting level, in spite of his self-sabotage. He not only produced his best season in Serie A, scoring 16 goals, but also drove Napoli to win a second Scudetto, finishing above the might of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan by two points. They’ve never won Serie A since.
The lamentable tragedy of Maradona is the self-recognition that he could’ve achieved so much more: “Do you know what a player I’d have been if I hadn’t taken cocaine?” he states in Emir Kusturica’s 2008 documentary Maradona by Kusturica. “What a player we lost!” he adds, hands clasped together in that classic Maradona way.
Maradona knew little of Naples and the prevailing attitude from the north of Italy when he joined in 1984. “Napoli meant no more than something Italian, like pizza,” he would later say. But Maradona quickly found out about the north/south divide on his debut against Verona at the Stadio Bentegodi that September.
“We went up north and wherever we went, they put up banners that said: ‘wash yourselves’. It was disgusting. They were all racists.” Said Maradona.
But much like we learned about Michael Jordan in The Last Dance, Maradona was at his unstoppable best when fuelled by ‘bronca’ (an Argentine word that correlates to anger, fury or resentment) towards something or someone, imaginary or otherwise. There was always a beast to slay. The greater the adversity, the better he performed.
The Verona ultras introduced Maradona to his first sights of ‘Welcome to Italy’ and ‘lavatevi’ (wash yourself) banners, and he never forgot it. Verona had miraculously won the Scudetto in Maradona’s first season in Italy, and they rolled into Naples the following October as the defending champions.
Maradona, fuelled by bronca, tore Verona to shreds in a comprehensive 5-0 win. He set up Napoli’s second for Salvatore Bagni, before adding a third in the 58th minute.
The beauty of the goal is in Maradona’s technique, the effortless way in which he first controls the high ball, spins, sees goalkeeper Giuliano Giuliani off his line and adds just enough power, and spin, on the ball to leave Giuliani with little chance of making a save as it arrows in via the post.
It was so good he even received a handshake from Verona’s Luciano Bruni moments after it happened.
Two games after the 5-0 mauling of Verona, Juventus ventured south to the Stadio San Paolo.
Spend a day in Naples and you quickly learn there is no side more despised by Neapolitans than Juve. To them, The Old Lady symbolise the cold, northern establishment that always wins. “I felt as though I represented a part of Italy that counted for nothing,” said Maradona.
Maradona found a kinship with Naples. He thrived off being the poster boy for the impoverished south, the street urchin taking on the prosperous north. David versus Goliath; north against south; Maradona against everyone. That was how he liked it.
In the early years, Juve were still the dominant force in Italian football, with Platini at his swashbuckling best. Games between the teams were usually stripped down to Platini vs Maradona, French elegance vs Argentine wizardry. In six meetings Platini only bested Maradona once before he retired at the end of the 1986/87 season.
On a rain-drenched San Paolo pitch, Maradona was on top form, gliding past opposing players with sumptuous trickery and giving the illusion that he had the ball on a leash.
Napoli were awarded a bizarre free kick deep into the second half (apparently in 1980s Serie A, a high boot to the head of an opposition player inside the box only warranted an indirect free kick, not a penalty), Maradona had little room to manoeuvre in, with the distance between he and the goal at a premium.
Maradona delicately caresses the ball over the wall and high into Stefano Tacconi’s goal, sending the crowd into such frenzied delirium that five Neapolitans fainted and two others suffered heart attacks inside the ground. It was Napoli’s first league win against Juve for 12 years, and they would go on to regularly humiliate their more illustrious rival over the second half of the decade.
Much to the joy of Maradona, of course.
Whilst the spectre of Maradona’s exploits at Mexico ’86 usually take precedence when dissecting his career narrative, the monumental peaks he achieved with Napoli are unfairly relegated to bit-part cameos; usually shoe-horned between the glory of 1986 and his Machiavellian antics at Italia ‘90.
However make no mistake, monumental is the correct term when assessing what Maradona achieved in Naples. It’s comic book material: the world’s finest player arrives at down-at-heel club, with no history of success, and propels said club to unfathomable triumphs in the most challenging league in the history of the sport. Roy of the Rovers has nothing on Maradona.
Only Cagliari, thanks to the volcanic left foot of Gigi Riva, had ever taken the Scudetto south of Rome in the history of Serie A. Since his arrival, Maradona had steadily built Napoli into a respectable force: “We built Napoli from the bottom, it was proper workmanship,” he wrote. An eighth-placed finish in his first season followed third in the second. Momentum was building.
On the opening day of the 1986/87 season, Napoli travelled north to face Brescia, and Maradona, 10 weeks after lifting the World Cup, meant business.
A drab encounter sprang into life five minutes before the interval when midfielder Bagni lofts a high ball in the direction of Maradona, who’s surrounded by Brescia shirts outside the box with his back to goal.
What transpires next is Maradona being irrepressibly Maradonian. He jumps and instantly controls the ball with his chest, letting it drop to the floor. The nanosecond the ball hits the turf, he’s off, accelerating at rapid pace, gliding past players with such beguiling fluidity. Maradona, now in full flight and without pause, arrows a shot into the opposite corner of Roberto Aliboni’s goal, leaving him with little to do than pick the ball out of the net. The entire sequence took four, mesmerising seconds.
“Football is a game of deceit,” Maradona explained in Kapadia’s documentary. “You feint going over there, then go in the opposite direction, and your opponent goes the other way.” Is there a better goal in Maradona’s catalogue – certainly at club level – that better illustrates his viewpoint?
Napoli would remain unbeaten until January, and won their first Scudetto on May 10th. The city of Naples partied like it was 1999, with mock funerals held for the northern powerhouses. The celebrations carried on for two months. A banner that said, “You don’t know what you’ve missed!” was infamously hung outside a Neapolitan cemetery.
“The victory marked the social redemption of our city,” observed Ciro Ferrara. “Thanks to Diego, it continued in the following years.” For a brief moment in time, the balance of power in Italy had swung southwards. That was Maradona’s greatest career achievement.
“Now the doubters had to believe that I was the best,” he said. “I was alone there, above everyone else.”
The greatest player of all time? Arguably. The most innately gifted? Indisputably.