Napoli Still Diego Maradona's City Almost 3 Decades After the First Scudetto
It was a tale of two balconies. On one, a retired leader of the faithful was greeted by throngs of adoring worshippers, all paying homage to the work he'd done and the way in which he'd changed so many lives. And on the other, Benedict XVI said his farewells having retired as Pope.
The huge crowds gathered in Rome to catch a glimpse of the Pope as he waved from his balcony, days after announcing his retirement.
The throngs crowded the streets of Naples were there to see a different sort of icon, but one that for many holds a similar spiritual significance. Twenty-one years after he left Campania in shame, the city's love for him hadn't diminished in the slightest. He was, after all, still il Diego.
Diego Maradona was back in Naples, having settled his tax problems with the Italian government, tax problems that had prevented him from visiting his beloved Naples, and its Stadio San Paolo, for so long.
“I want to come back to Italy with my grandson to watch Napoli," the legendary No. 10 told Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport. "I want him to see what his grandfather did here."
What he did was nothing short of miraculous. He led the Partenopei to not one, but two Serie A titles—a feat never before achieved by a mainland southern team. He won the Coppa Italia, the UEFA Cup, the Supercoppa Italiana and the hearts of a million Neapolitans.
Maradona and the rest of that special Napoli side broke the northern hegemony that has always controlled Italian football—and much of Italian life. Naples was a city derided as poor and corrupt, abandoned by the Italian ruling classes. But in the 1980s, they had the greatest player in the world flying the flag for them, and it's something that no one in the city has ever forgotten.
The Argentinian is a quasi-religious figure in Campania. A generation of Neapolitan men were christened "Diego," and it seems that even after more than two decades, no street in the centre is without some mural, shrine or slogan dedicated to the most fantastic of the fantasisti.
He's a subject of poetry, of folk song, of art and of countless anecdotes. But his magical sojourn on the Bay of Naples got off to a slow start.
The 1984-85 season was solid if unspectacular for the Argentinian. His arrival promised so much that when Napoli were hovering around the relegation zone before Christmas, the tifosi were understandably underwhelmed.
After the new year, things changed. The Azzurri were imperious following the break, losing just once, away to AC Milan. It was the warning shot for the seasons to come.
The following year, Napoli would finish third in the league and cement their reputation as serious contenders. The highlight of the year was surely Maradona's free kick to seal victory against Juventus in the San Paolo—the first victory over the Bianconeri there in 13 years. The Turin side would go on to win the championship—their 22nd—but it was clear to all that Diego & Co. were in the ascendancy.
The next year was to be the most memorable in the club's history. Having returned from winning the world cup in Mexico, Maradona lead the Partenopei to a historic league/cup double, beating Juve by three points in Serie A and Atalanta 4-0 on aggregate in the Coppa Italia.
It was the first time a team from the south of Italy had been so dominant in Serie A, and though there were certainly other stars in the Napoli squad—Moreno Ferrario, Fernando De Napoli and a young Ciro Ferrara come to mind—it was undoubtedly Maradona's genius that made it all happen.
Teams from Milan and Turin had ruled the peninsula since the league began. But a diminutive No. 10 from Lanus in the suburbs of Buenos Aires had turned all that on its head.
The following year, tragedy struck when in the final days of the championship the wheels fell off Napoli's title defence. They'd been five points up on eventual winners AC Milan, but following a loss to the Rossoneri, the Azzurri crumbled under the pressure and slumped into second.
There was some good to be taken from the year, though, as it heralded the arrival of the great Brazilian Careca at the San Paolo. The striker formed an awesome partnership with Maradona, and would be instrumental the club's success in 1989 and 1990.
Serie A again eluded them in '89, but a win in the UEFA Cup made up for it. Napoli beat Bayern Munich and Juventus on the way to the final with Stuttgart—and as ever, goals and magical assists from Maradona were at the heart of it all.
The Scudetto of 1990 was to prove Maradona's zenith. He was joined up front by Gianfranco Zola, and together with Careca they formed one of Italy's great front lines. The man himself contributed 16 of Napoli's 57 total and was instrumental in many others.
Only AC Milan—helped by the league's top scorer, a young Marco van Basten—came close to the Azzurri, but the northerners were no match and finished two points behind.
The summer brought the World Cup to Italy, and with it, Maradona's Argentina. They were booed throughout Italy, partly because Maradona suggested that the northern Italians were racist.
Only in Naples were they received warmly. Argentina played group games there, and finally a faithful clash with Italy, which the South Americans won to reach the final.
He wasn't to know it yet, but it was to be his final moment of greatness in the city he'd come to love.
Maradona's cocaine abuse and his reported links to the mafia had taken their toll on the player. He regularly missed training sessions and was surrounded in scandal, even fathering an illegitimate son during an affair that he would deny for years.
During the 1991 season, he was asked to take a drug test—a test which he failed. He was banned and would never play for Napoli again.
The courts in Rome chased him for smuggling charges—he reportedly brought £500,000 worth of cocaine through an airport in 1990—and a murderer-turned-informer gave evidence to police that suggested Maradona had strong ties to Napoli's organised crime syndicate, the Camorra. Fearing arrest, the player fled.
After the end of his ban, he'd play for Sevilla, Newell's Old Boys and Boca Juniors once more, but never at the level he'd reached with Napoli. His talent faded, but the memories of those halcyon days in Naples never have.
Maradona's No. 10 shirt remains retired at the club, party out of respect for what he did in it, and partly because they'd never find another like him to fill it anyway.
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