I was blessed that I was in Naples in the summer of 1990. Three incredible nights in the Stadio San Paolo. I will, forever, be content that I saw Diego Maradona play in his adopted home, in front of people who worshipped him. Thirty years on, as images of crying fans in front of the stadium, and at the Duomo di San Gennaro, flash on channels it’s not difficult to understand a small Argentinian’s big effect on Naples. A city with very little to cheer about. A people among the poorest in Europe.
In 1990, when I went to cover the World Cup, Neopolitans were the toast of Italian football and Maradona was their patron saint. Two Serie A titles and a Coppa Italia for a team that had bare silverware in its clubhouse, made Maradona almost as revered in the Campania region as the man sitting in the Vatican, 200 kms to the north.
When Diego and his band of battered Argentinians arrived in Naples, after the Cameroon humiliation in Milan, they were on home ground. On 14th, June, Argentina faced the Soviet Union in a do-or- die match. Maradona’s divine hand robbed the Russians of a goal. No question of sympathy from the partisan crowd at San Paolo for the Soviets. Five nights later they were up against Romania, led by the brilliant Georghe Hagi. A draw meant Argentina were through to the knockout stage. Naples was celebrating on the roads as I rushed to the station to take the late-night train, back to Rome.
I followed Maradona and Argentina to Turin, then to Florence. In Turin, they were up against Brazil at the Stadio Delle Alpi. With ten minutes remaining, Maradona’s sheer wizardry, to fox four Brazilian midfielders, set up Caniggia for a goal. Next up was Yugoslavia at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence. A scrappy match that the Albicelestes won on penalties.
‘Support Italy but nobody will boo Maradona’
People gather to mourn the death of Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona in Naples (Reuters Photo)
Back to Naples. Argentina was up against Italy. And the game began days ahead of the kickoff on 3rd June. Those were the days when the portrait of their El Dios hung next to that of the Lord in homes of god-fearing Neopolitans. Diego appealed to them to continue to root for Argentina, reminding them of Italy’s strong North-South inequality and how they were neglected by Rome. That set off a dilemma. The local Tifosi was torn between supporting the Napoli idol and their national team. They hated the north. Few south players made it to the Italian national team. La Squadra Azzura or La Albiceleste? Naples’ notorious mafia the Camorra entered the scene days before the match. The order was given out: Support Italy but nobody will boo Maradona.
Italy feared the Argentina team because of Maradona. The Trenitalia train I took from Rome on 3rd June was packed. But quiet. Apologetic banners were up in the city: Naples Loves You, But Italy Is Our Homeland; Diego In Our Hearts, Italy In Our Hearts. The San Paolo was packed. There was a roar, bigger than for any other player, when Maradona’s name was announced. For the first time that summer in Italy, there was no booing when the Argentina national anthem was played. When it ended, Maradona bowed to Neopolitans.
In a packed stadium not fully committed to the Italian side, Argentina played their best football so far in the tournament, drawing level and then winning the shootout to set up a final again with the Germans again. A fairly mediocre and injury hit team had beaten all odds and made it to the final. If not for Naples, would Maradona have taken an average Argentina to their second consecutive World Cup final? In their quiet support on that humid night in July, Naples paid back Maradona.
In his tribute to Maradona, Pep Guardiola recalled reading a banner for Diego in Argentina which said “It doesn’t matter what you have done with your life, it matters what you have done with our lives.” That’s why thirty years later as news came in of Maradona’s death, thousands of miles away in a different continent, Naples wept.