The outpouring of grief from around the world of football after Wednesday’s announcement that the legendary Diego Armando Maradona had passed away was proof enough that we have lost one of the great sporting icons of the 20th century.
Arguments will always rage about whether he was the greatest player of all time, but what is not in doubt is that he was the greatest player of his generation.
Between 1984 and 1991, he captivated one city in particular and unless one has been enchanted by Naples and its culture, it’s impossible to put into words just what he meant to the people there – although we’ll now try and do our best.
SEE NAPLES AND CONQUER
In the summer of 1984, SSC Napoli shocked the football world by announcing the signing of the best player on the planet. Maradona, who had spent the previous two years at Barcelona, was ready for a change of scenery and wanted, in his words, “to leave the suffocating atmosphere” of the Catalan city behind.
As his private jet headed towards Southern Italy, no-one had thought to tell Diego that if he considered Barcelona stifling, where he was headed you could multiply that by 10,000 in a city that craved success to be able to stick two fingers up to the traditional footballing powerhouses of Turin and Milan.
On the day of his presentation at the Stadio San Paolo, 80,000 fans turned up to welcome their new messiah and so began an incredible journey as Maradona fever swallowed up everything in its path. Local newspaper Il Mattino, all too aware of the financial hardship that Neapolitans were encountering, declared on its front page on July 5th 1984 that “despite the lack of a mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona”.
Unfortunately, what Napoli also had was the Camorra, a notorious Mafia organisation that had been plaguing its citizens since the 17th century.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Right from the start, suspicions were raised as to how club President Corrado Ferlaino had managed to cobble together the £5million (a world record at the time) to bring Maradona to Napoli and the obvious answer – although nobody would ever publicly come out and say it – was that there must have been Mafia involvement.
What really happened has never truly been revealed, but when after only a few months into his new experience he was pictured at a party fraternising with one of Italy’s most notorious criminals, it became clear that the Argentine superstar was not only the property of SSC Napoli.
Despite all this, Maradona’s on-field persona never changed as he transformed the Azzurri from also-rans to genuine title contenders. Within three years of his arrival, he’d lead Napoli to their first-ever Scudetto despite at times being subjected to X-rated on-field abuse from some of Serie A’s most renowned hatchet men.
One of the best quotes heard over the past 24 hours, which sums his legacy up perfectly is that you’d “Pay money to watch him warm-up.” Need we say more? Oh, go on then.
As alcohol and cocaine addiction began to take hold, Maradona’s behaviour off the field became more and more erratic despite his performances on it continuing to astonish. Wiretaps on his phone have since revealed the extent to which the influence the Camorra was having and how his drug problems had got out of control.
One has to sympathise however, that the player nicknamed “El Pibe de Oro” (the Golden Child) wasn’t able to leave his house without 2000 fans and paparazzi waiting outside to follow his every move, every day which led to his famous line “This is a great city but I can hardly breathe. I want to be free to walk around. I’m a lad like any other.”
The mid-80’s in Naples also saw a baby boom which many have put down to the Maradona effect, bringing the good times back to a city that was looked upon as the toilet of Italy by its wealthy Northern counterparts. Unfortunately for Diego, local TV was full of women claiming that the new messiah was the father of their child and although it’s no secret that he enjoyed the company of the opposite sex, if he had been padre to all who came forward it clearly wouldn’t have been possible for the poor guy to walk – never mind turn defenders inside out.
NO HOPE, EVEN FOR A POPE
To many Neapolitans, he was and will always be bigger than god and by the turn of the new century Maradona had distanced himself from the Catholic Church, claiming to have been disenchanted with Pope John Paul II.
When he visited the Vatican in 2000 and still smarting from the fact that he hadn’t been given a special rosary, he made it clear in no uncertain terms that if the head of the Catholic Church really wanted to help the poor, then he should “sell” off his gold ceilings.
When reporters caught up with him outside to ask what had happened, Diego explained that “I’ve been to the Vatican and seen the gold ceilings. And then I hear the Pope saying that the Church was concerned about poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, mate!”