Few places will mourn the death of Diego Maradona as much as Naples, the downtrodden, gritty Italian city that clasped the troubled Argentine to its heart at his time of need and was repaid with the best years of perhaps the greatest footballer to ever play the game.
Buildings around Naples are adorned with depictions of the man who took Napoli to the top of the Italian game and beyond and became an icon and spokesman for Neapolitans, whose chaotic city was feared and loathed in equal measure by the rest of Italy.
“I feel like I represented a part of Italy that didn’t count for anything,” he said in ‘Diego Maradona’, the 2019 Asif Kapadia documentary about his life in Naples.
So deep was ‘barrio boy’ Maradona’s attachment to Naples that he called Napoli’s first ever league title, won a year after he led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, the “greatest triumph” of his career.
Surrounded by jubilant fans on the pitch of Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo, he explained why: “I won this one at my home.”
Maradona’s achievements at Napoli, who had been also-rans until he arrived in 1984 following a difficult two-year spell at Barcelona, cemented his position as the greatest player of his generation and, in many peoples’ eyes, make him the best ever.
Another league title in 1990 — pipping Arrigo Sacchi’s great AC Milan — the 1989 UEFA Cup and an Italian Cup also arrived during Maradona’s seven years in southern Italy, a golden age that has never come close to being repeated since.
Maradona’s 115 goals in all competitions was a club record that stood for 26 years and his heroics came at a time when Serie A was the world’s strongest, richest league, where the likes of Michel Platini and Zico strutted their stuff in front of bulging, bouncing stadiums.
He fled in disgrace in 1991, a failed drugs test, an unrecognised son and a billion-lira tax dispute all left back in Naples, where his penchant for late-night parties, cocaine and women were almost as famous as his magical displays on the pitch.
– Camorra links –
Courted by criminals, the King of Spain and even the Pope, Maradona became a quasi-religious figure in Naples. He brought joy to a desperately poor city blighted by bloody conflicts between the competing clans of the powerful Camorra organised crime network, one of whom Maradona would get to know very well.
Indeed the 1984 signing of a genuine superstar by Napoli — who were heavily in debt and had finished 11th the previous season — immediately raised eyebrows, with persistent rumours that a chunk of the world record $10.48 million fee that brought him to Italy came from the Camorra’s deep pockets.
The opening question in his first press conference came from a reporter who asked a confused Maradona whether he knew about the Camorra and its “influence on football” and was immediately ejected by livid club owner Corrado Ferlaino.
“I never asked for anything from the Camorra, they gave me the security of knowing that nothing was going to happen to my two children,” Maradona insisted in a 2017 interview to Italian TV station Canale 5.
However his access to drugs and women came thanks to the infamous Giuliano clan, who immediately befriended Maradona, furnished his burgeoning cocaine habit and went to great lengths to make sure they were photographed partying with the world’s most famous footballer.
Maradona himself admitted that every week he would binge from Sunday night until Wednesday, beginning an intense detox programme each Thursday that would get him ready for the following weekend’s match.
– Things fall apart –
It took Napoli two years to provide Maradona with teammates capable of challenging for honours, and when the title came in 1987 it caused such wild celebrations that stories of a summer-long party became as famous as the triumph itself.
In reality the city came to a standstill for around a week. To this day Neapolitans name their sons after a football god they’ve only seen play on old VHS players and YouTube.
Another title arrived three years later before it all began to fall apart, not long after he and the Argentine national team enraged Italy by dumping the ‘Azzurri’ out of the 1990 World Cup in the semi-finals — in Naples of all places.
His problems had begun some time before. He had tired of the suffocating attention Naples afforded him and in 1989 had signed terms with Marseille, only for Ferlaino to put a stop to the transfer at the last minute.
“After a four-hour meeting, Ferlaino said that if we won the UEFA Cup I could leave, but we won it, and he blocked the move anyway,” Maradona said in 2009.
However after the 1990 World Cup he had become a hate figure in Italy and his support network slowly melted away. In February 1991 police announced he had been caught on wiretaps asking for cocaine and prostitutes from a mob figure. A trumped-up drugs trafficking charge soon followed.
The failed drugs test that finished him off came after a match with Bari two months later, and an unprecedented worldwide ban from the game until June 1992 left him scuttling back to Buenos Aires, never to reach the same heights again.