The second–last of four articles that form my tribute to the unique flawed genius, the late and great Diego Maradona.
The third part of this series on Maradona examines his career at Napoli. Following the 1986 World Cup victory with Argentina, Napoli appointed Maradona as the team’s captain, who inherited the armband from club stalwart Giuseppe Bruscolotti. That season, Diego confirmed his status as the world’s best player, as he went on to defy all odds and lead Napoli to their first ever Serie A title (as previously mentioned, the first time a Southern–Italian team had won the Scudetto), also capturing the Coppa Italia, playing a decisive role in the double victory. It is difficult to explain what this achievement meant to Neapolitans. This transcends mere football. Firstly, I will try and elucidate what football means in Italy. Despite Canadians’ passion for ice hockey, it might also be difficult for those of them who were born and raised here – even Italian–Canadians – to truly grasp the importance of football in Italy; to us it is more than just a game…it is deeply tied into our culture, our blood, our heritage, our families, our way of life, and even our hometowns. Probably it was Andrea Pirlo who summed up perfectly the interconnection between Italian football, the people, and their culture in his 2013 autobiography “I Think, Therefore I Play”:
“I took a long, intense breath. That deep breath was mine, but it could have been that of the manual worker who struggles to make it to the end of the month, or of the very rich businessman who is a bit of asshole, or of the teacher, or the student, or the old Italian expats who never left our side during the tournament in Germany, or the well-to-do Milanese signora, or the hooker on the street corner. In that moment, I was all of them.”Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, reflecting on the moment before he scored the first penalty in the shootout of the 2006 World Cup final victory against France (Pirlo, Andrea, and Alessandro Alciato. Penso Quindi Gioco. Milan: Oscar Mondadori, 2013, p. 48.)
While this notion might seem excessive and Pirlo’s quote might appear somewhat crass, there is some truth in it. Certainly, whenever I hear the all-too frequent outdated, exaggerated, and reductive criticisms or uninformed stereotypes of Italian football being overly defensive, corrupt, and rife with playacting (is this not the case with the sport in general, after all?), for me it also often comes across as an attack on Italians more broadly, as it can be difficult to separate the two at times, seeing as football is deeply personal for us. However, I would also fully agree with those who rightly point out that taking football too seriously can certainly be harmful, as demonstrated by the often senselessly violent incidents that take place in Italian stadiums due to the extreme nature of the fandom and problems with football hooliganism that have still not been tackled effectively; it is ultimately just a game, and there are many far more important things in life. That being said, it is difficult to express the feelings you experience when you first watch a football match in Italy. The atmosphere captivates you and draws you in; you feel connected to everyone around you, their passionate chanting, the quasi-operatic choruses, the stunningly colourful choreography, the driving rhythms of the drums that become synchronised with the beating of your heart, that moment of silence before the stadium suddenly erupts after a goal, and the rush of adrenaline it gives you…I still remember vividly the first international tournament I ever watched; without fully grasping what was so enthralling about the games, I quickly found myself experiencing feelings of excitement over Italy’s chances, elation over the team’s victories and pain over their defeats…from that moment on, I was completely hooked!
Moreover, beyond the popularity of football in Italy, in order to better understand the mass following that Maradona has garnered in Naples, one must also realise that due to Italy’s complex political history, there is a clear divide between Northern and Southern Italy, which still exists to this day. Not just geographically, but also socially, with the country’s wealth and industries being focussed predominantly in the Northern part of the country. Because of this contrast, it is an unfortunate reality that there is a lot of discrimination against Southern Italians, in terms of their different dialects, economic background, and also due to colourism, so much so that they were often not even perceived as being “Italian.” When confronted with the dangerous and prevalent anti-immigration sentiments that pervade Italy today, and the offensive lies and toxic stereotypes that are spread so quickly and easily on social media, which has only facilitated the rise of far right-wing populist figures such as Matteo Salvini, one must remember that similarly poisonous rhetoric was once used to describe Southern Italians looking for work in the North; many people refused to rent out rooms to Southerners. Rather appallingly, “don’t be a Neapolitan” was a common insult my father heard people using colloquially in Northern Italy (essentially equating Neapolitans with people who behave foolishly; rather shockingly, however, in 2010 the supreme court deemed this saying not to be offensive, something with which countless Neapolitans, including my father would strongly disagree). As Daniel Alarcón of The New Yorker noted in 2019, this discrimination pervaded into football stadiums as well, with violently offensive chants often being directed at Neapolitans by opposing fans. Although the situation has certainly improved in recent years, this sort of discrimination is something that unfortunately still persists today in Italian football stadiums, in particular due to the extreme and fanatical views of the Ultras groups of many Northern Italian clubs’ fanbases. And unfortunately it is not only Neapolitans and other Southern Italians who are the victims of such racist abuse; also many Black players in particular, such as Clarence Seedorf, Lilian Thuram, Mario Balotelli, Moise Kean, Kalidou Koulibaly, Romelu Lukau, and Samuel Eto’o, among many others, as well as numerous other minorities, have been the victims of horrific acts of racism during matches. As someone who often faced discrimination himself due to his Indigenous heritage on his father’s side, this was something that Maradona could certainly relate to, having suffered racial abuse both in Spain and in Italy. In this sense, Maradona’s success with Napoli means so much more than just football titles. He became a true underdog hero, not only for the club’s fans, but with Neapolitans and all Southerners. As a poor boy who came from nothing and went on to conquer the world while playing for a smaller club in one of the poorest cities in Italy, he inspired hope in the working class, and came to represent their plight. With his anti-conformist personality, he essentially become an anti-establishment figure, a left-wing guerrilla fighter, who had not only taken on the elite, but won. His victory gave Neapolitans a feeling of self-belief, that they could overcome and achieve anything. It was a wake-up call to the rest of Italy, as if to say “We are here! We exist! You can no longer ignore us!” After they had been discriminated against for so long, he re-instilled a sentiment of pride in being Neapolitan, and showed off the beauty of Naples to the world!
Beyond the team and individual titles he won, I could write endless paragraphs about Maradona’s achievements with Napoli, all the iconic moments of individual brilliance, decisive performances in key games (like his assist for Baroni’s goal in the title deciding match against Lazio in 1990), and the many audacious and spectacular goals he scored (like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one…), but this article is already too long, so I will have to summarise his accomplishments! Under Maradona’s leadership, Napoli enjoyed the most successful spell in their history: after winning the double in 1987, they won the UEFA Cup in 1989 (with Maradona scoring and assisting goals in the two-legged final victory over Stuttgart; it should be noted that at the time, the UEFA Cup was considered to be a major European title, and far more prestigious than its replacement, the UEFA Europa League, is today, as originally, only the league winners qualified for the European Cup, the predecessor of the UEFA Champions League), followed by a second Serie A title, as well as a Supercoppa Italiana, in 1990; he was also the top scorer in Serie A during the 1987–88 season, with 15 goals. It should also be recognised that, despite Maradona’s talent and controversial character, and notwithstanding the fact that he did not have many world class teammates, he never let his ego get the better of him on the pitch, and he never used his presence to diminish his teammates’ ability; his leadership was exemplary in this regard, which won him admiration from teammates and rivals alike. As one of his opponents Liam Brady notes in a recent article for the Irish Examiner:
“As well as the brilliant goals […] there are all those chances he created for others, most of them missed. But you know what you don’t see after any of those misses? Maradona throwing his hands up in the air, having a go at his teammates. Up close, that’s how I remember him too. I see it all the time now, prima donnas who couldn’t lace Maradona’s boots, making it clear their teammates aren’t up to their standards. Never from him. His teammates loved him dearly. He was a great bloke to play against too. Sure, he’s got the reputation in England as a cheat, and he got away with one, but I never saw him as a cheat. He never feigned injury, never went down looking to get somebody booked or sent off. He always bounced up on his feet and he was respectful of his opponents.”
This sentiment seems to echo Paolo Maldini’s statement in a 2005 article for the Irish Times, during which he surprisingly described Diego as both the greatest player he ever faced and the most honest, noting:
“He was a model of good behaviour on the pitch – he was respectful of everyone, from the great players down to the ordinary team member. He was always getting kicked around and he never complained – not like some of today’s strikers.”
Indeed, despite Maradona’s numerous mistakes, personal flaws, controversial reputation, and volatile behaviour, it is surprising to see that those who were truly close to him, including Jorge Valdano, Ciro Ferrara, Franco Baresi, Lionel Messi, Osvaldo Ardiles, José Mourinho, and Argentine singer Calamaro (with even Harry Kane recently praising him as “a fantastic guy“), have often spoken highly of him, in particular now following his passing, and of his generosity, heart, and human qualities as a friend, in addition to his exceptional playing ability. Friends and family members of mine have also told me of many heart-warming anecdotes regarding Diego’s altruistic gestures during his time in Naples. One example is when he organised a charity match on a muddy pitch in Acerra to raise money for a child who was ill and who needed to raise money in order to undergo an expensive operation, even covering the insurance costs for the match, when the club refused to allow him to participate in it. This leads us to wonder whether he was not so much the unscrupulous persona that he is often made out to be, but whether he was in fact misunderstood to an extent by those who did not know him personally.
Despite all of his success in Naples, it was soon clear, however, that Maradona was slowly falling apart. In Diego Maradona, a riveting 2019 documentary on Diego’s life by Asif Kapadia, it is implied that Maradona turned to cocaine to cope with the mental and physical stresses that the game put him under, the pressure that was being put on him by the fans, the press, and the club’s president Corrado Ferlaino, as well as the physical pain he faced from all of the hard challenges he had to endure. Unfortunately, without the proper support or assistance, the cycle of trauma often repeats itself, and Diego had already faced numerous difficulties in his life, despite his many achievements; one always falls the hardest from the top, after all. One must wonder if today, with more focus being placed on players’ mental health and well-being, whether he could have overcome these pressures and dealt with his issues in a far more healthy manner. His popularity in Naples also meant that any ordinary semblance of a private life was virtually impossible; he would literally be surrounded by adoring fans or hounded by reporters whenever he went out into the streets, and while this level of warmth and affection is certainly touching, it can also be rather taxing at times for players as well. It might be difficult for Canadians to comprehend how overwhelming this can be, as there is certainly a different culture around sports and sporting or footballing figures in Europe (Italy, in particular, especially in regard to footballers) and Latin America than there is in North America. Maradona’s compatriot Jorge Valdano eloquently elaborated in a recent article for The Guardian, in which he paid an emotional tribute to his former teammate, that Diego was in many ways a victim of his own upbringing and success, a tragic hero in the truest sense, or perhaps even, as Diego’s former Napoli teammate Ciro Ferrara put it, an “anti-hero.” Diego’s fellow former international teammate Mario Kempes instead argued that unfortunately, while Diego was largely adored and always had many around him who claimed to be close to him, in reality he did not have many true friends. On top of that, to make matters worse, he evidently fell in with the wrong crowd as well.
Tensions had already arisen between Maradona and the Neapolitan club when he had asked to be transferred in 1989; he ended up remaining with the club and played a decisive role in winning the league title for the second time the next season, cementing his status as a club idol. His relationship with the club’s management worsened after the 1990 World Cup in Italy, however. Maradona was not fully fit throughout the tournament, as he had been struggling with an ankle injury, and therefore did not have the same impact as he had had four years earlier, when he was at the peak of his powers, going scoreless throughout the competition. Argentina also initially failed to impress, with the holders surprisingly losing to Cameroon in their opening match (after which, Maradona rather bluntly commented – due to being jeered, by the Milanese fans all game, who surprisingly sympathised with Cameroon – “thanks to me Italy is no longer racist“) and only qualifying for the second round as one of the best third–placed teams. Nevertheless, Diego still played an important role in Argentina’s tournament run, both as hero and villain once again. In a quasi sequel to his “hand of God” goal four years earlier, in Argentina’s second group match, a 2–0 win over USSR, he blocked a header with his arm to prevent it from crossing the goal line. In particular, however, the Argentine talisman stood out for his beautiful assist for Cláudio Caniggia’s decisive goal after a trademark solo run in a controversial match against rivals Brazil in the round of 16. In the quarter-finals however, he almost cost his country a place in the last four when he missed a penalty in the resulting shootout against Yugoslavia following a goalless draw, although luckily for him, his team still advanced. In the semi-final, Argentina were set to play the hosts Italy at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples, his club’s city, while previously all of Italy’s games had taken place at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Maradona rather strikingly urged the Neapolitan fans to support Argentina during the match, as Northern Italians often disregarded and discriminated against Southerners. His request sparked controversy, although it was ultimately unsuccessful, as demonstrated by one of the banners shown during the game, which read “Maradona, Naples loves you but Italy is our homeland.” However, as a sign of respect, the Italian fans did not boo the Argentine national anthem (a highly disrespectful gesture that unfortunately still occurs today), which is something that occurred to every other one of Italy’s opponents. The game ended in a 1–1 deadlock after 90 minutes, with Maradona having a hand in Caniggia’s goal, the first goal that Italy had conceded throughout the tournament. After no goals were scored in extra-time, the match went to a penalty shoot-out, with Maradona redeeming himself to his compatriots by netting the winning spot-kick on this occasion. The result and the controversy leading up to the match did not sit well with the majority of the Italian fans, however. In the final, the Argentine national anthem was met with whistles and jeers, causing an indignant Maradona to curse at the camera, visibly mouthing “¡hijos de puta!” (“sons of bitches”) repeatedly. In a rather uneventful match, the Argentines suffered a defeat to West Germany by a single goal, which came from a contentious Andreas Brehme penalty, who avenged his team’s loss in the previous final. After the tournament, things changed drastically for Maradona; the Italians never forgave him for what he had done and instead turned on him. Up until then, the rest of Italy had turned a blind eye to Diego’s life off the pitch; after the World Cup, however, he was no longer protected. Inadvertently, he had essentially started a war with the entire country, one that could not be won.
The final article in this series will explore Maradona’s later personal struggles and scandals, which ultimately led to his decline.