Naples is known for many things: pizza, romance, crime, and the celebration of its saints as nothing short of an obsession. There is San Gennaro and then there is San Diego. The former, a beautified second century Catholic saint, and the latter, footballer Diego Armando Maradona. His miraculous seven years in Naples were a mixture of chaos, delight, unparalleled joy, and crushing sadness. One can say his revolutionary rise to the top of the sporting world and dramatic fall from grace captures not only his story, but the very heartbeat and soul of the city of Naples itself.
On the doorstep of the daunting Vesuvius and tucked serenely along the gulf of Sorrento, Naples and its beauty are often hard to describe. It’s a unique environment: lively, poor, disheveled, truly mad with chaos, yet also romantically beautiful and painstakingly unforgettable. As you venture through Naples–from the inner heart of the Spanish Quarter to the slums of Scampia–you’ll notice vibrant communities filled with graffiti, religious relics, and tiles of Madonna and child along the walls of homes. You’ll wind through alleys, hearing fishmongers sell their catch, and seeing iconic statues of Padre Pio by doorsteps and in dimly lit courtyards. But most importantly, you’ll see images of the city’s one true saint and hero: Diego Armando Maradona.
Shortly after his unprecedented move from Barcelona to Napoli on July 5th, 1984, Maradona understood the city and people he had been adopted by. If it wasn’t the 80,000 roaring fans that welcomed him to the San Paolo, it was the cumbersome and harsh reality that was Naples in the 1980s.
Barred from seeing the fruits of the post-war Italian economic miracle, Naples was a rag-tag city with high unemployment, violent outbursts from the Camorra, (the vicious, local criminal organization), and an obvious lack of industry. In the decade prior, the city had seen a deadly cholera outbreak, an earthquake, and thousands of its workers move abroad or to northern cities to work in factories. It was the poorest city in Italy: a taboo location for those from the north, seemingly on the verge of its soul collapsing. The Gomorrah-like metropolis was in desperate need of a hero to bring salvation and self worth.
Like many Neapolitans, Maradona was born on the fringe of society in an impoverished slum. Despite being born nearly 12,000 kilometers away in Villa Fiorito, Argentina, his upbringing and devout love for his family was something he and the people of Naples shared in common. Maradona’s rise to myth began at age 15, when he was the prime breadwinner for his family. After wooing crowds with his puma-like dribbling in Argentina, he was transferred to FC Barcelona for $7.6 million–at that time, a world record fee. In his years at Barça, Maradona won the Copa Del Rey (beating arch-rivals Real Madrid) and a Spanish Super cup against Bilbao, and endured a bout of hepatitis and a broken ankle from what many call the most “reckless tackle” in football history. Marred by injury, disagreement and dissatisfaction on and off the field, Maradona begged to be sold at whichever bidder paid the price.
To the world’s surprise, Napoli showed up. A lowly, middle-to-bottom Serie A squad (with no culture of winning) paid the new world record fee of $10.4 million. Italian football in those days was unanimously the greatest in the world. An aggressive, defensive league where the world’s best came to play in Turin and Milan–not anywhere south of Rome, let alone Naples.
Tasked with the impossible, Maradona’s impact as a footballer and as an icon was immediate. Just by accepting the job, he sparked pride for many people’s lives across the city. He was the inferno for the rebellion against the tyranny of the north and the beginning of the most unique love story the world has ever seen.
In the two seasons leading up to 1986, Maradona tremendously improved Napoli, which started creeping towards the top of the table. His first gigantic feat was in November 1985, when he single-handedly beat Juventus in Naples: 1-0 with a sublime free kick. The resulting pandemonium gave two people heart attacks, and five fainted in the stadium.
Anyone could tell you that this was the first battle the Neapolitans had won against other parts of Italy. Beating Juventus, the most-crowned champions of Italy, meant beating the systematic ideology that the north was better, more evolved, and cleaner than the south. The latter, a constant insult Maradona would hear at opposing stadiums, referred to the cholera outbreaks that had handicapped those in Naples in the 1800’s and more recently in 1973.
In the time between the Juve victory and the first Scudetto (“championship”) in May of 87’, Diego had awed the world on a domestic and international level with his unparalleled abilities. From redeeming the south with his free-kick against Juve to his genius representing Argentina at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City, Diego was on top of the world. In Mexico City, Maradona went from footballer to rebel deity in just one match. Argentina maneuvered their way into the knockout rounds, facing England in the quarterfinals. Four years after the Falklands War between the two countries, Maradona scored two goals in arguably the most iconic match of his career. The first, known as the “Hand of God”, became a symbolic piece of revenge for the war. Miraculously-timed, Maradona met Peter Shildon, the British keeper. Both outstretched, Maradona’s hand connected first, tapping the ball into the goal. The referee, who hadn’t seen clearly, called it a header, and the goal stood. Minutes later, Maradona ran 60 yards in 10 seconds, slashing and passing through four English players to make the “Goal of the Century”. It felt as if he took on the whole English team on his own. Those in attendance and watching on television had to finally admit he was undeniably the best footballer in the universe. Those two goals, above all, sum up Diego Maradona. For better and for worse, he was a passionate genius, a cheat, a mythaviable outlaw doing whatever it took to win–divine intervention or not.
That first Scudetto in 86-87’ was the high water mark of a beautiful and rare wave in a sea of blue. One that could not be stopped by anything. It was the highest point in Diego’s career and his relationship with the people of Naples. In the aftermath of the Scudetto, the city stopped for two months to celebrate. Images of that time show a celebration beyond comprehension in today’s world. It was as if he gave purpose to each and every individual of Naples. The whole of Campania was dressed head to toe in blue with banners and flags. Thousands marched in the streets. Photos of him were placed in homes, next to images of loved ones, beside beds or even above images of Jesus himself. People were naming their children “Diego” and “Diega”. Even the dead were reminded of this extraordinary victory with a blue sign–“you don’t know what you missed”–on the cemetery walls.
As his story went on, Maradona continued to bring success to Napoli, winning the Coppa Italia, the Super Coppa Italia, and on a European level, the UEFA Cup in 1989 and a second Scudetto. Yet something changed in that period. It could have been the constant greed of fans, now expecting nothing but trophies, or the overbearing and suffocating admiration people had of him. Diego cracked and his vices maneuvered their way around his love for the game, finding his weak spots. Whether you believe his vices just continued to ramp up due to the heightened pressure or were conveniently highlighted due to the controversial moment in the 1990 World Cup, that is for you to decide.
In the semifinals of Italia 90’, Maradona, representing the Argentine national team, faced Italy in Naples. An obvious scheduling error created the most anticipated match in the history of the Azzurri. In the days leading to the heated matchup, Maradona called for Neapolitans to support Argentina, proclaiming that Naples was not a part of Italy and thus contradicting a lot of his work that brought Neapolitans to a level of national respect. The division of his comments and the ultimate victory Argentina had over Italy at the San Paolo changed his relationship with Italy forever. Fans turned their backs on him. The police, gamblers and bitter sports fans proclaimed him to be enemy number one. His crown was tarnished and he became the most hated man in all of Italy for the foreseeable future.
With a fresh target on his back, an ongoing awkward relationship with the local Camorra clan and an addiction problem, the once beautiful crest of the wave of blue started to fall back into the sea. Maradona was first indicted for drugs in 1991 and soon after, was given a 15-month suspension by the anti-doping commission (an unheard of punishment) after testing positive for trace levels of cocaine. That was the final straw. Maradona as a footballer was over.
Fleeing Naples virtually overnight, the Maradona who was once welcomed by 80,000 devout and loving fans left Italy alone. His story of triumph and tragedy mirrored the many complexities of life in Naples. Raw, God-given talent and work ethic clashed with an addictive human torn between right and wrong. Maradona was a winner and an icon who had brought Naples dignity, pride, and victory. His name, his style, his victories, his cheating, and his shortcomings as an addict were all part of his myth. Maradona’s myth reminds people around the world that the pressure to succeed can be too much–one man’s shoulders can only take so much. Like Jesus, he sacrificed himself in many ways for the redemption of the people of Naples. Through football, Maradona gave them meaning, purpose, and pride. But the heavy burden of obsession and the achilles heel of man ultimately lost him his one true love.
Whether you see him as a saint, a myth, or even a villain, you have to acknowledge the resolute loyalty the people of Naples have for him, even decades later. His death in 2020 marked a new chapter, one that closed the living relationship they had with their god, but cemented the iconic relationship with him forever. Only a week after he passed, the San Paolo was renamed the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium. His relationship with those young and old in Naples is entirely Neapolitan. Have some of the negative attributes of his personality been washed away? Sure. Maybe that’s Neapolitans asking for some sort of forgiveness for the overbearing pressure they put on him, hoping that his ultimate downfall was worth the immense joy and pride he gave the people of this ancient city.
Neapolitans see a bit of themselves in that genius, misunderstood, vulnerable, and faltered man. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe part of his allure is that they desperately wish they saw a bit of themselves as a fighter and a champion. Maybe, like many of the tragedies that happen in this city, Maradona was a prime example of what can happen when success meets the imperfections of the everyday man. Even so, the footballer provided meaning and hope to the city of Naples, to a people that have struggled for millennia against the harshness of Vesuvius, outside invaders and the wretched north. May Diego rest in peace and Maradona live forever.