How Diego Maradona and Napoli became a match made in heaven 💙

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Padraig Whelan

Article image: How Diego Maradona and Napoli became a match made in heaven 💙

There is no city in the world that loves a sporting hero quite like Napoli and their favourite adopted son, Diego Armando Maradona.

Sure, there’s Chicago and Michael Jordan and David Ortiz will never buy a drink in Boston again, but football is divisive by its very nature.

In this sport, there are few real one club cities. Naples is rare in that regard and unique in many others.

The relationship that exists between them and the man who single-handedly (and that is neither a pun nor an exaggeration) brought them from the gutter to glory is unparalleled anywhere.

From the moment he arrived for a world record fee in the summer of 1984 from Barcelona, he had the whole city eating out of the palm of his hand (what is it with him and that body part?) immediately.

Seventy-five thousand people turned up at the Stadio San Paolo just to watch him be paraded – dozens of Diego decoys had to be used to keep the media and frenzied fans guessing – and indulge in some flicks and tricks.

His impact wasn’t quite instant as Hellas Verona stole his thunder in his maiden season by shocking the world to win their only Scudetto to date in one of the game’s great fairytale stories.

But then the Maradona fairytale began.

In his second season, he really came to the fore as the Partenopei leapt from eighth to third and it was in that summer that he took the world by storm with his performances in Mexico, leading his country to glory.

He’d conquered the globe. Now it was time to do the same for the city of Naples, for the people of Naples. His people.

By the end of the 1986/87 season, he’d done just that, spearheading his side to the first Scudetto in their history – thanks in no small part to his 10 goals and inspirational presence throughout.

However, when it comes to Diego, the goals, assists and statistics don’t really matter. Nobody knows them that well because it was largely about the joy that came with watching him.

When they finally secured the championship and became the first club in Italy south of Rome ever to do so, having spent so long being looked down on and suffering constant territorial discrimination, the celebrations lasted for months.

There were impromptu street parties which went on all summer. An upsurge in pregnancies occurred, with estimates that a quarter of all boys born in in the city in the late 80s were named Diego.

An infamous banner was even hung over a local cemetery, proclaiming ‘you don’t know what you’ve missed!’.  As many as 20,000 ballots for the local mayoral election were spoiled when members of the public simply chose to write in for Diego instead.

El Pibe de Oro and co. added the Coppa Italia that year too for good measure, completing a double and they didn’t stop there.

In 1989, he claimed continental success for his beloved adopted home with a Uefa Cup triumph, following that up with another Scudetto (their most recent to date) and Supercoppa Italiana.

Countless songs were composed in his honour and many more murals painted around the city as locals displayed that artistic flair that has made them so renowned in tribute to the man they revered, while local piazzas wear named in his honour.

The topic of image rights has always been a touchy one at Napoli in particular and is a big part of any current player at the Stadio San Paolo negotiating their contract but there was none of that with him.

Even today, a stroll through one of the city’s many winding, narrow streets will see you come across all manner of Maradona merchandise and he didn’t mind one bit.

“If those sellers can use my image to help the city of Naples then I’m very happy to see these businesses survive,” he once said, showcasing a generosity of spirit that is often overlooked.

That’s just another reason why they worshipped him so much. So much so in fact that there are plenty of small shrines scattered around the city depicting their No. 10 as d10s, or God – with one even keeping his hair and tears in a vial (don’t even ask how they got hold of those).

That’s what he was to Neapolitans. They loved him so much that it even caused a great dilemma in the summer of 1990 when Maradona laid bare Italy’s relationship with his city.

That came in the World Cup semi-final which was played in Naples and in which Maradona played on the attitude the rest of the peninsula had towards their compatriots down south.

“Neapolitans are being asked to be Italians for one night but the rest of the 364 days of the year, they’ll be called terrone [a derogatory term for a southern Italian],” he said beforehand, ratcheting tensions even higher.

Some did indeed cheer for Maradona (and by extension Argentina). Some couldn’t bring themselves to do so. Mostly, it was just too difficult a dilemma for everyone involved.

“Diego, you are in our hearts but Italy will be in our songs. It is our home,” one banner read. That he even made people consider is evidence of the standing he is held in there.

Not even the bitterness of an exit shrouded in controversy over a failed drugs test, fallout with the president and links to the local mafia could diminish his standing in the city.

After all, that was part of his appeal to the Neapolitan people. He was flawed and they could relate to it – a scugnizzo Napoletano in the local dialect. Essentially, a cheeky rascal.

There were ups and downs throughout his turbulent seven-year spell in Naples but he’ll always be their greatest hero, even managing to usurp the city’s patron saint San Gennaro for that honour.

“We don’t have a mayor, schools, houses, employment, transport or sanitation,” one memorable local newspaper put it during his heyday.

“But none of that matters because we have Maradona.”