On the sunny day of 5 April 1984—before the cocaine convictions, the affair, the mafia parties—Diego Maradona arrived in a helicopter at San Paolo to be presented as the new signing of Napoli. The fee was £6.9m, a world record. He was twenty-three. At least seventy thousand had paid good money to cram into the cavernous concrete bowl for a welcome whose ecstasy denoted their desperation for a saviour. During the lengthy negotiations, fans had gone on hunger strike to get him. One had chained himself to the railings of the San Paolo. When the transfer was finalised, a newspaper wrote that despite the lack of a “mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona”. The club had wanted him since 1979, when he was at Argentinos, though Maradona’s teenage self knew little about his future destination. “Napoli meant no more than something Italian,” he wrote. “Like pizza.”
It is difficult to overstate Napoli’s longing for Maradona. They were from the third-biggest city in Italy, but had never won Serie A since being formed in 1926. They had been runners-up in 1968 and 1975, but heavy investment had never brought the kind of success enjoyed by northern rivals such as Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale. All they had won was two Italian cups, in 1962 and 1976. Since 1981, they had come third, fourth, tenth and twelfth. The latter position was more perilous than it sounds. Back then, Serie A had sixteen teams, of which three went down. In other words, Maradona joined a team that had been one point away from relegation.
At the presentation, he emerged from the player tunnel in a white T-shirt, a blue tracksuit and a Napoli scarf. The attendees were not so much a crowd as a congregation. Maradona waved, smiled, juggled the ball, and released a bundle of blue balloons into the sky.
“Good evening, Neapolitans,” he said in Italian. “I’m very pleased to be here with you.”
A song had been composed for the occasion:
‘Maradona, take charge’
‘If it doesn’t happen now, it will never happen’
‘Your Argentina is here’
‘We can wait no longer’
Maradona only stayed for fifteen minutes; he was catching a flight to Buenos Aires. When he walked back down the stairs, what he had seen had left his legs shaking. He hugged Claudia Villafañe, his girlfriend, and wept. “Everything had been very intense and Claudia and I knew we were gambling our lives, we knew we were starting over,” he wrote in his autobiography El Diego. “And we were doing it in a place, in a city, that meant a lot to me. This is why, when I talked to the journalists, I said something which came from the bottom of my heart: ‘I want to become the idol of the poor children of Naples, because they are like I was when I lived in Buenos Aires.’”
Before he left, he held a press conference with Corrado Ferlaino, the club president. Some debate had centred on how Napoli had actually managed to afford the signing. A Naples politician named Vincenzo Scotti had obtained a bank loan, but others also pointed at organised crime, more specifically the local mafia: the Camorra. The deal certainly made sense for the Camorra. According to author Jimmy Burns, the club expected ticket sales to triple, and the mafia excelled at illegal reselling. Even Maradona recognised this factor. But that did not mean it was debated openly, and so it was surprising when a French journalist named Alain Chaillou asked Maradona whether he was aware that part of the transfer had been bankrolled by the mafia. The press room went silent. Maradona said nothing. The question was then passed to Ferlaino, who berated him for what he perceived as an “offence” against the “honest city” of Naples. Guards appeared, and Chaillou was escorted out of the room.
Maradona needed a fresh start. In 1982, he had joined Barcelona from Boca Juniors as the best and most expensive player in the world, but injuries and illness wrecked his stay. He despised Udo Lattek’s focus on physical training. The mood was lifted when César Luis Menotti took charge in 1983, but in September the same year, Maradona was chopped down by Andoni Goikoetxea in a game against Athletic Club. The tackle was nasty: high, from behind, and with Barça leading 3-0 at the Camp Nou. “I just felt the impact, heard the sound, like a piece of wood cracking,” Maradona wrote. He eventually forgave Goikoetxea—who was subsequently nicknamed ‘The Butcher of Bilbao’—but not Athletic coach Javier Clemente, who said he would wait a week to see whether the injury really was so bad. Maradona ended up needing two screws in his ankle, and was sidelined for more than three months.
Drama also occurred off the pitch. Maradona fell out with president José Luis Núñez, and started his relationship with drugs. To compound matters, his childhood friend and financial adviser Jorge Cyterszpiler had miscalculated a series of investments, ranging from petrol and housing to bingo halls in Paraguay. Maradona already lived lavishly, writing out cheques to a vast entourage of friends and relatives. Before long, he was broke. “As manager, perhaps I should have imposed greater diligence,” Cyterszpiler told Burns in Maradona: The Hand of God. “But as a friend I felt there was a limit to how far I could go in controlling his money. The money was after all his. He would tell me: ‘Buy that house, or that car.’ And I had no choice but to buy it… High spending was part of Diego’s life.”
The duo devised a financial rescue plan. They would anger Núñez into selling him, then milk the transfer. Yet Núñez was reluctant: Maradona was a star, and a sale would vindicate the critics who had advised against buying him in the first place. The stance changed when Barça lost 1-0 to Athletic in the Copa del Rey final at the Santiago Bernabéu. Bad blood existed from the previous clash, and when an Athletic player gave Maradona a provocative salute, Maradona snapped. An ugly brawl ensued. The scenes were witnessed by the attending King Juan Carlos, plus millions of television viewers. From that point, Núñez had no choice. He had to sell.
That episode was also the final straw for Maradona. He had to get out. Juventus were interested, but Napoli was viewed as a bigger sporting challenge. The financial incentives were also greater, and so they had to be: when the transfer was done, fifteen percent of the money went to Maradona, yet his debts were so great that he never saw a penny.
When Maradona arrived in Italy, he judged Napoli as essentially being a Serie B team. Earlier, when someone had briefed him about the club’s history and their flirt with relegation, he had already signed the contract. The start was disastrous. Under Rino Marchesi they took nine points from thirteen matches before Christmas. (This would have been eleven points today, as victories back then gave two points.) In this period, the league stood strong: Juventus had Michel Platini and Giovanni Trapattoni; Milan would soon be bought by Silvio Berlusconi, who would in turn appoint Arrigo Sacchi; Inter would have Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Lothar Matthäus. From 1982 to 1990, eight out of nine Ballon d’Or awards went to players based in Serie A: Paolo Rossi (1982), Platini (1983-85), Ruud Gullit (1987), Marco van Basten (1988-89), Matthäus (1990). Still, Maradona was not happy. When he flew to Buenos Aires for his winter holiday, he was so embarrassed “he could barely talk about it”.
The turning point came on a cold day in January. Napoli beat Udinese 4-3 and embarked on a run that featured just one league defeat until the end of the season. Maradona hit his stride, notching up fourteen league goals; a number only outdone by Altobelli (seventeen) and Platini (eighteen). Napoli came eighth.
Yet that did not satisfy Maradona. In summer, he confronted Ferlaino and demanded that, unless he beefed up the squad, he was off. It might have seemed brave, but Maradona was already treated as a saint in Naples and knew Ferlaino would never dare to sell him. “Buy three or four players, and sell the ones the crowd whistle at,” he said. “That should be your thermometer. If I pass the ball to a guy and he gets whistled, chau… and if not, start thinking about selling me, because I’m not staying like this.”
Like a kid pointing at toys in a shop window, Maradona got what he wanted. And they were good players: Claudio Garella, Alessandro Renica. (At this time Ciro Ferrara was also coming through from the academy.) “I started an era at Napoli, I branded the club with a stamp of respect,” Maradona wrote. “Before my arrival, Paolo Rossi had refused to join because, he said, Naples wasn’t a city for him, because of the mafia. The truth is, before my arrival, nobody wanted to go to Napoli.”
The best newcomer was Bruno Giordano. Though this was back in 1985, one might have expected a club like Napoli to make signings based on fastidious scouting and managerial input. Not so. Giordano had merely impressed Maradona when Napoli had met Lazio. When the clubs had entered negotiations, Lazio wanted $3m, a sum that left Ferlaino, in Maradona’s words, “crying all over me, saying he didn’t have any money”. Maradona was unimpressed, telling him: “Make the effort, old man.”
That same summer, Napoli appointed Ottavio Bianchi. Austere and northern—he was from Brescia—he was immediately disliked by Maradona. “He was hard, he didn’t seem Latin, more like a German,” Maradona wrote, implying a parallel to Lattek. “You couldn’t get a smile out of him for anything.” Several of Bianchi’s exercises angered Maradona, who resorted to his usual power play. The following passage was representative of their relationship:
Bianchi: “There’s an exercise I want you to do.”
Bianchi: “I’ll throw the ball and I want you to go down to the ground in a sliding tackle. Practice on both legs.”
Maradona: “I’m not doing that, I’m not going to the ground… I only go down if the opposition push me down…”
Bianchi: “OK, well, we’re going to have problems all year.”
Maradona: “OK, well, you’ll have to leave then.”
Napoli came third in Bianchi’s first season. The following summer—after Argentina had won the 1986 World Cup—they made signings such as Fernando De Napoli, Francesco Romano and Andrea Carnevale. As Maradona geared up for a proper title challenge, episodes from his private life surfaced in the press. In April 1987, Claudia gave birth to a baby daughter, Dalma. But before this took place, a young woman named Cristina Sinagra had become pregnant—and claimed the father was Maradona. The story exploded. Maradona assumed no responsibility and said everything was untrue. Sinagra then declared that her son would be named ‘Diego Armando’. (Some writers have noted that, this being Naples, she might as well has called him ‘Jesus Christ’.) The story would drag on for years. In 1993, an Italian court would confirm that Maradona was indeed the father of Sinagra’s child.
Though this story was big, it formed a small part of what else went on. Maradona led a dissipated life: mafia parties, women, booze, fast cars—and cocaine. In his book, he would admit he had a drug problem. Napoli knew about it, but condoned it as long as he stayed clean for matches. John Foot writes in Calcio: A History of Italian Football that when Maradona did drug tests, Napoli would switch his urine samples. Not everything was evident to the public. According to Paddy Agnew in Forza Italia: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football, Maradona once went on radio to support a national campaign against drug addiction. “If my words about drug addiction and its evils were to save one of you,” he said, “then that will be worth more to me than a hundred league goals for Napoli.”
The ramifications would have been greater had Maradona not been who he was. The strength of the Neapolitan affection for him is such that it would be foolish to try to describe it here in words, particularly as an outsider. Congeniality was certainly crucial. Scholars note that locals warmed to his rebellious nature, and his background as a poor street kid. Foot writes that “the cult of Diego was (and is) a real cult, combining idolatry, superstition and love”. According to Foot, eighty-six percent of San Paolo’s spectators held a season ticket while he played there. In one parish, twenty-five percent of newborns were named ‘Diego’. Maradona could hardly walk down the street. “I couldn’t go to buy a pair of shoes because, five minutes later, the window would be smashed and a thousand people would be in the shoeshop,” he wrote. At home, he struggled to get out with his car. The solution would be to jump in, roar up the engine, and, as the garage door opened, accelerate into the crowd and hope they made way. Those who knew his strategy would follow him on their mopeds. “It was crazy,” Maradona wrote. “But in my Mercedes or my Ferrari I would lose them.”
Local journalists held similar sentiments. Agnew, who was a journalist in Italy at the time, recalls when Napoli had beaten Como 2-1 late in 1986. After the game, reporters awaited Maradona. “Finally, a walking scrummage made its way down the corridors from the dressing room,” Agnew writes. “Somewhere in it was Maradona. All around me, Naples-based colleagues, those whose work involved daily coverage of Napoli football club, became agitated. They pushed and shoved their way to the front, not to ask Diego a question or to push a microphone into his face, but rather to shake his hand, hug him warmly and even kiss him.”
The treatment was understandable. Even now, the footage of Maradona gives you goosebumps. The goals were spectacular: chips, solo runs, curled free-kicks. A nonchalant volley from thirty-five yards. A goal scored while lying down. A direct corner. His balance was so sublime that defenders struggled even to foul him. He was also brave. He threw himself down for diving headers twenty centimetres off the ground. He went up for everything. Despite knowing he would get kicked, he drove into muddy midfield zones dense with hatchet men. “We had to be very well organised; put pressure on him, doubling up, tripling up even to limit his talents,” Franco Baresi told FourFourTwo. “Because if it was one-on-one, you’d lose.”
Inspired by Maradona, Napoli won and won. Prior to that 1986/87 season, all but four league titles since the Serie A’s inception in 1930 had gone to northern clubs. The exceptions had been Cagliari, (1970) Lazio (1974) and Roma (1942, 1983). In other words, no southern mainland club had won it. But on 10 May 1987, Napoli needed just a point against Fiorentina at the San Paolo to lift their first scudetto.
The anticipation can only be imagined. According to Agnew, there is a story about a fishmonger’s assistant named Guiseppe who is told by his boss to wear a Maradona shirt for the whole preceding week. Giuseppe refuses—and gets fired. Agnew also cites a prayer that apparently started to appear in shop windows.
Who Takes the Field
We Have Hallowed Thy Name
Thy Kingdom is Napoli
Lead us Not Into Disappointment
But Deliver Unto Us the Title
On the day, Napoli scraped to a 1-1 draw. The San Paolo went wild. Ferlaino was carried around like a king, Maradona was surrounded. Later, in the dressing room, soaked players sang and danced, while a bare-chested Maradona grabbed a television reporter’s microphone and staged mock interviews with his team-mates. Some appeared in just their underwear. He would describe the title as “incomparable”, even different to the 1986 World Cup. “We built Napoli from the bottom: it was proper workmanship,” he wrote. “The scudetto belonged to the whole city, and the people began to realise that there was no reason to be afraid: that it’s not the one with the most money who wins but the one who fights the most, who wants it the most. I was the captain of the ship, I was the flag. They could mess with anyone but not with me. It was that simple.” Amid the celebrations, he said: “I consider myself a son of Naples.”
Out in the city, frenzied fans filled the streets. David Goldblatt, in The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, writes that “a rolling series of impromptu street parties and festivities broke out contagiously across the city in a round-the-clock carnival which ran for over a week”. Buses were blocked. Black curly wigs were donned. Mock funerals were held for Juventus and Milan, complete with coffins and death notices. Foot calls it “the greatest series of celebrations ever seen in domestic football history”. Foot also describes the revelling. Apparently, at a local government ballot, some twenty thousand had written ‘Viva Maradona’ on their slips, making their votes worthless. One story claimed that a hundred donkeys had been shipped in from Sardinia for the party. What was certainly true was that, on the walls of the city graveyard, someone wrote: “You don’t know what you are missing!”
By this time, Maradona had lost patience with Cyterszpiler and hired Guillermo Coppola; a charismatic, cigar-smoking agent from Buenos Aires. Coppola sought to take advantage of the triumph by securing Maradona a five-year contract extension. The original ran until 1989. When they entered negotiations, Ferlaino was hesitant. Then news arose of interest from Milan. Berlusconi had arrived and managed to arrange a rendezvous with Maradona, who later described him as a “gentleman and a winner”. Yet Maradona felt a move was impossible. “In my heart of hearts I knew I couldn’t play for any team in Italy that wasn’t Napoli,” he wrote, “because the fans would kill me and whoever bought me.” He told as much to Berlusconi. “If it comes off we’ll both have to leave Italy,” he said. “You’re going to lose business because the Neapolitans are going to bust your balls every day, and I’m not going to be able to live.”
In early November, when Napoli were in Milan preparing to meet Como, a Mercedes drove Coppola to a mansion at a ranch owned by Berlusconi. Coppola was told that Milan wanted Maradona when his contract expired, at any cost. Without even asking about his current salary, they offered him double. A journalist friend of Maradona published the story, at which point Ferlaino started sweating. The same day, the president accepted all the conditions presented by Coppola, and more. The benefits were three times higher than initially suggested. Coppola even turned up at Maradona’s house with a black Ferrari F40—apparently the only one in the world at the time.
Not that Maradona needed money. Coppola’s management had transformed his fortunes. He had his own TV programme on RAI that paid $250,000 per month. He had a $5m sponsorship deal with Hitochi, a Japanese clothing line. Other endorsed products included school stationary for children, confectionery, and “some kind of cold coffee drink”. Once, he did a shot for Asahi beer on the edge of Vesuvius. Executives knew the value of his fame. On occasions, he would ask for—and get—car models that did not even exist. One time, he requested a Mercedes that was unavailable on the Italian market. Some time later, Coppola told him to look out on his balcony. There stood the car, surrounded by bigwigs. Maradona went down, exchanged hugs, got the keys, jumped inside and marvelled at everything. Then he glanced down at the gear stick.
“It’s automatic,” Maradona said.
“Yes, it’s automatic,” Coppola replied. “Latest model.”
“I got out,” Maradona wrote, “handed the keys back to the guys, said thank you very much, and went back up to my apartment. I didn’t like automatic gears.”
On the pitch, Maradona gave everything. On occasions he felt like a wreck, having been kicked and played for so long without rest. He kept injecting painkillers. The cocaine didn’t help. And yet he regards the 1987/88 season as one of his finest, if not the best. Significant credit is given to his doctors, who in his eyes performed miracles to get him in shape. He would score fifteen league goals—becoming top scorer in Serie A—and formed a lethal trio together with Giordano and Careca, who had been signed in summer. So crucial was Maradona that Bianchi practically let him do as he pleased; in a normal week, Maradona would only do three full sessions. On Fridays, his schedule consisted of a little free-kick practice and a massage.
With five games remaining, Napoli held a five-point lead. Then, having kept four consecutive clean sheets, they lost 3-1 at Juventus, drew 1-1 at Verona, and lost against Milan (3-2), Fiorentina (3-2) and Sampdoria (2-1). One point in five games. Milan capitalised and won the title.
It was a disaster. Several players blamed Bianchi, and four—Moreno Ferrario, Salvatore Bagni, Garella, Giordano—issued a statement calling for his dismissal. Yet in the penultimate game, the San Paolo crowd chanted Bianchi’s name, and his contract was renewed. Maradona was furious. In his view, Bianchi’s tactics had been culpable, yet the timing of the statement had made him a martyr. “We made him bigger than Maradona,” Maradona rues. Reading his book, you get the feeling that he saw himself as a star player, captain, manager, director and president rolled into one. “If felt to me like a kick in the balls: they were giving the manager all the credit for everything we’d achieved,” he wrote. “They’d forgotten so quickly. I’d arrived before he had, I’d fought against relegation, I’d fought with Ferlaino, told him to buy this player and that player…”
Other developments also infuriated him. The collapse had been so dramatic that a conspiracy arose: Napoli had thrown the title in the face of pressure from the Camorra. The mafia ran illegal betting rings in the city and, following the first title, locals had put large sums on another triumph. Had Napoli pulled it off, the Camorra would have lost a fortune. Yet if people really believed this, Maradona wanted to leave. He ended up staying “to face the situation”, but the atmosphere was such that he sent Claudia and Dalma back to Buenos Aires in case certain people “wanted to take it further”.
When Maradona returned from his holiday, he was still unhappy. Bianchi was still there, and the board had sacked the quartet behind the statement. Later on in the campaign, his first serious thought of leaving arose. Marseille wanted him. Bankrolled by Bernard Tapie—who would later be banned and imprisoned for bribery—they were willing to pay anything. The prospect appealed to Maradona: France was calmer, and the month-long winter pause would facilitate a solid holiday in Argentina. But he also knew it would be hard to arrange. Whoever let him leave Naples would never be forgiven.
In April, Napoli faced Bayern München in the UEFA Cup semi-finals. Ferlaino then told Maradona: “If we win the UEFA Cup, I promise I’ll let you go to Marseille.” They duly did, beating Stuttgart in the final. Maradona was in heaven: this was his first European trophy, and he would finally have his transfer. Just as he had the cup in his hands, Ferlaino whispered into his ear: “We’re going to respect our contract, right, Diego?”
Maradona felt like smashing the trophy over Ferlaino’s head. He had been betrayed. More disappointment followed when Napoli came second in Serie A, behind Inter. In the final game at San Paolo, fans abused Coppola and Claudia, who sat in the directors’ box. Divisions seemed to have opened between him and the fans. Maradona threatened to leave the club—privately, he wanted to—and later spoke of local collusions to hurt his family. He fled to Argentina for a long holiday, still seething. “In truth I was willing to throw grenades at their heads,” he wrote.
At this time, a picture appeared in the Naples magazine Il Mattino of Maradona hanging out with Camorra chief Carmine Giuliano. “I admit it was a seductive world,” Maradona wrote. “It was something new for us Argentinians: the mafia.” They would invite him to clubs, gifting him watches and cars. All he needed to do was to have his picture taken. But while Maradona had fun—“it was an incredible time”—he saw it all as innocent, and they always vowed to protect him. Yet that did not correspond with the subsequent rumours that he participated in drug trafficking. Other accusations followed, and the storm grew so violent that Maradona saw it as dangerous to return. Reportedly, he shunned more than thirty flights to Italy. Not until mid-September did he come back, four games into the league season.
His first involvement came at home to Fiorentina. Starting on the bench, he came on and missed a penalty. Yet nobody whistled him. He consequently forgave the crowd, but retained resentment against Ferlaino, who did little to defend him against his detractors.
As the season progressed, Maradona hit top form again. By now Bianchi been replaced by Alberto Bigon, whom Maradona found more congenial. The scudetto race would turn on a controversial episode at Atalanta in April. At 0-0 with fifteen minutes left, Alemão, signed by Napoli in summer, went down after taking a throw-in. A coin thrown from the stands had hit him. Physio Salvatore Carmando rushed on to treat him and help him off the pitch. (His replacement was a young forward named Gianfranco Zola.) Alemão was taken to hospital, where he was visited by Ferlaino. When Ferlaino later addressed the press, he claimed Alemão had not even recognised him. Ferlaino proceeded to call for the football association to punish Atalanta by awarding Napoli the victory. Days later, they were given a 2-0 win.
Milan, who were challenging for the title, were incensed. They hired lip readers who discovered that Carmando had told Alemão to “stay down, stay down”. When Alemão later moved to Atalanta, he would admit he had exaggerated. The Milanese sense of injustice grew when, in a match at Verona, referee Rosario Lo Bello—son of Concetto—sent Sacchi to the stands and dismissed Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Alessandro Costacurta. Verona won 2-1 and Napoli beat Milan to the scudetto by two points.
For Maradona, the sense of vindication was overwhelming. Ten months earlier, he had been branded a mafioso and a drug addict. “I shut everyone up,” he wrote. Towards the end, journalists asked him whether Napoli would not have suffered less had it not been for all these controversies. “A me piacere vincere cosi,” he replied. ‘I like to win like this.’
While the title reinforced Maradona’s legend in Naples, it boosted the hatred of him elsewhere in Italy. Especially in the north. Juventus had battled with Napoli earlier, Inter had been the main rival in 1989, and now Milan felt cheated. That summer, petrol was added to the fire when Maradona captained Argentina at the 1990 World Cup, held in Italy. They opened with a shock 1-0 loss to Cameroon in Milan, during which Maradona was booed. In the semi-finals, Argentina met Italy in Naples, prior to which Maradona encouraged the Neapolitans to support Argentina as revenge for how they were treated by the rest of Italy. The locals were torn, but respected Argentina. Maradona’s side won on penalties, then lost the final 1-0 to West Germany.
The next season, Maradona was clearly in decline. He was overweight, indisciplined, out of shape. In March, the Italian Football Federation ordered him to take a drug test. He failed it. They banned him for fifteen months. Conspiracies still surround this episode. His level had stooped, and Napoli had less of an interest in retaining him. Some viewed it as the revenge of the football association—the Federcalcio—for how Maradona had dumped Italy out of the World Cup. One of these is Maradona himself, who insisted he was clean. “After that match, [Antonio] Matarrese, who was the president of the Federcalcio, a man born in Bari, didn’t look at me with anger or bitterness,” he wrote. “He just stared at me like the way the mafiosi do… and I thought, at that moment: it’s going to be very difficult to carry on living here.”
Maradona never played for Napoli again. Without knowing it, the preceding game had been his goodbye; a 4-1 defeat to Sampdoria. He had scored Napoli’s only goal, a penalty—“the saddest goal of my life”. Yet despite the adieu, his legacy in Naples would remain close to divine. In 2000, the club retired his No10 jersey. They would have named San Paolo after him long ago, were it not for an Italian law that states he would need to have been dead for ten years first. On that turf, he did things no Neapolitan had seen before, and won things no Neapolitan had won before. “But more than that, I brought them pride,” Maradona wrote. “Pride, because before I arrived nobody wanted anything to do with Naples, they were afraid. I arrived believing it was a beautiful bay on the Mediterranean and nothing more, but I won them over because I faced up to everyone. That’s why, today, any Neapolitan can tell you: those teams weren’t built by the directors. They were built by Maradona.”