In Maradona, the world mourns a legend—but Naples mourns a part of itself

L’Oro di Napoli.
L’Oro di Napoli.
Image: Foto Alfredo Capozzi via Wikimedia
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Diego Armando Maradona is dead. This is at once unsurprising, since he had so spectacularly destroyed himself in his 60 years on earth, and inconceivable. That he skipped old age to go straight to eternal cannot, and does not, surprise his fans, and yet the evidence that he was not immortal remains hard to digest.

The whole world seems shaken to have lost the greatest football player that ever lived (I write from Italy, where this is not an argument, but a fact). But arguably nowhere the loss is felt as sharply as in Naples, a city he chose after leaving Barcelona at 24, a player that no big team was willing to invest in—and where he became Maradona.

What Maradona—Diego, really—meant for Napoli (both the city and the football club) is perhaps impossible to understand, for those who didn’t live it. The news of his death broke the city’s heart. People (many of them among the hundreds of Diegos named after him in the 1980s) went out in the streets, Covid-19 lockdown be damned, and gathered outside the stadium chanting, crying, remembering. They lit candles at their windows and in front of the many effigies of Maradona that dot Napoli’s streets and its homes, often alongside saints.

Nearly three decades after he left the city that made him a legend, and that he, in turn, took along on his journey to the top of the world, Naples mourns not just a champion, a hero, or indeed a god—it mourns a part of itself. Because like Diego, Napoli is the greatest—and it knows it. And, like Diego, it is the greatest mess—like him, it knows that, too.

When he arrived in the city’s San Paolo stadium on that fateful July 5, 1984, he found it packed: 50,000 supporters, with tickets bought for a nominal 1,000 lire (about $0.50), had gone to welcome him. Among the banners, one read: “Diego, you won’t be able to resist us. Napoli loves you.”

It did. It had to. Upon him rested the hopes of a team, which were the hopes of a city. Napoli, a perpetually poor city marred by crime and unemployment, was reeling in the aftermath of the 1980 earthquake. The unprecedented natural disaster had all but pulverized parts of Campania, Napoli’s region, and caused extended damage in the city, leaving many people homeless, and the city in crippling debt.

Maradona was an investment the team couldn’t really afford. In an interview, he remembers, as part of the contract, asking for a large home and a Ferrari; he was given an apartment, and a Fiat. It was a financial decision extremely in line with the ethos of a people with no reason to believe in long-term plans, expecting doom, and struggling to make ends meet in the shade of an active volcano—so they might as well blow whatever money they have (or don’t have) on a football player, and a dream.

But that bet paid off, and how. Maradona turned Napoli, a mediocre team, into the best team of what was then the world’s best championship—the Serie A. They won the first scudetto in 1987, delivering to Naples—a city and team often maligned by northern counterparts, that had never been given a chance of success—a victory that tasted like revenge. (The celebrations that followed remain legendary, as does graffiti which appeared overnight on a wall outside the cemetery, telling the dead “you have no idea what you missed…”) Napoli won a second scudetto in 1990, cementing its place in Italian football history.

Only months later, in that San Paolo stadium that had been his home, in a turn of fate almost too cruel to be true, a Maradona-led Argentina played Italy in 1990, and kicked his friends out of their own World Cup. Yet ahead of that fateful game you’d still find people in Naples telling you they would support Italy, of course, but they owed their allegiance to Diego—for he was one of their own.

“When you are on the field life disappears. Problems disappear. Everything disappears,” Maradona once said of playing football. It worked for him—El Negrito (the little dark kid) from the slums of Villa Fiorito who, on that field, became El Pibe de Oro (the golden kid)—and it worked for the city he represented. Breathtakingly gorgeous and desperate, home of unmatched artistic treasures and the most ferocious organized crime, of religious superstition and secular acceptance unknown in Italy, Naples is, like Maradona was, made of extremes.

A story like his could have only happened in Naples—to Naples—and that’s why the city continued to love the flawed man as it had embraced the champion, despite the cocaine, the scandals, the messy friendship with the Camorra, the child he refused to recognize, and the eventual, inevitable suspension from the championship that ended his career in shame. “I don’t care about what Diego did to his life,” his supporters and friends in the city, and his teammates, repeat these days, “I care about what he did to mine.”

Naples’s stadium, city officials announced on Nov. 25, will be renamed after Diego Armando Maradona. The team which used to play there to honor a saint, San Paolo, will now do so in the name of Napoli’s god.