IF THERE is one thing remarkable about Diego Maradona, it is the achievement of living to his 60th birthday. There was a time when you thought he was destined for an ugly and premature end, either caught up in some underworld violence or falling to a bout of self abuse. Although the recent World Cup, where he was seen shouting expletives from the VIP section of a stadium, demonstrated he was still a man who walks on the wild side, Maradona is no longer on the critical list.
When the excellent Asif Kapadia film about Maradona was released, it reminded us that here was an imperfect genius with many guises: brilliant footballer, good-time Charlie, a defiant product of the slums, and to some extent, a victim. In terms of natural talent, he probably had few equals. Pelé, perhaps, comes close, but other greats such as Cruyff, Beckenbauer and George Best do not match Maradona for raw, animal ability.
It’s not easy to like Maradona, but during that film, you sat open-mouthed at the impact he had on fans. He was, effectively, of the people, the representative of the masses on the field of play.
Students of the world game first came across him just before the 1978 World Cup, and those that took notice of football outside of their own island noted the young player who had been omitted from the Argentina squad. His time was to come, although not when most people predicted.
When Maradona moved to Barcelona in 1982 it was after a fractious World Cup in Spain. The timing could not have been worse. Here was the latest wonder-kid from Latin America, commanding a world record fee of £ 5 million with expectation weighing upon him. It was difficult for him to be the king-pin in Barcelona and he was an obvious target for the assassin-like defenders of LaLiga. He didn’t appear happy in Spain, injury and illness playing their part, and his involvement in a brawl on the pitch towards the end of his second season, with TV capturing Maradona kicking opponents with some venom, was the final straw. The player wanted out and the club had seemingly had enough.
There was no big queue of takers for the player that looked to have lost his way, but Napoli – an unlikely destination – stepped in and paid £ 6.9 million. Argentina has always had a link with Italy, in that cities like Buenos Aires have many people with Italian ancestry.
The city of Naples always provokes great debate. At first glance, it is dirty, unruly and scary. It is a sprawl, Italy’s most densely populated urban area, overlooked by Vesuvius, Europe’s most dangerous mainland active volcano. A 30 minute walk around Naples may bring you to the conclusion that this city of 3.5 million people is dancing, both literally and metaphorically, on a volcano.
Poverty runs through Naples like a fast-flowing river, from the bongo-thumping begging-buskers to the litter-strewn side streets where washing hangs from rusting balconies and window boxes. It is hard to believe that a city such as Naples should be part of the same country as Milan and Rome. While Milan has its black-clad fashionistas that stalk the grand shopping arcades, Napoli is a city of the street, characterised by tight alley-like thoroughfares such as the scooter run of Via Tribunale where all life can be found.
It’s a one-club city, is Naples. You are warned not to display allegiance to any other club, especially AC Milan, Inter, Juventus and Roma. You can buy Napoli souvenirs everywhere, some official but mostly cheaper copies. Whether you spend one euro or 10, the message is the same: “Forza Napoli”. There’s no other narrative.
If there was the year of Maradona, it was between 1986 and 1987. In the summer of 1986, he led Argentina to their second World Cup triumph, superbly, sublimely and controversially. Ask any English football fan and they will instantly brand Maradona as a “cheat” due to his infamous “hand of God” incident that sent England on their way out of the competition. It wasn’t so much that he had to audacity to get away with it, but his reaction afterwards and insistence he was merely playing the game. His second goal in that quarter-final tie, played over and over again, is considered one of the great moments of World Cup history, but that game really captured the Maradona experience in all its contradictions. He went on to inspire his country to success, providing one of the best examples of a team being carried on the back of genius.
At both a club and international level, he needed to be the king-pin in order to truly flourish. For Napoli, Maradona was seen as the catalyst to take an under-achieving club into the top bracket in Italy. It was a celestial marriage and the impoverished of Naples embraced Maradona as if he were one of their own. Naples, looked down upon as a “city of thieves”, suddenly had the best player in the world, and Maradona had the stage on which to be worshipped. If he was in search of love, he found it in Southern Italy,
Why the perfect union? Maradona grew up in a poor district of Buenos Aires, a city with distinct Italian influences. Naples could well slot into anyone’s idea of a Latin American metropolis, its architecture reflecting its Spanish past. Neapolitan tour guides proudly declare Naples is a city that flies in the face of the institutions created by man, an accusation that could easily be aimed at Maradona.
Even today, it is the infamous Spanish quarters in Naples where Maradona’s exploits are so vividly recorded. When I enquired about personal safety in this neighbourhood, I was advised by locals to avoid it at all costs. There are murals, shrines and graffiti celebrating him in these streets, some 30 years after his heyday. There are also bullet holes in some of the frescoes, fired there by local criminals.
It’s no surprise that he should still be adored, for in 1987, Maradona drove a Napoli side that included names like Giordano, Carnevale, De Napoli, Ferrara and Bagni, to the club’s first Scudetto. It sparked celebrations still talked about today. Naples cavorted for a week and gloated that they had finished ahead of Milan, Inter and Juventus.
They should have repeated the trick in 1988. Strengthened by the arrival of Brazilian forward Careca, Napoli were top until the last few games when they strangely lost form. Maradona topped the Serie A scoring list and took no blame for his team’s collapse, allowing Milan to win the title. In 1989, Napoli won their first European prize when they lifted the UEFA Cup. And in 1990, Maradona – who was now talking of moving to Marseille – led Napoli to a second Scudetto. But cracks were developing and during the 1990 World Cup, Maradona attempted to “divide and conquer” by urging Southern Italy to support his Argentina in the semi-final against Italy. It was a mistake that threatened to sour his relationship with the Napoli faithful. By 1991, the dream was over. Maradona, now making headlines for the wrong reasons, left the club under a cloud and moved to Sevilla. Napoli’s moment in the sun was over.
But he’s still good box office in the city. You will always come across Diego Maradona memorabilia. T-shirts by the dozen, cardboard cut-outs, fridge magnets, posters, figurines and scarves. He’s almost as ubiquitous as Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuel, Pompeii and Vesuvius. And mention Calcio and Napoli and almost certainly, the third word will be “Maradona”.
And yet, it is hard for many people to lay laurel leaves on the shoulders of this unique figure. There is something unsatisfying about worshipping such an imperfect beast. You cannot deny his wonderful ability, you sit in awe at the way people are carried along by him, emotionally and physically, but you know he is deeply flawed, hence he has been rejected by football’s establishment in his post-playing career. For a man of his talent, he is relatively under-decorated, certainly when compared to modern icons: he never won the European Cup; he never won the Copa America or Libertadores; in Europe, he won just two league titles. But as we shall always remember, he won the 1986 World Cup and provided us with some enduring memories of his extraordinary skill. And he’s still with us – we should be glad of that.