I decided, on the occasion of the legendary Argentinian’s 60th birthday, to take a look back at some of his appearances in Florence, playing in what we now call the Stadio Artemio Franchi, but back then was known simply as the Stadio Comunale.
I would however, prefer to give this Maradona story a happy ending, as most of his tales don’t usually finish this way. This means it’s probably better to begin at the end, before working our way back to a surprising debut in Florence.
Diego’s last ever performance at our stadium didn’t actually feature Fiorentina, as it came during Italy’s hosting of the World Cup in 1990. A crowd of almost 39,000 were at the Comunale that sweltering hot early evening in June, and those who weren’t Argentinian subjected the number 10 to a torrent of abuse, with the Argentine fans in turn making their displeasure known to the local fans. Maradona would miss a penalty in the shoot-out after this Quarter-Final with Yugoslavia ended scoreless after extra-time. Luckily for Diego, his opponents would only convert two of their penalties, which meant it was Argentina who would progress to the Semi-Finals.
After Italy got the better of the Republic of Ireland later that same evening, it set up a mouth watering, and controversial clash between the two nations in Naples. This whole story would ultimately lead to Diego’s downfall in Italy, after calling on his local Napoli fans to cheer on his side and not Italy, reminding them of the abuse they suffered from the rest of the country. When this game also came down to penalties, this time Maradona would not only put his away, but it was also the deciding one. All of this, would make Diego Maradona public enemy number one in Italy.
The following season, 1990/91, would be his last in Serie A, and he wouldn’t even get to finish it. With whatever protection he had previously been given now gone, he would finally get found out in a doping test. This happened in March, after a Napoli win at home to Bari. Diego was given a 15 month ban, and would leave Italy as an outcast. The week before that Bari game, Napoli played Fiorentina in Florence, but Maradona wasn’t in the team, having gone off injured in the previous match at the San Siro, the reigning champions on the end of a 4-1 beating by AC Milan.
And so, Fiorentina fans would not get to see Diego in Florence in this his last season in Italy. He had also missed a Coppa Italia clash between the sides in January. Maradona never actually made an appearance in Florence for a Coppa Italia match. The previous season he did score a goal which put Fiorentina out of the competition, in what was technically a home game for la Viola, but due to construction work at the stadium for the upcoming World Cup, they were forced to play this one in Perugia.
Which takes us to his last appearance against Fiorentina in Florence, just four days after that Coppa game in Perugia, the sides would meet again in Serie A. This time la Viola were able to play at home, but a lot of Fiorentina fans won’t actually be able to say they saw Maradona for this his final game at their stadium, against their club. For this game, the Ultras from the Curva Fiesole had announced a strike, in protest against the owners of the club, asking fans not to enter. This was a season where unlike Scudetto winning Napoli, Fiorentina would struggle, only avoiding relegation on the last day. Napoli won the match 1-0, Maradona was substituted eight minutes from the end, replaced by a young Gianfranco Zola.
Diego Maradona only scored two goals in his five Serie A games with Napoli in Florence. The last of those came in the historic first Napoli Scudetto season of 1986/87. On January 4th 1987, Napoli arrived in Florence, Maradona having just returned from his Christmas holidays in Argentina 48 hours before the game. At the packed Comunale there were 15,000 travelling Napoli fans, hoping to cheer their unbeaten side to another victory, to keep them ahead of the chasing pack at the top of the table. There was even a very sporting gesture, as the away fans held up a banner welcoming back Giancarlo Antognoni, making his first start after a serious injury. The Fiorentina captain decided to repay that kindness, by putting la Viola 2-0 up after 25 minutes.
The first goal had been scored by a former Argentina team-mate, Ramón Díaz. The pair had won the first ever Youth World Cup together, back in 1979. Diego gave the Napoli fans hope five minutes after the break with another of his seemingly effortless, but beautiful goals, meeting a cross into the box with his left foot, his first touch putting it beyond anyone’s reach. On this day however, his efforts wouldn’t prove to be decisive, a last minute goal sealing the game for Fiorentina, and condemning Napoli to their first defeat of the season.
This did allow Inter to join them at the top of the table, level on points, but Napoli would go on to win their first ever Serie A Scudetto, with Diego Maradona the man who had fulfilled the dreams of the Neapolitans, making him more than just a hero, he became something of a god in the city of Naples.
His first goal in Florence in a Napoli shirt came in his first season with the club. After his troubles at Barcelona, he had been brought to Italy by a club owner desperate to appease his club’s fans. Napoli president, Corrado Ferlaino, was under fire for the lack of success under his watch, so he put spent everything he had (and a little of what he hadn’t) in bringing Maradona to the club. When it became clear that Diego’s time in Spain was coming to an end, several Italian clubs could have taken him to Serie A, Fiorentina amongst them. They opted instead for the Brazilian, Socrates.
When Napoli arrived in Florence on January 14th 1985, Napoli were looking more like a team risking relegation than one with any title ambitions. With just three wins from their fourteen games so far, those pre-season Scudetto dreams were turning into a nightmare. But things were just starting to improve, and unfortunately for Fiorentina, this was one of those games where a Maradona goal would be the difference between the two teams.
With snow piled high around the pitch, having been cleared from the playing surface that morning, Diego took to the field wearing gloves to keep warm. He wasn’t the only one, fellow Argentine Daniel Bertoni had the same idea. Bertoni, an ex Viola, had been greeted by applause and flowers from the Curva Fiesole. After four years with Fiorentina, he had also just joined Napoli at the start of this season.
It would be the two Argentines who would combine for the only goal of the game. When Bertoni’s through pass reached Maradona just outside the penalty area, first controlling the ball with his chest he let it bounce inside the box before unleashing a curling half volley which didn’t even give enough time for Giovanni Galli in the goal to react. After the match he said he wasn’t sure if this was the best goal he’d scored in Italy so far, but that it was definitely the most important.
Until this game, Fiorentina had been unbeaten at home for over two years. Diego Maradona was the man to end that run, and Napoli would be much improved in the second half of this his first season. They only lost one more game before ending the season in 8th place, one position ahead of Fiorentina.
This would seem to be the end, or should I say the beginning, of our story. Maradona’s debut season in Serie A, his first game in Florence with Napoli, along with a goal to win the game. What better way to finish up. But this is not where it ends, as this is not how Diego Maradona’s story against Fiorentina in Florence begun.
We can go back further, over two years earlier, 1982. Before that years World Cup Finals in Spain, Diego had already been signed by Barcelona. This World Cup was supposed to be Maradona’s time to show the world what he could do, and for Argentina to retain the trophy. It didn’t quite work out like that, but now he had joined up with his new club, and this took him to Florence.
Wednesday September 8th 1982, in just four days time Serie A will kick off, and La Liga has already started four days ago. Barcelona had lost their first game of the season at Valencia, and Fiorentina were already out of the Coppa Italia at the group stage. But at the Stadio Comunale, at 8:30pm, the two sides would face each other in a friendly. Barcelona knew their star attraction, the only non Spanish player in the team that travelled here, was Maradona. They were probably expecting a larger crowd than the 15,000 that turned up to watch.
Having arrived via Milan and Pisa the night before, the next day the Barcelona players left their hotel at 10am to take in the sights of Florence, despite the rain. One player who didn’t join them though, was Maradona. He remained closed up in his room until around 1pm, when he finally came downstairs to do his duty and speak to the waiting journalists. Informing them at the start that they only had fifteen minutes, he seemed tired and drained by the constant attention and publicity. The newspapers spoke of how he is by now a hostage of both his manager and club. He did speak of how he still loves football, the battles with opponents, the goals, the games, but how everything else is just annoying.
The game itself was a scoreless draw, with very little to entertain the small crowd who had made their way here to see these two clubs, and Diego, in action. He did get to meet two of his team-mates from the World Cup, the Fiorentina pair Daniel Passarella and Daniel Bertoni. That was probably the only highlight of Diego Maradona’s trip to Florence.
Which has probably left you wondering, where is the happy ending? Well the truth is, this wasn’t Diego’s first trip to Florence, and this wasn’t his debut at the Stadio Comunale. Over a year before this, before his move to Barcelona, before the disastrous World Cup which would end with a sending off, Diego was just 21 and still playing his club football in his home country. He hadn’t been included in the Argentina squad which won the World Cup as host country in 1978, manager César Menotti though he was too young to handle the pressure. Now though, he was the star of the Argentina team that were preparing for the next World Cup.
On Saturday August 29th 1981, Argentina took to the field in Florence, but not for an international friendly against Italy or some other national team. This was Fiorentina v Argentina, and Diego Maradona’s first time to play against la Viola. Fiorentina taking on Argentina was really nothing new in those days, before the 1974 World Cup the two sides had also met here in Florence, a 2-0 win for Fiorentina. Back in 1966, before Argentina left for the World Cup in England, they had a 1-0 win over Fiorentina at the River Plate stadium in Argentina.
There is one man who links all three of these Fiorentina-Argentina clashes, Giancarlo De Sisti. He played in both the 1966 and 1974 fixtures, and here in 1981 De Sisti was now the manager of Fiorentina.
But all eyes would be on the new world star of football, Diego Maradona. A packed Stadio Comunale wanted to see the player who was already being spoken of as the best in the world. Argentina had originally only planned to visit Spain on this trip, but then let it be known that they could also be persuaded to come to Italy, for the right price of course. Fiorentina knew they had made a wise decision when they saw the queues at the ticket offices in the days leading up to the game.
The fans would not be disappointed, as they were treated to a feast of goals, and the skill of Maradona. Against an Argentina side that contained many of the World Cup winning squad, and all of whom would travel to the following year’s tournament, Fiorentina more than held their own. This was certainly the case in the first half, when the home side found themselves 2-0 up, this was after a future Viola star, Passarella had failed to convert a penalty. After only five minutes of play Maradona had already been taken down in the box by Pietro Vierchowod, but Passarella’s effort was too high.
He more than redeemed himself after the break though, first he pulled the score back to 2-1, a free kick rolled to him was sent flying past Giovanni Galli in the goal. Apart from Ossie Ardiles who was kicking off in the English league that day with Spurs, there was another Argentinian player not on the team, this was Fiorentina’s Daniel Bertoni, and he must have had mixed emotions when it was his goal that made it 3-1. Passarella then had another penalty, Vierchowod again the culprit, with a blatant handball. This time there was no mistake from the spot.
Argentina then equalized before the man most had come to see, including Giani Agnelli of Juventus and the Italian national team manager Enzo Bearzot, decided the game. After the match, Fiorentina manager De Sisti said that he had put Francesco Casagrande, a player more used to creating than defending, as the man to mark Maradona as he didn’t want to impede Diego’s game.
His first goal came after a cross from another future Fiorentina player Ramón Díaz was cleared, but only as far as the head of Mario Kempes. His header reached Maradona in the box, who after taking it wide then tracked back as Giancarlo Antognoni seemed to stand and watch him go by before letting fly with his left foot and it was 4-3 to Argentina.
It wasn’t over yet though, time for one more piece of Maradona magic. Another pass found him in the area again, and with a beautiful first touch, knocked it down with his right, let it bounce before unleashing another unstoppable shot past Galli.
Diego did also get booked in this game, referee Gino Menicucci from Florence seemed to take pleasure in showing Maradona the yellow card, as well as letting a lot of fouls on the player go unpunished. It was though, a memorable night for anyone who was there, and had the privilege to see Diego Maradona turn on the style in his first ever game in Florence.
There will always be debate over who is the greatest player of all time, though it’s almost impossible to compare players from different eras. Those from the distant past will always be at a disadvantage too, with no endless hours of video available to showcase their talent. These days it’s turned into what to me seems like some childish feud between fans of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
“Ho visto Maradona...”
Maybe it shows my age, with my memories of the Mexico ‘86 World Cup and then growing up watching Italian football when it truly was the greatest league in the world. But for me there is no debate, no choice to make and nothing to question, the greatest player I’ve ever seen and my favourite ever footballer, is without even the slightest doubt, Diego Armando Maradona.