“I think today we’ve realized that we are playing against everyone”
These words were spoken by Diego Maradona after their first league defeat in the season that Napoli would win their first scudetto. That loss came at the Stadio Comunale against Fiorentina.
Maradona had been made only too aware early in his Serie A career that Napoli were playing against the rest of Italy, especially when the team travelled to the north of the country. His Napoli debut came away to Verona, and when Diego saw a banner in the crowd declaring ‘Welcome to Italy’, he said that it made him understand that this wasn’t just a football matter, this was north against south, racism against poverty.
He also later admitted that he didn’t really know anything about the club when he signed for Napoli. He was so desperate to get away from Barcelona, and Spain in general, that he didn’t really care where he went. He was also in desperate need of a financial boost, as he was practically broke at the time, owning nothing but debts.
He only started to look at his new clubs history after he had joined them, discovering that not only had they never won a league title but had just managed to escape relegation by a point the previous season. He asked the club if they could at least guarantee him a quiet life, which was the most important thing for Diego at the time, and they of course assured him they could.
When he arrived for his presentation to the Napoli fans at the San Paolo stadium, he must have realized that his life would never be the same again. Over 70,000 fans crammed in not for a game, but just to catch a glimpse of the player who was already their idol. Just to hear him say a few words that he had learned in Italian and to kick a ball into the blue Naples sky.
The Napoli fans had celebrated the official announcement of his transfer as if they had already won that illusive league title. The city became awash with every type of merchandise, as long as it had Diego’s face it was guaranteed to sell. That July evening in 1984 when he emerged from the tunnel at their stadium, they again reacted as if he had already brought success to their club. But he had already brought something to these adoring fans, he had given them hope and a license to dream and to dream big.
Diego had arrived under secrecy the day before, in a battle to avoid the press and the fans. He was even forced to leave his hotel on the island of Capri in the middle of the night to escape to another island, Ischia, when his presence there had been discovered. If this didn’t let him know about the madness he was in for, then emerging from the stadium tunnel, into the Naples sun, hearing the crowd roar his name surely did. After his duties were fulfilled he escaped back down the tunnel, his legs shaking, and fell into the arms of his waiting girlfriend and the tears started to flow.
That first season wasn’t quite the success that the Napoli fans and Maradona himself had hoped for. The first half of the season was just like the last few, battling near the bottom of the table. Diego returned home to Argentina for the Christmas break, barely able to talk about his Italian experience so far because of his embarrassment. When the league restarted however, Napoli came to life and would end the season safely in 8th position.
One of the first games after that break took Diego to Florence for the first time as a Napoli player. Wearing gloves as protection from the bitter cold, with snow piled high around the pitch, he scored the only goal of the game. Controlling a long pass on his chest outside the area, he let it bounce inside the box before rifling a left foot half volley past Giovanni Galli who barely had time to move before the ball was already in the net.
The Fiorentina keeper would be on the receiving end of that left foot again in the 1986 World Cup, and would face him many times with both Fiorentina and then AC Milan. He then ended up on the same side as Diego at Napoli, where the two became firm friends. A friendship which lasted until the end. Last night Giovanni Galli spoke on Italian TV after the news of his friends death had been announced. An audibly upset Galli spoke of losing an extraordinary friend. He also told a story which showed the generosity and friendship of Maradona.
Back in 2003 Giovanni was organizing a golf tournament to raise money for the charity he had set up after the tragic death of his son Niccolò two years previous. Knowing that his old friend Diego had taken up golf he phoned him in Argentina to ask if he would take part in the event in Florence. There was no hesitation from Maradona, making the trip to Italy at his own expense and on arrival he told Giovanni that he was here for him and his family and the charity, and would do whatever they asked of him.
Those first two seasons in Italy, the second more successful as the club finished in 3rd place, taught Diego just what the people of the city he now called home were up against in Italy. He witnessed first hand how they were treated when they travelled to play their northern rivals, the abuse that both the players and the teams fans endured from the home crowds. He heard the chants, and saw the banners. All of this only made Diego even more determined to bring glory to the club and to give happiness and pride to the people who adored him. He often clashed with the Napoli owner, insisting that better players were needed if the Scudetto was going to be their objective.
After realizing his dream of winning the World Cup in Mexico ’86, as captain of his country, he would then return to Italy to make even more dreams come true. Napoli would not only win their first ever league title, but would claim the domestic double when they also won the Coppa Italia. Their first loss in that Serie A season wouldn’t come until January against a Fiorentina side still in danger of relegation. The arrival of Napoli and Maradona gave Fiorentina their biggest home crowd of the season, and the Viola fans would leave happy having seen a Maradona goal but more importantly their team gain a valuable victory.
Fiorentina were the better team in the opening half, going 2-0 up thanks to goals from Ramón Díaz and Giancarlo Antognoni. Díaz had played for Napoli prior to the arrival of Maradona and they had been team mates in the Argentina national team. He hadn’t taken part in the glorious triumph in Mexico however, amid rumours that it was Maradona who had convinced the manager to leave him out of the squad, a claim that Diego himself strongly denied in his autobiography.
Maradona did pull a goal back for Napoli shortly after the break but they couldn’t get the equalizer and it was Fiorentina who got the only other goal of the game. Paolo Monelli spotting Claudia Garella well off his line late in the game, made it 3-1 with a shot from inside his own half.
Napoli did have a goal disallowed during that second half, the referee had already blown for a free kick in the build-up. This was likely one of the decisions Maradona had in mind when he spoke after the game. After announcing that he now knew Napoli were playing against everyone, he was clever enough not to mention the referee specifically. His eyes and his smile though left nobody in any doubt as to what he was referring to. The journalists of course tried to make him come clean and explain what he meant but Diego was no fool. “Today on the field we realized that we weren’t just up against Fiorentina”.
This first defeat of the season had allowed Inter Milan to join them level at the top. Napoli would have their next slip up when they drew at home to Roma and lost at the San Siro to Inter, two sides who along with Juventus, were in the chase to catch them in the table. The following week was a turning point in the end of season battle, when Napoli won at home to defending champions Juventus. On the same day Inter could only draw at Torino while Roma lost away to Udinese, leaving them both 5 points behind the team that now had the Scudetto within sight.
With six games remaining Napoli would win only one of these, meaning their fans would need to wait before the celebrations could truly begin. At the end of April, when Inter had a 1-0 win over Fiorentina, Napoli defeated AC Milan. This was an important win, coming after a 3-0 defeat at Verona it kept a two point gap between Napoli at the top and Inter in second place. With three games still left to play the race was not over yet. Napoli would only manage to draw all three games but it would be Juventus who would finish in second place as Inter had an even more disastrous end to the season. Two successive defeats at Ascoli and Atalanta would hand Napoli the title.
On the penultimate weekend of the season, it was Fiorentina who travelled to Naples, determined to spoil the party, especially as they were still in need of a point to make sure they would avoid relegation. Napoli started the game 3 points ahead of Inter with 4 points still in play. The San Paolo was naturally a sell-out, nobody wanting to miss out on this game if it turned out to be the decisive one, a chance to celebrate the Scudetto at home.
This is what Diego wanted more than anything. After the game which ended in a satisfactory draw for everyone, he made a triumphant lap of the stadium before declaring it the most important success of his career, more important even than the World Cup victory in Mexico the previous year. “The problem is that I didn’t win that in my home, they took that chance away from me in ’78 so this is the most important celebration of my life, Naples is my home”.
This was what Diego wished for above all, a place to call home, a place where he belonged, and a place where he was adored and loved by his people for doing what he loved above all else, playing the game of football. Later that dream would turn sour but at that moment Diego Maradona was probably the happiest he has ever been in his life, and he gave the people of Napoli something that they had never believed they could ever have. That all changed when Diego arrived, he gave them reason to believe, reason to hope and now he gave them a reason to have pride in their club, their team, their home.
This was Diego Maradona, a player who dared to dream and who knew he had the talent to make those dreams come true. A player who gave so many football fans, not just those of Napoli, but all lovers of the game, a reason to love the game even more. He showed us the seemingly impossible and he took the game to new heights.
He also showed us that he wasn’t actually some supernatural being, he was in fact human, flawed like the rest of us. He made mistakes but he paid dearly for those. Diego rose from nothing, literally nothing. He went from the slums of Buenos Aires where he experienced real poverty, to the riches of the football world. He ended up in a place he called home, a place where everything was made available to him. He wasn’t strong enough to resist, but he was punished for that, and they took from him the one thing that truly made him feel alive, playing football.
I first fell in love with Maradona as a ten year old mesmerized watching him in action in Mexico ’86. That love continued when I discovered Italian football. There is only one football club for me and that is Fiorentina, but there is one player above all others who made me fall in love with football and who still to this day amazes me every time I look back at him in action, that player is Diego Armando Maradona. Live is life, football is Maradona. Gracias por todo Diego.