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Diego Maradona: The rise and fall of the god of Naples

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Some couples are just meant to be together. None more so than Diego Armando Maradona and SSC Napoli. This was a relationship that had it all. Every possible emotion and feeling. There was unbridled joy and devotion. There was trust and hope. There were so many blissful highs yet also some distressing lows. But, above all else, there was unconditional love that – 35 years on from their first date together – has never wavered.

From day one, Diego immediately felt at home in Naples. He had grown up in extreme poverty in Villa Fiorito, an overpopulated shantytown in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. As Asif Kapadia’s much-anticipated film on Maradona – to be released on June 14 in the UK – shows in graphic detail, there was no clean water, no paved roads and the impoverished residents had to labour around the clock just to survive. Maradona’s bricklayer father Don Diego went to work at 4am each day and, in the words of his son, “arrived home dead”.

Maradona would always side with the poor and the oppressed throughout his life. His former club – and that of his heart in Argentina – Boca Juniors were the team of the working class who battled against the team of the upper class, River Plate. During his two years in Spain’s fiercely separatist Barcelona he had been made to feel an outcast, branded by locals as a ‘Sudaca’ – a derogatory term for a dark-skinned South American.

In Naples, he would find a team, city and public that endured the same problems as he did growing up. It was a dysfunctional, downtrodden, yet hugely passionate city – particularly when it came to football – that suffered from mass poverty, unemployment and organised crime, and was depicted as a stain on Italy by the aristocratic, industrial north. “I want to become the idol of the poor children of Naples because they are like I was when I lived in Buenos Aires,” El Pibe de Oro would say on his first day as a player there.

The man who travelled to Barcelona to negotiate Maradona’s signing, Napoli sporting director Antonio Juliano, was from the slums of Naples himself. A legend during 15 years as a player with his hometown club, Juliano rather prophetically told Maradona he would become a “living God” if he joined the Partenopei – and that his people would die for him.

This became clear to Maradona when, despite Juliano agreeing a world-record fee to sign the Argentine, Barcelona president Josep Lluis Nunez moved the goalposts at the last minute by demanding an extra £500,000 for the deal to go through. The Neapolitan people responded by making collections in the streets – from the notoriously crowded tenements of the Spanish Quarter to the Camorra-run district of Forcella.  All together, they helped make up the difference and the deal was done.

Maradona was bowled over.

“I felt that they loved me, that they really and truly loved me,” he revealed in his autobiography, ‘Touched by God’. “Naples was a crazy city – they were as crazy as me – soccer was life itself. A lot of things reminded me of my origins. There had been hunger strikes and people had chained themselves to the fence at San Paolo stadium, begging me to come. How could I let them down?”

The hysteria of Diego’s presentation as a Napoli player on July 5, 1984 would only enhance this feeling. He arrived from the heavens of Naples’ blue summer sky by helicopter, the stadium overflowing with 70,000 fanatical fans chanting “Ho visto Maradona, ho visto Maradona.” (‘I saw Maradona, I saw Maradona’).

Dressed casually with a white t-shirt and blue chinos, he scaled the steps from the San Paolo’s interior to return to the centre of the pitch which was encircled by over 100 journalists and cameramen. To chants of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Diego, Diego’, he waved and blew kisses to the crowd, who put on a pyrotechnic display that would have rivalled the eruption of Mount Vesuvius herself.

His first shot at the San Paolo was sumptuously curled into the top corner from 35 yards. With a Napoli scarf around his neck, he addressed his doting faithful. “Good evening, Neapolitans. I am very happy to be with you,” were his first words before he treated everyone to a keepie-uppie taster. He then booted the ball into the enraptured crowd and departed with a “Forza Napoli” (“Come on Napoli”).

Already, it felt like Maradona had become a living God – just as Juliano had predicted. His divine status would be consecrated by his heroics at the club over the next seven years.

What Maradona achieved with Napoli was truly incredible. Before his arrival, a team from the southern mainland had never won the Scudetto. Napoli themselves had narrowly avoided relegation in 1982-83 and 1983-84 – finishing a point above the drop zone just weeks before he signed.

“Napoli were, in football terms, closer to the second division than to a championship,” he recalled. “I knew I was going to suffer – a lot – but I also knew that the harder something is, the more I like it. The less faith they had in me or us, the angrier I was and the harder I played.”

It is wildly inaccurate to describe – as some have – Maradona’s Napoli as a one-man team. The 1987 champions contained Italy internationals such as Fernando De Napoli, Salvatore Bagni, Bruno Giordano and defensive legend Ciro Ferrara. The 1990 winners included Brazilian stars Alemao and Careca, as well as a young Gianfranco Zola.

However, it is clear that without Maradona, Napoli could not have come close to lifting the championship. At the time, Serie A was by far the strongest and richest league in the world. Every team, right down to the bottom of the league, boasted world-class stranieri(foreign players); Platini, Boniek and Laudrup at Juventus, Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard at AC Milan, Rummenigge, Matthaus, Brehme and Klinsmann at Inter, Falcao and Cerezo at Roma, Socrates and Passarella at Fiorentina, Elkjaer and Briegel at Verona, Zico at Udinese – the list goes on and on. Never before or since has one league monopolised so many of the game’s superstars all at one time.

In that context, Maradona inspiring a team who had only won two Coppe Italia in their 60-year history to two Scudetti, a UEFA Cup and another Italian Cup was miraculous.

And in doing so, he produced moments of genius that will live on forever; from the sensational 40-yard volleyed lob against Verona to the hat-trick against Lazio – which included an exquisite chip from an acute angle – and an Olympic goal direct from a corner. Then, you had the impudent one-step free-kick flick into the top corner to secure a first win over Juventus in 12 years (a win that caused five Napoli fans in the stadium to faint!) and the effortless dink over AC Milan goalkeeper Giovanni Galli to clinch a 3-0 thumping over the-then European champions.

Those who played with or against Maradona are in no doubt that he is the greatest footballer of all time. “The best opponent I ever played against,” extolled Paolo Maldini. “The things I could do with a football, he could do with an orange,” hailed Michel Platini. “There will never be anyone like Maradona again, not even if Messi wins three World Cups or scores a bicycle kick from midfield,” remarked Hector Enrique, who was Maradona’s team-mate when he almost single-handedly took Argentina to World Cup glory in Mexico in 1986.

Watching Maradona live was like having a mystical experience. His on-field exhibition before the 1989 UEFA Cup semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich is the most enchanting pre-match warm-up in football history. For three minutes he captivated the entire Olympiastadion as he wheeled off an array of ball-juggling, tricks, flicks and dance moves to the sound of Opus’ 1985 hit Live is Life. The crowd was worked into a frenzy by the pint-sized phenomenon in untied Puma boots. Diego would lead Napoli to a 2-2 draw on the night (and a 4-2 aggregate win) to qualify for the UEFA Cup final where they would beat Stuttgart for their first and only ever European honour.

But nothing would top the celebrations of Napoli’s historic Scudetto in 1987, confirmed on the penultimate matchday with a 1-1 home draw against Roberto Baggio’s Fiorentina.

As the final whistle sounded, the San Paolo exploded into bedlam; 70,000 fans waving their Azzurri blue flags through the blue smoke of celebratory flares and fireworks. Maradona did a lap of honour to salute his people before kicking off wild celebrations inside the Napoli dressing room together with his great friend and physio, Salvatore Carmando – the man who would kiss Diego’s head ritualistically before every match.

“For me, this title means a lot more than winning the World Cup,” El Pibe said at full time. “I won a youth World Cup in Tokyo and I won the World Cup in Mexico last year but on both occasions I was alone, I had no friends with me. Here, all my family, the city of Naples are with me because I consider myself a son of Naples.”

Delirious Neapolitans took to the streets and the whole city was brought to a standstill as people of all ages enjoyed the party of their lives – and one which lasted in many places for a month. Cars honked their horns, fans danced on the roofs of stranded buses, unhelmeted teenagers on Vespers donned curly Maradona wigs while locals held mock funerals by carrying coffins with Juventus markings on them. Outside the city’s biggest cemetery, a banner read: “You don’t know what you have missed!”

After decades of abuse and suffering – both on and off the football pitch – the oppressed Neapolitans could not contain their joy at having toppled the ruling class.

And this hatred for the north is what made Maradona’s achievement so special for Neapolitans.

Italy’s north and south have been at odds ever since the country was unified in 1871. The economic chasm between the two poles is astronomical. Italy’s industrial north – through factories such as FIAT in Turin – dominates the financial landscape. Meanwhile, the south is overwhelmingly agricultural and suffers from poverty and severe unemployment. Indeed, levels of unemployment recently surpassed 50 per cent in Naples.

This economic divide has resulted in many stereotypical and prejudicial attitudes. Southerners are looked down upon by northerners as poor, lazy, uneducated and unclean. They are branded ‘terroni’ – peasants – a most derogatory term. They are considered corrupt parasites of Arab and African descent whose neighbourhoods are controlled by the Mafia and Camorra. Meanwhile, northerners are seen by southerners as greedy, snobby and cold-hearted. They only care about making money – often by taking advantage of their southern subjects.

This animosity would be most explicitly represented on the football pitch and no citizens have suffered more territorial racism over the years than those from Naples. When Maradona’s team travelled to away matches up north they were greeted with deplorable abuse. ‘Welcome to Italy’, ‘Wash!’, ‘Napoli, cholera sufferers’ and ‘Vesuvius, wash them with fire’ were just a handful of the banners that would be displayed by northern fans. There would also be monkey chants due to the darker complexion of southern Italians.

“Everyone and everything was against us,” Maradona explained in his autobiography. “The worst was the ‘Welcome to Italy’ banners. That whole North v South battle made me stronger and gave me a chance to do what I like best: fight for a cause. And if it’s the cause of the poor, all the better.”

Juventus were the biggest representation of northern affluence and power. Bought in 1923 by the Agnelli family dynasty – who also owned FIAT – they were the team of the establishment. The most successful club in Italy – with over 20 Scudetti by the time of Maradona’s arrival – they boasted great political muscle and were, thus, consistently accused of receiving help from referees. No one hated Juve more than the Neapolitans, a group of people who were predisposed to challenging power and authority.

This dates as far back as the time of the Roman Empire with the legend of San Gennaro. The patron saint of Naples defied Rome during the Great Persecution of Christians, saving locals from certain death by hiding them. Whenever Neapolitans need a helping hand they pray to San Gennaro. The people of Naples also despised former dictator Benito Mussolini – and the city was the first in Italy to rebel against Nazi military occupation during the ‘Four Days of Naples’ in 1943.

Maradona, who was a close friend of Fidel Castro, embraced this anti-establishment vibe perfectly. In Kapadia’s film there is a scene where he is teaching his two-year-old daughter Dalma anti-Juve songs. “Juve, Juve, vaffanculo! (Juve, Juve, f*ck off!)” Dalma repeats after her father.

“For the powerful North, what we did with Napoli was a real blow,” El Pibe explained. “It hurt. No one from the south ever won the Scudetto before us. And they didn’t just love me in Naples; all of poor southern Italy loved me. I was their emblem. The emblem against the powerful North, the one who took from the rich to give to the poor South.”

More than merely a modern-day Robin Hood, Maradona would rival the popularity of San Gennaro with the Napoletani. Murals popped up all over the city depicting Diego, some comparing him to the patron saint.

In the final weeks of the 1986-87 Scudetto-winning season, the words of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ were changed in Neapolitan households and shop windows to: “Our Maradona, Who Takes the Field, We have hallowed thy name, Thy Kingdom is Napoli, Lead us not into disappointment, But deliver unto us the title, Amen.”

Wherever Maradona set foot he would be mobbed by fans. “Everywhere I went there was commotion. I couldn’t go shopping, to the cinema, to the theatre.”

Every Neapolitan household contained a photo of Maradona – next to San Gennaro – and numerous Neapolitan songs were penned and sung in his honour. Thousands of babies were named after him during his time at the club.

He was every Neapolitan mother’s son and every Neapolitan girl’s boyfriend. Kapadia’s film shows a journalist interviewing three young females celebrating Napoli’s UEFA Cup success. When asked which player they would like to sleep with that night, they all screamed: “Maradona, Maradona!”

Unofficial and unlicensed Maradona merchandise became a highly lucrative trade for small businesses and street vendors – everything from replica shirts and wigs to posters and figurines were created.

Closing in on 20 years since Maradona left Naples, the trade is still going strong. He – and his family – are still worshipped today.

“In 2011, my daughter Dalma insisted on going to Naples; the city she had left at the age of two,” Maradona explained in ‘Touched by God’. “When the Neapolitans found out she was in town, she couldn’t walk down the street. People would kneel down before her.

“The first day, they took her ‘sight-seeing’ and stopped the car in front of a building. They rang the doorbell and all the neighbours on every floor were there waiting for her with hugs and kisses and photos.

“They took her to a hospital, where everyone was waiting for her at the door; doctors, technicians, nurses, and even patients. It was a Tuesday and they opened the stadium just for her. When Dalma showed the caretaker her passport, the guy almost dropped dead on the spot!”

Such is the love for Diego in Naples that those who don’t show him the adoration he deserves can often face deadly consequences. A famous story was published during the home stretch of the 1986-87 season concerning a fishmonger’s assistant, Giuseppe, who was sacked by his employee for a lack of respect – and for being a potential harbinger of bad luck – after refusing to wear a Maradona No.10 shirt at work. A few days later he got his job back after he agreed to wear the shirt and sing a song in Diego’s honour!

Professionalism was something Maradona himself never knew the meaning of. His love for parties, nightclubs and women, in particular, was legendary.

In Naples, he had a very colourful and controversial love life – despite living with his long-term and long-suffering girlfriend Claudia Villafane, whom he had started dating when he was 16 and she 15. His former driver, Pietro Pugliese, claimed that Diego slept with over 8,000 women while in Italy. These allegedly included television personalities such as the American-Italian singer and showgirl Heather Parisi. “I was in love with Claudia but I was no saint. And there were some beautiful women. Oh, so many!” confessed Diego.

In September 1986, a 22-year-old accountant, Cristina Sinagra, went public on the day she had given birth to her son to reveal that Maradona was the father; the result of a four-month affair. A bitter paternity suit followed as Diego Sr refused to acknowledge the boy named Diego Armando Jr. A court ruling in 1993 eventually confirmed Maradona Sr was the biological father but it took the best part of two decades before the Napoli icon truly accepted his son. “He was just a mistake,” Diego Sr often coldly sniped.

The Sinagra affair caused a great stress on his relationship with Claudia. “I turn on the television and see a woman holding a baby and she says it’s Diego’s,” Claudia recalled. “He came home crying saying it was a lie. Girls would claim to have flings with him and he would tell me not to believe them. I was very docile so I believed him.”

Although they had their break-ups, they did eventually marry in 1989 after having two daughters together – Dalma and Gianinna. The marriage itself was a lavish affair, costing a reported £1 million. Over 1000 guests attended, with Maradona flying in 200 of his Napoli team-mates and their families on a Boeing 747. The venue featured a 40-foot waterfall, while the couple arrived at the reception in a 1937 Dodge convertible. In true Maradona fashion, the party lasted until 8am the following morning.

As a result of his extra-curricular activities, Maradona’s record of attendance at training was pitiful. He regularly missed or turned up late for sessions and would return from holidays or trips abroad days after schedule – usually in poor physical shape. Sometimes he missed matches as well. At the start of the 1989 season, he refused to play the first month of the campaign after a disagreement over a proposed transfer to Marseille. He eventually returned to lead Napoli to their second Scudetto.

The most infamous instance of him going AWOL was before a decisive European Cup last 16 match against Spartak Moscow in November 1990. Following a sex and drug-fuelled night out, Maradona refused to travel to Moscow with the rest of his team-mates. When he finally sobered up, he hired a private jet to take him to the Russian capital the night before the game. He finally joined up with his team-mates – but not before the socialist-sympathising Maradona had been given a private tour of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Red Square.

For once, Diego was punished by Napoli for his misbehaviour. He started from the bench but despite coming on as a second-half substitute he could not prevent Napoli from losing in a penalty-shootout. At the age of 30 and with his best days behind him, Napoli seemed no longer willing to indulge his excesses any more. Neither were the media.

Indeed, it had been an open secret since Maradona had arrived six years earlier that he had a serious cocaine addiction. He had first started taking the drug while at Barcelona in 1982 and this continued prolifically throughout his time at San Paolo. “One touch and I felt like superman. In Naples, drugs were everywhere. And I took more and more there,” he revealed. John Ludden, in the brilliant book ‘Once Upon a Time in Naples’ upon which Kapadia’s film is based, reveals that Maradona’s addiction was so serious that he even snorted a line of coke in Pope John Paul II’s own bathroom during a much-publicised private audience with his Holiness in Rome in 1985.

There were also constant suspicions about Maradona’s links with the Camorra, the mafia-type crime syndicate that possessed a stranglehold grip on the city. At the press unveiling of Maradona, a brave French journalist, Alain Chaillou, openly asked the Argentine if he knew that the Camorra had helped fund his world-record fee from Barcelona. A furious Ferlaino called for the journalist to be thrown out of the press room immediately. Amidst collective shouts of “Fuori, Fuori” (“Get out, get out”), two Napoli security guards man-handled Chaillou off the premises and onto the first plane back home.

Questions would be asked again – this time more discreetly – when Napoli sensationally collapsed at the end of the 1987-88 season. The Azzurri seemed almost certain to retain the Scudetto but only picked up one point in their last four matches to allow Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan to lift the title. Rumours swirled that the Camorra and illegal betting rings were involved in Napoli’s inexplicable disintegration.

Maradona’s friendship with the Giuliano family, who were one of the most powerful Camorrista clans in Naples, led to a police investigation. The inquiry unveiled 71 photos of Maradona snapped with the Giulianos. These included him in a jacuzzi at their private residence in Forcella and at the wedding of the cousin of Luigi Giuliano, the Don of the family. When questioned in court, Maradona said that he had spent time with the Giuliano family after being invited to their home by a fan but denied all knowledge of knowing about their underworld connections. He would years later confess he was well aware who they were. “They were like something out of The Untouchables movie about Al Capone. ‘Any problem you have is my problem’, they would say. They said they would protect us. It was like something from the movies.”

Most of Maradona’s misdemeanours – from his cocaine addiction to his Camorra friendships to his extra-marital affairs – remained relatively hidden until the 1990-91 season.

Everything changed after World Cup Italia ‘90. The Azzurri were infamously eliminated on penalties in the semi-finals of that tournament by Maradona’s Argentina – the iconic No.10 scoring his nation’s last spot-kick.

That game was played in Naples, with Maradona preying on the divisions between Italy’s north and south to encourage many in the San Paolo to support Argentina. “I don’t like the fact that now everybody is asking Neapolitans to be Italian and to support their national team,” he said ahead of the match. “Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism.”

Stirring up territorial unrest was a masterful move by the No.10, perhaps the best assist he ever made in his career.

“We could never have imagined that the people of Naples would stop supporting Italy,” then-Juventus president Gianpiero Boniperti sighed at the end of a traumatic game for the Italian people.

Maradona became a public-hate figure following Italy’s elimination. Gazzetta dello Sport labelled him the devil. Meanwhile, La Repubblica ran a survey asking its readers to choose the historical figure they despised most. Diego topped the poll by a landslide – ahead of war criminals and dictators.

Overnight, Maradona lost all his political protection from the press, the judiciary and – following the Spartak debacle – even from Napoli football club. Now, all of his indiscretions were to be shared publicly.

Early in 1991, Diego’s name was splashed all over the papers for his alleged links to a dope-trafficking network involving the Camorra. His voice was identified eight times in tapped phone calls but he was cleared of any involvement in drug trafficking, which carried a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. He was, however, charged with possession of cocaine and handed a suspended sentence and five million lire fine.

Many more damaging allegations appeared in the media in the following weeks. Prostitutes came forward with kiss-and-tell stories of cocaine-fuelled nights with Maradona, some of them allegedly fixed by Camorra-related associates of the player.

Then, in March, came the final nail in the coffin.  Maradona tested positive for cocaine after a Serie A game against Bari. He would be handed an unprecedented 15-month playing ban, only returning to the field in 1992-93 with Sevilla. He would never be the same player again – and his drug abuse would only intensify, eventually almost claiming his life in the following decade.

Maradona himself cried conspiracy for the way his time in Italy ended. “When we started beating the northern teams, the establishment wanted to kill me,” he implied. “In 1990 more than ever. And in 1991, Antonio Mattarese [then president of Italian Football Federation] and Ferlaino made me pay.

”Come on! The whole thing was probably payback for all the lucrative deals they lost because of us in 1990. Even a blind man would be able to see that.”

Certainly, it is hard to argue there wasn’t a political motive to Maradona’s downfall. Given Diego’s long-term cocaine addiction, how could it take nearly seven years before he was caught?

His personal fitness trainer, Fernando Signorini, had the most logical answer: “No one was surprised to see Maradona test positive for cocaine. But the powers that be saw a great opportunity to finish him off.”

Realising he no longer enjoyed immunity, Diego fled back to Argentina in the middle of the night. It was a sad and undignified exit for someone who had given so much to Italy.

However, El Pibe’s legend will live on forever in Naples. After all, San Gennaro has retained his mythical status since 305AD. Seventeen-hundred years from now, Maradona will still be worshipped as a God too. The God of Naples.

In addition to excerpts from Asif Kapadia’s film ‘Maradona’ – which will be released in cinemas on June 14 – the following books were used for research for this feature; ‘Maradona: Once Upon a Time in Naples’ by John Ludden, ‘Touched by God: How we won the Mexico ’86 World Cup’ by Diego Maradona, ‘Forza Italia, The Fall and Rise of Italian Football’ by Paddy Agnew.

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