September 16, 1984 was the day that Diego Armando Maradona discovered how some parts of Italy’s population feel about Naples. On this first match day of the 1984–85 season, his new club Napoli was playing away in the northeastern city of Verona — home to Romeo and Juliet, but also a center of Italy’s postwar “economic miracle.”
Making his Serie A debut, Diego immediately realized what he had gotten himself into: “They greeted us with a banner that helped me understand right away that the battle Napoli faced wasn’t just about football; ‘Welcome to Italy,’ it read. It was North against South — the racists against the poor.”
The Lega Nord — the party today headed by Matteo Salvini, which made its name with its anti-Southern racism — would emerge only a few years later. But in the stadiums of Northern Italy, it was an established tradition to welcome the South’s biggest club with banners praising Mount Vesuvius — and chants calling Naples a city of “cholera” whose residents “needed a wash.”
Naples in the 1980s
Indeed, for many Italians, Naples was the home of disease and natural disaster. The city was yet to shake off the image that had come with a cholera outbreak in 1973, and then an earthquake in 1980. This epidemic had killed a few dozen people — not exactly a catastrophic death toll. Yet this would remain an essential page in both Neapolitan and Italian history.
The outbreak that struck the city was an unthinkable nightmare, now become reality. A disease which most imagined had been relegated to the poorest and most backward corners of the earth was instead spreading in the heart of the prosperous West — indeed, in one of its most densely populated cities. This showed the contradictions of Italy’s postwar economic growth, hardly a single national story.
But it also shed light on Naples’s alleyways, and its bassi — the tiny street-level habitations where whole families were massed in the same room. In the 2000s, all this would be sold to tourists as part of the city’s charm; but back then, it symbolized the unhygienic conditions in which most Neapolitans lived. These streets less resembled a rich Western metropolis than the slum villas miserias of Argentina — rather like the Villa Fiorita where Diego had been born on October 30, 1960.
Naples did have a few islands of industry — but by the time Maradona arrived in 1984, these, too, were showing signs of crisis. Such was the case of the Italsider steelworks in the Bagnoli district, on the city’s western periphery. This great plant established at the dawn of the twentieth century would close its gates forever just a few years after number 10’s own departure.
Naples was, in short, a city plagued by unemployment, by the illicit cigarette trade, but also the mounting spread of heroin and syringes littering its pavements. A city where the camorra murdered brave journalists who reported the intrigues between mafiosi, politicians, and business; a city of clan warfare and street killings. A city which most described as a hopeless hellhole; a city which thousands of migrants left every year, to seek work in the factories of Northern Italy, France, or Germany.
Diego, the Redeemer
Germany would, as it happened, also play host to Napoli’s only international triumph. On May 17, 1989, the squad was in Stuttgart for the return leg of the UEFA Cup final. The azzurri had won the home match at the Stadio San Paolo 2–1, with goals for Maradona and Careca. The opposing scorer, Maurizio Gaudino, was a native of Brühl, West Germany, but also the son of two migrants from Campania (the region surrounding Naples) who had headed there for work.
Some 30,000 of the 67,000 crowd in the Neckarstadion for the second leg were Italians. Blue-collar workers at Porsche, Daimler, Bosch, or IBM, they, too, had left behind the poverty and sheer futurelessness of Southern Italy — setting off along a genuine “path of hope,” just like Gaudino’s parents had.
His folks were probably the only two Italians in the stadium cheering for VfB Stuttgart that night. When the final whistle was blown — ending proceedings at 3–3, and thus an aggregate victory for Napoli — everyone else was celebrating. This wasn’t just a game, not just European silverware. It was also pride — and the knowledge they could walk through the factory gates the next day, heads held high.
This pride came with riscatto — redemption, but also release, or liberation. If you asked most Southerners today what this number 10 represented for them, that’s the word they’d use. Neapolitans would say ci ha levato gli schiaffi da faccia — literally, “he removed the slaps from out of our faces.” Something physically impossible, but which we should take figuratively: he liberated us from the insults we face, redeemed us, got our revenge on those who did us down.
Putting Six Past the Boss
If we did want to do that, then there was no rival greater than Juventus — and not just because it’s the Italian club with the most silverware. Juve is the property of the Agnellis, the most important family in Italy’s Northern-heavy capitalism and the owners of Turin’s FIAT (today, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles). From the 1950s onward, thousands upon thousands of Calabrians, Sicilians, and Neapolitans toiled in FIAT’s Mirafiori workshops.
On November 3, 1985, Juve came to Napoli’s San Paolo ground. The home side got a free kick in the box, with the Turin club’s wall just five meters away. The Napoli players protested to the referee, but he wouldn’t make them move back. Maradona told a teammate, “I’m gonna shoot anyway, I’ll still score.” He did.
In Diego’s years at Napoli, it often beat Juve. He himself told filmmaker Emir Kusturica what that meant to Naples: “There was the sense the South couldn’t beat the North. We played Juventus in Turin and scored six. Do you know what it means when a club from the South puts six past Agnelli!”
For many Neapolitans — for many Southerners — beating Juve meant beating the North, which in turn meant, beating the rich. Like when Napoli won the Serie A title in 1989–1990, defeating AC Milan, the club owned by a rising star of Italian capitalism called Silvio Berlusconi. Just afterward, a rather telling banner appeared in Naples: “Berlusconi, now the rich cry, too.”
Anyone who tries to grasp the reaction of the last few days by totting up goals and titles like an accountant hasn’t understood anything about Diego’s relationship with Neapolitans. Accounting was, however, what inspired Corrado Ferlaino, club president in the Maradona era. When the player known as the pibe de oro (“golden boy”) sought to organize a benefit match to support a young boy whose family couldn’t pay for a medical operation, Ferlaino angrily dismissed the idea.
Diego defied Ferlaino’s opposition — he paid the insurance money out of his own pocket and convinced his teammates to stand with him. This made sense: after all, when he had arrived at the club in July 1984, Maradona had said, “I want to become the ideal for poor kids in Naples, because they’re just like I was in Buenos Aires.” The match was played on a muddy pitch; Maradona and co warmed up in the parking lot among the cars and mopeds. Twenty million lire were raised, allowing the operation to go ahead.
This is a minor episode in the career of a sportsman — but not in the life of a man. And in Naples, the cebollita from Villa Fiorita wasn’t just Maradona, history’s greatest footballer. He was also Diego, the human being — fragile, smiling, fickle, a cocaine-addict, a womanizer, an altruist.
Diego es Pueblo
Diego Armando Maradona, as both athlete and man, was fundamentally two-sided, a walking contradiction. And the people of Naples identified with him like no other in recent history. No performer or politician has been similarly able to build such a connection with “his” (or “her”) people like Diego did.
The remarkable thing, though, is that this identification isn’t just based on actually seeing him at work. In 1991, the traces of cocaine found in his urine sample for a drug test forced him to flee the country. But the identification with Diego would hold firm, even in Neapolitans born after that date.
Doubtless, some did later witness his exploits on video or, more recently, online. But even Neapolitans who never saw him play, his “goal of the century,” the ball beneath his feet or the “hand of God” — in fact, even those who don’t understand or like football — recognize Diego as one of theirs, a symbol. Not only ultras or fans are mourning his passing today.
In his living person, as an imperfect human, irregular and rough around the edges, Diego embodied his people without ever seeking to “represent” it. But in this, he also shook off his narrowly “national” character. We saw this during the 1990 World Cup, held in Italy. In an irony of history, the semifinal setting Argentina against Italy was played at the San Paolo — “his” home ground, in front of “his” crowd.
Thousands of Neapolitans were torn — what country should they support? Most chose the nationality on their passports. But plenty chose the other side, and Diego — whether they kept it quiet, or were rather keen to boast about it. He had said before the game: “I think it’s bad taste to demand that Neapolitans have to be Italians for one evening after 364 days a year they’re treated as terroni” — the dismissive word for backward, rustic Southerners. For many, their love for the man who’d brought Naples dignity, pride, and victory came first.
Not Just Naples
Today, people across the Patria Grande — a Latin America he’d defended and earned respect on the pitch — are mourning Maradona. Forty-eight hours after his death, a mural portraying him even appeared amid the ruins of Idlib, in a Syria devastated by years of war. Around the world, people could speak to each other in the lingua franca of his name: a language that embraced his sport, his spirit of rebellion, and indeed the bluntness with which he spoke to journalists and the powerful — something which much of humanity silently wishes they could do, too.
But the outpouring of emotion in the last few days also carries a big risk, precisely because it is so unanimous. There are signs of a kind of “polishing” of Maradona’s image, idolized even by those who were in fact his constant enemies. The apparent “respect” for the recently departed also risks sneaking in a bid to normalize him, cleansing him of the elements that more “upstanding” circles consider harmful. In marginalizing or stigmatizing these bits of the story, what risks disappearing is the Diego “of the people” with all the contradictions he embodies — instead making him a kind of saintly figure, more useful for marketing and selling products.
As he told journalist Gianni Minà in a wonderful 1988 interview, this was something he’d fought right from the start of his footballing career: to take away the imperfect elements would strip him of his soul. And his was the soul of a man of the people, mighty but fallible, like the Greeks. To make him into just another statue will only embalm him and what he represented. But what we should instead keep alive is the dialectic that moved in him — his burning flame of humanity.