The sore heads of the Neapolitans were only starting to clear when the team completed their first Italian double when they clinically and professionally dispatched Atalanta 4-0 in the Coppa Italia final. In less than twelve months Maradona had won the World Cup in Mexico and then came back to domestic duties and proving to be a major part of the fairy tale in usurping the mighty North of Italy as part of the
Napoli team who performed the unthinkable by bringing the Serie A title to the South. An instant and eternal hero in the eyes of the Neapolitans this was, for Maradona, every inch the experience he was looking for when he came from South America and the polar opposite of his time in Spain. The accepted view is that it was Maradona who personally won both competitions for his team mates but that is only a half truth. It’s beyond doubt that he was the prime reason for Argentina’s second World Cup win in Mexico. It was an Argentina side completely bereft of the myriad of superstars that we come to expect from such a footballing superpower and without Maradona in the side they would never have gotten anywhere near the final. Napoli however were a different prospect. Yes, the side was built around Maradona and the tactical philosophies set out to get the optimum use out of their star player but well, that’s just common sense right?
Minus him that season a Scudetto would have been the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen, it almost still was with him IN the side considering the state of the team pre Maradona. It wasn’t just about him in that Napoli side of 86/87 though. Ciro Ferrara in his breakthrough season was a rock at the back while the exciting and talented Andrea Carnavale and Fernando De Napoli were as much responsible for Napoli getting over the finishing line as much as the mercurial Argentine. Unlike the atmosphere at the Camp Nou, Maradona found no jealousy between players. He was the undoubted big fish in the obligatory small pond but his team mates loved and adored him because they knew what he brought to the team, what he could help each and every player achieve personally and together. After the double that season, a city that was already smitten with him had now fallen head over heels for their new sporting and cultural hero. The man was a complete god in the eyes of the adoring Naples public. Diego Maradona, the man who helped the region stick two fingers up at their Northern rivals. It was a match made in heaven for Maradona and the city of Naples, it was perfect.
Away from the football field, the words perfect and Maradona have never been ones that you’ll have seen many times together and his time in Naples was no exception, this could be considered a bit of an understatement. Throughout what will go down as the most successful year of football in his career, his cocaine use was spiralling out of control. When arriving at Naples a whole new world of contacts was being made open to him, some members of the local camorra with, what was revealed years later, as limitless supplies of cocaine and prostitutes. The mistakes that Maradona made in Barcelona he was making all over again in Naples. The hordes of hangers on who were dining out on his wealth, the manipulative advisers and then the cocaine habit. All factors in him getting dangerously close to self destructing. On the field? You’d never have guessed it as for Napoli, out to retain the Scudetto, THEIR Scudetto it was a case of business as usual, maintaining their title winning form into the new campaign. By the end of February, and the team winning their seventh league match on the spin, it appeared that they were in danger of leaving all challengers in their wake. Nothing could stop them.
Then came the warnings from the local mafia to the Napoli squad. With the team looking relentless in their pursuit of the title, this had left the organised crime gangs of Naples with hundreds of billions of liras’s worth of problems due to the underground black betting lines that they run. With so many Neopolitans having placed bets on Napoli to win the Scudetto once more, the camorra stood to take a major hit. And as you would expect from a criminal organisation such as the mafia to react to that, it was a provactive response. Of sorts. Personal threats were issued to the players in a variation of ways. Salvatore Bagni was beaten up while Maradona had his car smashed up. Eventually the whole of the squad had received threats in some way or other, the message was clear to all. Throw the title. And in what would immediately signal the end of the miracle of Naples, they obliged. With 5 games left to play, Napoli were four points clear of the Milan of Rijkaard, Van Basten and Gullit. With this still being in the era of two points for a win this was a significant cushion that Napoli had over their closest challengers for a side who had sat at the top of the league since the opening day and had only lost two games all season with five left to play. After the remaining five matches had been played Napoli had only taken one point out of a possible ten and the title was heading back north after its one season in Naples.
Sure the title had been lost but, as has now come to light in recent allegations from ex camorra member Pietro Pugilese who has turned State’s evidence after admitting to a number of murders while working for his crime family, that the squad were repaid for their compliance with a string of rewards. Such as, orgies on yachts, access to drugs and high class escorts, a notoriously wild night at an exclusive disco as well as personal dinners with high ranking mafia members. During Maradona’s time at the San Paolo, Napoli were “ allowed “ to win the Scudetto one more time. This title win, coming in the 89/90 season was equally as controversial as their “ collapse “ at the end of the 87/88 one and was a title that it appeared dark forces were at work once more in influencing outcomes of Seria A fixtures. With Napoli and Milan level on points with 2 games remaining Milan lost 2-1 against second from bottom Verona. In what Paolo Maldini called the most controversial of his career. Milan saw Rijkaard, Van Basten and Costacurta all red carded. Coach, Arrigo Sacchi sent to the stands for disputing a clear penalty award on Marco Van Basten and Verona’s winning goal being scored from an offside position. A crucial blow to Milan’s title aspirations in a match that they were never meant to win. Napoli took full advantage of the Rossonerri’s slip up and getting their noses in front went on to clinch their second title. Cue wild celebrations once more, the kind to rival the week long party that took place in 1987.
Apart from title celebration on board the liner Achille Lauro that has become the stuff of legends, Maradona, as well as some of his team mates had little time to party before all joining up with their respective international squads, this was World Cup year. With the Copa Mundial being held in Italy they didn’t exactly have far to travel. An uninspiring dogged Argentina made it to the final for the second tournament in a row, however, this time they were to go down 1-0 to the reunified Germany. It was the semi final, however, that was to prove one of the defining moments with regards to Maradona’s departure from Naples. As fate usually decides in football Maradona was to go up against Italy, in his second home of Naples. He was to try and use this fact to his advantage, launching a charm offensive on the Naples public in an attempt to divide the predictable noisy Italian support in the Stadium for the semi final. Reminding all of the Neapolitans that in the past they have regularly been referred to as foreigners by the industrial and political powers in the north. ‘Neapolitans need to remember that Italy makes it important for one day a year but forgets about it the other 364’ Maradona said in a pre match press conference in one last effort to help give his Argentina a helping hand in the semi final.
As much as the city loved the man he was asking for too much and if he needed an answer as to which team the locals would support he got it when he walked out onto the San Paolo pitch to see a flag hanging from the Napoli’s tifosi’s traditional Curva Nord end of the stadium saying ‘ Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland.’ Despite siding with their own country, the Naples public DID pay Diego some respect in the sense that for the first time in this World Cup Argentina’s national anthem wasn’t booed by the Italian public. The match itself was an unremarkable 1-1 draw which saw both teams go the distance all the way to penalty kicks. Once again, fate would play its part resulting in Argentina winning the penalty shootout 4-3 with Maradona, who else? scoring the winning penalty to break Italian hearts all across the country. Italy were one penalty shootout away from a World Cup final on home soil in Rome and the little Argentine from Naples had snatched it away from them. With a final to look forward to Maradona had other things to think about but the semi final defeat of Italy was to prove the pivotal moment where his time in Naples was about to turn sour.
The warning signs were there in the previous seasons leading up to the World Cup. Through Maradona’s partying, drug addiction and unsavoury links to the camorra it was starting to affect his performances with Napoli in training and in matches. Due to his sublime talent, it was largely easy to mask his dip in performance but you can’t fool all the people all the time as a wise man with dreadlocks once said. He was regularly fined for missing training sessions but the fact that they reclaimed the Scudetto at the end of the 89/90 season papered over the cracks that were forming. Being seen as the player who knocked Italy out of the World Cup simply opened up those cracks once more leading to him not even seeing out 2 more seasons in Serie A. His cocaine addiction eventually catching up with him when he failed a drug test in 1991 resulting in a 15 month suspension from football and him leaving Naples in disgrace. Time heals and absence makes the heart grow fonder though and even today, he can’t walk the streets of Naples without it resulting in some kind of Beatles mania scenes.