Maradona brings success to Napoli
Napoli's rise to prominence can be traced back to 1984 when President Corrado Ferlaino paid a record sum to bring Diego Armando Maradona to the Southern Italian club. The Argentine would single-handedly lift the Neapolitans to two Serie A title in three years, the first of which came under the reign of Ottavio Bianchi in 1987.
In the two decades before the 1984 arrival of Diego Armando Maradona at Napoli, the club had won just a handful of titles: the most notable of which were the two Coppa Italia successes in 1962 and 1976. On the back of the multi-million investment of businessman and politician Achille Lauro in the 1950s, they had brought the likes of Luis Vinicio (1955-60), Jose Altafani (1965-72) and Dino Zoff (1967-72) to Naples and had built up a huge fan-base without making much of an impression on the trophy front.
The addition of former Ajax star Ruud Krol for a four-year stint in 1980 was another sign of the club's ambition under President Corrado Ferlaino, but having reached the heights of fourth place in 1981-82, Napoli's decline in Italy's Serie A saw them slip into a relegation battle in the following years.
Doing enough to keep their place in the top flight, Napoli needed something to spur them into action. Rebuilding of the squad saw investment into the talents of tough defender Ciro Ferrara (from the youth team) and the arrival of such players as Simone Boldini, Salvatore Bagni, Walter de Vecchi, Domenico Penzo and Daniel Bertoni.
But in the summer of 1984, Ferlaino bucked the recent trend by throwing an unprecedented amount of money at one single player in a bid to get the side back in contention for the title. The arrival of a 24-year-old Maradona from Barcelona for a record £6.9 million fee (aided by local politician Vincezo Scoti, who used his connections with Italy's banks to get Napoli a loan) would prove the just catalyst that Naples needed and 75,000 fans queued for hours and paid 1,000 lira for the privilege to see the Argentine, who was already well on the way to becoming a legend, juggle a few balls.
"It was enough," wrote historian David Goldblatt. "They [the fans] were convinced that the saviour had arrived." One newspaper even made it clear that despite the lack of a "mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona."
With North-South tensions in Italy at a peak due to a variety of issues, not least the economic differences between the two, journalist Ciaran Kelly wrote that the Argentine "perfectly represented the South's socio-economic status with his humble origins" and 60,000 season tickets were sold ahead of his first season. But while "a season embellished and defined by Maradona's goals, assists and energy" saw them finish eighth, the unlikely Scudetto claimed by Northern rivals Hellas Verona in 1985 was the spark that started the Neapolitans' fire.
In 1985-86, Napoli would finish third; the champions, a lowly tenth. The tables had turned and Maradona was the key, although he was ably backed up by the additions of Alessandro Renica and Bruno Giordano and the installation of a new coach: Ottavio Bianchi.
Bianchi had played over 100 times for the club in the '60s, and learnt a lot from his first season in charge of the club. "It would be a mistake to deploy Maradona in a merely tactical position," he revealed. "He must be left to express himself as best he can. He must be allowed to show his class, his characteristics. It's up to us to create a concrete block around him, to highlight these qualities."
Relieved of the duties of fighting for possession in midfield, Maradona was set loose on the attack. It was an approach that allowed the Argentine to maintain his fitness levels throughout the season and he became the focal point through which every move went - scoring 31 goals in 60 games for Napoli in his first two years at the club.
The summer of 1986 was an important moment, both for Napoli and Maradona. Before the World Cup in Mexico, Ferlaino and the star player put their heads together for the benefit of their club; as Kelly wrote: "Working in tandem with Bianchi, the trio put together a shortlist of domestic-based players that could give Napoli that final touch of creativity and prolificacy that they had over-relied on Maradona for."
While Maradona single-handedly lifted Argentina to the title - with five goals and five assists, while also propelling himself into the annals of history with his two-goal performance in the quarter-finals against England; one goal viewed as "Goal of the Century", the other 'Hand of God' surely the most controversial of all-time - Napoli were working on a plan to challenge for the Scudetto and brought in defender Tebaldo Bigliardi, alongside attacking trio Fernando de Napoli, Francesco Romano and Andrea Carnevale.
The following season, the result was similar to that of Jorge Valdano and Jorge Burruchaga's understanding with the No. 10 for Argentina and, clinched with a penultimate fixture draw with Fiorentina, Maradona's 17 goals in 41 games led the side to the Serie A title; the first time that a team from the South had ever lifted it.
"The celebrations were tumultuous," wrote Goldblatt. "A rolling series of impromptu street parties and festivities broke out contagiously across the city in a round-the-clock carnival which ran for over a week. The world was turned upside down. The Neapolitans held mock funerals for Juventus and Milan, burning their coffins, their death notices announcing 'May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated. A new empire is born.' Derided by the northerners as donkeys, they now dressed as one, dragging Lombard and Tuscan devils by their tails through the gutters of the city.
"Urban myth flourished and circulated in ascending spirals of every more ludicrous connectivities: the victory had been preceded by the number 43, Maradona's number, coming up in the city lottery; and it came up again the following week alongside 61, the number of years Napoli had been waiting to win Serie A. Murals were painted of the divine one on the city's ancient tenements in the guise and even the arms of the city's patron saint San Gennaro. Children born or conceived in the moment were named in his honour."
The Scudetto win was not the final piece of the Napoli puzzle in 1987 and they made it a famous double with a 4-0 Coppa Italia victory over Atalanta. Maradona would later say: "Napoli's great asset lies in the fact that they have gathered together some excellent players." However, without their main attraction, their success would never have been possible.
What happened next? The following year saw the arrival of Brazilian striker Careca and Maradona's 21 goals in 39 matches put Napoli in contention for the Scudetto once more, but a late season slump (which has since been rumoured to have been caused by a betting scandal) saw Milan pip them to the post. In 1988-89, Napoli would finish second in the league behind Inter, but defeated the likes of Juventus, Stuttgart and Bayern Munich on the way to winning the 1989 UEFA Cup. Maradona's love affair with Naples turned sour after falling out with Ferlaino, but he was still able to lead the club to another Serie A title success in 1989-90 with 18 goals in 36 games. He eventually left Napoli in 1992 under a cloud of cocaine abuse, mob stories and bans for misconduct, but also as one of the most influential and inspiring footballers of all-time.