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Maradona answers Naples' prayers

If Napoli defeat Milan at San Siro on Monday night then they will move joint top of Serie A to increase the belief that they could be on course for a first league title in 21 years. Their only two previous triumphs came in the space of four seasons, thanks to the genius of Diego Maradona, who ascended to the level of living god thanks to his performances in Naples.

Lionel Messi will obliterate Diego Maradona's goalscoring feats at club level. His trophy cabinet will dwarf that of the man who preceded him as the greatest Argentinean player of an era. But when his career comes to a close, will there be a nagging voice that screams, 'yes, but he did it all with the best club side of a generation'?

In contrast, Maradona's greatest achievements in the club game came at a team with no legacy of success, in a deprived area in the south of Italy, not a cultural capital in Catalunya. In the years either side of his spell with Napoli, the club have won a grand total of zero national titles. In the space of four years between 1987 and 1990, Maradona inspired them to two. He became a socio-cultural force in Naples, a focus for intense pride and a near-religious icon.

In transforming Napoli into Italy's pre-eminent side, Maradona transcended football and entered the realms of deity. For all of Messi's ability, the heir to Maradona's throne is yet to inspire that kind of fervour, or completely transform a club.

Born into poverty and raised in Buenos Aires, Maradona rose to prominence with Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors, before completing a world record £5 million move to Barcelona in 1982. His time in Spain was marked by frustration though, particularly in his second season when he suffered a serious injury following a tackle from Andoni Goikoetxea, 'The Butcher of Bilbao', and was then embroiled in a disgraceful fracas when Barca met Athletic Bilbao again. With Terry Venables arriving as their new coach, Barca were ready to let Maradona go, but few could have anticipated where he would move to.

Defying expectation, Napoli, a club who had won only two Coppa Italia titles and had battled relegation for three successive seasons, made an audacious attempt to sign the best player in the world. News of Maradona's potential arrival was greeted like the Second Coming: before he had even signed, some Neapolitans had already written his name on ballot papers for the European elections; bonfire vigils were held and people were heard to chant "Maradona or death" in the streets.

Local politician Vincenzo Scotti exploited his connections to convince four banks to loan Napoli the record £7 million transfer fee, declaring of the downtrodden Naples: "It is time that this city stops suffering, at least in the stadium". An impoverished citizenry felt a jubilant release of euphoria when, after 43 days of talks, it was announced that Maradona would be walking amongst them. Supporters reacted by leaping into the sea and setting off fireworks. It was not the last time he would provoke such a reaction.

As many as 90,000 attended Maradona's presentation at Stadio San Paolo. Pibe d'Oro (the Golden Boy) had made quite the impression on his new public, and already the arrival of this football prophet was seen to be encroaching into God's realm. Jesuit theologian Father Armando Guidetti even described the reaction to Maradona's arrival as "unreasonable". A new religion was in town.

The unexpected turn of events that had seen a neglected area of Italy suddenly become the centre of the football universe was not lost on one local newspaper, which wrote: "We have no mayor, housing, schools, employment, buses, sanitation, money or ideas, but we have got Maradona".

His arrival sparked an upturn in form as Napoli finished eighth in his first season and third in his second. However, Napoli's greatest feat would come in the 1986-87 campaign as their saviour inspired them to the domestic Double.

Though the club boasted Ciro Ferrara in defence, Fernando Di Napoli in midfield and Bruno Giordano in attack, there was little doubt as to who the star of Ottavio Bianchi's side was. With his mesmerising dribbling ability and wonderful imagination, Maradona was nigh on untouchable. Such was the reverence with which he was treated in Naples, in the build up to the decisive game against Fiorentina on May 10, a prayer appeared in shops over the city. "Our Maradona, who takes the field," it read, "blessed be thy name, thy kingdom is Napoli, lead us not into disappointment, but deliver unto us the championship. Amen". Perceptions of Maradona were now being expressed in overtly religious overtones.

Naples' prayers were answered. Andrea Carnevale scored for the Partenopei, and while a young forward by the name of Roberto Baggio bagged his first league goal for Fiorentina to ensure the game finished in a 1-1 draw, Napoli claimed their first Scudetto success. The man of the hour declared: "Maradona didn't do this. God did it". But England fans had heard a similar refrain at the World Cup finals 12 months previously. This, yet again, was Maradona's own work.

Napoli's maiden Scudetto success was an immense source of pride, and prolonged street parties and intense celebrations marked the feat. Famously, as John Foot recounts in Calcio: a history of Italian football, one supporter sprayed graffiti on the wall of the local graveyard that read: Guagliu! E Ch eve sit pers! ('You don't know what you are missing'). A city and region of Italy marginalised and demonised by their northern compatriots had broken the stranglehold imposed by the industrial powerhouses of Milan and Turin and, for the first time, a mainland team from the south were champions.

The famous victory only accelerated the cult of personality that had grown around Maradona as floats were constructed in his honour, murals painted and, in one district of Naples, 25% of new-born boys took the name Diego. With his humble beginnings and rebellious character, Maradona had been adopted as a son of the city.

But behind the angelic reputation lurked devilish behaviour. A cocaine user since his Barcelona days, Maradona's reputed exposure to the local mafia, the Camorra, was a matter of some consternation, and although his club shielded him from doping tests, it was alleged Napoli also had their star player monitored by private detectives. His drug use went unchecked, as did his proclivity for nocturnal activities, but these damaging professional traits were perceived as mere idiosyncrasies for a sporting genius, who was tolerated by a club that needed his inspiration on the pitch.

Napoli finished second in the 1987-88 season and then triumphed in the UEFA Cup the following year with a two-legged victory over Stuttgart. By this point, 1986 World Cup star Careca had joined Maradona and Giordano in a frontline that was christened 'Ma-Gi-Ca'. Under coach Alberto Bigon, Napoli had also brought through a talented, but tiny young forward by the name of Gianfranco Zola, nicknamed MaraZola.

But Zola's mentor had shown little inclination to start the 1989-90 season with Napoli, and had even threatened to "throw his contract" at president Corrado Ferlaino after being denied a move to Marseille. Having cancelled no less than 34 flights, he finally returned from Argentina after missing the first four games of the season, and further controversy would follow in October when he failed to appear for two training sessions and was dropped for a UEFA Cup tie against Wettingen - describing the club's decision to exclude him as the "final rift".

Indeed, Maradona's dangerous unpredictability continued as he claimed the draw for the World Cup finals to be held in Italy had been rigged, leading FIFA to comment: "What Maradona said is the most stupid declaration of the Eighties by a football player". Given that only two years previously Ian Rush had reportedly complained that he struggled to adapt to life with Juventus as Italy "was like living in a foreign country", it was quite the denunciation.

But amid the drug abuse, the scandal and the controversy, Maradona was still capable of sublime football. His excesses were forgiven by an adoring public and, once again, Napoli became champions, beating Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan side into second place. Sacchi admitted: "Napoli could have hardly won the Italian title without Maradona".

Once again, Maradona had brought an eruption of joy to the streets of Naples. In the following days, the city partied hard and they did so in the image of their walking deity. One banner, displayed during the title-clinching win over Lazio, summed up the fervour that Maradona had engendered amongst the population as it read: "The immensity of the heavens is not enough to explain the love we have for you".

No amount of controversy could ever shake that faith in a man who lifted the spirits of an entire city.

What happened next? Maradona further antagonised the northern powers at the World Cup when calling on the citizens of Naples to support Argentina instead of Italy when the two countries met in the city in the semi-finals. Argentina won that game, but were defeated by Germany in the final. Maradona returned to Napoli but finally failed a drugs test in March 1991. He received a 15-month ban and would never play for the club again.


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