Naples is one of Italy’s poorest cities, with a per capita GDP only half that of northern Italian economic centers like Milan and Turin. Though it was a capital city of three successive empires from the mid-seventh century until the early 1800s, Naples declined after Italian unification in 1861, leading to a great migration of people from the city and surrounding towns to America. Even as many of those immigrants and their children thrived, Naples remained poor, victimized by organized crime and corrupt government and looked down upon by the rest of Italy. For years, some soccer teams in the north would even refuse to sell tickets to fans from the south because they preferred not to have this rougher element in their stadiums.
Still, for all its want, Naples had one thing those teams from the north never did: Diego Maradona. In 1984, SSC Napoli, representing one of Western Europe’s poorest cities, bought the world’s most expensive soccer player, transforming a regional team that had never won an Italian league title into one of the most followed clubs in the world’s most popular sport. Some 75,000 people jammed the Stadio San Paolo on the day Maradona arrived—not to watch him play but simply to get a glimpse of the man with magical feet. Over the next six years, Maradona, who died last week at 60, brought hope, and then triumph, to Naples, helping the team win two Italian titles against rich teams from Milan and Turin, as well as the European club championship. He became a cult figure in the city, his image everywhere, because he brought Naples a kind of attention and respect that it had never enjoyed—and the envy of those in the north. A product of a squalid Buenos Aires barrio who understood what it meant to come from a place of outsiders, Maradona said of his time in Naples, “I feel like I represented a part of Italy that didn’t count for anything.”
Sports can accomplish a unique form of urban uplift that you won’t find in any city planning manual. I saw it in Pittsburgh during the 1970s, when a powerful Steelers team brought joy to a city that was watching its major industry disappear. Of the many accomplishments of LeBron James’s career, perhaps the most important was his decision to return to Cleveland and finally bring that city a championship, after decades of futility and abandonment by its sports teams. It’s a phenomenon so improbable that those who are not fans cannot understand and often dismiss it.
Even today, some Neapolitans think Maradona was a gift to the city that was too much for the rest of Italy to bear. He was eventually chased out of Italy after the 1990 World Cup, when he urged Neapolitans to cheer for his Argentina team and not an Italian team stocked with players from teams in the north. Subjected to a drug test by Italian officials after the tournament, he was banned for failing it and left Naples.
His legacy didn’t die there, however. Though he lay in state in Argentina after his death for having brought that country a coveted World Cup title, he has been mourned intensely in Naples. Thousands of fans gathered Thursday night outside the San Paolo, some wearing Covid masks emblazoned with his image, lighting flares, waving tribute banners that fans still carry to every game, and singing “Diego, Diego.”
Even now, Maradona is sometimes referred to in Naples as Il dio—an expression of how seriously the area takes its soccer. Bereft of much, Naples is a place of religion, where the Cardinal typically shows up at the training camp during preseason to bless the team, and priests end masses during the season with the blessing, Nel nome del padre, del figlio, dello spirito santo, e forza Napoli! Not surprisingly, the city has decided to rename its Stadio San Paolo after Maradona, swapping one figure of devotion for another.
Some find this adulation inappropriate because Maradona, like many great sports figures, was a flawed man. He consorted with mobsters, became addicted to cocaine, and could be a difficult friend, father, and husband. In an age before professional sports teams employed security personnel to protect their players, this kid from the barrio blundered his way through life everywhere—except on the field. Why we celebrate figures like this, even in an age of cancel culture, is best expressed by an Argentinian journalist who said of Maradona, “What do I care about what Diego did with his life? I care what he did with mine.”
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