Diego, unique and immense love
If the world is weeping for the greatest player of all time
Napoli tonight is celebrating a son, a friend, a father, and a brother.
Diego, unique and immense love
The Champion, the Fuoriclasse, the Idol, the King, the inimitable Genius of the Azzurro Universe who has given us the gift of an eternal dream.
Thank you for the emotions, for the happiness, the splendor, for your enormous heart that will never stop beating.
You took off once again to become part of Legend.
You’ve defeated death to be consecrated into mythology. And now, Diego, take us with you once again to Heaven.
This is your land, this is your home, this is your people, these are your people.
Diego, unique and immense love. Napoli will love you forever!
These were the words with which SSC Napoli bid farewell to Diego Maradona on their Instagram account. Among the many eulogies that have been penned since his passing, this one stood out to me the most. In the age of social media where the passing and mourning of celebrities happens in public, this might seem par for the course to most. When players pass away a social media post from their former club is one of the things we now expect, and a cursory glance at the accounts of Boca Juniors, FCs Barcelona and Sevilla, Newell’s Old Boys, and the Argentinian national team would quickly confirm that. But something about this particular post feels different from the others. While it wouldn’t be the place of an outsider to make any kind of definitive statement about one team’s statement being more heartfelt than others, this particular post certainly gave some insight into the unique nature of the relationship between Maradona and Napoli.
There are a number of players in recent memory who have become indissociable with a particular club. Francesco Totti at Roma, Paolo Maldini with Milan, Raul at Madrid, and Steven Gerrard with Liverpool are a few examples that come to mind. These players have the common trait of having spent the major part, if not the entirety of their careers playing for one team with which they experienced great success. Another thing they have in common is that they’re all sons of the house. They’re all born and bred fans of the teams whose colours they represented. Of course we also have examples of foreign players coming in and becoming emblematic figures at their club as well, Johann Cruyff and Javier Zanetti come to mind as such examples of players arriving at a club and departing as mythical figures. Nevertheless the overarching trend is that the players and clubs mentioned above are more often than not “alike in dignity” or at the very least on corresponding trajectories. Whether it’s a well established club and a household name coming together to further enhance their good fortunes, or an aging powerhouse betting on an exciting young prospect to reverse their decline, there is usually some coherence in the narratives we see unfold in the big transfer sagas.
Maradona’s relationship with Napoli is unique in world football in that at its onset player and club did not exist in the same stratosphere. His move from Barcelona to Napoli for the then world record transfer fee still remains unprecedented. To call this transfer a step down would’ve been grossly understating it. The closest we could get to a shift of this order of magnitude in today’s game would be if Neymar or Mbappé, maybe both, were to leave PSG to join Brighton then proceed to carry them to two premier league titles ahead of the reigning powerhouses Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchesters City and Utd, while also bagging a Europa League for good measure, and leading their respective national teams to consecutive world cup finals in their spare time (all the while balancing a Class A substance addiction dutifully sponsored by one of Europe’s premier crime syndicates). In other words, it was simply unimaginable. Maradona was coming from an “unsuccessful” two-season spell in Barcelona where he managed 58 appearances while scoring only 38 goals and winning a measly Copa del Rey. He also had the indecency to suffer a bout of hepatitis and a nearly career-ending injury. So while his stock wasn’t at its highest, he was still at 23 years old one of if not the most exciting prospect in world football with his best years still clearly ahead of him, and the move to such a struggling club was seen by most at the time as throwing his career away. Yet not only was it not a sporting disaster, it turned out to be a match made in heaven that set the fires in hell.
For a bit of context, Napoli is a coastal city in southern Italy lying at the foot of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, frequently rocked by devastating earthquakes and marred by poverty and organised crime. It’s loud, it’s chaotic, and it’s not the obvious destination for a down on their luck Wunderkind from the barrios of Buenos Aires trying to recapture their form. Furthermore when we considered the kind of rugged defensive-minded football for which the Italian Serie A was renowned at the time, it seemed to be the kind of place far likelier to break a career than make one… Maradona and Napoli got on like a house on fire. He arrived a star, and there he became a bona fide deity. His own exuberance, geniality, and passion on and off the pitch were met by that of the Neapolitans. For better and for worse, club and city alike took all he could give them and returned everything they had to offer. His “me against the world” mentality made him a perfect fit amongst a people, a city, and a club, caught at the wrong end of a North-South cultural divide that exists in Italian society. Asif Kapadia, the British filmmaker at the helm of Maradona’s eponymous 2019 documentary, described Maradona as a Neapolitan who found his way home; “a troubled, charismatic man who landed in a troubled, charismatic city.”
Given all this talk of cultural fit, anyone unfamiliar with the man’s story could be reasonably led to believe that until his arrival in Napoli Maradona had been some kind errant king without a kingdom. Yet the remarkably ironic part is that Maradona didn’t even really need to succeed abroad to become his homeland’s favourite son. His precocious talent as a footballer put him in the public eye at a young age, and from his teenage years onward he was a regular fixture in Argentina’s cultural landscape. His rags to riches story, his Guaraní heritage, his craftiness and street smart, and of course his otherworldly football skills (in a country mad about the sport) are all things that would contribute to him being considered the most broad-chested full-blooded expression of “argentinidad.” He was the child prodigy they got to see grow into a golden boy, who delivered on all his promise and then some. In a society that was continuously unsettled by some form of conflict, economic, class, military, he was a man who brought unanimous agreement in a quasi-messianic fashion. The saying goes that a prophet is without honour in his homeland, but that saying clearly doesn’t apply to everyone. While a lucky few might get to find a place that embraces them in a way their home never does, beloved by Albiceleste and Azzurri alike, Maradona was a prophet of two homelands and received the highest honours in both.