(Reuters) – Diego Maradona was raised in dire poverty and would always take the side of the oppressed which made Napoli, sneered at by the richer clubs from northern Italy, the perfect team for him.
Few players have had such an extraordinary influence on a club as Maradona had during his seven years with the Partenopei.
The club won their only two Serie A titles and their only major European trophy — the UEFA Cup — while he was there, but there was far more to it than those bare statistics.
Football was a very different sport in those days and Serie A, in particular, was a hostile environment for ball players such as Maradona, who died on Wednesday aged 60.
Defensive tactics and gamesmanship were the order of the day and the likes of Maradona were subjected to vicious treatment by defenders, who were allowed to hack lumps out of them with impunity.
It was against this backdrop that Maradona scored 115 goals for Napoli, including many of the best ever seen in Serie A, and set a club record which has only recently been overtaken.
Other players, such as Francesco Totti, who spent his entire 25-year career at AS Roma, and Lionel Messi, who has only ever played for Barcelona, also have remarkable ties to clubs, but nothing quite matches Maradona and Napoli.
The city, which suffered from unemployment, poor sanitation, poverty and organised crime and Maradona, with his own tough upbringing, immediately identified with each other.
When Maradona was flown in by helicopter for his official presentation, 75,000 people packed into the stadium to see him and one newspaper said that none of the city’s problems matter “because we have Maradona”.
“Naples was a crazy city – they were as crazy as me – soccer was life itself,” Maradona, who had previously been at Barcelona, once said.
“A lot of things reminded me of my origins. There had been hunger strikes and people had chained themselves to the fence at San Paolo stadium, begging me to come. How could I let them down?”
Together, Maradona and Napoli conquered the northern teams such as Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan, seen as the aristocratic establishment of Italian football, and briefly turned Serie A on its head.
The celebrations which followed their Serie A title win in 1987 brought the city to a standstill.
“I know all the problems they have. These people make sacrifices to buy the ticket. They are always there, always there. That made me identify with them from the first day,” said Maradona.
“They believed in me, they gave me everything without knowing me and that cannot be forgotten.”
When Maradona’s Argentina met Italy in Naples at the 1990 World Cup, some of the home fans did the unthinkable and cheered for the South Americans.
Local politicians fell over themselves to be photographed with him and even today, paintings of Maradona still adorn walls around the city.
It was not all bliss, however. A 2019 documentary film chronicled his wild Naples years when he became addicted to cocaine and partying.
He had a son whom he only recognised after an Italian court ordered him to pay maintenance and he was pursued by the local tax authorities over unpaid arrears for years after his departure. But that is not how he will be remembered.
“Maradona is a God to the people of Naples. Maradona changed history,” said Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro.
“In 80 years, we had always suffered, fighting against relegation, yet in seven seasons with him we won two leagues, a UEFA Cup… I’m a fan too and to live those years with Maradona was incredible.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Toby Davis)