May 24, 2024

Discover Naples’ obsession with football legend Diego Maradona

Naples is nothing if not a quirky city. From its language (Neapolitan, not Italian), its food, its people, its dysfunction, its corruption, its pride – these are all part of what make Naples such a fascinating place. It’s one of my personal favorite cities to visit.

A defining characteristic of Naples is its obsession with Argentinian football legend, Diego Maradona (we’re talking about soccer, for any American readers). Spend ten minutes in the unofficial capital of southern Italy, and you’ll see his likeness no less than five times. His face on every-other wall. Jerseys. Murals. Shrines. Nativity figures. Songs.

If you want to understand a bit about Naples just from one piece of history, the story of Maradona is the perfect sample. His arrival to SSC Napoli, his performance, his impact on the city, and his enduring legacy – it goes beyond just a great athlete.

 

  1. A Backdrop of Naples
  2. Who was Diego Maradona?
  3. Maradona’s impact on Naples
  4. Where to go to understand more about Maradona in Naples

 

A Backdrop of Naples

Maradona-mania makes no sense without first knowing a bit of background about Naples itself.

Since its founding in the 8th century BC, Naples fell under the rule of many, including Greek, Roman, and Spanish. It was a cultural and commercial powerhouse.

After Italy unified as a nation in 1861, growth and industrialization continued, but as northern Italy became more industrialized and prosperous than the south, a wealth disparity grew. The city of Naples, being the most-bombed Italian city during World War II, suffered even more. Additionally, government policies that primarily catered to the north worsened the situation. As economic opportunities declined, mafia influence increased. Consequently, by the 1980s Naples was not in a good way – and strong outside prejudices had developed.

Where the rubber meets the road in terms of cultural differences is during football matches. During away matches in the north, SSC Napoli and its fans would be greeted with signs reading “welcome to Italy” and “Vesuvius, wash them in fire” and chants labeling Naples as “the sewer of Italy.” Unfortunately, many of these prejudices persist to this day, and even high profile Italian politicians in the last decade have spoken of Naples this way.

So imagine the city you were born and raised in had spent decades being kicked while it was down, not to mention your football team had historically less-than-stellar performance.

 

Who was Diego Maradona?

Born just south of Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1960, Diego Maradona began playing professionally at 16 years old. He was quickly recognized for his stellar talent for passing, dribbling, ball control, and ultimately – scoring goals. He eventually made his way to FC Barcelona for a world record-setting transfer fee, where he played from 1982 to 1984. He left Barcelona after just two seasons, joining SSC Napoli in 1984, for yet another world record transfer fee.

Maradona himself being raised in a poor part of Buenos Aires and having dealt with his own share of prejudice being a darker-skinned, poor Argentinian, he could identify with the city of Naples. It couldn’t have been a better fit.

Separating the player from the man, on a personal level Maradona was not someone I would personally consider a role model. I’ll save the heavy criticism for my own blog so Hostelworld doesn’t get a herd of Maradona fans coming after them. In short – it took me a while to understand why the people of Naples idolized Maradona despite his many character flaws. To be fair, take someone who grew up with nothing and then give them millions of dollars and treat them like a god, and defects will emerge.

 

Maradona’s impact on the city of Naples

When news broke of Maradona’s arrival in Napoli, his reputation as a star player was well known, and the city saw it as a massive opportunity to put themselves back on the map. The anticipation of Maradona’s arrival in Naples turned into a religious ferver. We’re talkin’ families crying tears of joy around the dinner table. A type of energy that makes an Ed Sheeran tour announcement look like amateur hour.

While with Napoli, Maradona helped lead the team to their first Serie A victory, then their second three years later. Then, a Coppa Italia victory in 1987. Then the UEFA Cup title in 1989. In the 1987-88 season, he was the all time leading goal-scorer for Napoli.

Outside of Napoli, another noteworthy event during Maradona’s career was during the 1986 FIFA World Cup with Argentina vs England. During the game, Maradona scored a goal using his hand next to his head – which the referee didn’t see – thus the goal was considered legitimate, much to the dismay of England. Needless to say, this “Hand of God” goal as it came to be known was very controversial, but Argentina won regardless. The jersey Maradona wore during that match was sold in 2022 for over £7 million.

After Maradona’s rocky departure from Napoli in 1992, SSC Napoli fell into a slump. While it would see a few more Coppa Italia titles, Napoli didn’t see its next Serie A title until 2023.

Side note: Paired with Argentina’s World Cup win against France, 2023 was a big year for football celebration in the city of Naples, which now felt a connection with Argentina thanks to Maradona (also because of the strong Italian population in Argentina). If you go to Naples anytime after May 2023, you’ll see a ratcheted-up version of Napoli pride.

Regardless of his not-so-smooth departure from Naples as a result of his drug abuse, because of his accomplishments and what he brought to Napoli, Maradona is now seen not as a saint, but a god. He fully revitalized the Naples spirit, and gave them something to be proud of. Any faults could be overlooked, because he gave Naples Serie A wins – one of Italy’s most valuable currencies.

 

Where to go to understand more about Diego Maradona

1. Murales Maradona

If you only have time to see one piece of Maradona-mania, it’s the Muralas Maradona in the Quartieri Spagnoli of Naples. The Spanish Quarters (in English) were previously the dwelling of the Spanish quarters when Naples was under Spanish rule during the 16th and 17th century. Now, the Quartieri is packed with residents, small shops, restaurants, and more Vespas than should be legally allowed in a neighborhood. The Murales Maradona is on a corner of the Quartieri, and it’s essentially an open-air museum for Diego Maradona. It’s complete with wall murals, merchandise, shrines, and seemingly endless memorabilia.

2. Bar Nilo

Located in the historical center right on Spaccanapoli (the road that splits Naples), Bar Nilo is a traditional Italian bar with a – you guessed it – Diego Maradona theme. To call it a theme is an understatement. It’s full of memorabilia – old photos, newspaper clippings, and to top it off even a few locks of [allegedly] Maradona’s hair.

3. Stadium – go to a game

If you want to see Maradona-fueled Napoli fandom at its peak, go see a SSC Napoli game at Stadio San Paolo (renamed Stadio Diego Armando Maradona after his death in 2020). Tickets usually go on sale 7 – 10 days before a match, and getting them is not the most straightforward. If you really want to go, I suggest checking out the SSC Napoli subreddit for resources and tips.

4. Via San Gregorio Armeno a.k.a. “Christmas Alley”

This famous street is full of small shops with artisans who build and sell nativity figures year round. but it extends far beyond biblical figures – there’s figurines for everyone from Diego Maradona, to Prince William, to Elvis.

5. The city itself

As is the case in most Italian cities, the best thing to see is the city itself. As I said before, Naples is full of all things Diego Maradona – just walk around and see it for yourself! It’s a beautiful, albeit dirty and chaotic city. The Centro Storico and Quartieri Spagnoli are some of my favorite areas to walk around.

 

So when are you going?

I hope this guide helps you better understand more about Diego Maradona and his god-like status in the beautiful city of Naples. Ultimately, if you really want to understand the magnitude of Diego Maradona’s impact on the city of Naples, you just need to go see it for yourself. Words just don’t do it justice – you need to experience the energy first hand.

 

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