This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
In football, it is often taken as a truism that no man is bigger than the club. To consider one's self more important than the shirt is an insult, a rejection of the fundamental values of the sport and the culture that surrounds it. In few places could this be truer than Italy, where there is no greater shame for the players than to be forced to hand their shirts over to the ultras. "We are the custodians," the message from the curva goes, "you are but the current inhabitants."
If one example could really challenge this logic, it is Diego Maradona and the city of Naples. Naples, unloved by Italy and ever the butt of the joke; Maradona, the rebel hero. Jock Stein said that the Celtic shirt did not shrink to fit inferior players, but at times it seemed like the Napoli jersey grew to fit Maradona.
That isn't to say Napoli were nothing before El Diego arrived, but it would be churlish to suggest that anyone other than Maradona was responsible for their rise, or that anyone else could have done it. That said, the Maradona who arrived at the club was far from the icon we know today. If anything, Napoli were picking up damaged goods. While his career on the field at Barcelona and Boca Juniors had been littered with great moments – he was once applauded off the pitch at the Bernabeu – he had also suffered a bout of hepatitis, embarked down the path to cocaine addiction, and left Camp Nou under an almighty cloud after fighting the entire Athletic Bilbao team during the Spanish Cup final. When Napoli president Corrado Ferlaino arrived with a £7m world-record fee, the Catalans were only too happy to see him go.
From the moment Maradona was presented at Napoli's Stadio San Paolo on 5 July 1984, it was as if the rebel had found a cause and the masses their messiah. 75,000 turned out to greet him. A local newspaper wrote that Naples did not have a "mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment or sanitation," but that "none of this matters because we have Maradona". Naples being Naples, there were extensive rumours of mafia involvement in the transfer and illegal re-selling of tickets, demand for which had tripled overnight. Diego later wrote: "Before my arrival, Paolo Rossi had refused to join because, he said, Naples wasn't a city for him, because of the mafia. The truth is, before my arrival, nobody wanted to go to Napoli".
One might have expected Napoli to kick on rapidly with Maradona in the team, but progress was relatively slow. Verona, inspired by Preben Elkjær, produced one of the greatest upsets in Serie A history to pick up the 1984/85 Scudetto, with Napoli a distant eighth. The following season saw a third-placed finish for the Partenopei (a nickname for both club and city derived from Greek mythology, specifically the siren Parthenópē). But a team was forming, and they added Ciro Ferrara and Salvatore Bagni to protect the maestro, while attackers such as Andrea Carnevale and Bruno Giordano came in to complement him.
If Diego's star had fallen by moving to Naples, it would reach new heights at the World Cup in Mexico. He put two past England – you know which two – before another brace in the semis en route to picking up the trophy. Now unquestionably the world's finest player, he returned to Naples with his mind set on bringing the city its first scudetto.
Before Maradona, no team from the country's south had won Serie A. In 1986/87, Napoli did the double. The following season they finished second, with Diego top scorer in the league. In 1988/89 they took home the UEFA Cup. For a team that had been regarded as essentially a Serie B outfit, struggling to fill their stadium and with a meagre two Coppa Italias to its name, the rise had been meteoric.
Diegomania had arrived. Reports held that a quarter of all boys born in Naples were named Diego after the city's new hero. Mock funerals were held for the former (northern) greats of the Italian game and graveyards were daubed with messages to the dead: "You don't know what you're missing." All was not rosy for Diego himself, but, as the goals kept flying in, that could be forgiven.
Maradona's lifestyle issues were known at Barcelona, but given the freedom of Naples they spiralled out of control. He partied with camorra bosses and a paternity suit was brought against him by a local woman over a child that she had named Diego Armando. Mobbed by adoring masses around the clock, with acquaintances that bore more than a whiff of Naples' famed underworld, and dealing with a major cocaine problem, he spent increasing amounts of time in Argentina, afraid of a city that loved him too much.
He arrived back late for the 1989/90 season – leaving his daughter and wife behind in Buenos Aires for their own safety – and immediately set to work. Napoli were neck and neck with AC Milan (who would go on to lift the European Cup), but the season turned on an incident away to Atalanta, where Brazilian midfielder Alemao was struck by a coin. Though the game was 0-0 at the time, Napoli were handed a 2-0 victory by the Italian FA and would go on to win their second Scudetto by just two points.
Any doubts about Maradona's brilliance had been laid to rest. Once again he was the darling of Naples, the only man who could deliver them the title. Outside the city he was still vilified, characterised as a camorra affiliate and a cokehead, but to Neapolitans, accustomed to the scorn of the wealthier north, this only made them love him more.
There was, however, one more mountain to be scaled. Italia 90 loomed. Argentina, the holders, boasted not only Maradona, but also Abel Balbo, Claudio Caniggia and Roberto Sensini, who all played their club football in Italy. Despite a shock early loss to Cameroon, the Argentines overcame the Soviet Union, Brazil and Yugoslavia to set up a semi-final with the hosts. The venue, of course, would be Naples.
Maradona, as only Maradona could, appealed to the locals to support him and Argentina above the Azzurri. His message to the city was clear: ''For 364 days out of the year, you are considered to be foreigners in your own country; today you must do what they want by supporting the national team. Instead, I am a Neapolitan for 365 days out of the year." In Diego's mind, he had taken Naples on his back and carried them, but as the teams walked on to the field the banner on the curva read: "Maradona, Naples loves you, but Italy is our country". Argentina won on penalties and the Neapolitans, though devastated, applauded Diego off the pitch.
That Maradona made himself so important to Naples that he could demand their allegiance above their home nation is testament to what he had done for the city. That they chose the Azzurri over him showed that the shirt and the flag remained bigger than the man – just.
After 1990, their relationship would only go downhill. Maradona was overweight, facing a litany of fines for missing matches and, finally, he succumbed to the positive drug test that had been in the post for a while.
El Diego would never be the same again. He has returned infrequently to Naples, again fearful of what awaits him there, although this time it is in the form of the taxman rather than the camorra. When he returns, however, he is feted to the rooftops, his legend preceding him every step of the way. In his long absences, his face still marks the city, from the murals on the walls to the sky blue number 10 shirt of Napoli. Unable to shrink to fit inferior players, it was retired in El Diego's honour, never to be worn again.