“There were sections of Italians in the crowd who were not against us but cheered on Maradona,” whined the normally rock-solid Azzurro striker Aldo Serena. Yet that complaint was the least of the anomalies before, during and after the 1990 World Cup semi-final between holders Argentina and hosts Italy.
Other incongruities included a porn video, a female MP, internecine racism, tainted media commentary, out-of-touch local politicians and misinformed international football heroes. All told it was all a little extraordinary and at times it seemed the whole tournament was built around the expectation that the Azzurri would walk away with the Cup. However, fate reared its ugly head in the final four as they came up against Argentina and Diego Maradona at his ‘home’ stadium, Napoli’s San Paolo on July 3 for a game that was more than a little ‘piccante’.
Part of the heat was due to the duplicity of the media and their seemingly dirty tricks campaign against Argentina and especially Maradona. In the weeks leading up to tournament one of the main insults was the well-publicised release of a pornographic video called ‘Cicciolina ai Mondali’. This film starred a noted Member of Parliament-cum-porn-star, La Cicciolina, and an overweight actor whose portrayal of Diego was not only under the belt but well below it. By the start of the tournament the offensive had moved into top gear and apart from the somewhat negative media spin, everywhere they played there was a backdrop of ferocious insults and incessant jeering.
So how did this sorry state of affairs evolve? What could help explain the vilification of the Napoli captain outside of Naples and Argentina? In social terms some of it was down to the anti-South/Naples rhetoric typified by Umberto Bossi’s federalist Lega Nord - Northern League - party.
In addition to all this a united front of politicians, football commentators and players also asked Napoli fans to back the Azzurri as they now faced Argentina. Maradona had to say something and remarked that he felt it was ironic that the great and the good should now be urging Neapolitans to be good Italians and back the Nazionale, when generally the city was ignored.
“I don’t like the fact that now everybody is asking Neapolitans to be Italian and to support their national team. Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism,” he said.
Naturally there was a backlash and surprisingly from two who should have known better - Pietro Lezzi the Socialist Mayor of Naples and the Azzurri’s Sicilian born striker Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci. “It is not true that Maradona’s city is discriminated against by the rest of Italy,” blurted the Juventus forward.
Living in Tuscany and Naples in the 1980s I don’t know where Schillaci felt he lived but it was not the country I experienced. Apart from the obvious, Toto himself was labelled a terroni, an everyday insult hurled at Neapolitans and southerners in general. Abusive banners were common currency in Serie A’s northern stadiums with messages like: ‘No to vivisection use a Neapolitan’ and ‘Welcome to Italy Neapolitans’. One particular banner in a World Cup game was directed at him personally, condescendingly reading: ‘Hey Toto, not bad for a Sicilian’.
On the morning of the game, Maradona mischievously highlighted this attitude and asked Napoli fans to consider what he had done for the city and its club, which of course was reported as ‘a provocative request’: “For 364 days a year you are considered to be foreigners in your own country. Today you must do what they want by supporting the Italian team. Instead I am a Neapolitan 365 days a year.”
Most media outlets would have you believe the build-up to the semi-final was hijacked by Il Pibe but most Neapolitans were not fooled by this blatant propaganda.
They responded by applauding Argentina and its national anthem throughout, the only time it happened in the tournament. Yet in the Curva B, where the hardcore Napoli fans stood, some responded to their captain with a banner that read: ‘Maradona. Naples loves you but Italy is our country’. Nonetheless a sizeable minority certainly backed Diego.
Outsiders could never ever hope to understand what Diego meant to the citizens of Naples so they complained when the atmosphere was not 100 per cent pro-Italian. “It was a different atmosphere from Rome,” recalled Serena. “We noticed it as soon as we arrived at the stadium.” Of course by hook or by crook the Azzurri played all their games in Rome and the semi-final was their first in ‘enemy’ territory. The players tried not to let it concern them but nonetheless Aldo missed his penalty in the shoot-out and left the pitch in tears after a game that remains indelibly inked into Azzurri fans’ minds, sadly for many of the wrong reasons.