Fuorigrotta is no different from many other parts of Naples, neither rich nor particularly poor. However, where it does differ is that slap-bang right in the middle is that concrete cathedral of broken dreams and intractable matchday majesty, the San Paolo stadium. Precisely 30 years ago today Diego Maradona popped in for an historic day that changed the face of Serie A.
It was a day like no other in Naples with over 100,000 devotees waiting for their new Messiah to arrive in their ancient, forgotten city. There, in a non-descript western suburb under a scorching hot sun in July 1984, something happened for those disciples, a miracle that changed Italian football forever.
On the fifth day, like a returning Messiah, Maradona descended from the endless blue Campania sky into the San Paolo stadium to alter the dynamics of Serie A. For the next seven years the Argentinean helped Napoli smash the hegemony of the major northern clubs and inspire the Southerners to undreamt levels of success.
Hours before his arrival, the Fuorigrotta air was saturated with prayers and dreams, as a festival of flags and a backdrop of banners proclaimed the second coming.
Packets of pirated Marlboro rebranded as Maradona cigarettes were selling like, well, like cheap cigarettes. Bootleg cassettes of Napoli’s most popular song, ‘Ho Visto Maradona’, boomed out of roadside traders’ tape recorders: 2,000 lire a pop.
There were posters of Diego, light blue ribbons, black curly wigs and the incomparable No 10 shirt in Napoli and Argentina colours. You name it and if Diego’s name or face could be fitted on it, from T-shirts to tea towels, it was there to be bought.
Touts selling tickets to see the new Eighth Wonder of the World lapped it up with reports that some 2,000 lire tickets went for 50,000, £150 in today’s money. Diego fever had hit town and it was a time like no other.
Entering the stadium in a helicopter, he stepped out on to the turf and 70,000 tifosi made such a noise it felt that the neighbouring volcano of Vesuvius had erupted and then again, as the 30,000 locked outside picked up on the vibe.
However, seconds later with their new hero obscured by obstinate cameramen and the rest of the mendacious media, the Napoli fans felt cheated. Angry and threatening they demanded he should enter the stadium again, this time from the players’ exit. A few minutes later Il Pibe duly obliged and a fresh eruption of fireworks, streamers and the chant of ‘Ole Ole Ole Ole, Diego, Diego’, rebounded around the concrete canyon.
Dressed in a white T-shirt and light-blue trousers, he waved, shook his fist and blew exaggerated kisses. Surrounded by cameramen Diego suddenly broke free and ran round the pitch stopping now and then to blow kisses. What was meant to be a quick introduction turned into a mutual love-fest with a soundtrack of deafening chanting.
Strolling across the pitch he took an exquisite, effortless free-kick and pinged the ball in off the post from 35 yards. Taking a microphone he shouted: “Good evening Neapolitans.” Suddenly the God of sound turned down the volume, an eerie silence descended before he added: “I am very happy to be with you.” The roar erupted again as he donned a club scarf and entertained everyone with a ball-juggling act before kicking it high into the stands and departing with a: “Forza Napoli.”
In moments he was gone, swallowed up by the media scrum and disappeared back down the tunnel. Outside on the terraces the stadium literally bounced as 140,000 feet stamped along with Diego’s hymn: “Oh Mama mama mama, Do you know why my heart beats? I have seen Maradona, I have seen Maradona, And mamma I am in love.”
Il Pibe eventually came to mean something to Naples that is almost too complex to explain. Without ever seeing him, or knowing a Neapolitan at that time, it is impossible to conceive what he meant to the people of that sprawling, almost third world city.
He was loved immediately on his arrival. He was every mother’s son, everyone’s brother, every girl’s boyfriend. He was the man who would show the rest of the world that Napoli could and would teach everyone else how to play football.