Diego Maradona nearly suffocated following the final whistle in the second leg of the 1989 UEFA Cup Final between Napoli and Stuttgart. The Vesuviani’s victorious captain found himself breathless and bang at the bottom of his team’s celebratory scrum.
Yet despite this and being surrounded by his joyous colleagues, the panting Pibe on his knees, grasping a teammate, still managed to smile, turn to the camera and shout: “I dreamt of this and now it has become a reality.” And it certainly had.
Later as the ‘Hand of God’ lifted the UEFA Cup on that joyful German evening, its owner’s smile was even bigger. Turning to their fanatical fans in the hosts’ Neckarstadion and holding Napoli’s first major European trophy, Maradona’s whole body beamed as their tifosi took the roof off in triumphant celebration.
That was May 1989 and coming second the previous season earned them their starting place in the now defunct UEFA Cup in September 1988. With five two-legged ties to play before reaching the Final, they beat Greece’s PAOK, Germany’s Lokomotiv Leipzig and French side Bordeaux. The quarter-final was an all-Italian affair, with Napoli eventually beating Juventus 3-2 on aggregate after extra time.
Bayern Munich followed in the semi-final with a Maradona inspired Napoli, winning 2-0 at home before drawing 2-2 away. It was there in Bayern’s fabulous Olympiastadion that Diego showed some of his sublime ball juggling skills. With loose shoelaces trailing behind him, Il Pibe started his legendary pre-match warm up to the catchy ‘Live is life’ track by Opus with appreciative applause from 70,000 fanatical fans.
Following that glorious win and with excitement at bursting point, Napoli faced another German outfit VfB Stuttgart in the final, with the first leg in Naples.
Coach Ottavio Bianchi put out his preferred 4-3-3 system with Maradona, Antonio Careca and Andrea Carnevale supported by the likes of Alemao, Ciro Ferrara and the magnificent Fernando (Rambo) de Napoli. However, despite these fabulous players, the visitors scored first via Maurizio Guardino’s screamer in the 17th minute.
It stayed that way until 22 minutes into the second half when Rambo’s cross into the area fell to Maradona, whose goal-bound effort hit a defender’s arm to earn a penalty. Naturally Diego took the ball and this time using sleight of foot sent the ‘keeper the wrong way, effortlessly placing the ball into the opposite corner. Napoli kept up the pressure as the brilliant Careca scored a late winner with just three minutes left to go.
The lively Alessandro Renica put the ball into the mix with a long pass to Carnevale, who out jumped a defender before laying it off to Maradona. Il Pibe took it towards the line before cutting it back to Careca, who outfoxed Guido Buchwald before firing home. The stadium erupted at the whistle as it left Napoli with a 2-1 advantage to take to Stuttgart.
Two weeks later the only change to the teams was that Stuttgart replaced Buchwald with striker Jurgen Klinsmann.
One again inspired by Maradona, Napoli put the pressure on from the off and scored after just 18 minutes. Alemao’s clever run saw him exchange passes with Careca, who outpaced three defenders before slotting it past Eike Immel.
Yet the hosts hit back 10 minutes later when Klinsmann beat Ferrara to head home the equaliser. The Partenopei continued probing and following on from his cleared corner Maradona headed the ball back into the danger zone for Ferrara to volley home a screamer of a second goal 20 minutes later.
Starting the second half strongly, Napoli destroyed any German hopes of a comeback when on the counter Maradona fended off a defender before a perfect pass to Careca. Waiting on the edge of the area the Brazilian calmly spooned it over Immel to make it 5-2 on aggregate. Stuttgart then went on the offensive, scoring twice thanks to defensive mistakes, but it was all in vain as minutes after the equalizing goal the referee blew that final whistle.
It was an enthralling victory and no less than Maradona and co deserved after their superb performances to get that far. Sadly it was the only European trophy the talismanic Argentinean lifted. However, it was a real highlight in a glorious Napoli career and in the end suffocating or not, he crowned it when he lifted their only European trophy, so far.
ITALY’S DECADE OF DELIGHT
Napoli winning the UEFA cup that year signaled the start of a magnificent decade for Italian clubs in Europe. No less than eight Italian clubs won the UEFA cup with runners-up medals going to another four over the next 10 years. In the European Cup, Serie A sides lifted four trophies and came runners-up five times. Meanwhile in the Cup Winners Cup sides from the Bel Paese won it three times while becoming beaten finalists twice.