Diego Armando Maradona’s body lies more than 11,000km away from Vesuvius, but his soul will forever belong to this place.
Hundreds of people have been gathering in front of one of the most iconic murals in town since the news of Maradona’s death was spread by Clarin on November 25.
In less than 24 hours, the giant representation of El Pibe de Oro in a Napoli shirt in the Quartieri Spagnoli was surrounded by fans brining scarves, candles, pictures and written messages to bid farewell to a person who really felt like a family member to every Neapolitan.
The city is half empty, just like any other place in Italy in the pandemic era. Lot of shops are closed, bars and restaurants can only do take away. There’s no Christmas feeling and not many people around. Nevertheless, when I crossed paths with two people talking, trying to hear what they were saying, I could only hear one word: Diego.
The almost empty streets of Napoli city centre became more crowded as I approached the mural. Once I arrived I found more than 100 people staring at it.
They kept coming and going, riding their motorbikes in one of the most fascinating neighbourhoods in town. The Quartieri Spagnoli are the heart of Naples, where average people live in council estates. Maradona himself used to pass by these streets even if he was anything but an average person.
He was loved because he brought trophies, because he overtook the dominion of northern teams and because he was a God among regular people, even if things were sometimes out of his control.
Sometimes he would show up in such neighbourhoods to please criminal families who asked him to do so. He was a God on the pitch but his weaknesses off it made him look like a human, made him look like one of them.
When I arrived in front of the mural, I had the feeling I had stepped inside a church for a funeral. Even if the body is on the other side of the world.
Every kind of fan was there today. From children holding their parents’ or nonno’s hands to older supporters wearing shirts from Maradona’s time in Napoli. They had probably witnessed his heroic deeds at the San Paolo and you can see in their eyes they can’t believe he is not here anymore.
They can’t believe he will not return to Naples ever again.
Someone touches the mural as they would caress the dead body of someone they deeply love.
On paper, they shouldn’t be here. Campania is a “red” region, which means people can only leave home to go to work, to buy food or for health reasons.
Despite that, you won’t find one single policeman who will fine people in front of the mural. They came to check if everything was running smoothly. People gathered but tried to keep to social distancing, always wearing masks.
There were no scenes of despair like on the day of his death, but the atmosphere is the same as a funeral. Someone is hidden in a corner, unable to speak. Staring at nothing. Someone else speaks with friends recalling Maradona’s gestures. Their smiles quickly turn into sadness as they immediately realise Diego is not coming back.
People discuss his impact for Napoli, they speak about what they witnessed over the years, sometimes you can hear a discussion regarding him, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo but nobody has doubts about who the best footballer of all time is.
Two fans compare him and Pelé: “What? Pelé never left Brazil,” one says.
“Come on. Diego was unique.” End of the discussion.
There was sadness for a genius who’s gone and happiness for being part of history.
Maybe one that won’t be repeated. Mixed feelings, like those Maradona produced during his whole career.
There was love and hate towards him, even in Naples.
“When I arrived here, there were almost 85,000 people welcoming me,” Maradona once said. “When I left, I was alone. I left quietly, but it was hard.”
On Thursday, Naples celebrated his funeral, even if his body will never return here. Diego will never be alone again.