It was impossible to count them, but there must have been more than 2,000 fans outside the Stadio San Paolo on Thursday to pay tribute to Diego Armando Maradona before, during and after Napoli’s Europa League clash against Rijeka.
While Lorenzo Insigne and his teammates entered the pitch wearing Maradona’s no.10 shirt, fans outside the stadium were singing as loud as they could, hoping their hero would listen to them from up there.
"Olé, olè, olè, olè, Diego, Diego!" again and again.
And also: "C'è solo un capitano" and "C'è solo un Maradona", there is only a captain, there is only a Maradona.
There have been controversies in Italy over what happened in Naples. Campania is a “red” region where it is not permitted to leave home expect for working, health reasons or to buy food. In short: only for basic needs. But if you are a Neapolitan, Maradona is indeed a basic need. Especially if you must bid farewell to him.
Most of the fans and ultras were packed in front of the stadium gates as I was watching the scenes from the other side of the road, trying to respect social distancing guidelines.
It wasn’t easy, as I’d have liked to hug each one of them as you were overcome by the feeling they had lost one of their family members.
Afterwards a number of fans mourned their legendary number 10 in front of an historic mural in the Quartieri Spagnoli on Thursday, more of them met in the evening in front of the Stadio San Paolo that, in the space of a week, will be named after Maradona as Naples’ major Luigi De Magistriis revealed.
Insigne and Tommaso Starace, the club’s historical kitman, laid flowers outside the Curva B. Napoli did their warmup training with Opus’ “Live is Life” playing in the background. The song is inextricably linked with Maradona and Napoli as Diego once did a keepie uppie exhibition before Bayern Munich-Napoli in 1989 while the song was heard on the stadium's loudspeakers.
People from balconies and, indeed, in front of the stadium, began clapping at 9pm local time, once again, trying to make themselves heard. Even a bus that was passing by honked for quite a long time.
Most fans left a few minutes after the kick-off in order to return home and watch Rino Gattuso’s side 2-0 win over the Croats. Once they went away, they left a view of the shrine created in front of the stadium gates.
It was made up of pennants, scarves, candles, shirts of Napoli and Argentina, all with a number 10 printed on the back.
When there was a little bit more space in front of the stadium, someone started to play football, others remained in front of the “shrine” to read the messages for their beloved no.10 or just to take selfies.
Being in front of the San Paolo you had the feeling time had stopped. People didn’t care about the pandemic, they didn’t care about anything but paying tribute to their legend.
They took part in Maradona’s funeral even if El Pibe de Oro will be buried in the other side of the world.
“Who was Maradona to you?” I asked my taxi driver on my way back home.
“He was everything, he was my dad, my brother and best friend,” he replied.
If you don’t belong to this place it’s probably impossible to understand what they are feeling just as it may be impossible for anyone else to replicate what Maradona did for these people and for this club.