Despite being officially unified for over a century, Italy was still a fractured and fragmented country in 1986, one divided by dialect and torn between tradition and progression. The industrial North looked down at the mezzogiorno with a mixture of contempt and condescension, seeing only an economic deadweight that pulled against the development of the affluent Northern regions. Deemed backward, primitive and ungovernable, the South experienced only a cloying humiliation at the hands of self-serving Northerners who took away far more than they gave back.
The fracture between North and South translated conveniently into the world of football. Since its inception in 1929, Serie A had been dominated by the North, with teams from Milan and Turin emerging victorious in the race for the title no fewer than 44 times over the half-century. Football seemed to be reflecting the relative social and economic success of the two ‘kingdoms’ – whilst Juve danced their way to 20 Scudetto victories, Napoli meandered around mediocrity, regularly heckled by away supporters with chants of ‘Lavatevi, Lavatevi’ – wash yourselves!
Until that is, a boy from Fiorito arrived. Diego Armando Maradona, the most technically gifted player the world has ever seen, landed in Napoli in 1984. Eighty thousand Neapolitans attended his official unveiling at the San Paolo, singing with almost religious fervor ‘Diego take charge! If it doesn’t happen now it never will’. Despite the fatalistic echo, the Napolitani need not have worried – within two years, it had happened, and Diego had become a God.
The turning point came that November afternoon in Turin, when the Southern side finally overcame their inferiority complex – that afflicted the entire region – in truly mesmerizing fashion. Despite beating both Milan teams at the San Paolo, it was the capture of Turin that proved a catalyst for changing the Neapolitan mentality, instilling a sense of assured self-belief in place of hesitating expectation.
Led by French wizard Michel Platini, the Old Lady of Italian football carried herself with the swaggering nonchalance of a wealthy aristocrat, boldly sweeping through the Division seemingly on her way to yet another Scudetto. Napoli, on the other hand, were at this point still slightly ill-at-ease, like a peasant in a palace, having never previously savored a title success.
First blood went to the home side, as Michael Laudrup struck just after half-time. Then the Argentine genius awoke, exchanging a glance with Salvatore Bagni that simply said ‘we can win this’. After three strikes in a breathless half hour, from Moreno Ferrario, Bruno Giordano and Giuseppe Volpecina, the Partenopei emerged victorious. “Everyone was celebrating, going mad,” remembers Maradona. “Napoli! Napoli! They were screaming.”
The pendulum had swung away from Turin and Napoli began the most successful period in their history. Two second place finishes, another Scudetto, two Coppa Italia trophies and a UEFA Cup followed over the next four years. Maradona became a deity. The honorary Neapolitan came to represent the chaotic, flawed beauty of the South, standing against the relentless dominance of the North. And winning.
This weekend, two teams from opposite ends of the geographic and cultural spectrum of the peninsula, level on points but differing in virtually every other respect will face each other in Turin. Though the home side is perhaps the slight favorite, an away victory could herald a new era of dominance for a Napoli side headed by an exceptionally talented South American.
More than that, it could restore faith in a region that has retreated back into the dark shadow cast by the North, crippled from the inside by Camorristi and struggling beneath the weight of chronic unemployment.
The spirit of Diego still hangs heavy over the port city. Come Saturday evening, Neapolitans will be hoping their team can take divine inspiration from the El Pibe de Oro and redress the balance between North and South once more.