Brendan Crossan: Diego Maradona, Naples and fleeting revolutions
THERE’S a revolution happening down Napoli way. Forever depicted as the southern outcasts of Italian football, the Scudetto looks as though it’s heading back to the bosom of the rough-edged city of Naples for the first time since the halcyon days of Diego Maradona.
Before Lionel Messi won the World Cup, it was Maradona's achievements at the once unfashionable club that often separated – and for many – kept Maradona above his countryman.
Before Maradona arrived in Naples in 1985, they were also-rans, Serie A fodder for the bluebloods of the north – AC Milan and Juventus.
A couple of seasons later and against ridiculous odds, Maradona had delivered two Serie A titles – in 1986/87 and 1989/90.
No player could achieve what Maradona achieved at Napoli.
The sad part about Maradona’s wondrous contribution of turning Napoli into league champions and later Uefa Cup champions was that it was before the era of wall-to-wall ‘live’ football coverage as satellite TV was only seeping through to the masses.
We were spoiled in the summer of 1986 when Maradona won the World Cup with Argentina, playing seven matches that were from another planet.
That roughly totalled 630 minutes of unadulterated brilliance – beamed ‘live’ across the globe.
After Mexico ’86 we all went cold turkey. It was as if Maradona barely existed.
We’d be weaned on a diet of 30-second clips at the tail end of Midweek Sports Special or Sportsnight watching Maradona curl another free-kick into the top corner of the net for Napoli, or resist four opposing defenders before slipping the ball beyond the hapless goalkeeper.
And there was nothing quite like the San Paolo stadium roar – later re-named the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.
What makes Maradona’s achievements even greater is that he carried a bunch of journeymen footballers to the Holy Grail.
By the time Napoli won their second Scudetto, Careca had joined the club and was playing on the same level as he’d done for Brazil at the 1986 World Cup.
The mid-to-late 1980s were the undisputed glory days of Italian football. Even with the limits on the amount of foreign players per team, all the great players migrated to the league for the lira.
Maradona, Careca, Platini, Laudrup, Zico, Klinsmann, Voller, Brehme, Matthaus, Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard. And the Italians themselves had no shortage of stars: Baggio, Baresi, Conti, Maldini, Cabrini, Altobelli, Donadoni, Scirea…
It’s doubtful if there’s ever been a better time in modern football than during this time in Italy – most of it buried at the end of Sportsnight.
Channel 4’s Golazo came a little late to the party in 1992, as did BSkyB who caught the fag end of Maradona’s Napoli career in 1991 but could still celebrate Sampdoria's unlikely rise, led by the inimitable Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli as a young Gianfrano Zola assumed the mantle from the departed Maradona in Naples.
Spain and England became the desired destinations for the best players in the world as Italian football entered the doldrums.
Italian football has made a few attempts at a comeback over the years - most notably Andrea Pirlo's Juventus - but mostly their clubs have flattered to deceive.
Their appearances in European club finals were scant, making only three Champions League finals since 2010 (Inter Milan and Juventus, twice).
The Europa League finals make for grim reading too. After Inter Milan lost the 2020 decider to Sevilla, you have to go back to the late 90s for another appearance from an Italian club (Parma, 1998).
Napoli themselves hit rock bottom, declaring bankruptcy in 2004 and were relegated to the third tier of Italian football. Dreams of another Scudetto were just that.
It was at the start of the last decade they began to be competitive again against Serie A’s more illustrious lights, finishing second to Juve in 2017/18 under Maurizio Sarri, with Lorenzo Insigne, Kaildou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens winning over the hearts and minds of Neapolitans.
While Sarri’s expansive football was easy on the eye, Napoli couldn’t dislodge the Old Lady or the two Milans at the top of the Serie A tree.
But Napoli didn’t disappear into mid-table obscurity. They managed to maintain their challenge. A neat symmetry emerged on and off the pitch.
Current boss Luciano Spalletti has been around the block for over two decades and his calm, almost phlegmatic demeanour was the antidote the football-crazy city needed.
The former Roma and Inter boss drives around Naples in a modest Fiat Panda and after he left the San Siro he spent a couple years on his farm, dabbling in the olive oil and wine industry.
And under the wily stewardship of sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli, the pair set about replenishing the squad with some impressive recruitment.
Koulibaly enjoyed cult status in Naples but was allowed to move on to Chelsea.
In came South Korean international Kim Min-Jae from Fenerbahce whose defensive performances have made the fans forget about Koulibaly.
But the real darling of Naples has been the summer capture of Georgian wide man Kvicha Kvaratskhelia for a mere €10m – arguably the most exciting player the southern Italian club has signed since the legendary Maradona.
Kvaratskhelia’s slalom runs down the left side, his goals and assists have transformed Napoli into contenders to champions-elect and has already been christened ‘Kvaradona’.
On Sunday night, they stretched their lead at the top to a close to insurmountable 13 points with a brilliantly intense 2-1 win over Roma at the Stadio
Diego Armando Maradona, with a wonder strike from Victor Osimhen and the late winner coming from Giovanni Simeone.
Typically, Jose Mourinho, the Roma manager, had already conceded the title to Napoli before the Derby del Sole.
The roar from the old San Paolo on Sunday night almost eclipsed the days of Maradona. Napoli will become league champions this season.
Given the brilliant football they're playing, they won't find themselves in a better position to win the Champions League.
But the window of opportunity is small. In places likes Naples, revolutions are often fleeting affairs.