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When Naples had "Diego in our hearts, Italy in our songs"

After powering Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, Diego Maradona had his sights set on another triumph at Italia '90.
After powering Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, Diego Maradona had his sights set on another triumph at Italia '90.

At Mexico '86, the on-field luminosity of Diego Maradona had blinded the world to other stars in the constellation of assembled talent. But the abiding memory at Italia '90 was the ultimate coup he masterminded in his "home city" of Naples in the semifinal on the night of July 3. In that game, he led Argentina to victory against hosts Italy, who had come into the clash not having conceded a goal.

In typical fashion, Maradona plunged headlong into a huge controversy before the game, when he exhorted the people of Naples to support Argentina against their country. In doing so, he provided the now-ubiquitous club vs. country fault line of modern football with a high-profile early milestone. He also stepped outside the traditional preserves of sport and borrowed freely from the prevalent sociocultural and political perceptions in Naples of the city's complex relationship with the nation.

Maradona's inspirational exploits for Napoli in the late 1980s have few parallels in the history of the sport. But Italia '90 was the mirror image of all that he stood for in Mexico '86 -- the dark and rebellious sides of the personality of "El Diego" dominated the on-field incandescence that was dimmed because he had played the knockout stages with a swollen left ankle and inflamed right foot.

The Argentina captain's bold but outrageous call to Neopolitans beats Maradona's two most significant moments of inspiration on the pitch, as he took a gritty but defensive-minded Argentina to their second successive World Cup final against West Germany.

A mesmerising waltz through the Brazilian defence to find striker Claudio Caniggia with a delectable right-footed pass -- the piece of play that decided the high-profile round of 16 clash between the South American heavyweights -- played second fiddle to the volatile Naples news conference.

So too did a wonderful dribble in extra-time of the emotionally and physically draining clash in Naples. Displaying amazing close control, Maradona ran through some of the world's best defenders, such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Giuseppe Bergomi and found teammate Julio Olarticoechea in acres of space, but the midfielder's shot was off-target with only Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga to beat.

But it was what happened before the game that was so notable. Upon reaching Naples after the quarterfinal win against Yugoslavia in Florence on June 30, Maradona did not mince words while asking for the support of Neopolitans. It was prematch strategy and political theatre drawn into one.

And like all things connected to Maradona, there was also personal theatre -- the urge to play messiah in front of global flashbulbs. The Neopolitans had considered him one during Napoli's historic maiden Serie A win of 1986-87, which was followed by the second title delivered less than a month before the World Cup had started.

As David Goldblatt writes in his book "The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer," the significance of those wins extended beyond the sporting arena in Naples. The 1986-87 win was hailed as a sociocultural victory for the underdeveloped region of southern Italy over prosperous northern Italy, represented by the two Milan clubs and Juventus.

Maradona was at the center of a media storm prior to Argentina's semifinal versus Italy in Naples.
Maradona was at the center of a media storm prior to Argentina's semifinal versus Italy in Naples.

Thrown into the mix was also the sensitive issue of club representation in the World Cup squad. Azeglio Vicini's team was dominated by stars from northern clubs such as AC Milan (Baresi, Maldini, Roberto Donadoni and Carlo Ancelotti), Inter Milan (Zenga, Bergomi, Riccardo Ferri, Aldo Serena and Nicola Berti), Juventus (Luigi De Agostini and Salvatore Schillaci, though his origins are from southern Sicily), Sampdoria (Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini) and Fiorentina (Roberto Baggio).

Midfielder Fernando De Napoli, defender Ciro Ferrara and forward Andrea Carnevale represented Napoli in the 22-man squad, but in front of the popular figure of the Argentina captain, they paled into insignificance.

In his autobiography, "El Diego", Maradona quotes from the Naples news conference: "I don't like the fact that now everyone is asking the Neopolitans to be Italian and to support their national team. Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism."

The word "everyone" in Maradona's statement, as Goldblatt writes, referred specifically to parliamentarian Antonio Matarrese, who called on the people who voted for him to reject Maradona.

More from Maradona's news conference as reproduced by Goldblatt: "For 364 days out of the year, you [Neopolitans] are considered to be foreigners in your own country: today you must do what they want by supporting the national team. Instead, I am a Neopolitan for 365 days out of the year."

It was a far cry from the anodyne news conferences of these days, but vintage Maradona for football fans of the 1980s. Certainly not stuff that FIFA or the government in Rome or the northern Italian clubs were happy about.

But it worked for his country. Maradona wrote: "When I stepped out onto the pitch, on July 3, the first thing I heard was applause. I read all the banners: 'Diego in our hearts, Italy in our songs'; 'Maradona, Naples loves you but Italy is our homeland'. The Argentinian national anthem, for the first time in the whole World Cup, was applauded from beginning to end. For me that was already a victory. I was moved: these were my people."

There was the small matter of the actual game as well. English journalist Brian Glanville, who covered the match, wrote in his book, "The Story of the World Cup": "Playing in Naples, seemed for Maradona, the equivalent of Doctor Theatre; curing him at least temporarily of his many physical afflictions."

Inspired by the captain's "homecoming," Argentina canceled out Schillaci's 17th minute goal in the 67th minute when Caniggia breached the Italian defence for the first time in the tournament, heading in Olarticoechea's cross with Maradona involved in the build-up play.

With extra time unable to break the deadlock, the game moved to penalties. Argentina won 4-3 after Carlos Bilardo's team converted all their spot kicks, and goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea saved from Donadoni and Serena.

Poignantly, the crowd at the Stadio San Paolo roared their approval when the Argentinian captain sidefooted his team's fourth spot kick -- sandwiched between Donadoni's and Serena's misses -- past Zenga.

Abilash Nalapat, a Singapore-based editor for ESPN FC, is the former India and GCC content syndication manager of the Press Association.

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