This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of The Football Pink – the Italia ’90 25th anniversary special

Before the 1990 World Cup semi-final between Italy and Argentina, Diego Maradona – hero of Naples – tried to ignite the country’s north-south divide to get his Neopolitan worshippers on side. JOHN O’SULLIVAN investigates the roots of the divide and how Diego failed.

“He who behaves honestly comes to a miserable end” – Calabrian proverb.

In Jimmy Burns seminal biography, “Maradona the Hand of God”, the author points out two important events in the footballer’s early childhood that were to have a profound effect on Diego’s life. When he was just a toddler he became disoriented in the dark and fell into the family cesspit, the traumatised child was rescued by his uncle, Cirilo, who prophetically cried out; “Diegito keep your head above the shit!” It was the same uncle who was involved in the second formative event in Maradona’s childhood when he gave the boy a present for his 3rd birthday, a football. In these two events we can see the conception of the two Maradonas; Diego, the man who would constantly fall back on his family in times of trouble and the boy with the football, Maradona, who would become the figure so revered and loved by millions. At times in his life it would be nearly impossible to say where one ended and the other began, even the man himself would refer to himself in the first person and the third person in the same interview, but it is crucial to any exploration of Maradona to take into account these, sometimes conflicting personalities. In the darkest hours of his life Maradona would turn to drugs to ease the pain of Diego and recreate the omnipotence of Maradona.

In hindsight, Maradona’s move to Italy seems somewhat odd to us today, it’s worth remembering that Serie A was considered the best league in Europe in the mid-eighties, but why Napoli? After his unhappy time at Barcelona, where he saw at firsthand what “mes que un club” actually meant and his experience of the snobbery of Catalan society, Maradona jumped at the chance of escape that Juventus or Napoli promised. When Maradona flew into Napoli’s San Paolo stadium on the 5th July 1984 he would begin the journey that would see him crowned King of football and simultaneously set off on the path to self-destruction. To understand why Napoli was the perfect fit for the maestro we have to look back on the history of not only the city of Naples, but the history of the whole country, particularly the south; the mezzogiorno.

“Now that Italy is made, we need to make Italians” – Massimo d’Azeglio.

Italy, at the time of unification in 1861, was a disparate group of provinces divided into three main kingdoms; the Northern city states, the Vatican states in the middle and the largely peasant Kingdom of the two Sicilys in the south. However, it is only after World War 2 and the fall of fascism that the fledgling nation began to take shape. The largely communist resistance fighters in the North were the most powerful bloc, but by clever manoeuvring by the newly formed Christian Democrats (DC) and their leader – the brilliant politician De Gaspari (who had the backing of the Vatican and the U.S) – they were coaxed into a power sharing agreement that considerably diluted their influence. The elections of 1948 would see the Americans interfere with Italian politics in the most audacious fashion. They promised $176 million in interim aid, along with the promise to return the city of Trieste, if the people voted against the Communists. The DC would run their campaign with the slogan “All intelligent people will vote for De Gaspari because he’s obtained from America the flour for your spaghetti, as well as the sauce to go on it”. Together with a promise for agrarian reform in the south the DC obtained a majority without the help of the left. They would cling on to this power until 1992. The promised agrarian reforms were indeed delivered but at a snail’s pace. The powerful southern landlords, with the help of the mafia, doled out largely unusable land to the peasant farmers and labourers and then only to card carrying members of the DC. There were several rebellions at this time but they were either ruthlessly crushed by the police in collusion with the mafia or skilfully defused by De Gaspari’s diplomacy where he would promise everything and deliver nothing. Continued investment in the North of the country saw the powerful industrial cities grow and prosper while their compatriots in the South lived a hand to mouth existence sometimes subsidising their income by petty crime; paying a small cut to the mafia of course. So while change happened at an incredible rate in the north, the people in the south grew increasingly disillusioned; by 1960, 62 out of 64 provincial prefects and all 135 police chiefs and their deputies had been employed under Mussolini. Small wonder that the people of the mezzogiorno and particularly Naples began to look inwards, to their own communities and more importantly to their immediate family.

“From the bitter experience of many battles fought and lost, of many promises made and never kept, of emigration and of war, the southern peasantry had developed a philosophy which mixed fatalism, solidarity and distrust.” – Paul Ginsborg; A History of Contemporary Italy.

The notion of the family above everything else has been a mainstay of Italian life since the mid-15th century. Massive industrialization in the north, together with high levels of education and employment, led to more social inclusion and responsibility and a steady decline in the importance of the nuclear family through the 20th century. The exact opposite happened in the south. The American sociologist, Edward Banfield, described the practise as “amoral familism” which had as its main tenet “maximise the material, short run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”  The northern Italians had a derogatory name for this cult of the family; they called it mammismo. This is a crucial point in understanding the ease that Maradona felt among the Neapolitans. The steady stream of migrant workers following the harvests from hemisphere to hemisphere, known as the golondrinas (swallows), led to a historical connection between the mezzogiorno and the favellas of the River Plate like La Boca. Maradona’s family, through his mother, were descended from Italian migrant workers; even his beloved Boca Juniors were founded by immigrants from Genoa.

By the late 1980s Italy was in economic boom. Subsequently there was mass migration from the south to the north, particularly to the cities of Milan and Turin, with these migrants eager for assimilation many began to support Juventus and AC Milan causing even further hatred for the big two in the south. One notable phenomenon of the boom was the sharp rise of women in employment – from 1970 to 1985 it had risen by 50% – which in turn had seen a marked increase in the wealth of families now with two incomes instead of one. This was not reflected in the south where the level of women in employment was still comparable to the fifties. The inherent mistrust of government, both national and local, was still prevalent in the eighties despite the boom, with most people firmly believing that the economic upturn had taken place in spite of the rulers not because of them. Thus, the DC struggled on in power, largely in coalition with the socialists, a situation which favoured neither party, and hindered progress and transparency. Despite all this, Italy’s GDP was $599.8bn in 1986 compared to the UK’s $547.7bn. It is worth noting that 12.5% of GDP was due to mafia activities such as drug trafficking, extortion, thefts, kidnappings and corruption; an astonishing figure which shows how extensive the tentacles of organised crime pervaded Italian society.

The north/south divide was equally apparent in football with only one team from the south, Cagliari in 1970, winning Serie A since its inception in 1929. When the Maradona-inspired Napoli captured the Scudetto in 1987, it ensured his elevation to the great pantheon of saints worshipped in almost pagan fashion in the city. Unbeknownst to the outside world, Maradona was at this time actively being courted by the Neapolitan mafia the comorrah. While it is uncertain whether the unfortunate Diego sought them out to satisfy his cocaine habit or that the comorrah sought out glory by association with Maradona the saint, what is known is that it was common knowledge in Naples at the time, even to journalists. Whether they were afraid to report it because of the possible consequences or because they considered it unimportant, is not known. One thing is for certain, Maradona would be very attracted to the comorrah ethos of honour and the family, indeed in the infamous photograph of Maradona posing with the notorious Giuliano family, one is struck by the similarity between them; they have the relaxed camaraderie of siblings. Maradona would deliver the Scudetto to the city again in 1990, but already the knives were being sharpened. The journalists and even some ordinary Neapolitans were just waiting for an excuse; the great festival of Italia ’90 would provide one for them.

“For 364 days of the year they treat you like dirt, now they expect you to cheer for them?” – Maradona prior to the semi-final with Italy.

Italia ’90 is remembered above all for the drama, despite the football being dire; red cards, dubious penalties and shootouts were the order of the day. By the time the semi-final in Naples between Italy and Argentina came around, most Neapolitans would find themselves conflicted. Did they support their national team, symbol of the society that had oppressed them for so many years, or did they cheer on their beloved Maradona, symbol of their pride as partenopei and the rebel leader of the south? In the end they did neither. The Northern press were predictably vociferous in their condemnation of this perceived treachery; they would ensure a hostile reception in Rome for the final. 74,000 took their seats in the Stadio Olimpico for the climax of Italia ’90; there were no neutrals, as the camera panned down the Argentines during their anthem, which was being roundly booed, Maradona was picked up by the TV cameras mouthing “sons of bitches!” after all he’d done for Italian football, this was the ultimate betrayal. After the ignominious defeat to the Germans, it was clear that the love affair was over. Nobody seems to know exactly why the Giuliano family suddenly withdrew their protection from Maradona, some speculate that it was the star’s failure to throw certain games, but it became common knowledge that Maradona was now fair game.

After a game against Bari, on the 17th of March 1991, the Napoli doctors tested Maradona twice for drugs. Unsurprisingly, he tested positive for cocaine; surprisingly the club released the details to the media. Maradona received a 14 month ban; he would never play for the partenopei again. Over the subsequent months, scandal after scandal would break involving Diego. Tales of cocaine fuelled orgies, drunken binges that caused him to miss important matches and the shadowy figures from the commorah who were part of his inner circle. But perhaps the most damning scandal was the revelation that Maradona had fathered a child with his Italian lover Cristiana Sinagra. Was his subsequent denial and desertion of the mother and his son the ultimate betrayal in the eyes of the Neapolitans; a crime against the honour of the family? However, when a scandal breaks in Italy you can be sure that you are never far away from an even bigger one. Maradona was about to be blasted back into the shade by a scandal that would shake Italy to its roots and completely change the political landscape of the whole country.

On the 17th of February 1992, a Socialist politician, Mario Chiesa, was accused of taking a bribe from a cleaning company to award them a lucrative state cleaning contract. The party hierarchy moved swiftly to disown him, a betrayal that caused him to accuse many of his party colleagues of taking bribes themselves. A chain of accusations and counter accusations began that would involve politicians at all levels, company directors and even the President, Bettino Craxi. Within a relatively short period the scandal, known as tangentopoli (bribesville), would see many of the politicians and businessmen commit suicide rather than face the ignominy of public disgrace and imprisonment. The all-powerful Christian Democrats and their coalition partners, the Socialists, would be driven to extinction and Craxi himself would flee to Libya where he would die in exile. It is estimated that bribes to the value of $4bn were changing hands annually in the 80’s. Nobody knows the full extent of the corruption as far as Italia ’90 is concerned, but most observers agree that it was rife. The overall budget for the tournament was estimated to have been exceeded by as much as 84%, with vast sums still unaccounted for; the money seems to have simply vanished. The cost of building new stadia in Rome and Turin, the redevelopment of the San Siro and Bari, were all council funded projects that left stadia which quickly became old fashioned and impractical to run. There were other projects that were unfinished or not even started like the hotel complex in Rome that cost millions of Euros. Even as late as 2011 the Italian government was still providing funds in the budget to pay back interest on loans secured for Italia ’90.

Life goes on in the mezzogiorno as it always has, although they now face an even greater threat in the shape of the Legia Nord group (a kind of Italian UKIP) who want to cut them loose from Italy altogether; their argument being that the south is not part of Europe, it is part of Africa. Italy needs a strong government, but as one politician put it “the Italian people would not vote for a strong government, because they refuse to believe that such a thing exists.” But to suggest, as Legia Nord does, that the introspective familism of the mezzogiorno is merely a lifestyle choice and not the result of decades of underinvestment and institutional racism, is to simplify an incredibly complex and delicate situation. Maybe the mezzogiorno needs more Maradonas, new reasons to feel that it’s an identity to be proud of and celebrate. As for Diego, well he pops up now and again, still rubbing people up the wrong way, and above all, still keeping his head above it.

JOHN O’SULLIVAN – @clockend5