The early months of 2021 were spent by most people in the world frustrated by what seemed to be a year full of only bad news. The one thing most football fans had was the ability to watch their beloved football team play live on the TV – pretty much every other day. But even this became stale at times and often just piled on more frustration.
Although, with news starting to deviate towards some sort of happiness – in the knowledge that the end of most of the restrictions that had to be imposed on our daily lives was starting to be lifted in the UK. We were allowed once again to meet up with friends and loved ones and football fans were told that within a few months – they would be allowed to return to the stadiums. But this happened a lot earlier than expected for some clubs in England – as fans protested and stormed towards their club’s headquarters demanding action. Although their actions can not be defended, from a football fans point of view you could certainly relate to them. In April 2021 the billionaire owners of 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs decided to make public their sinister but inevitable plans for a breakaway European Super League.
What followed was a mix of hypocritical backlash from the main contributors to the Premier League and a much more scathing and aggressive revolt from many football fans as they felt that they had finally been pushed to the limit by greedy owners. Owners who were not only wanting to take the game away from the fans; but to make supporting the super league clubs an exclusive club – where the rich get richer with no real benefits for the normal fan.
I don’t have much of an opinion on the proposed European Super League apart from the obvious one – that it was a disgrace. In a way it helped expose everything that is wrong with the game. Most of which we all knew, but are happy to just plod along with. The media outlets who have pledged most of their investments into providing the Premier League coverage finally piped up to spur on the fans – reminding us all that without fans football is nothing. The most eye-catching protests were from the Manchester United fans towards their American owners. We all saw the pictures of the fans entering the famous Old Trafford stadium and causing the postponement of the Liverpool tie (much to Sky Sports’ annoyance). It made me slightly embarrassed actually – as a supporter of Newcastle United we had endured a horrific, at most times depressing time supporting the club under the ownership of Mike Ashley. Many protests had been sanctioned with no real impact. Pundits and observers of the Manchester United fans protest tried to condemn them as stupid – noting the clubs’ recent success’ compared to that of clubs similar to Newcastle’s. But supporting your club goes a lot deeper than enjoying some success at times. It made me think of other fan protests I had seen or read about. Ones linked to lack of success on the pitch and ones linked to the way the club is being run, commercially and ethically.
The story of the Neapolitans in 1983 and their hatred for their owner Corrado Ferlaino will be my focus in this article. As well as lack of competitiveness on the pitch, the Napoli fans knew Ferlaino was using their club for his own gains. This drove them to at times shocking levels of protesting. This in turn triggered the signing of a player who would not only bring them success on the pitch but fill their fading hearts with love and passion for SSC Napoli once again – whilst also saving the life of Ferlaino. The name Ferlaino – a famous and wealthy Neapolitan family with origins even further south in Calabria. Corrado Ferlaino made his money in the shady underworld of the Neapolitan construction business. A badly kept secret would ring round the narrow streets of Naples in the 80’s that their owner Ferlaino had ties with the Camorra – the unique criminal organisation that was essentially an alliance of around sixty clans from the region of Campania. These rumours were hardly surprising as to make money in the city of Naples it’s very hard to do it without even the slightest of relationship to the Camorra. But it wasn’t the Camorra that posed the biggest threat to Ferlaino’s life in the late months of 1983 – no doubt many of those who were threatening him would’ve been members of the clans but this wasn’t mafia business. Sunday the 8th of October 1983 – Napoli faced their bitter rivals from just up the road AS Roma. Before the game kicked off – after another horrendous start to the season the fans were already looking for blood. A small plane hired by the Napoli Tifosi (supporters) flew low over the San Paolo stadium bombarding the stadium with thousands of leaflets as they were dumped from the plane landing all over the place – with the straightforward message ‘FERLAINO VAFFANCULO’ you can google the translation if you’re not familiar. Roma went on to win 3-1 piling even more pressure on the boss, the passion of the Napoli fans took over. Their emotions erupted just like the volcano could at any point only a few miles away. Fires were lit in the stands, the police were attacked – outside the stadium things didn’t calm down, tear gas filled the air – Naples was burning and the Tifosi wanted blood.
Ferlaino knew he was working on borrowed time a few days after the Roma game he invited journalists and friends around to his villa – in a desperate bid to keep even those he had a friendship with on his side. Just as dinner was being served – an almighty crash came from the garden – a homemade bomb was thrown in and detonated. With everyone screaming and ducking for cover, Ferlaino glanced out the smashed window to be welcomed by two young men sitting on mopeds grinning back at him as John Ludden describes in his fantastic book ‘Once Upon a Time in Naples’. The San Paolo was also hit at the same time, the president could no longer ignore the anger of the fans as their protest reached a new height of terror and intimidation. The fans wanted Ferlaino to either step aside or prove his worth to the city of his birth, they had enough of their president’s annual apologies for another poor season with a promise of the next season being better. They wanted big changes – but first, they had to avoid relegation.
Napoli hired a former fan favourite Rino Marchesi and he delivered once again saving them from relegation by a single point. But the hit was out on Ferlaino and he knew it – no promises left, no ‘there’s another season, next season, something had to be done. Ferlaino was on his last life but he had one last chance to salvage everything – with ripples travelling over the Mediterranean from Catalonia bearing the news that a certain magical footballer just might be available, albeit with a hefty price tag. To be fair Ferlaino had already acted on these whispers around the time of the bombings – Napoli and FC Barcelona had been exchanging snail-paced negotiations for some time but by the time the summer of 1984 arrived, time was running out.
The arrogance of the Catalans and the stubbornness of the Neapolitans meant that negotiations always ended with a kiss of the teeth and a breakdown. Ferlaino picked up the phone and called ‘Totonno’ a legend of the city of Naples – born and bred in the notorious Forcella district of the city. Antonio ‘Totonno’ Juliano served the club he adored as their general manager for years, becoming a legend in the process now he was asked once again to serve his club. Armed with a briefcase packed with used banknotes he was ushered onto a private plane heading for Barcelona. With one objective – bring back Diego Armando Maradona and do it fast and swiftly.
Maradona was currently struggling with life in the Catalan capital – on the pitch he showed only some glimpses of his true talent. However, his true ability was often hampered by injuries and illness that he just couldn’t shrug off. This wasn’t just thanks to bad luck though, Maradona’s lifestyle off the pitch was a mess. Maradona settled the bills for his and his entourage (an ever-growing posse that hit the town almost every night), these bills included not only food and drinks in the cities most lavish spots but he was also paying for all the cocaine and prostitutes that he ashamedly became associated with. As John Ludden mentions in ‘Maradona: Once upon a time in Naples’ – Among the sophisticated atmosphere of the city of Barcelona, Maradona felt like he never really fitted in – he was often looked down upon as he was just a kid from the slums of Villa Fiorito, Buenos Aires. Taunts of ‘Sudaca’ (an insulting term for dark-skinned South Americans) would often be hurled Maradona’s way as he paraded the city and when things weren’t going his way on the grass of the Camp Nou.
The final straw came in the now-famous footage of the mass-brawl after the Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Club (Bilbao). The Barcelona hierarchy no longer wanted this ‘troublemaker’ dragging the name of their famous club down. Not long after these scenes, the end was also realised by Maradona himself. During one of his standard nights out – a local Catalan got into a fight with one of Diego’s crew – to show how far Diego Maradona had fallen it was him and his friends who were ejected from the nightclub. This is why the Neapolitans were heading over to Barcelona with high hopes. These high hopes hit their first stumbling block after Juliano’s first meeting with the Barcelona bosses when they slapped down the transfer fee required if Napoli were to have their man; a world record fee of £6.2 Million.
Juliano was loved in Naples and respected by the Barcelona president Josep Nunez and second in command Juan Gaspart. This relationship allowed for negotiations to proceed. Although the Catalans did not think much of Napoli as a club they wanted the sale as much as Napoli wanted to buy. The desire to get Maradona was fuelled further by Juliano as he knew what a person like Maradona would bring to his club. Napoli had the chance to sign the world’s greatest player – for once it was not a chance given to their rivals in the north of the country (at this moment anyway). So for Totonno whatever the price Barcelona asked for was always going to be a bargain in his eyes but not necessarily his boss Ferlaino’s. When Totonno got back to the Napoli president with the figure of 6 million his boss despite the fact he knew not only his job as president but also it seemed his life was depending on this deal… ordered his negotiator home.
Juliano refused and pleaded with his boss to allow him to carry on talking with Maradona and Barcelona. By this time Juliano had become very fond of Maradona seeing many similarities in their upbringing and opportunities in life – he had already told Maradona that one day he would become a God in Naples, the man that allowed the south to finally topple the northern dominance. Maradona himself was also very keen on the move to Naples, his best-friend and accountant Jorge Cysterszpiler had gambled a lot of his friend’s cash on dodgy investments alongside all the partying, Diego Maradona was broke and Napoli was offering him more money than any other club on the planet a staggering half-a-million pounds. Maradona was now even releasing statements on his intent to sign for Napoli, and when Barcelona looked like having a change of heart Maradona took to the press and said that he would never play for the club again if he did not get his wish to leave he would make the club’s life hell.
Barcelona conceded defeat and allowed Diego to join Napoli, that is the way it looked. Remembering the days before obscene transfer fees where the number brandished as the transfer fees were in fact actual cash transfers from one party to another. Nowadays the agreed fee is just a random number. A sum of money that’s broken down over several years and is attached to a bundle of clauses. Napoli had managed to squeeze every last cent from their budget and the contracts were drawn up. The news had reached the centre of Naples and with it a new business opportunity for the stall menders and shop owners of the Spaccanapoli. Flags, gifts and even songs had been recorded celebrating their new hero and copied onto tapes that were sold everywhere. Corrado Ferlaino, a man who was counting down the days until he was murdered was now a free man – the region of Campania was about to burst into one huge welcome/celebration party. Until Barcelona boss Nunez had one last horrifically spiteful move in his arsenal – Ludden says Nunez used the phrase ‘bleed Napoli dry’ to his lieutenant Gaspart – Barcelona demanded another half a million upfront or the deal was off!
Ferlaino couldn’t believe it, not only had he lost out on the signing that could change a season he also lost his last chance with the fans. To them, it would look like it was all a smokescreen, another broken promise. Surely he wouldn’t survive this… This is where the true Neapolitan heart comes in. Ferlaino, threatened, tormented and after putting not only all of his clubs money into this transfer he was penniless as he had also emptied his personal account. Desperate times indeed, something that had never been seen before in the professional era. Corrado Ferlaino pleaded to the citizens of Naples to put their hands in their very thin pockets to make up the difference and make sure Maradona arrived in Naples. He appealed to the same people who threatened his life, and made claims that he wasn’t using the club’s funds correctly. Now he wanted their own money to help the club? But what happened next really did cement where many Neapolitans’ hearts lay – and that is deep within their beloved SSC Napoli. The response was unbelievable, bearing in mind this was very much a working-class city, the parts that were not were close to being slums. The word spread throughout the city’s winding back alleys, among the flapping sheets hung up to dry in the rafters, men and women scraped together to put any money towards the fund that they could. Queues for the bank were as long as the line for a ticket on matchday. A city that was riddled with unemployment and under the tight grip of the Camorra (who helped gather the funds from willing donors). The Neapolitans rallied together in a showing of generosity that shocked the rest of the country, but to locals it was never in question – they needed Diego Maradona.
In recent years Ferlaino has dismissed any involvement from the Camorra and as the years have gone by it seems he has forgotten the help he gained from the Neapolitans. The deal was done by him with his money as he spoke to reporters in 2017 ”The intellectuals criticised me — they said Napoli was a poor city and it was immoral. But it was my money, and I wanted to spend it that way”. The funds that were used to sign Maradona will always be surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty containing the answers to where it actually came from. No doubt sinister tactics were used. But the fans had their man and whether they were part of the early protests or helped raise funds towards the end, they had their man.
It sounds crazy to endorse the connection of a criminal outfit like the Camorra and their involvement in the deal that brought Maradona to Naples, which I must stress I am not saying is a great thing. But it brings to light a more romantic tale than that of the modern-day criminal activity that litters the game. From money laundering to sports washing the sums involved are now ridiculous. The only pleas to fans for cash now is for them to pay for an overpriced matchday experience or another low-quality replica kit. Clubs have also lost the romance of being an unsuccessful or ‘smaller’ club and living with the hope that a Maradona or a local hero would appear and propel the club to new highs. If we take Man City for example, now perhaps the greatest team in the world and every year a new statue is unveiled of a player mostly from their recent dominance, which is fantastic to see and a great homage to their recent successes. But none of these players has had even a glimmer of the success that Maradona brought Naples – yes they have in terms of trophies, goals and glory. But thanks to the vast amount of money available had they not succeeded, who is to say they wouldn’t have just been sold or left to rot on the bench and replaced by another world-renowned star. But these are a sign of the times and it’s my main fear as a supporter of Newcastle United (on a footballing level, of course, there’s plenty of questions that need to be answered on the Saudi regime). As football fans we always need a God on the pitch who we can not only relate to but also enjoy but being the richest club in the world will make our affection for the club itself get lost in the hunt for domestic and European domination. Who is to say this takeover will amount to trophies for Newcastle? What happens if it does not? When Napoli brought in Maradona – it wasn’t about winning their first scudetto it was about signing the greatest player on the planet to their ‘tiny club in the south’. We all know what Diego brought to the city of Naples so this is where my story ends. Never give up on your Football Club but do not turn to violence or criminal organisations, use the power of Football.