As soon as someone mentions the football team from Naples, everyone thinks of one man. Diego Armando Maradona. He is an eternal god of the city, where murals can be found on 40ft buildings. If you stare deeply enough at the many graffitied walls within the city you will be sure to find his name plastered somewhere.
He certainly left a legacy on the wonderful city of Naples, a legacy in footballing terms that is hard for anyone to match.
You can grasp all this by watching the recent documentary, Diego Maradona, directed by Asif Kapadia. It highlights the impact he had on the Napoli team on the pitch, including how he helped the team to their first-ever scudetto in the 1986/87 season. It also showed his fall from grace as he battled with drug abuse and scandals, as well as how the whole nation turned on him during the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
The film doesn’t, however, cover much of the season after the first Serie A triumph (the 1987/88 season). This would be Maradona’s most prolific season in the ‘Azzurri’ of Napoli, yet his team would remarkably miss out on retaining the title that they were pretty much guaranteed to win before a ball was kicked.
With five matches remaining, remembering that it was 2 points for a win, Napoli were 4 points clear. Job done you would think. Instead, Napoli hit the Newcastle United 1995-96 button before it existed and self-destructed.
They had lost only 2 games all season before the run-in and remarkably in the last 5 games, they drew one and lost four, handing the title to AC Milan.
They missed out in true Italian style, as it would be a season full of surprises, suspicions and off the field drama that still to this day is yet to be answered.
The Summer of ‘87
The partying that engulfed the city of Naples after their title was confirmed in 1987 have been hard for any team to match. It lasted pretty much the whole summer, Napoli flags would often tsunami over the seafront in the days after the game that clinched the title, a 1-1 draw at home to Fiorentina, in which Roberto Baggio scored his first-ever Serie A goal.
Accompanied with hundreds of fireworks and crow bangers (possibly pistol shots) the fans really took over the streets, blocking traffic by jumping on car roofs, impromptu street parties were organised at which masses of pasta and seafood would be available for anyone who joined in. Locals ‘taxed themselves’ to cover the costs as John Foot outlines in his book ‘Calcio’.
Guagliu! E che ve sit pers! – “you don’t know what you are missing’’ was famously spray-painted on the walls of the city graveyard. Pretend funerals were held for Juventus, complete with coffins and death notices. Napoli still had one game left to play that season an away game at Ascoli, but it meant nothing and Napoli played as if they had one hell of a hangover, which they most certainly had after a week of partying.
The game was poised at 1-1 with about 10 minutes left, when Napoli manager Ottavio Bianchi left the bench and the stadium in disgrace at his team’s performance. This was the start of the tensions between the senior players and their manager coming to the boil.
Chants from the dressing room after the game appeared to call for his resignation and Bianchi himself had even offered to step down. However, he ended up staying, and Napoli strengthened their squad ahead of the 1987-88 season, signing Brazillian forward Careca who was the star of the 1986 World Cup. With Careca joining Maradona and the Italian forward Bruno Giordano, Napoli had the most feared front three in Italy, better known as ‘MA-GI-CA’.
They were clear favourites to retain their title, with only AC Milan seen as a potential threat after they had just been purchased by Silvio Berlusconi. From the outset, the media tycoon had declared he was going to create the greatest team in Italy and Europe.
Berlusconi hired Arrigo Sacchi to manage the team and brought in Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten to boost the playing squad. A slow start from Milan and with a lack of contenders coming from the other big clubs, the title looked odds on to be returning to Campania, if only there was somewhere to put a bet on it.
‘Totonero’, black-market betting ran by the Camorra (the mafia-type most prominent in Campania) was at large in the ’80s and contributed heavily in the revenue for the Camorra. It is said nearly everyone in the city of Naples had placed bets on the 1987-88 title staying in Naples.
The Camorra works a bit different to other organized crime groups, its organisational structure is made up by a number of ‘clans’ who run and oversee certain areas of Naples, as they all work individually. It a frequent occurrence that feuds or gang wars break out, although effectively they are all part of the same team.
Maradona had made some controversial friends in the city of Naples by this point, he was seen partying with the Guiliano clan that ran the Forcella part of the city, a run-down central neighbourhood.
Could the ‘totonero’ market have had an impact on those last 5 games? Investigative journalist Simone Di Meo told ‘The Guardian’ in 2019 that “if Napoli had won that season, the Camorra would have had to pay out 200 billion lire in bets. They would have gone bankrupt.”
Maradona’s car was smashed up and midfielder Salvatore Bagni had his house burgled on two occasions towards the end of the season, was this pressure being forced onto the players to throw the last 5 games from the Camorra?
Maradona’s old driver Pietro Pugliese would eventually be the main instigator in Maradona’s demise in Naples. He became a snitch for the state, his evidence eventually got Maradona done for drug dealing and pimping, also claiming that Maradona had slept with over 8,000 women during his time in Naples.
Pugliese, who released all this info in 1991 at the time, also dragged up the story of how he knew Napoli had thrown away the league title after pressure from the Camorra. Nothing went to trial regarding these claims against the crime syndicate.
Berlusconi And His Master Plan.
After their title triumph in 1986/87, Napoli would be playing in the European Cup, for the first time in their history. Debutants they may have been, however, they were dark horses to go all the way as they clearly had one of the most exciting squads in Europe.
Astonishingly, Napoli would be pitched up against the European super-power of Real Madrid in the first round. This would be a game that changed European football forever.
Napoli were unseeded going into the competition, which is why the heavyweight clash came about so early. This is what everybody wanted though, apart from Berlusconi, the man who had just bought AC Milan. He didn’t like the idea of two teams who could provide so much excitement and such a televisually lucrative match going head to head so early.
The first leg was played behind closed doors at the Bernabeu, due to the trouble Madrid had caused in the previous season’s semi-final against Bayern Munich. Napoli were beaten 2-0, with Maradona was marked out of a game which turned out to be quite a dull affair, with plenty of fouls and battles but not much fluent football. The second leg finished 1-1, and Napoli were out of the European Cup at the first attempt in the first round. This made Berlusconi very anxious. After all, this could happen to his Milan side one day.
“The European Cup has become a historical anachronism. It is economic nonsense that a club such as Milan might be eliminated in the first round. It is not modern thinking” these words from Berlusconi showed how passionate he was against the set-up, so he began the plan for a ‘European Television League’ the blueprint he sent to UEFA in the late ’80s which was rejected.
It was the birth of the European Super League talk we still hear today. However, this original movement from Berlusconi caused enough threat and got the ball rolling for what would be the birth of the Champions League, and the super-club dominated era we have today.
Could a man that fearful of his teams downfall influence his domestic league as well? With 5 games remaining Milan needed a miracle if they were to pull off a stunning debut season title for Berlusconi.
How To Throw The League Away In 5 Games.
As previously mentioned, with 5 games remaining Napoli were in pole position to retain their title. It began to fall to bits in Turin, at the home of their fearsome rivals Juventus, with a 3-1 defeat. Less than a year earlier the Napoli fans were celebrating with ‘death notices’ baring the name of Juventus. After this result, Napoli had to stay alert to avoid committing ‘football suicide’ and mourning their own demise.
A 1-1 draw away at Verona was next for Napoli which furthermore rocked the boat, coincidently teeing up a mouthwatering blockbuster of a game against challengers Milan in Naples.
What followed was an amazing game that finished 3-2 to Milan. This was then accompanied with another 3-2 defeat, this time in Florence, then on the last day of the season a 2-1 defeat at home to Sampdoria handed the title to Milan. The celebrations from the previous summer were most certainly over.
The summer of 1988 it was like the whole city was in mourning, almost like a wake, with locals remembering this summer just as vividly as the summer before it.
At the end of the season, four players were sacked by Napoli after writing an open letter of protest against their manager. The ugly fallout from the title-winning season had clearly spread through the team.
If we want to avoid all the sinister routes to explain Napoli’s capitulation in the 1987/88 season then we have to address the fact that some of the team hated their head coach. Maybe they themselves felt like the only way to get rid of him, was to make him fail.
Maradona was also unhappy. Although he took no blame for the open letter, he refused to return to training for the new season 1988/89. He claimed the president of Napoli, Corrado Ferlaino had promised him a transfer to Marseille. When the deal didn’t happen Maradona refused to play and missed the first 4 games of the season. After a long war of words, Maradona made up with the club and helped them to win the UEFA CUP in 1988/89.
Napoli would triumph on home soil once again, winning the title in 1989/90. In the film Diego Maradona you can see the footage of the team celebrating this title. In the changing rooms, Ferlaino is asked about how he feels after winning the league. He replies with something along the lines of it being amazing but he would have loved to have won the two previous titles too. You then see Maradona burst in with a “mamma mia, really? But president, we have to let someone else win, otherwise, it gets boring.” This could just be the way it looks, the star player in the midst of celebrating a gruelling title-winning season, an off the cuff comment.
However, taking into account the team, the city and the player involved with the comment, there might be something deeper to his claim especially if we cut out and only use the “We have to let someone else win.” Maybe they had to.