When Maradona and Napoli won the Serie A in 1989-90

By, Kolkata
May 03, 2023 10:56 PM IST

He wasn’t even supposed to be playing for them. He never stopped living it up. But he was also top scorer the last time they were Italy's champions.

On April 29, 1990, Napoli won their second, and so far last, Serie A title. It was at home and after a 1-0 win against Lazio in their last match, the battle with AC Milan having gone down to the wire. The only goal came in the seventh minute, central defender Marco Baroni heading home a Diego Maradona free-kick, ending another Italian season shrouded in controversy but also one that heralded the arrival of Gianfranco Zola.

Diego Maradona cheers after the Napoli team clinched its first Italian major league title in Naples(AP)
Diego Maradona cheers after the Napoli team clinched its first Italian major league title in Naples(AP)

“This is proof that I know myself better than anyone!,” Maradona screamed after the final whistle. “And this is the down payment to be allowed to live my life! I want to live my life, please,” he wrote in El Diego, the autobiography translated into English by Marcela Mora Y Araujo. No one knew better than Maradona that being famous and “living my life” were like opposite-coloured bishops in chess.

Reluctant star

How else can you explain that Napoli’s last league title came when Maradona wasn’t even supposed to play for them? To get Maradona to Olympique Marseille, Bernard Tapie had promised riches beyond the imagination of a footballer in the 1980s. Maradona’s annual salary of $12m would be doubled, he would stay in a villa “with a 6000m park for my daughter (Dalma) to run around in, for my family to enjoy, with a swimming pool. (El Diego).”

Napoli president Corrado Ferlaino had promised to release Maradona if they won the UEFA Super Cup in 1989. (That competition is memorable for a clip of Maradona, bootlaces fluttering and the ball doing his bidding, warming up to Opus’ ‘Live is Life’) Napoli did. But bang in the middle of celebrations, Ferlaino told Maradona that he should respect his contract that ran till 1993. Maradona’s autobiography, Guillem Balague’s ‘The Boy, The Rebel, The God’ and Jimmy Burns’ Hand of God’ are consistent in the description of this incident. In 1993, Marseille won the European Cup, the predecessor of the Champions League, beating AC Milan so who knows how that story would have ended.

Also Read - God, man, superman: Finding Maradona in Naples

But in 1989, Maradona felt shackled by a long-term deal. By then, his relationship with Ferlaino, never very smooth, had deteriorated. Not getting along with coach Ottavio Bianchi didn’t help either. Like with another World Cup winner as Argentina captain, Maradona would leave city without informing the club. But, his hand forced, Maradona sought to return on August 16, 1989, for pre-seasons but with the caveat that he would need to detox first for 12 days. Napoli didn’t agree and so Maradona went fishing with his father.

When Serie A began on August 27, 1989, Maradona was in Argentina. On September 2, he said he wanted to return but didn’t, according to Balague, because he wasn’t given a first-class ticket. Maradona reached Italy on September 4 and, with personal trainer Fernando Signorini and physician Dr Ruben Oliva, began to get ready for the season. His first game was as a substitute at home against Fiorentina on September 17. Maradona came on when Napoli were trailing 0-2. He missed a penalty but set up two goals and Napoli won 3-2. In a trice, all was well.

Napoli had begun the season with 0-1 loss away to Ascoli but even though their totem was away, beat Udinese and Verona on either side of a barren draw at Cesena. After Fiorentina, Maradona played the next 20 games – unusual, given his injury problems in the seasons prior – and Napoli went in a 12-game unbeaten run that was ended by Lazio on December 30. They beat Milan 3-0, Maradona setting up two first-half goals for Andrea Carnevale before scoring the third. “He went one on one with the goalkeeper, dummied his shot, the chipped the ball over the stranded stopper who was sprawled on the floor after buying Diego’s feint,” writes Balague.

With Napoli on top, Maradona got married in Buenos Aires with over 1000 guests in attendance.

Most famous import

Founded in 1926, Maradona wasn’t the first famous foreign player at Napoli. Attilla Sallustro of Paraguay played for the team from the south of Italy in the 1920s and 1930s as did Brazilians Luis Vinicio and Jose Altafini in the 1950s and Italian-Argentine Omar Sivori (1965-69). But, no one had an impact on Italy’s fourth-most supported club like Maradona. “In footballing terms, I brought the things they didn’t have: heel flicks, dribbles, titles.” (El Diego.)

Over 70,000 were present at the San Paolo, renamed Diego Armando Maradona after his death in 2020, making Maradona’s arrival memorable. “Maradona take charge,” the terraces chanted. “If it doesn’t happen now, it will never happen…” John Foot writes in ‘Calcio’ that 86% of San Paolo were season ticket holders.

In his time at Napoli (1984-91), Maradona won two Serie A titles, UEFA Cup and the Italian Super Cup. A team that was, in his words, closer to the second division, had been hauled to the top of European club football. In a league that had the world’s best – Michel Platini, Zico, Socrates, Ian Rush, Daniel Passarella, Andreas Brehme, Falcao, Juergen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaeus, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten played in Serie A in the time Maradona was there – Napoli were no longer a team the heavyweights from the north would use for target practice.

Like with the Argentina teams of 1986 and 1990 World Cups, Napoli, coached by Alberto Bigon who had replaced Bianchi, were dependent on Maradona but had able players in different areas of the pitch. Italy centre-back Ciro Ferrera anchored the defence, Fernando De Napoli marshalled the midfield like he did for the national team and Zola, Carnevale, Maradona and Brazilian Careca forged a formidable partnership in front. Careca had joined Napoli spurning Real Madrid because he wanted to play with Maradona. What he says with typical humility in ‘Touched By God’, the story of Argentina’s World Cup triumph in 1986, can be applied to Napoli’s last Serie A title as well. Without the team we could have beaten England but not won the World Cup, Maradona said.

Suffocated by love

But Maradona found Napoli’s adoration “clingy and suffocating.” Girlfriend Claudia Villafane had to buy his clothes as Maradona couldn’t get out without being mobbed. Celebrations after the league title of 1987 were interrupted by an old lady asking people to pipe down. The mood changed as soon as Maradona imitated the stadium chant of his name and the lady joined the celebrations. His blood sample was placed in the city’s cathedral and he needed police escort to get to training sessions. When a flight he was taking faced turbulent weather, a passenger said, “nothing can happen to us as God is travelling on the plane.” Maradona also said he didn’t understand why people said they loved him more than their children and that he meant more to them than their mother. Even now, the city has murals of him in a Napoli shirt adorning buildings.

He had been a user before coming to Naples but this unusual life made his cocaine addiction worse with the mafia being his friends and suppliers. Maradona would use alcohol to prolong the high. Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Maradona’s Naples’ years shows him playing on Sunday and partying till Wednesday, cleaning up from Thursday and playing again on Sunday.

Goals galore

Yet, Maradona scored 16 goals in the 1989-90 Serie A campaign, the highest for his team. From 1987 to 1990, he scored 50 goals. Goals, which according to Foot, were rarely dull like those from Roberto Baggio. They were “chips from outside the box, perfect free-kicks, mazy dribbles…Maradona was able to provide numerous passes for others and he never gave up even when defenders took lumps out of his stocky legs,” wrote Foot.

Though Maradona shone bright, Napoli’s march to the title was not without controversy. Ferlaino later told ESPN that being friends with the man who appointed referees helped him get Rosario lo Bello to officiate the Milan-Verona game. Bello was close to Napoli, said the club president. Milan lost 1-2, Napoli beat Bologna 4-2 to set up the final day showdown with Lazio.

On the final day, a Sunday, Maradona with his girls and Claudia in tow entered the pitch. Like last Sunday when Napoli hosted Salernitana, the city was ready to celebrate. Napoli’s party shifted to a ship where two packages arrived on jet skis. The cocaine is here, said Guillermo Coppolla, Maradona’s manager.


    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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