One day after the passing of Argentina’s gifted No.10, Napoli play Rijeka in a UEFA Europa League match at the Stadio San Paolo – the theatre for some of his most memorable feats in club football.
When European football honours Diego Maradona with a minute’s silence at the start of all UEFA Europa League matches on Thursday evening, the memories will shine brightest and the applause ring loudest at Napoli’s match at the Stadio San Paolo.
From 1984 to 1991, the historic ground formed a backdrop to many of the supremely talented Argentinian’s greatest performances in Europe, as Maradona’s uncanny skills and inspirational leadership helped Napoli become the first southern Italian side to win the Serie A title – in 1987, then again in 1990.
“Maradona became an eternal idol for the supporters of Napoli, who will never forget the successes he brought to the club during his memorable spell in Italy,” said UEFA president Alexander Ceferin on Wednesday, after hearing the sad news that Maradona, aged 60, had suffered a fatal heart attack.
The San Paolo was also witness to the only continental club trophy that Maradona won in his career: the 1988/89 UEFA Cup, forerunner of the Europa League.
In one of the tournament’s toughest editions, comprising 64 teams, Napoli recovered from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to see off Juventus with a 3-0 extra-time win in the quarter-final’s return match. They then defeated Bayern München, before triumphing over another German outfit, Jürgen Klinsmann’s Stuttgart, in the final (5-4 on aggregate).
On Wednesday, Naples mayor Luigi de Magistris proposed that the San Paolo be renamed Stadio Maradona in recognition of the Argentinian’s role in helping Napoli take their place alongside Italian football’s traditionally dominant northern clubs – Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale.
Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport was quick to spot that Maradona had passed away on the same day as both George Best and Fidel Castro – also unique characters in football and politics respectively.
As soon as fans heard of Maradona’s death, they gathered in mourning both at the San Paolo and along the backstreets of Naples – the Spanish Quarter, the Forcella and Spaccanapoli – where one of the greatest footballers ever is still revered and his painted portrait adorns the walls of apartment blocks.
Napoli reflected the shock and sorrow of many in reacting to Maradona’s passing on Twitter: “People are all expecting our words. But which words can we use for the pain we are experiencing right now? This is only the moment for tears. The moment of words will come.”
“Diego Maradona achieved greatness as a wonderful player with a genius and charisma of his own,” said Aleksander Ceferin, recalling the artistry of a player who left fans around the world spellbound as he dribbled past opponents with the ball apparently tied to his feet, and guided free-kicks with radar-like precision into the back of the net.
“He will go down in history as someone who set football alight and thrilled fans young and old with his brilliance and skill.”