When Napoli beat Juventus 1-0 in November 1985, thanks to a Diego Maradona free-kick, five people fainted in the stadium and two had heart attacks. On the television news that night, a stern-faced presenter announced: “So quite literally by scoring this goal, Maradona made a big mess.” A year and a half later, Napoli were champions of Italy, their first scudetto in a long, underwhelming history. The party went on for two months. Hundreds of newborn boys were named Diego, the girls Diega.
These are details from the riveting, immersive new documentary Diego Maradona, made by Asif Kapadia, whose previous films have traced the extraordinary lives and premature demises of Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse. Much of Diego Maradona is preoccupied with the crazy tale of how the best player in the world ended up at one of Italy’s least desirable clubs and what happened next. The fact that the Argentinian, within three seasons, almost single-footedly took Napoli from perennial relegation-dodgers to the summit of the best and toughest league in the world is often used by his admirers to explain why he should be regarded as the greatest player ever to step on a football pitch.
I was in Naples last month and it’s easy to find people who remember the first title – in 1986-87 – as if it was five minutes ago. Gennaro Montuori, an ultra who directed 20,000 fans in Curva B at Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo, was one. Now in his early 60s, he pulled out his hearing aid to show me what happens when you stand in front of 50 drummers every fortnight for decades (Maradona apparently paid for some of the drums, so the atmosphere would be especially intense). Asked what that first title felt like, Montuori said: “It’s very hard to explain. You are writing an article, Asif Kapadia made a film, but you will never understand what it was like for someone like me, who lived through it.”
Yet often with Napoli fans, they would spend as much time talking about the following season. The One That Got Away. This doesn’t feature much in Kapadia’s film, perhaps because Maradona’s life was enough of a soap opera without it. But it was a year that still perplexed Neapolitans, niggled at them more than 30 years on. And hearing them talk about it, it was not hard to understand why it rankled.
The champions started the next season in ruthless form. Maradona had been joined by the Brazilian striker Careca, one of the stars of the 1986 World Cup. Together with the Italian Bruno Giordano, they became known as “Ma-Gi-Ca”, the most feared frontline in Serie A. Milan, meanwhile, seemed to be in transition. The media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi had bought the club in 1986 and installed the Parma manager, Arrigo Sacchi, in the top job. Their new signings Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten did not immediately settle. Juventus, without the just-retired Michel Platini and with Ian Rush, signed from Liverpool, struggling, looked unconvincing.
From the opening day, Napoli were on a charge. Milan rallied after a poor start (a loss at home to Fiorentina, draws with mid-table Torino and Cesena), but with five matches remaining Napoli were clear by four points. With two points for a win, it was almost dormie. But then, having lost two games all season, Napoli went into meltdown. In their last five matches, they drew one and lost four, including a dramatic showdown against Milan at home that ended in a 3-2 defeat.
Winning the scudetto had inspired the biggest party in the history of Naples. Now, one year later, there was almost a wake.
Of course, dramatic collapses happen all the time in sport. Think of Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters or Jean van de Velde – three strokes ahead on the final hole – at the 1999 Open. There’s Newcastle United, 12 points clear in mid-January in 1995-96, or even Barcelona losing the plot against Liverpool last month. Pressure builds, nerves crack; it’s one of the main reasons we all tune in and keep watching even when a result seems determined.
But Napoli’s choke in 1987-88 has always been wrapped up in deep folds of suspicion. The city has been home to the Camorra crime syndicate since the 17th century. The 1980s were an especially violent time; in 1988, there were at least 32 distinct clans battling for superiority, with hundreds of deaths every year.
One of the main revenue streams for the Camorra was the totonero, black-market betting. At the start of the 1987-88 season, every single Neapolitan, it seemed, put money on their team to win a second championship. While there has never been a proven link, success for Napoli would have been highly disadvantageous for the crime families of the city. “If they had won that season, the Camorra would have had to pay out about 200bn lire in bets,” Simone Di Meo, an investigative journalist who specializes in the Camorra, told me. “They would have gone bankrupt.”
Certainly, there were some strange goings-on towards the end of the season. Maradona’s car was smashed up, while the midfielder Salvatore Bagni had his home burgled twice. In Kapadia’s documentary, the link between Maradona and the Camorra is explored. He is shown with the Guiliano clan, a ruthless family who ran the impoverished Forcella neighborhood. Maradona went to their parties, graced their weddings and accepted the Rolexes that were a standard appearance gift.
Napoli did rise again, to win a second title – they haven’t won it again since – in 1990. In Diego Maradona, there is footage inside the dressing room as the team celebrate and a loaded exchange between Maradona and the club’s president, Corrado Ferlaino. Maradona, as was his wont, had grabbed a microphone and was playing reporter. He asks Ferlaino if he’s happy and the president replies that he’d have liked to have won the title the two previous seasons as well. “Mamma mia, really?” says Maradona, either indignant or pretending to be. “But president, we have to let someone else win, otherwise it gets boring.”