The Diego Maradona derby: Unloved in Catalonia but a God in Naples, Maradona looms large over Barcelona v Napoli
Maradona shocked world football when he traded the superstars of Barcelona for lowly Napoli in 1984. Watch the Champions League last-16 second leg between his former clubs on Saturday 8 August - only on BT Sport.
It was a strange quirk that these two have been kept apart on the continental stage. That all changed at the December draw for the knockout rounds in Nyon.
Such was the anticipation in Naples, the first leg was the most expensive match ever in the 60-year history of the Stadio San Paolo.
Barcelona are the far more illustrious side of course, with a far greater haul of trophies and standing as one of the biggest clubs in world football. They’ve been almost ever-present in the Champions League.
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Napoli have just two league titles in their history, in 1987 and 1990, both claimed when Diego Maradona was in Naples. The Neapolitans have featured in the European Cup in six of the nine seasons since 2011/12. Before that they’d been absent since 1991, again when Maradona last donned their colours.
With little shared history between them on the pitch, Maradona is the man who ties these two iconic clubs together.
The Argentine stunned world football when he swapped life at one of Europe’s great powerhouses for Napoli, perennial strugglers in Italy, for a world-record transfer fee in 1984.
Maradona, even before realising his potential, was regarded as one of the most talented players in world football at the time. Making the decision to spend his prime years at a club who lived in the shadows of others in Italy was an almighty shock.
Yet, as is outlined in the 2019 documentary based on the life of the Argentine, there was far more to consider than just football.
He felt underappreciated at Barcelona. Since arriving from Boca Juniors in 1982, he’d been made a target by Spanish football’s hatchet men every time he took to the field.
There were of course moments of brilliance, such as an outstanding display in El Clasico against Real Madrid, but repeated fouling eventually took its toll.
Maradona sustained a broken ankle following a dirty challenge by Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goikoetxea in 1983 and spent three months out injured. It followed a bout of hepatitis.
Despite his spells on the sidelines, Maradona would still make 58 appearances for Barcelona, scoring 38 goals. Yet his exit was hastened by a number of unsavoury incidents.
None more so than his involvement in the mass brawl that followed the 1984 Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao. Maradona was again targeted by Goikoetxea and his patience snapped after another dangerous tackle from the Bilbao defender.
The red mist descended. He head-butted a Bilbao player, elbowed another and kneed a third in the head. It sparked a brouhaha on the pitch as the Spanish King Juan Carlos and 100,000 others watched on.
It proved the final straw for Maradona’s time at Camp Nou and he was sold two months later, bringing a tumultuous two-year tenure with the Catalan giants to an abrupt end.
He was unveiled at Napoli in front of 75,000 supporters packed into the Stadio San Paolo, with tens of thousands more lining the street to welcome him.
Maradona was unloved at Barcelona, yet he was a demigod to the people of Naples. One local newspaper wrote that Naples did not have a "mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment or sanitation," but that "none of this matters because we have Maradona".
The Argentine would become a hero for the downtrodden. Naples was viewed by the rest of Italy as a city of squalor and crime.
Maradona, who grew up in abject poverty in a shanty town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, was the perfect fit. Their adopted son would be mentioned in the same breath as Jesus by locals.
He would deliver a first, and eventually second, Serie A title for Napoli – the first won by an Italian club from the south. Both triumphs sparked months of wild celebrations across the region.
Regarded by many as the greatest player of all time, Maradona is a mere footnote in Barcelona’s storied history. Lionel Messi has failed to usurp Maradona’s status with the national team, but he’s long surpassed him in the eyes of Catalonia.
Maradona remains King of Naples and Napoli’s favourite son but they’re relying on their heroes of today, the likes of Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, to secure a famous victory at the Nou Camp against Barcelona as the Champions League returns.
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