A new documentary doesnt capture the way an underdog city both beatified and ensnared its favourite son, says former Guardian Italy correspondent Ed Vulliamy
Sundays would begin and end at a bar called Bollicine bubbles behind Piazza Leopardi station in the Fuorigrotta quarter of Naples. It was kept by a man called Enzo Cosenza, who also led choreography and singing in the citys football stadium. Thats where we spent the time in between, across the span of two years with season tickets, watching Diego Maradona defy the laws of gravity and physics with a football.
I was working in Rome, but commuting from Naples for romantic reasons, and I soon fell in love with Maradona as well. Ahead of Asif Kapadias much-anticipated documentary on the Maradona phenomenon, released next week, the talk is once again about Diego. The film turns the pages of a marvellous scrapbook, but doesnt convey how Maradona and Naples shared a common heartbeat and soul. To understand Maradona in those days was to understand Naples, and vice versa: the same unearthly magic, the same brilliant light, the same maleficient shadows.
In 1984, SSC Napoli played a stratum below Europes soccer powerhouses and wasnt the obvious destination for a global football star. And this was long before Elena Ferrante and mass tourism: Naples was a place through which visitors hurried to the Amalfi coast, clutching their wallets, often in vain.
Yet it was the perfect place for Maradona: every Neapolitan felt the hand of God in Maradonas arrival among them. By wresting the citys first ever championship titles from the hated, hitherto dominant, teams of the rich north, Maradona incarnated the rebellious pride and elan of the poorer south. Here come the Neapolitans what a stench! Even the dogs run away, visiting Milanese fans would sing. Cholerati! Terremottati! cholera-ridden, earthquaked. And from our beloved Curva B end of the stadium, led by Cosenza, came the reply: Mamma, why does my heart beat so? Because Ive seen Maradona, Im in love.
I was in the Curva B the night Italy faced Argentina in the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Naples, when Maradonas national team shattered the host countrys fairytale. And there was salt in the wound: Napoli non Italia (Naples isnt Italy) Maradona had insisted, urging that the Ultras commit treason and support Argentina. They did, and were never forgiven. But there was logic to the choice; a thread of Parthenopean identity reaching back from the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies to vengeance in the present by the messiah from Buenos Aires.
The synergy between player and city cut still deeper. Naples exists on a faultline and in the shadow of a volcano, in close proximity to the cults of death and after-life, replete with what northern Europeans and Protestants call superstition. You dont know what you missed, read graffiti on a cemetery wall after the second championship in 1990, when celebrations lasted three nights. How do you know we missed it? came a retort.
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