The summer of 1984 was a strange one in Serie A.
Lengthy deliberations ended fruitlessly, meaning that clubs went into the close-season believing that it would be their last opportunity to buy players from foreign leagues for three years.
Accordingly, there was something of a mixture between inspiration and desperation in the straineri(foreigners) brought in over the summer of 1984.
Hellas Verona signed Hans-Peter Briegel and Preben Elkjaer, who were inspirational enough to take the Gialloblu to the Scudetto. Fiorentina added to their South American contingent and recruited Socrates. Atalanta looked north and brought in Glenn Stromberg, who was a success and Lars Larsson, who wasn’t. AC Milan signed Mark Hateley and Ray Wilkins.
Amidst all the transfers, there was one player who stood head and shoulders above the rest.
On July 5 1984, 31 years ago this weekend, Diego Maradona moved to Napoli.
Naples during the 1980s was, just as it is now, an unforgiving city.
Despite 150 years of unification in Italy, there was, and remains, a difference between Naples and the rest of the peninsula. It can be explained in simple terms by wealth.
The north, Turin and Milan in particular, are richer than the south. Hundreds of thousands of southern Italians have migrated north seeking the jobs, and the money, that are available.
It has left a mark on those left behind, and a resilience, too. The same is true of football, as Inter, AC Milan and especially Juventus, were the northern powerhouses who crushed Napoli season in and season out.
Even today, Naples is different, apart.
When there is territorial discrimination called into question at Serie A games, it invariably involves Napoli. It leads to a culture of both pride and resolution — two things that Maradona had in spades.
It took him a little while to settle, but when he did, the combination of Maradona and Napoli was as explosive and memorable of any player at any club. From the very beginning, when 70,000 turned out at the Stadio San Paolo to greet his arrival, it was clear something was afoot.
The initial challenge was to overcome the dominance of Juventus, where Frenchman Michel Platini stood astride not just the midfield, but the whole of Serie A. It took a while for Maradona to reach that level, as his first season stalled somewhat.
Napoli languished throughout the end of 1984, entering the new year only just outside the relegation zone. As the new calendars arrived, though, everything seemed to fall into place. From January 6 onwards, Rino Marchesi’s side lost just one game (W D7 L1), enough to climb the table to an eighth place finish.
Once he had established himself in Serie A however, Maradona took off like a train.
The next campaign saw Napoli lose just once in their first 15 games, as the Argentine grabbed Serie A by the throat. He had determination and intention that was well appreciated on the terraces as the side surged to success.
Instead of Naples kowtowing to the likes of Juventus, Maradona’s presence at the Stadio San Paolo ensured the opposite was true. A famous mural appeared on a Neapolitan wall depicting the changing of the guard between the two clubs and, more pointedly, their star players.
In it, Platini, representing the Bianconeri, is on his knees desperately clutching a Scudetto while a heroic and dominant Maradona stands alongside ready to claim the crown. Wrought, perhaps overwrought, with symbolism, that is how it must have felt to be a Napoli fan in the late 1980s.
The best player in the world was turning out in sky blue week in and week out and trophies, the likes of which had been so hard to come by in the decades before, were raining in on Napoli.
Maradona had put the club and the city on the map. Two Scudetti, a UEFA Cup and a Coppa Italia all found their way into the trophy cabinet in short succession.
The team of Maradona, Careca, Ciro Ferrara and Gianfranco Zola was good enough to keep all-comers at bay for a handful of seasons and ensure that wherever the political and financial power may have been in Italy, the glory stayed at the Stadio San Paolo.
Yet as Maradona’s prowess began to falter after the 1990 World Cup, so did his stranglehold on Naples, and so did Napoli’s stranglehold on Serie A. Never again since have they been able to recreate the days of Maradona, which is perhaps why he is still held in such affection in the city.
Maradona not only opened the window to what was possible, but also thumbed his nose at his so-called superiors while he did it.
Diego Maradona was, and is, a hero to a city of outsiders; someone who demonstrated that it was possible for them to achieve, even if the odds were stacked against them. He was not just Napoli, he was Naples, and he is still revered for it.