If there’s one place outside Argentina that will likely match — or possibly even exceed — the outpouring of mourning for Diego Maradona, it’s in Naples.
While Maradona was revered around the world as perhaps the greatest soccer player ever, in Naples he was more than that.
Maradona was treated as a deity for the way he led Napoli to its only two Serie A titles — in 1987 and 1990 — and raised the spirits of the southern Italian city, which remains far removed both geographically and socio-economically from the country’s soccer capitals of Milan and Turin.
“Maradona wasn’t just a player. He represented the spirit of Napoli for years,” said former Napoli president Corrado Ferlaino, who owned the club when Maradona played there.
Maradona’s spokesman, Sebastián Sanchi, said he died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 60, two weeks after being released from a hospital in Buenos Aires following brain surgery.
Upon hearing the news, thousands of Neapolitans poured out into the city's streets to honor Maradona and light candles in his memory — even though gatherings are banned because the city lies in a coronavirus red zone. Many of them stood below huge murals of their hero that cover entire sides of downtown buildings.
“It’s so emotional that you can’t say it with words, you can’t explain it,” said one local resident, Francesco Errico. “He gave us so much. He made us experience mind-blowing emotions.”
Naples Mayor Luigi De Magistris immediately proposed that the city’s San Paolo Stadium be renamed for Maradona — and ordered the stadium's lights be turned on all night even though there was no game being played there.
“Maradona is Napoli. The passion for him here is known to everyone,” De Magistris said. “Maradona united Neapolitans all over the world — as well as fans of other squads.
“Today all Neapolitans embrace his family, with the awareness that this embrace will never end,” the mayor added. “Because it was real love. A great love.”
Maradona, of course, already made Italians cry when his Argentina team eliminated Italy in Naples in the 1990 World Cup semifinals. Many Napoli fans cheered for Maradona and Argentina — not their own country — during that game.
Maradona also led Napoli to the 1989 UEFA Cup title during his seven-season stay. He also allegedly became a regular cocaine addict in the city — a dependence that eventually led to his downfall from soccer.
“Yes, he was also a controversial man,” De Magistris said. “But for us Maradona is the one who made Naples and Neapolitans dream — with his genius, his uniqueness, he gave us happiness. Many have named their sons Diego, for he was able to redeem a city that was often the target of prejudices and discrimination.”
In a sign of mourning, Napoli changed its usual blue logo on its Twitter account to black.
“Everyone is awaiting our words,” the club tweeted in Italian. “But what words can we use for the pain that we are experiencing? Now is the moment for tears. Then will come the time for words.”
Current Napoli standout Dries Mertens tweeted, “You were the first thing that came to my mind when I signed for Naples. Wearing the blue shirt will mean even more from now on. Napoli lost part of its soul today. You were, and will always be, an inspiration to all of us."
With 128 goals across all competitions, Mertens is Napoli's all-time leading scorer. Marek Hamsik is second with 121 and Maradona is third with 115.
“If my name has ever been placed next to yours, I apologize, I will never be at your level," Mertens added. "What you did for ‘our’ city will go down in history forever. It was an honour to have met you. Forever my idol.”
Napoli plays Croatian side Rijeka on Thursday in the Europa League. The San Paolo stadium will be empty of fans due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But fans were already outside the stadium late Wednesday waving banners, singing songs and lighting flares in Maradona's honor.
“He was more than a champion. He was a soccer genius, an absolute star," said Italian sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora, who is from Naples. "He represented unrepeatable dreams and hopes for the people of my city. Naples cries tonight.”
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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf