The top two in Serie A collide at the San Paolo on Friday night with their shared history reflecting a greater rivalry which transcends football
By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Writer
“It’s a huge mess,” said one political analyst, while the electoral system was considered “a pig’s ear.” The past week saw Italy’s elections decide exactly nothing about the future of the bel paese, leaving many to scratch their heads over the next move in the bid to find a new government.
With Italy struggling under the weight of massive unemployment, a continued slump economically, further poverty across large swathes of the country and the geographical division which still characterises the 150-year-old nation, there is much to contemplate for the average Italian right now.
But on Friday night, there are more immediate concerns. Because while political and economic issues are seen as long-term problems which are unlikely to be resolved any time soon, Juventus’ trip to Napoli represents a civil war which takes place every single season. The people of Naples may not fancy their chances of overcoming their daily struggles relating to drugs, corruption, pollution, refuse and poverty, in which they feel no support from the powerful north, but they have faith in the possibility of a change in tide on the football field. They believe in it because they have seen it happen before.
Despite unification in 1861, Italy has always retained the feeling of two very separate countries – continents even – bonded only in name. In real terms, it remains a very young nation with significantly deep divides.
It is often said that the only thing that unites Italy is the national football team, but the one player who came closest to exposing the love-hate relationship for what it really is also happens to be the man who gave many in the south of the country the greatest few years of their sporting lives. Nay, their entire lives. Neapolitans still believe in the improbable because of Diego Maradona.
Napoli fans | Calcio has been the Neapolitans' release from the reality of life in southern Italy
When the Argentine arrived in Naples, he was already seen as one of the most talented players ever to step onto a football pitch, but over the next seven years he would prove to be the very best in the game’s history. The greatest ever player’s greatest ever spell came in the azzurro of Napoli, and it made it all the sweeter to both the Partenopei and to Maradona himself that it came at the expense of the traditional powerhouses in Italy’s north.
No city south of Rome had ever witnessed a Scudetto triumph. Even the capital clubs of Lazio and Roma had only ever won three titles between them. Instead, it was the triumvirate of Juve, Milan and Inter who had become known for their dominance of the sport in the bel paese. Just as the north was the hub of Italian industry, so too did it hold all the cards when it came to calcio. And it rankled just as much with the inhabitants of cities such as Naples and Bari that they couldn't claim to be sporting equals as it did that they were not considered ‘terroni’ (a derogatory term for southerners) by those in the north.
Maradona changed all that. Naples was the one city which hadn't seen most of its locals pick one of the three northern giants as their team of choice. Naples had stayed strong and remained loyal to its club. The Argentine saw the capital of Campania as a city that spoke to him. He had himself been exposed to a difficult upbringing in a poor family in Argentina, and he saw in Naples what he had seen in Villa Fiorito. He wanted to help turn the tide, and he did so in spectacular style.
Juventus were the most obvious representation of the gulf between the successful north and the downtrodden south, with around 14 million fans following the Turin side from all over the country. They were what the majority of the Mezzogiorno aspired to be, but the second half of the 1980s was a far from prolific time for the Bianconeri, while the Partenopei achieved like never before. The 1987 Scudetto was characterised by a double success over a Juve side boasting Michel Platini, the first – a 3-1 triumph at the Stadio Comunale – putting them clear at the top for the first time that season. They would never relinquish the lead from there.
When the title was clinched, the city partied like never before. Maradona ordained himself a “son of Naples," while his ‘fellow Neapolitans’ hosted a series of wakes for the powerhouses of the north. It was only ever going to be a temporary shift in power, but they were not about to pass up the opportunity to make their point. This was the south's moment in the sun.
|The Neapolitans must remember one thing. Italy makes it feel important one day of the year, but forgets about it the other 364
- Diego Maradona
There was no let-up in the bile which came from the terraces when the Azzurri travelled north, with banners at Verona greeting Napoli fans with the messages “Welcome to Italy” and “Vesuvius, make us dream”. But with Maradona around, the Neapolitans’ answer came on the pitch. A Uefa Cup in 1989 and a further Scudetto in 1990 prolonged the dream further.
However, the reverie began to die when Maradona appeared at San Paolo in the shirt of Argentina for the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Italy. “The Neapolitans must remember one thing. Italy makes it feel important one day of the year, but forgets about it the other 364,” warned ‘El Pibe de Oro’ ahead of the match. It was a plea which fell on deaf ears, with banners informing Diego: “We love you, but we are still Italian.” The relationship between Maradona and Napoli, which had been tenuous at times during his stay, became fragmented soon after.
Since that summer, the Partenopei have been on a spectacular rollercoaster which has included bankruptcy and reformation, returning the club alongside its city’s inhabitants as an inconsequential afterthought in the minds of those in the north. But last summer they clinched their first major trophy since that 1990 title win by beating Juventus 2-0 to lift the Coppa Italia, and the significance of the Old Lady being on the receiving end was lost on nobody. The biggest symbol of northern Italy’s footballing superpowers had been toppled by the plucky streetfighters from the south.
And on Friday night, Napoli walk into the last chance saloon as they attempt to thwart Juve’s march towards a second straight Scudetto and prolong their own hopes of recreating the days of silverware which allowed them to hold their heads high among their supposedly exalted company from the north.
If Napoli lose to Juve, normal service will resume, the Bianconeri will win the title, and life in Italy will go on as normal, complete with drugs, corruption, poverty etc. But with a victory for the Partenopei, an entire city’s battle against those who treat them as ‘terroni’, as foreigners, as sewer rats, could yet have a happy ending. To the people of Naples, this is infinitely more important than any election. This is a fight they can win.