The patron saint of Naples

By Mark Doyle

"Maradona is the Caravaggio of the 20th century. That's not a stretch: The faces of Caravaggio are the children of everyday life, of the streets, of the peripheries of humanity. With him, life becomes art, just like with Maradona."

– Vittorio Sgarbi

The notorious Neapolitan housing project 'Le Vele di Scampia' consisted of seven tower blocks. Just one remains fully intact today but it continues to loom ominously over one of the most impoverished zones in all of Italy; a dilapidated monument to social inequality and injustice.

Even in this area, though, one can find glorious relics from Naples' rich history.

Buried away in the basement of a run-down building in Sondigliano – just a 10-minute drive from 'Le Vele', which featured so prominently in the Roberto Saviano's 'Gomorra' book, film and TV series – is arguably the world's greatest Diego Maradona museum.

"Welcome to my sanctuary," says Massimo Vignati as he opens the big blue metallic door to the basement of an apartment block on Via Lombardia.

The walls of the short, tight corridor inside are lined with photographs and newspaper cuttings, while the roof is covered with pennants.

A door on the right-hand side leads into a room overflowing with Maradona memorabilia. It is an assault on the senses for any football fan; almost too much take.

There are little pieces of history everywhere to be seen: footballs from games in which Maradona played; a pair of his iconic Puma King boots can be found on the wall; two of his Napoli shirts hang above a bench that was actually once a fixture in the San Paolo dressing room; one of his captain's armbands is wrapped around a Moka coffee pot.

There is even a photocopy of the contract Maradona signed to take him from Barcelona to Napoli in 1984; Vignati claims it is the only one of its kind in the world and, as he sits down to explain how he came to be in possession of this veritable treasure trove, he proudly points out that even the couch on which he is resting belonged to Maradona.

"These are the beautiful gifts personally given to me and my family," he says.

"I had the good fortune of my father being the caretaker of the San Paolo for 40 years and my mother being the only cook in the Maradona home during his time here in Naples.

"We lived seven unforgettable years with the greatest footballer of all time, seven truly beautiful years in which I felt like I could touch the sky. 

"We got to know Maradona the person – not Maradona the celebrity.

“Maradona is a person with heart, a person that loves us a lot. Since we were 11 siblings, when Diego saw us, we reminded him of his Argentine family. In fact, he called my mother his 'mamma Napoletana'.

“And since we used to go to work with my mother to help her and we would always call her 'Mamma, mamma, mamma!' And even he started to call her 'Mamma'. He even cried when they saw one another again 20 years after he left.

"That is perhaps the side of Maradona that many people didn't see outside of Naples. He's a man with a big heart: warm and kind.

"He gave my family all of these beautiful things you see around us and now we can use them at fundraisers and events to raise money for the foundation we set up in honour of my father when he died.

"There are a lot of children in difficulty in Naples, and especially those in hospital with terrible illnesses.

"So, thanks to Diego and my father, we are able to do something for them.

"We Neapolitans are like the South Americans of Europe: poor but proud. We try to take care of one another.

"It's why Diego felt at home here. He was one of us and still is, even if he became a god in Naples."

It's no exaggeration.

In a deeply religious city, a tourist is as likely to come across an image of Maradona as the Madonna. There are those that treat San Diego with the same reverence as San Gennaro.

Hundreds of pilgrims flock to Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta every day to bear witness to an ampoule containing what is allegedly the blood of Napoli's patron saint.

However, the staff at the nearby Bar Nilo claim that just as many tourists come to see their shrine to Maradona.

Too many, perhaps. It was once too difficult for patrons to reach the counter because of all of the tourists taking photographs.

So, nowadays, those that visit have to at least buy a coffee before they take out their cameras.

It's worth the euro. Not only is the coffee excellent (it is Napoli, after all); the shrine is something to behold.

At the top of the alter, there is a spinning tear which represents all of the tears that have been shed by Neapolitans since Maradona left in 1991.

A picture of 'Santo Diego' can be found below and is, tellingly, positioned just above a figurine of the Pope.

A picture of Maradona in his Napoli shirt takes pride of place in the middle of the shrine but the piece de resistance lies beneath.

'The miraculous hair of Diego Armando Maradona' is enclosed in a small glass case at the base of this miniature temple.

Cafe Nilo owner Bruno Alcidi claims to have collected the sample after finding himself on the same flight as the Napoli team after a game in Milan on February 11, 1990.

He says he spotted the stray hair on Maradona's vacated seat as he passed to disembark and, in a moment of inspiration and improvisation, popped it into his empty box of Marlboro cigarettes for safe-keeping until he could find a more fitting home for such a precious trophy.

Is the hair now on display in Cafe Nilo authentic? According to one member of staff who wants to remain anonymous, it's merely a replica - the 'real' hair is apparently in Alcidi's family home - but, in truth, it doesn't really matter. What matters is what it represents; what Maradona represents, both from a sporting and cultural perspective.

As a player, he did things that nobody else could. To see him play was to witness a genius at work.

Even his greatest adversaries were blown away by his brilliance.

Gary Lineker has confessed that he wanted to applaud when Maradona scored the greatest individual goal of all time, against England at the 1986 World Cup.

Arrigo Sacchi said that "to play against Maradona, was to play against time itself: sooner or later, he will score or make a goal against you."

Zbigniew Boniek has admitted that Juventus players once concluded before a game against Napoli that the only way to stop Maradona would be to foul him: "But after ten minutes, we looked at one another and said to ourselves, 'No, it's too beautiful to watch him play.'"

For Neapolitans, that was an indescribable joy. They still sing about it today:

'Oh, mamma, mamma, mamma, do you know why my heart beats?

'I've seen Maradona, I've seen Maradona, and mamma, I'm in love.'

The period between 1984 and 1991 was like no other in the history of Naples. The world's most expensive player moved to one of the world's poorest cities and he led a team had had never won a Serie A title to two Scudetti and a UEFA Cup.

"It was a like a beautiful dream," says Angela Loffredo, who runs a shop on Via Gregorio Armeno, which is famous for its figurines and nativity scenes.

"We will never experience it again. Because there will never be another Diego.

"(Gonzalo) Higuain could have been as loved, if not as good, but he didn't have the right character."

To emphasise her point, she points to the stall to the right, where the former Napoli forward is labelled 'Higuain: The Traitor' for having left for hated rivals Juventus in 2016.

Tellingly, the nearby bust of Maradona is pointed away from his fellow Argentine, seemingly unable to even look at him.

'San Diego' is surrounded by figurines of other celebrities and saints, referred to as Maradona's 'grandchildren'.

The message is clear: Maradona still reigns supreme in Naples.

"For us, Diego is everything," enthuses Giovanni Russo, taxi driver and lifelong Napoli fan. "Even just to talk about 'The King' is a great joy for all Neapolitans.

"But to see him play was something else. We went to the stadium just for him. He did what he wanted with the ball.

"He was unique. Even today, you have (Lionel) Messi and he's incredible but I see him as the son of God.

"There wouldn't be Messi without Maradona. As they say, 'God created calcio but gave it to Maradona and told him to teach it.'"

Messi, of course, will appear at the San Paolo for the first time when Napoli host Barcelona in the Champions League on February 25.

The game is a sell-out, even though many Napoli fans, including Russo, were upset with a contentious ticket price hike that could net the home side their largest ever gate receipts.

"Why would I pay €70 for a ticket on the curva to see Messi," Russo wonders, "when I've already seen Maradona?"

But even those that never saw Maradona play revere him. Because, in a way, it's irrelevant. For Neapolitans, Maradona means more than football.

Pino Daniele also features in the shrine Bar Nilo, his figurine placed alongside that of Maradona, and it was the famous Neapolitan singer who once said:

That very quotation can be found in full on a banner hanging above a park bench on a small street just off Via Emanuele de Deo, home to a mural of Maradona which takes up a significant chunk of the side of an apartment block.

From a certain angle, it even appears that even a nearby statue of Padre Pio is paying homage to a man that Vignati says was "a hero not just to Neapolitans but the poor of the world".

It is that very connection with the destitute and the downtrodden that prompted the street artist Jorit to paint his own mural of Maradona, on Strada Comunale Taverna del Ferro, in the suburbs of Naples.

This is not an image of 'El Pibe de Oro' (Golden Boy) in his pomp but modern-day Maradona in the style of Caravaggio, accompanied by the words 'Human God'.

"Diego's relationship with Napoli goes beyond football, far beyond football," Jorit explains. "That's why I didn't portray him as a footballer but as a man.

"This is the most interesting aspect of Maradona for me, how he brought forward the fight against the establishment, in Argentina and Italy and all across the world, both on and off the pitch.

"From a sporting perspective, he's a guy that had a lot of important battles. But he also challenged authority, fought for human rights, stood up for the poor.

"When he came to Naples, he told the people here, 'I feel like a Neapolitan boy because I was also born in a very poor area, in Buenos Aires.'

"He made a lot of parallels between Napoli and Buenos Aires and gladly took part in this battle between the southerners of the world, its poorest, most marginalised people, and the north of the world.

"Everyone knows about the rivalry between Napoli and Juventus. But it's not only a rivalry between two football teams. It's also a rivalry between the richer, business-driven, productive side of society and those of us from the south, who were always migrants or immigrants.

"We had to go north to work and we were always the most oppressed people of Italy.

"So, while Maradona also delivered two Scudetti to Napoli, he also did something far more important to that: he restored an element of pride to the city.

"Consequently, I wanted to celebrate Maradona the man, rather than Maradona the footballer."

Neapolitans, of course, loved both. They treated him as a God because he was so very human, as flawed as a person as he was talented as a footballer. In spite of his sins, he is still a saint in their eyes.

"I'll leave it to the experts to decide whether Messi is a better player than Maradona," Jorit adds. "But what I can say is that, as a cultural icon, he's not reached the level of Maradona.

"That is not to criticise Messi. He is a great player and a wonderful professional; a true role model.

"Maradona is very different but he represents so much more to people because of the very fact that he had very wild, erratic lifestyle and a combustible, self-destructive character.

"We are talking about two gods but the human story of Diego is much more intense, and much more important compared to that of Messi.

"It seems to me that Messi represents Barcelona the team, but Maradona represents Napoli the team, its city and its people."

Naples is still beset by inequality, violence and corruption. What remains of Le Vele will soon be demolished but the city's problems won't suddenly disappear. But then, nor will the love or memories of Maradona.

He may have moved away 29 years ago but, in truth, he never really left. His presence can be seen everywhere; more importantly, it can be felt everywhere.

The man and the city are two separate entities yet utterly indivisible, made of and for one another; bound together for eternity by a shared sense of suffering and injustice.

Both left an indelible mark on one another; one that shows no sign of fading.

He remains Naples' adopted son, their unrivalled champion, their patron saint, their undisputed king, their human-god.

His life has become art and, thanks to the wonderful work of Jorit, Vignati and countless others, Maradona continues to look over the city and its people.

His city. And his people.