Before Napoli kicked off against Roma on Sunday night, their captain Lorenzo Insigne went on a lap of the Stadio San Paolo, placing bouquets of flowers beneath the empty stands behind each goal. From the Curva A hung a banner prepared by fans, addressed to Diego Maradona: “Your death comes as a blow to the chest,” it read. “A pain in the heart. Naples swears you eternal love.”
Those words were accompanied by a giant photograph of the late No 10, beaming in his Napoli shirt. At the far end hung another graphic of Maradona’s face, adorned simply by the words “The King.”
A moment of silence was observed before kick-off, and the game was paused in the 10th minute so that both teams could offer up a further 60 seconds of applause. Napoli were playing in a special blue-and-white striped kit, designed to pay homage to Maradona’s Argentina. Earlier in the day, the mayor of Naples had confirmed that this stadium will be renamed after the player.
Here was a city in mourning, struggling to find the right way to say farewell to a footballer who felt more like a family member. For four days, fans had come to light a candle and say a prayer before the famous mural of Maradona in via Emanuele de Deo. On Sunday morning, Corrado Ferlaino, the man who signed him as Napoli president, made his own pilgrimage there, followed by the great former Roma winger Bruno Conti.
The truest tribute, though, could only take place on the pitch. Maradona transcended football in Naples, his name becoming shorthand for exaggerated brilliance in any context – even for those who never saw him kick a ball. Yet it was through this sport that we knew him. The free-kick scored by Lorenzo Insigne after half an hour seemed to channel his talent. It was, as the club’s website later put it, “not just a goal, but a citation.”
The shooting angle did not look inviting from just outside the left-hand corner of the Roma box, but Insigne whipped the ball over a two-man wall with a velocity that gave Antonio Mirante no chance, beating the keeper at his near post. Immediately, the forward turned and sprinted 50 yards towards the dugout, retrieving a shirt with Maradona’s name on. He kissed it repeatedly, before holding it up for the cameras.
No player might have felt this moment as powerfully as Insigne, Napoli’s captain and the only Neapolitan in their team on Sunday night. “Our idol is gone, and it hurts,” he said at full-time. “Today we wanted to put on a great show and get the right result for him and this city, which is suffering. This had looked like a tricky fixture for Napoli, against opponents who had gone 16 league games without defeat. The league standings showed Roma with one loss, but that was imposed on them as punishment for an administrative error made while registering players for their 0-0 draw against Verona at the start of the campaign. They had won their last five matches by an aggregate score of 15-1.
Napoli, meanwhile, had lost to Milan in their last league fixture and were in danger of getting cut adrift from Serie A’s leading pack. They were missing club record signing Victor Osimhen up front and Tiémoué Bakayoko in midfield. Only the superstitious could find some positive in the latter player’s absence – he would be replaced in the side by Diego Demme, whose name was chosen by a Maradona-obsessed father.
Gennaro Gattuso had questioned Napoli’s mindset after that defeat by Milan, saying his players had the talent to compete with anyone but not the killer instinct. He could not have repeated those accusations on Sunday, as Napoli pressed their advantage without mercy once Insigne had broken the deadlock.
Further goals followed from Fabián Ruiz, Dries Mertens and Matteo Politano, with plenty of Maradona-esque magic along the way. Mario Rui launched the attack that led to the second goal with an audacious backheel volley from the edge of his own box. Politano went on a solo slalom between three defenders before rounding the keeper for the fourth.
Corriere dello Sport might have been getting carried away with a front-page headline declaring that “Maradona won”. But these were goals, as the website Napolista put it, “in His style”, and perhaps a team performance as well.
A common recollection among Maradona’s former team-mates at Napoli is how he would never reproach them for failing to match his high standards, offering only encouragement when they made a sloppy touch or missed pass. Such words came to mind as Gattuso reflected on their performance this Sunday, saying “I saw a team that helped itself, not a group of footballers telling each other to get lost.”
The manager is not one to get lost in sentimentality for long. During his post-game interview on Sky Sport, he redirected another question about Maradona into an answer about the ongoing pandemic. “The air we breathe is sad,” he said, “but in my opinion right now the city needs to have good sense too. There are too many people without masks.
“Maradona is a legend. Everyone in Naples knows who he is. But, in this moment, we need to be smart, or we will all pay the consequences. I understand the affection, I understand the atmosphere. But I hope that from tomorrow people will start to do what they should, because it’s a shame, the city is suffering a lot.”
That truth was evident in the emptiness of the stands where Insigne went to lay down flowers before the game began. Perhaps there will be time for further tributes, a more collective celebration of Maradona’s talent and legacy, once spectators are allowed back into Serie A games.
Hopefully, by then, the Stadio San Paolo will officially have been renamed. Italian law typically requires a person to have been dead for 10 years before a communally owned facility can be named after them, but the expectation is that the rule will be waived as it has been for some others.
A subway stop near to the ground is also expected to take Maradona’s name. As the Mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris explained it: “In this way, we can have another station dedicated to art.”