Although his body is about 7,000 miles away from Naples, the wake for Diego Maradona in his adopted southern Italian city began on Wednesday and will continue throughout Thursday, after the mayor officially proclaimed a day of mourning for the death of the “greatest player of all time”.
This is not the only initiative that the town has in store to celebrate Maradona, who died on Wednesday of a heart attack in a house outside Buenos Aires where he was recovering from a brain operation.
The mayor, Luigi de Magistris, also proposed renaming the San Paolo stadium, home of the Napoli football team, after its legendary player. “I ask that our stadium, which has witnessed so many of his successes, bear his name. It will be called the Diego Armando Maradona. The people want it. They spoke unanimously,” he said.
The management of SCC Naples have agreed and the official announcement could arrive in the next few days.
But the greatest demonstration of the love and respect of the city towards the Argentine champion was thousands of mourners, minutes after the news of the footballer’s death was announced, taking to the streets to commemorate their adopted king of Naples.
“Tonight a piece of Naples has died forever,” said Antonio Esposito as he stared through his tears at the 6-metre (20ft) mural of Maradona overlooking his local piazza in the city’s Spanish quarter.
Esposito was surrounded by families with young children and groups of friends dressed in SSC Napoli’s club tracksuits, holding candles and taking videos, intermittently erupting into collective song and loud outpourings of grief. “It’s too sad for words, it’s just too sad,” said Esposito, who is the piazza’s informal custodian and set up a projector showing Maradona’s glory moments over and over to the crowd.
Red smoke usually set off from the stands at games billowed across the square. An elderly woman reached towards the sky from the balcony of her ground-floor apartment. “We have lost our angel,” she said. Grown men were on their knees. The open-air shrine to Maradona had transformed into an impromptu site of mourning: the screen its altarpiece.
Maradona, arriving from Barcelona, gave Napoli the most successful period in their history during his time there from 1984 to 1991, injecting a well-needed dose of purpose and pride into the veins of the city. “Every Sunday, I would skip Mum’s lunch to watch the game, climbing over the barriers to the stands and escaping the police,” said Ciro Pisante proudly to others who were itching to tell their own stories and sharing wine in plastic cups in a corner of the square. “We felt invincible in those days.”
Off the pitch Maradona’s life was mired in scandal, but this only made his fans adore him more. They found his rebelliousness and vulnerability evidence of the human beneath the star persona. They saw someone like them, who came from the streets and who embodied all the idiosyncrasies and contradictions they did. “He was just a Scugnizzo Napoletano [Neapolitan for naughty rascal] like us,” said Marco Pellegrini, who was plastering posters reading “Maradona, Naples is crying” on to a shopfront.
Authorities seemed to turn a blind eye to breaches of the city’s Covid restrictions. In Naples, he was venerated like a demigod, comparable only to the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro.
In the seven years spent by Maradona in Naples, there were 515 newborns named after the Argentinian player. Many parents baptised their children simply Diego. Others went further, and gave them his full name, Diego Armando Maradona. Today, there are thousands of Diegos in the city.
“On a day like this, I wanted to thank my parents who named me after him,” one of the Diego Armando Maradonas told Sky News.
On Wednesday, to the eyes of Neapolitans, it was not only the greatest player of all time who had died.
“Maradona represented our redemption,’’ wrote the Neapolitan writer and author of Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano, in an article in La Repubblica. “Redemption, because a southern team had never won a Scudetto [the award given to the champions of Italy’s top division], a team from the south had never won the Uefa Cup, or ever been the centre of the world’s attention.’’
Maradona instilled a new pride among Neapolitans. Northern Italy had Juventus, Milan and star players from Marco van Basten to Michel Platini, as well as big companies such as Fiat and Ferrari – and lots of money. But Naples had Maradona.