Maradona's Napoli made history but there is a great 'what if' about their story

Team 33's Raf Diallo kicks off the World Is A Football with that team's European Cup disappointments

Diego Maradona, Napoli, Real Madrid, European Cup

Argentine striker Diego Armando Maradona, of Napoli, out runs Miguel Poland, "Chendo," of Real Madrid, during a 1st round 1st leg European Champions' Cup game in Madrid, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 1987. (AP Photo/Dominique Mollard)

There's an Italian dude here in Dublin who has an anecdote to show just how perennial Diego Maradona's presence is in Naples.

Apparently, according to the aforementioned dude who is an Inter Milan fan, Maradona fireworks are still sold in the markets of the southern Italian city which he dragged to footballing prominence in the 1980s.

There have been painful times in the interim, including relegation, but the last decade has been positive with semi-regular Champions League qualification and then Monday night when they beat Inter in a top of the table clash to go clear at the summit of Serie A since April 1990 when Maradona was still the centre-piece at the club.

Win the Scudetto for the first time in over 25 years next May and it will surely be another Argentine, Gonzalo Higuain, who will have fireworks named after him in the decades to come.

But culturally Maradona will always hold the greatest sway given how he mixed achievement on the pitch with an understanding of his surroundings.

 

A Maradona banner (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)

At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, he famously professed: "I don't like the fact that now everybody is asking Neapolitans to be Italian and to support their national team. Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism" - with the end result that Naples' San Paolo stadium was the only ground in which the Argentine anthem was not booed.

The league titles he delivered in 1987 and 1990, as well as the '87 Coppa Italia and 1989 UEFA Cup mean that Napoli side etched their place in history with unprecedented success for a club with few trophies before then.

But aside from that UEFA Cup, which should not be sniffed at, their failure to make an impact in the old European Cup means some available stars in their galaxy twinkled out of reach of even the Hand of God.

The old European Cup was a funny old beast. While a Serie A winner of today could except a cushier welcome in the bright lights of modern group stages, draws were far more random back in the day.

And seeing as no groups existed, two-legged knockout ties from start to semi-finals presented plenty of scope for setbacks.

Maradona and co's first introduction to the European Cup came in the first round of the 1987-88 when they were drawn against that small, unknown club that goes by the name of Real Madrid.

Yes, that Madrid side which carried with it a vast history of European success, had won the past two La Liga titles (and would win that season's league as well) and featured the famed La Quinta del Buitre core of homegrown players including the legendary striker Emilio Butragueño.

He wouldn't score in the first leg as Napoli travelled to Madrid and an empty Santiago Bernabeu which had fans banned from attending by UEFA due to crowd trouble the previous year.

Even without the vociferous howls of home fans to intimidate them, Napoli still lost 2-0 as you can see above with a Michel penalty and an own goal from a key man and aptly named figure in that Napoli side, Fernando de Napoli.

The 1-1 draw in the return leg was not enough for Napoli as Real advanced past them and all the way to a semi-final which they lost to eventual European Cup winners PSV.  

By the time, they returned to European club football's greatest stage, they had just won another Scudetto but it was the beginning of the decline from a team perspective, but also a time when Maradona's own turbulent and well-documented personal life really began tipping over the edge.

The 1990-91 European Cup draw meant they would likely face Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. But in the end, they didn't even make it that far.  

Napoli breezed through the first round this time, against Hungary's Újpesti Dózsa by a 5-0 aggregate score, which pitted them against Spartak Moscow in the following stage.

The Russians were able to earn a scoreless draw in Naples in the first leg but Maradona's personal life began to affect the team as this passage from The Irish Times' Rome correspondent Paddy Agnew's Forza Italia book recounts:

"On Monday of that week, Maradona had refused to travel with the club. When worried team-mates had gone to his flat in Posillipo, they were told by one of his minders, Fernando Signorini, that Diego was sleeping. Indeed, he was. Sleeping off the effects of a night of sex and cocaine out on the town.

"When Diego eventually recovered his senses, he seems to have regretted his refusal to travel ... In the end he hired himself a jet, travelled to Moscow and was left to sit on the bench by coach Alberto Bigon for the first half by way of punishment."  

As it happened, the 1986 World Cup winner was brought on as a second half substitute in place of Gianfranco Zola.

But he nor his team-mates (nor their opponents) were able to fashion a goal in normal or extra-time, which left the lottery of penalties to decide their fates.

And as you can watch back in the video above, Maradona's own luck was in but it was not enough to carry Napoli into uncharted territory and to add a golden lining to the silver one built on domestic bliss.