If there’s one place outside Argentina that will likely match — or possibly even exceed — the outpouring of mourning for Diego Maradona, it’s in Naples.
While Maradona was revered around the world as perhaps the greatest soccer player ever, in Naples he was more than that.
Maradona was treated as a deity for the way he led Napoli to its only two Serie A titles — in 1987 and 1990 — and raised the spirits of the southern Italian city, which remains far removed both geographically and socio-economically from the country’s soccer capitals of Milan and Turin.
“Maradona wasn’t just a player. He represented the spirit of Napoli for years,” said former Napoli president Corrado Ferlaino, who owned the club when Maradona played there.
Maradona’s spokesman, Sebastián Sanchi, said he died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 60, two weeks after being released from a hospital in Buenos Aires following brain surgery.
Upon hearing the news, Naples Mayor Luigi De Magistris immediately proposed that the city’s San Paolo Stadium be renamed for Maradona — and ordered the stadium’s lights be turned on all night even though there was no game being played there.
“Maradona is Napoli. The passion for him here is known to everyone,” De Magistris said. “Maradona united Neapolitans all over the world — as well as fans of other squads.
“Today all Neapolitans embrace his family, with the awareness that this embrace will never end,” the mayor added. “Because it was real love. A great love.”
Maradona also led Napoli to the 1989 UEFA Cup title during his seven-season stay. He also allegedly became a regular cocaine addict in the city — a dependence that eventually led to his downfall from soccer.
“Yes, he was also a controversial man,” De Magistris said. “But for us Maradona is the one who made Naples and Neapolitans dream — with his genius, his uniqueness, he gave us happiness. Many have named their sons Diego, for he was able to redeem a city that was often the target of prejudices and discrimination.”
In a sign of mourning, Napoli changed its usual blue logo on its Twitter account to black.
“Everyone is awaiting our words,” the club tweeted in Italian. “But what words can we use for the pain that we are experiencing? Now is the moment for tears. Then will come the time for words.”
Italian sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora, who is from Naples, said: “He was more than a champion. He was a soccer genius, an absolute star. He represented unrepeatable dreams and hopes for the people of my city. Naples cries tonight.”