Lionel Messi has waited his entire career to follow in Diego Maradona’s footsteps at the San Paolo and finally gets his chance when Barcelona play Napoli… his spiritual predecessor is still regarded as a god in that city
- Barcelona take on Napoli in the Champions League on Tuesday evening
- It is first time Lionel Messi has been able to play at Diego Maradona’s old ground
- Maradona is still adored in the city after helping them win a series of trophies
- Messi has made it clear that he is looking forward to playing at the San Paolo
In Argentina, you can chart a straight line through their football history. In 1928, El Grafico editor Borocoto said they should enact a statue to the pibe, a footballer with long shaggy hair, short of stature who has the spirit of a child on the pitch.
Almost a century on, that description feels like it was best embodied by Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. In that nation, no type of player is as beloved as those who represent the character of the pibe.
But both have also been as adored in a city outside of their own country as they were in Argentina. Messi began his career at Barcelona and despite his recent dispute with the club’s hierarchy, is in the hearts of most people across Catalonia. Maradona, meanwhile, found romance towards the south of Italy in the city of Naples — somewhere Messi has never played.
Diego Maradona is a god in Naples after his successes with the football team there
He led Napoli to an unprecedented period of success during the late 1980s and early 1990s
Lionel Messi will finally have the opportunity to play at the San Paolo on Tuesday evening
To this day, murals can still be found of Maradona across the city. Walking the streets, shrines can be seen to him. People pray at them.
Those Barcelona fans in the city for Tuesday night’s game against Napoli will spot some strange sights ahead of Messi’s first game at the Stadio San Paolo.
At the Coffee Bar Nilo in downtown, a transparent box contains a single lock of hair. The box rotates. It is treated like an altar. The hair, of course, is supposed to belong to Maradona, having been snatched from the headrest of an airplane seat that he sat on.
If it is not clear, Naples loves Maradona. It is easy to see why. He was already becoming known as one of the best players in the world when he moved there from Barcelona in 1984.
A Naples resident and his grandson in front of a shrine dedicated to Maradona in 2000
A single lock of hair that is supposed to be from Maradona in a glass box in a coffee bar
His arrival was so heralded that a local newspaper said while Naples lacked a ‘mayor, houses, schools, buses, employment and sanitation, none of this matters because we have Maradona’.
Napoli had been a relegation-threatened side. That soon changed.
By 1986 there was no doubt, having led Argentina to a World Cup win in his own country.
His achievements with his nation were followed by an unprecedented period of success with Napoli. They won Serie A in 1986-87 and 1989-90. He also picked up the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup in that four year period.
Stickers on sale on the street of Naples that pay tribute to the Argentinian midfielder
Maradona leading the teams out as Napoli took on Toulouse in the UEFA Cup in 1986
Mundo Deportivo made the comparison between Messi and Maradona on Tuesday morning
Sport also put the two greats of the Argentinian game on their front cover on Tuesday
It is worth saying that no team from the south of Italy had ever won a league title before Maradona arrived. Tensions between the prosperous north and the economically hit south were at an all time high in that period.
The importance of football and revenge on the pitch can be seen by the fact that when Maradona scored a free-kick to beat Juventus in 1985, five people fainted while two had heart attacks.
Both Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, no scrubs themselves, said Maradona was almost impossible to contain when he played for Napoli. Few players have made as much of an impression as him.
‘For us, Maradona is more than a man. He’s a god. We Neapolitans love football and live for football,’ a resident of Naples recently told the Associated Press. ‘We can never forget what he did for us.’
Maradona scored a free-kick as Napoli beat Juventus in 1985 – two people had heart attacks
Napoli won the UEFA Cup with Maradona in 1989 during a period of incredible success
Off the pitch there were problems. There was a scandal around an illegitimate son, while his dynamic with the Camorra, the local Mafia, was an issue. In Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary, he is shown with the Guiliano clan, who ran the Forcella neighbourhood. Maradona could be seen at their weddings and parties over his time in Naples.
His cocaine use also increased while he was there and he would regularly miss games and training, with Napoli dishing out $70,000 in fines.
Still, he was loved. In 1990 he tried to turn Naples against the Italian national team when they faced off there in the World Cup semi-final. He said the rest of the country looked down its nose at the city.
While it did not entirely work, the atmosphere was dampened and Argentina managed to win.
Maradona surrounded by his team-mates as they celebrate picking up the trophy
The cult of Maradona in Naples is so strong that Kapadia’s entire documentary film was based around his time there. It is a story that still holds up in an age when Maradona’s actions sometimes taint his on-pitch legacy.
That legacy is fulfilled to this day by Messi. Maradona said in 2006: ‘I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi’.
They play similarly. Messi has the low centre of gravity, loves dribbling with the ball, is a sensational goalscorer and has the capacity to win games single handedly.
When it comes to Messi, the question has long been whether or not he has surpassed Maradona as the greatest player ever. It is usually a when, not an an if.
Messi has made it clear that he is looking forward to playing at the San Paolo on Tuesday
Messi clearly looks up to his predecessor. Last week he told Mundo Deportivo that he was excited for Barcelona’s game at the San Paolo, the ground Maradona graced, on Tuesday night.
‘I have wanted to go to that stadium for a long time, but we have never had the chance,’ he said.
‘Finally, the moment has come and I’m very excited to see what it’s like, even if it’s different now. It has been renewed and the people are different.
‘The experience of playing there will be very nice. People are very passionate there and they dreamed that if Maradona came there, why can’t Messi come?
Maradona himself made it clear that he thought Messi had taken his crown back in 2006
‘Yes, I know the Neapolitans are crazy about football. I had team-mates that played there, like Pocho [Ezequiel Lavezzi] and he told me many things.
‘He told me that they live for this and I’m very excited about going there.’
The game is also crucial for Messi in pure football terms. He is 32. He has not tasted international success with Argentina, primarily due to a dearth of quality around him, and he is running out of chances to win the Champions League.
Sure, he has won it four times but that is one fewer than his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
There will always be those who push for the Portuguese as better than Messi, and it would help Messi’s battle to be the best if he had the trophies to back it up.
The two embrace after a game during the 2010 World Cup, when Maradona was manager
Barcelona have long been chaotic around Messi and that remains the case now. Yet amid that, overcoming Napoli will be important to their push for another Champions League.
Luckily for Messi, Napoli are not the threat of a few years back. Their form has been up and down under Gennaro Gattuso and they are sixth in the Serie A table, although they have won four of their last five.
It will be a hostile atmosphere too. Neapolitans do not welcome the opposition, as much as Messi might look forward to playing there. Having retired the shirt in honour of Maradona, Naples will almost certainly target Barcelona’s No 10.
It is no surprise that Messi is looking forward to this visit. The family tree of the pibe goes back a long way, as detailed in Jonathan Wilson’s Angels with Dirty Faces.
But after years of waiting for his arrival, there is now no doubt that Messi is Maradona’s footballing son.
On Tuesday, he will finally have the chance to play where his on-pitch father is still a god.
A triumph against Napoli and in the Champions League will be important to Messi’s legacy
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