Diego Maradona played a psychological game before the mega clash and immediately it put Italy under pressure. Italy feared Maradona and as soon as Argentina equalized, they turned pale. Argentina fed their anxiety and ultimately brought the whole of Italy down to its knee!
In 1984 Napoli played a stratum below Europe’s football powerhouses. By 1982, Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli aka SSC Napoli had slipped dramatically and were involved in relegation battles. In the 80s, apart from football, Naples, the Southern part of Italy, had very little to challenge the pride and success of their Northern counterparts. The politics between the South and north part of Italy is nothing new and in those days, the south of Italy was crippled by poverty and crime. Football was the only matter of pride for them, and when their pride was at stake, the Napoli hierarchy decided to break the bank and take a drastic measure.
Napoli broke the world transfer record fee after acquiring Diego Maradona in a €12 million deal from Barcelona on 30 June 1984.
The squad was gradually re-built, with the likes of Ciro Ferrara, Salvatore Bagni, and Fernando De Napoli filling the ranks.
The rise up the tables was gradual, by 1985–86, they had a third-place finish under their belts, but better was yet to come. The 1986–87 season was the landmark in Napoli’s history; they won the double, securing the Serie A title by three points and then beating Atalanta 4–0 to lift the Coppa Italia.
Napoli were unsuccessful in the European Cup in the following season and finished runners-up in Serie A. However, Napoli were entered into the UEFA Cup for 1988–89 and won their first major European title.
Juventus, Bayern Munich, and PAOK were defeated en route to the final, where Napoli beat VfB Stuttgart 5–4 on aggregate, with two goals from Careca and one each from Maradona, Ferrara and Alemao.
Napoli added their second Serie A title in 1989–90, defeating Milan by two points in the title race.
Meanwhile, Maradona conquered the world in Mexico, 1986. From 1986 to 1990 – Maradona was the best footballer in the world and finally, Napoli found their icon, for which they had been waiting for a long, long time. He was portrayed as a God in Naples and became the symbol of hope and courage – a fitting answer to the insult of Northern Italy.
But Napoli and Italy have to pay a heavy price for their iconic figure.
Italy became the destination of football in the 80s. They had the best players in world football playing in the Italian Serie A and their clubs were ruling the roost in Europe. They were the destination for the fourteenth FIFA World Cup in 1990.
Italy, Brazil, and Holland were the pre-tournament hot favourites.
The Dutch and Selecao had to bid farewell to the event in the Round of 16.
While Italy marched on!
That Italian side of 1990 were a team to watch – in each and every sector they boasted with stars. The rise of Toto Schillaci made them look even better. Despite being unconvincing in front of the goal in the first two group games, Italy rediscovered their mojo from the match against Czechoslovakia.
Roberto Baggio and Schillaci would form goal-scoring pair upfront instead of Gianluca Vialli and Carnevale. Their defence was unbreakable while the goalkeeper Walter Zenga had not allowed any opposition to make a mess of his record.
It was the team of dreams and the whole of Italy rallied behind them. The Italians were confident of a fourth World Cup glory and this team can’t lose.
The Azzurri played all their matches at Rome’s iconic Stadio Olympico, but in the semifinals they had to travel to the south – Naples, the home of Diego Maradona – whose team had to struggle and invest faith in negative football and dirty tactics to defend their title.
Just before the mega clash, Maradona played politics.
In a press conference, he said, “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 marginalized by the rest of Italy. It is a city that suffers the most unfair racism”.
Such a statement hit the morale of the Italian camp and the whole of Italy was divided into North and South. It was a psychological game, which paid rich dividends on an eventful night at Naples.
El Pelusa recalled the build-up to the game in his autobiography Yo Soy el Diego: “It was no ordinary semi-final. We were up against Italy, and in Naples too! When I spoke to the press, I was happy and I said that thing they would never forgive me for. It was true, though: ‘It upsets me that everyone is now asking the people of Naples to be Italians and to get behind the national team.”
English journalist Brian Glanville, who covered the match, wrote in his book, The Story of the World Cup: “Playing in Naples, seemed for Maradona, the equivalent of Doctor Theatre; curing him at least temporarily of his many physical afflictions”.
Faced with the dilemma posed by their beloved Diego taking on their country, the Neapolitans hung up banners that read: “Diego in our hearts, Italy in our chants” and “Maradona: Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland.”
Italy feared Argentina. Despite heading into the game in better shape than the reigning world champions, the mere presence of Maradona made them doubt their chances of success. Though hampered by injury, he remained the undisputed king of world football, while his magical touch was still very much intact. There was also little question that the diminutive genius would be inspired by playing in Naples, his home from home.
The tension was evident in their body language and face when they took the field.
Still, with 17 minutes on the clock, however, the Italians went in front, Schillaci tucking the ball home after Sergio Goycochea had parried a Vialli shot. As the tension rose, the Argentineans started to come into the game.
The skill and experience of Maradona aided by Ricardo Giusti, Julio Olarticoechea, Burruchaga, and Oscar Ruggeri – Argentina started to fight back dictate the game.
Maradona ran through some of the world’s best defenders, such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, and Giuseppe Bergomi and found teammate Julio Olarticoechea in acres of space, but the midfielder’s shot was off-target with only Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga to beat – injuries might have diminished Maradona’s powers, but it could hamper his amazing control over the ball and the brain to create chances out of nothing.
In the 67th minute when Maradona picked out Olarticoechea on the left and the defender swung in a cross that Claudio Caniggia glanced past the advancing Zenga and into the net. After 517 minutes of play, the Italians had conceded their first goal of the tournament.
As soon as Italy conceded a goal, they came under pressure.
Maradona’s words and his genius were posing a threat time and again – the faces of the Italian players were turning pale. Argentina fed on the anxiety of Azzurri.
One could see the tension in the Italian people. They took deep breaths, they paced in front of their seats, and some literally fell to their knees in supplication. Diego Maradona had brought them to their knees.
The game went to extra-time and Argentina displayed physical football – Caniggia, Guisti, and Olarticochea received bookings and would miss the finals if Argentina could make it through.
Meanwhile, a cracking Baggio free-kick was stopped by Sergio Goycochea.
Baggio was introduced in the second half, whereas he should have been a starter and why Carlo Ancelotti did not show up still remains a moot question.
After 120 minutes of nerve-wracking football, Italy had to pass the test of nerves as the game would be decided via spot-kicks.
Both teams were scoring with confidence until Goycochea halted Roberto Donadoni from scoring.
It was time for Maradona to step up and take the all-important penalty.
The whole of Italy prayed, he misses it as he did against Yugoslavia.
Maradona targeted the left corner of the post, which he did against Yugoslavia.
Zenga moved on the wrong side and Maradona just rolled the ball smoothly to give Argentina the lead.
It was time for Aldo Serena to keep Italy’s hopes alive. Even though Schilacci should have been sent.
But even before he took the penalty, Serena looked shaky and absorbed by the tension.
He took a weak kick, which Goycochea stopped.
Argentina were in the finals.
The whole of Italy watched and died in Naples.