‘Tonight a piece of Naples has died forever’ says Antonio Esposito as he stares through his tears at the 20ft mural of Diego Maradona overlooking his local piazza in the Spanish Quarter in central Naples.
He can barely muster the energy to speak. Minutes earlier, the news of the legendary Argentinian footballer’s death was announced live in the middle of a popular national television chat show, prompting hundreds of mourners to take to the streets to commemorate the king of football and their adopted king of Naples.
In the piazza, Esposito is surrounded by families with young children and groups of friends dressed in Napoli SSC 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,” says Esposito, who is the piazza’s informal custodian and has 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 billows across the square. An elderly woman reaches towards the sky from the balcony of her ground-floor apartment. “We have lost our angel,” she says. Grown men are on their knees. The open-air shrine to Maradona has transformed into an impromptu site of mourning: the screen it’s altarpiece.
Maradona arrived from Barcelona and gave Napoli the most successful period in their history, 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,” says Ciro Pisante proudly to others who are itching to tell their own stories and sharing wine in plastic cups in a corner of the square. “We felt invincible in those days,” he says.
However, off the pitch Maradona’s life was marred in scandal, but this only led his fans to 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,” says Marco Pellegrini, who is plastering posters reading “Maradona, Naples is crying” on to a shopfront.
Across town, outside the San Paolo stadium, fans gather in silence around a 30ft banner reading “The King” written in blue paint on a sheet and laid out on the floor, ready to be hoisted and hung from the Curva B home stands. One fan solemnly waves the huge blue flag of Maradona’s face – which has been at every game since they won the league – over the banner as people leave flowers beside railings nearby and kneel in prayer.
A young boy clambered off his father’s shoulders to lay their club scarves on the ground. “I grew up with milk, biscuits and watching Maradona VHS video tapes before bed,” says Luca Beneduce, the child’s father, “and I did the same for my son”, exemplifying the impact Maradona has had across generations of football fans.
“I never saw Maradona but he taught us to dream,” says Rafaele Esposito, a young semi-professional footballer, who has come down to pay his respects. He is speaking to a journalist from the TV network Canale 5 who breaks down in tears as he conducts the interview.
The 10pm Covid curfew is fast approaching when the banner is finally lowered from the stand and a single cry can be heard above the crowd: “Let’s just hope God plays ball in heaven.” And with that, the first day of grieving was over. The commemorations will be sure to carry on for weeks, with candlelit vigils planned across the city, a renaming of the stadium in Maradona’s name and a funeral planned at the exact same time as it takes place in Argentina. They may have lost their king, but the myth of Maradona and his legacy in this city will only grow and expand, inspiring future generations of Neapolitans and giving them a reason to stand proud for years to come.