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Modest Maradona museum pays tribute to patron saint of Naples

For some, Diego Maradona is the greatest footballer of the 20th century, for others -- mainly English -- he is the cheating possessor of the hand of God. In Italy, however, he is and always will be the patron saint of Naples.

Modest Maradona museum pays tribute to patron saint of Naples
Photos: AFP

And just as saints have their altars so Maradona has his museum, an extraordinary treasure trove of artefacts that includes the left boot with which the Argentine scored twice against Belgium in the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup.

You can also find his first contract with Napoli and even the sofa from his Naples apartment where singer Julio Iglesias once sat. It's all here in the cellar museum.

Maradona arrived at Napoli as a world record $10.48 million signing from Barcelona in July 1984.

His time in Catalonia had been difficult and Naples was a bolthole. He was to stay seven years, captaining the team to their first-ever Serie A title in 1986-7.

They did it again three years later and during Maradona's stay the Neapolitans also won the Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup and Italian Super Cup.

It was a golden age which Napoli have never come close to repeating, so it is no surprise to find a museum that commemorates such a rich epoch.

Massimo Vignati's museum, though, is one of a kind.

It does not appear on any map of Naples, nor is it in travel guides, and entry is free. And yet, this basement of a typical building in Secondigliano, a tough neighbourhood in the north of the city, breathes all things Diego.

It is a delightful melange of Maradona mania with photos, pennants, balls, armbands and shirts, some washed or signed, others not.

Some items equate almost to holy relics — the bench on which Maradona changed at the San Paolo stadium and the K-Way jacket which features in the memorable footage of him ball-juggling to the sound of Opus' “Live is Life” during an incredible warm-up before facing Bayern Munich in 1989.

Family guy

This astonishing hoard also testifies to the unique bond between the Argentine genius and a family which was at the heart of his seven-year stay in Naples.

“I was fortunate that for 37 years my dad was the caretaker of the San Paolo stadium and the Napoli changing rooms. And my mother was Maradona's housekeeper and cook,” Vignati told AFP.

His sister babysat Diego's daughters Dalma and Giannina while Massimo, as a child and then adolescent, rubbed shoulders with the city's idol on a daily basis.

“We were with Diego from Monday to Sunday,” says Vignati, looking at the photos of a time when the Argentine's apartment on the heights of Posillipo, an upscale district of the city, was like his second home.

“He and his wife gave us all these things because they knew we were a lot of children, five boys and six girls.

“I was a ballboy during Maradona's seven seasons. On Mondays, I went to play five-a-side, I did not go to school.

“And on Tuesdays, sometimes he took me to the Napoli training session … 'Diego, let's go in the Ferrari!'”.

For a long time, the wonders now on display in the Vignati cellar were locked away at the San Paolo.

“My father had two rooms,” says Vignati, whose second son is called Diego. “One for all these memories and one for drinking a good Neapolitan coffee.

“After his death, I brought everything here. But the club knows that this place exists.

“If they make a museum, I will always be ready. I hope everything can go back to the stadium, it was my father's dream.”

During his last visit to Naples in 2017, Maradona fell into the arms of Lucia, Vignati's mother, whom he calls his “Neapolitan mamma”.

“These are just beautiful memories,” she says.

“He was kind, someone good, very passionate. When he left, it was as if I had lost a son.”

Patron saint

For the time being, the collection will remain in the family, whether it is at the San Paolo or down in the cellar.

“I could live on my annuities if I had accepted all the offers that were made to me,” says Vignati.

“But these are memories of my father and my family, nothing is for sale.

“It is a place dedicated to someone we love as a brother. For us, Diego is the twelfth brother.”

This season, Napoli have battled through to the last 16 of the Champions League but they are struggling in Serie A. The fans can only dream of a return to the golden age.

“With everything that is going on, there would have to be a Maradona, who takes everything on himself,” says Massimo.

“If he comes, there will be 90,000 people at the stadium. Maradona…even if you talk to kids today, they know. He's in the DNA of the Neapolitans.

“Maradona is San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. He is immortal.”

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FOOTBALL

‘I represent the nobodies’: How Maradona became the hero of Naples

Few places will mourn the death of Diego Maradona as much as Naples, the downtrodden, gritty Italian city that clasped the troubled Argentine to its heart at his time of need and was repaid with the best years of perhaps the greatest footballer to ever play the game.

'I represent the nobodies': How Maradona became the hero of Naples
Maradona has long been a hero and icon in the city of Naples. Photo: AFP

Buildings around Naples are adorned with depictions of the man who took Napoli to the top of the Italian game and beyond and became an icon and spokesman for Neapolitans, whose chaotic city was feared and loathed in equal measure by the rest of Italy.

“I feel like I represented a part of Italy that didn't count for anything,” he said in 'Diego Maradona', the 2019 Asif Kapadia documentary about his life in Naples.
 
 
So deep was 'barrio boy' Maradona's attachment to Naples that he called Napoli's first ever league title, won a year after he led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, the “greatest triumph” of his career.
 
Surrounded by jubilant fans on the pitch of Napoli's Stadio San Paolo, he explained why: “I won this one at my home.”
 
Maradona's achievements at Napoli, who had been also-rans until he arrivedin 1984 following a difficult two-year spell at Barcelona, cemented his position as the greatest player of his generation and, in many peoples' eyes, make him the best ever.
 
Diego Maradona on his arrival in Italy in 1984. Photo: AFP
 
Another league title in 1990, the 1989 UEFA Cup, and an Italian Cup also arrived during Maradona's seven years in southern Italy.
 
Maradona's 115 goals in all competitions was a club record that stood for 26 years and his heroics came at a time when Serie A was the world's
strongest, richest league, where the likes of Michel Platini and Zico strutted their stuff.
 
He fled in disgrace in 1991, a failed drugs test, an unrecognised son and a billion-lira tax dispute all left back in Naples, where his penchant for late-night parties, cocaine and women were almost as famous as his magical displays on the pitch.
 
Camorra links
 
Courted by criminals, the King of Spain and even the Pope, Maradona became a quasi-religious figure in Naples. He brought joy to a desperately poor city blighted by bloody conflicts between the competing clans of the powerful Camorra mafia, one of whom Maradona would get to know very well.
 
Indeed the 1984 signing of a genuine superstar by Napoli – who were heavily in debt and had finished 11th the previous season – immediately raised eyebrows, with persistent rumours that a chunk of the world record $10.48 million fee that brought him to Italy came from the Camorra's deep pockets.
 
 
The opening question in his first press conference came from a reporter who asked a confused Maradona whether he knew about the Camorra and its “influence
on football” and was immediately ejected by livid club owner Corrado Ferlaino.
 
“I never asked for anything from the Camorra, they gave me the security of knowing that nothing was going to happen to my two children,” Maradona
insisted in a 2017 interview to Italian TV station Canale 5
 
Murals dedicated to Maradona adorn the walls of apartment buildings in central Naples. Photo: AFP
 
However his access to drugs and women came thanks to the infamous Giuliano clan, who immediately befriended Maradona, furnished his burgeoning cocaine
habit and went to great lengths to make sure they were photographed partying with the world's most famous footballer.
 
Maradona himself admitted that every week he would binge from Sunday night until Wednesday, beginning an intense detox programme each Thursday that would get him ready for the following weekend's match.
 
It took Napoli two years to provide Maradona with teammates capable of challenging for honours, and when the title came in 1987 it caused such wild
celebrations that stories of a summer-long party became as famous as the triumph itself.
 
In reality the city came to a standstill for around a week. To this day Neapolitans name their sons after a football god they've only seen play on old VHS players and YouTube.
 
Naples mayor Luigi de Magistris with Diego Maradona in 2017. Photo: AFP
 
Another title arrived three years later before it all began to fall apart, not long after he and the Argentine national team enraged Italy by dumping the
'Azzurri' out of the 1990 World Cup in the semi-finals – in Naples of all places.
 
His problems had begun some time before. He had tired of the suffocating attention Naples afforded him and in 1989 had signed terms with Marseille, only for Ferlaino to put a stop to the transfer at the last minute.
 
 “After a four-hour meeting, Ferlaino said that if we won the UEFA Cup I could leave, but we won it, and he blocked the move anyway,” Maradona said in
2009.
 
However after the 1990 World Cup he had become a hate figure in Italy and his support network slowly melted away. In February 1991 police announced he
had been caught on wiretaps asking for cocaine and prostitutes from a mob figure. A trumped-up drugs trafficking charge soon followed.
 
The failed drugs test that finished him off came after a match with Bari two months later, and an unprecedented worldwide ban from the game until June
1992 left him back to Buenos Aires, never to reach the same heights again in his career.
 
But he remained an icon in southern Italy, and received a hero's welcome on subsequent visits to the city of Naples.
 
In 2017, he was made an honorary citizen by the city's mayor, Luigi de Magistris.
 
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