Naples is not a city, it’s an experience. It is a heartbeat, a way of life. Just ask its most famous son, Diego Maradona. It matters not that Maradona was born 7,000 miles away in Buenos Aires, Argentina, only that he immediately understood Naples and Naples adored him in return.
For seven years between 1984 and 1991 he dazzled and delighted the supporters of Napoli, leading them to the only two league titles in their history as well as a sole European crown in the 1990 UEFA Cup.
From the moment he magnetically juggled the ball in front of 80,000 people at his unveiling following a world-record £6.9m move from Barcelona, it always felt like fate had brought Maradona and the Neapolitan people together.
Before Maradona, Naples felt unappreciated, unloved. Part of Italy’s neglected south, it longed for attention from the rich power sources in the north but never received it. Its complicated immigration history made it a difficult place to find your way. To this day, it is a rough-around-the-edges, gritty, hard-nosed city moulded by its experiences as one of the forgotten siblings of Italian society.
But in Maradona they had someone who could make them dream. Dream big, even. Because Maradona had an unparalleled talent, and that initial exhibition of his ball-juggling skills was just the start as he set them on the path they have never been able to replicate.
Diego at Napoli was a YouTube highlights package come to life. With every piece of skill, he enraptured the crowd and with every utterance of his love for the supporters, he became more of a god in their eyes. “I consider myself a son of Naples,” he said having just completed a lap of honour around the San Paolo pitch moments after the club had clinched its first-ever Serie A title in 1987. For their part, the people of Naples had long considered him one of their own.
They still do too, even almost 30 years on from his departure under the dark cloud of a failed drugs test as his career began to suffer from the excesses of his lightning-paced private life. Even now, whenever he returns he is treated like a deity. His image continues to adorn countless walls, with Maradona murals as prevalent in Naples as banks or grocery stores are in any other cities around the world.
It is understandable, then, that Lionel Messi has always wanted to see the evidence of Maradona’s sainthood status in Naples for himself. Long considered the successor to his compatriot as the greatest footballer to have graced the planet, Messi has carved his name in Barcelona’s history in a way similar to that of Diego in Napoli’s.
But despite his 696 goals and 1,002 total goal involvements for club and country, he has not been able to elevate himself to quite the same level of idolatry in the city of Barcelona which Maradona cultivated in Naples. The 32-year-old is loved in Catalunya, but he knows that Barca’s trip to Napoli in the Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday will open his eyes to a whole other level of adoration.
He may have heard the stories second-hand from news reports and from teammates who have previously made the San Paolo their home, but never before has Messi actually stepped foot in the city his childhood idol - and later his Argentina head coach - has affected so acutely.
“I have really wanted to go to that stadium for a long time, but we have never had the chance,” Messi told Mundo Deportivo last week. “Finally, the moment has come and I am very excited to see what it’s like, even if it’s different now. It has been remodelled and the people are different. The experience of playing there will be beautiful.
“The Neapolitans are crazy about football. I had teammates that played there, like Ezequiel Lavezzi and he told me many things. He told me that they live for this and I’m very excited about going there.”
Messi has enjoyed a club career in which he has seen almost everything football has to offer. He has won 34 trophies, including 10 La Liga titles and five Champions Leagues, in little more than 15 years as a Barcelona player. But on Tuesday night he will get to see what made Diego Maradona’s spell in Naples one of the most remarkable partnerships ever between a footballer and a city.
What the Neapolitans shared with Maradona is the kind of love affair so rarely seen in football. Even Lionel Messi can only dream of having such an experience.