The modern Champions League format has little space for romance or novelty — as seen by this week’s fixture list as Arsenal and Bayern Munich, and Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, met again for the upteenth time in recent years.
But Real Madrid against Napoli at the Estadio Santiago tonight really is a glamour old-style tie, and will be added to by the presence of the Italian side’s enduring hero, Diego Maradona.
Maradona, now 56, has been personally invited to the game by Napoli’s film producer president Aurelio Di Laurentiis. He arrived in Madrid early, and immediately added some extra fizz to the build-up.
Monday evening saw a special Valentine’s visit to the rooftop jacuzzi of the Napoli team hotel with fiancee Rocio Oliva, 26, who then shared the experience with all her followers on Instagram. There was also an altercation with a TV reporter near the hotel restaurant, with words exchanged as the Argentinian cleared a path through the crowd.
“If I had hit you, you wouldn’t have a nose any longer,” a clearly upset Maradona said. “You just do your work. But don’t forget that if we fought, I would destroy you.” Maradona’s talent for the dramatic was also clear during his Bernabeu games as a player — with his performances ranging characteristically from the sublime to the ridiculous.
In his first season with Barcelona, he provided two assists in a Clasico victory, then scored a superb solo goal in a cup final against Madrid. His second year saw a Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, when he sparked a post-game brawl with a revenge chest-high karate kick at an opponent, hastening his exit from Spain.
Then came a September 1987 visit with Napoli in the European Cup, when the stakes were high early in the season in a way unimaginable now. Not quite at his physical best after his summer holidays, he had little impact in a surreal game played behind closed doors due to crowd trouble the previous year. Madrid won 2-0, on the way to a 3-1 aggregate victory. His final game at the stadium was as a worn out 32-year-old in May 1993, when his Sevilla side were embarrassed 5-0.
While the Argentinian tried to keep a [relatively] low profile this week, others have been happy to talk for him. Former Napoli owner Corrado Ferlaino told Madrid sports paper AS
that the 1986 World Cup winner was worth two modern Cristiano Ronaldos.
“[Maradona] cost me 13,000 million lira (€6.7m), double what Cristiano would cost today…,” Ferlaino said. “The intellectuals said that Napoli was a poor city and it was immoral. But it was my money, and I wanted to spend it that way.”
Ferlaino insisted Maradona had been value for money as he guided Napoli to their only two Serie A titles ever, and the 1988/89 UEFA Cup, while scoring 115 goals in 259 games over seven seasons before his colourful private life eventually caught up.
“He was the perfect athlete, more professional than anyone,” the Italian said. “Then, in his house, he had his problems, but on the pitch you could not criticise him. At Napoli he did not take drugs, maybe when he returned home to Argentina he did. But he was always perfect with us.” Rumours of Mafia influence on the team at the time had been much overplayed, Ferlaino said.
“The only thing the ‘Camorra’ wanted was to take photos with the players and get to know them, like any fan,” he said. “Let me add that thanks to the work of the police this problem is no longer so serious in Naples.” Such talk only adds to the legend, as current Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina made clear on Monday night’s El Larguero radio show.
“For the city of Naples, he’s more than an idol, he’s almost a religion,” Reina said. “It’s nice that he supports us on the day of the game.”
Just talk of Maradona being in town even livened up the official pre-match news conference. Madrid midfielder Luka Modric was batting away the usual questions in polite but dull fashion yesterday morning, until his face brightened when asked if he had ever met ‘El Diego’ before.
“I have met him a few times at prize galas,” Modric said with a smile. “What can I say? He is one of the best players in football history. We’re happy that he will be at the game, to see it live. But thank God he is not playing. We’re happy about that too.”
Sex, drugs, violence... no matter what happens tonight in Madrid, Maradona’s presence has already spiced up the often dreary Champions League routine this week.
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