IN Naples this afternoon I’ll be embarking on a walking tour around one of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited cities.

The antiquity of Naple alone made it worthy of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but the range and diversity of its architecture – Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque – are enough to secure that accolade.

As you stroll through its wynds and alleyways a unique cocktail of smells accompanies you everywhere and you realise it’s a combination of the world’s richest street food and the sweet petrol fumes of a thousand Vespa motorbikes. No other European city you’ve ever visited transports you so profoundly and so immediately to another time and place as Naples does.

The tour will take us through some of these buildings but its main purpose, according to the booklet, is to “discover the places that symbolise the eternal bond between Diego Maradona and the city”. In any other UNESCO city the emergence of a sprawling and haphazard open-air museum dedicated to a footballer would immediately put its prized heritage status in jeopardy, but not in Naples. They wouldn’t dare.

Outside of Rome, Naples is probably the most Catholic city on the planet. Basilicas and cathedrals bear down on you around every corner carrying an esoteric litany of saints they didn’t tell you about in a West of Scotland primary school. In recent years though, they’ve all been supplanted by Saint Diego the Blessed Urchin who redeemed Naples in a seven-year pilgrimage for Napoli FC between 1984 and 1991.

In Catholic tradition two verifiable miracles are required to elevate a person to sainthood. The Blessed Diego achieved this by delivering two Italian league titles (scudettos) for Napoli, a prize that had previously eluded them for their entire history.

Naples is a big, hard, sweaty city that invades your senses as soon as you step into it. Other cities can mesmerise you for a few days: Naples possesses you. In the 30 years since Maradona left here the city protected him and gave him succour when it seemed the rest of the world had turned against him.

Napoli FC named its stadium for him and last year, on the first anniversary of his death, they unveiled a statue of him that cast his divinely-appointed right foot in gold. A huge mural – one of many that deify him in this UNESCO city – portrays him as Pope.

The Church doesn’t seem to mind these little blasphemies and, as it usually does, will probably commandeer them by declaring the Blessed Diego a real saint. Several miracle cures and perhaps a resurrection will soon be attributed to his heavenly intercession.

And besides, Naples was founded by the Greeks and it was their Gods which first sought to commandeer the thoughts of the Neapolitans. Those Greek Gods were a more earthy and scurrilous bunch than the saints and deities of Christianity. Their divine status didn’t spare them earthly vices like envy, spite and vengefulness. The fallen nature of mere humanity hooded their actions too. And it’s perhaps in this tradition that Maradona’s memory sits most comfortably.

Later this week, on the second anniversary of his death, Naples will reflect on the Argentinian footballer who, for a few gilded years, made them all walk a little taller. During his time in this city he also managed to propel Argentina to the World Cup in 1986. There have been other great footballers touched by genius – Pele, Johan Cruyff, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – but none have so obviously inspired those around them to feats they’d have found otherwise impossible.

Few of us who admired Maradona and reckoned him to be the world’s greatest ever player were really surprised that he’d died too early at the age of 60 on November 25, 2020. He’d become bloated by then after decades of substance and alcohol abuse. There was a sense that it was always going to end this way: that a gifted child snatched from the streets of one of South America’s poorest neighbourhoods by professional football and its deadly cocktail of unfettered excess, manipulation and exploitation would bring him down.

In his greatest game, featuring his greatest goal, we also glimpsed his fallen mortality. This was Argentina’s 2-1 win against England in 1986 where he scored the winner by slaloming through their defence and making those sturdy English players look like drunk men. His first goal is still condemned by the entire English nation … but by no one else. No other counterfeit has ever looked as fine as this one.

Judging the arc and pace of the lofted, spinning ball perfectly he chose to be brave as burly, 6ft Peter Shilton came careening out at him in the hapless tradition of English goalies at World Cups: like a drunk Widow Twankey. Then came that disguised and delicate flick of the wrist from the Hand of God and that goal.

Four years later, he endured condemnation of another sort when he led Argentina to victory against the host nation at Italia 90. The rest of Italy reviled him for that, not least because he seemed to derive extra pleasure from it. But by then he’d become fully Neapolitan and had assumed his adopted city’s perpetual resentment at being regarded as cut-throats and vagabonds by Italy’s more refined and richer northern territories.

Naples though, didn’t care. They already knew that within Maradona’s greatness there was something much more earthy and human and fallible and that he would always require their protection.

As the 2022 World Cup begins in Qatar, it has never seemed more tawdry and artificial. In taking the tournament to this desert kingdom run by a super-rich family of despots the Beautiful Game has never seemed so disconnected to its core support-base.

It’s also one of those rare World Cups that won’t feature Italy – the reigning European champions – who failed to qualify. Normally, this would induce public wailing and rendering of garments in Italy’s main town squares. But reaction to this failure has been muted. Perhaps the nation and the players sensed that this World Cup is a good one to sit out.

Meanwhile, Naples will pause for a few moments this Friday to remember a footballer who chose to put his genius at the disposal of his team rather than above it and who lent his name to radical causes and who never forgot who he was and where he came from.

In Naples they never judged him and so he found redemption, forgiveness and compassion here. This city saw something of itself in Diego Armando Maradona.

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