NAPLES, Italy, Nov 25 – Naples on Wednesday bid farewell to its beloved Diego Maradona, who won the hearts of the southern Italian city by leading the club Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.
Hundreds of fans flooded into the streets of the city’s Spanish Quarters, many of them lighting a candle beneath a huge mural of the Argentine, who died of a heart attack aged 60, in his sky-blue jersey.
“Ciao, God of Football,” read paper signs affixed to the walls of the working class neighbourhood by fans, while others left flowers and messages.
“In Naples, he’s a king,” one woman told RaiNews24, underscoring the worship Maradona elicits in this gritty but big-hearted city.
All the lights and spotlights were turned on at the Stadio San Paolo in memory of Maradona, a shining beacon in a city otherwise subdued by a curfew and closures imposed in the face of coronavirus.
“Always in our hearts. Ciao Diego,” Napoli tweeted, posting a photograph of Maradona in blue jersey of the club he transformed over seven years.
“The world awaits our words but there are no words to describe the pain we’re going through. Now is the time to grieve.”
Maradona played for the then-unfashionable Napoli between 1984 and 1991, during which he also lifted the 1989 UEFA Cup, Napoli’s only European trophy.
He also won the Italian Cup in 1987 and the Italian Super Cup in 1990.
Maradona scored 115 goals for the club and was Napoli’s record goalscorer until three years ago.
– ‘All time greatest’ –
Naples Mayor Luigi De Magistris called for the Stadio San Paolo to be renamed in honour of “the greatest footballer of all time”.
“Diego made our people dream, he redeemed Naples with his genius,” he tweeted.
“Diego, Neapolitan and Argentine, you gave us joy and happiness! Naples loves you!”
Italian sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora, a native of Naples, also paid tribute to Maradona.
“The death of Maradona is terrible news. He was more than a champion, he was a football genius, an absolute champion,” Spadafora said.
“In an unrepeatable season he represented the dreams and hopes of the people of my city. Naples is crying tonight.”
Lega Serie A president Paolo Dal Pino paid tribute to a “legend”, while Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne said he was a “true Neapolitan”.
“You gave everything for your people, you defended this land, you loved it. You gave us joy, smiles, trophies, love,” wrote the 29-year-old.
“I grew up hearing the stories about your exploits, seeing and reviewing your endless games. You were the greatest player in history, you were our Diego.”
Italian Football Federation (FIGC) president Gabriele Gravina said that a minute’s silence would take place before all league matches next weekend.
Prayers for Maradona were forthcoming not only from Italy’s south, but from the Vatican as well.
The Argentine Pope Francis, said a Vatican spokesman, “thinks back with affection to the encounters in recent years and remembers him in prayer, as he has done in recent days since he learned of his health condition”.