When Italy took on Argentina at the 1990 World Cup, Diego Maradona urged Neapolitans to support the Albiceleste.

Words: Emmet Gates

When Italy took on Argentina at the 1990 World Cup, Diego Maradona urged Neapolitans to support the Albiceleste.

Words: Emmet Gates

Ask any Italian of a certain age and they will tell you, without hestitation, that the most crushing defeat of the last 30 years regarding the Azzurri is the Italia ’90 semi final defeat to Argentina. Not the final of USA ’94, not Juventus-bound David Trezeguet’s golden goal strike in extra time at Euro ’00, not even the debacle against South Korea at the 2002 World Cup. The defeat in Naples was the most painful, the hardest to digest.

The reason the Argentina defeat resonates so profoundly can be found in the final sentence of the above passage; it was on home soil. Not only was it in Italy, it was to a sworn enemy, not Argentina, but to one Diego Armando Maradona, the man who had time and again stuck it to the established order, the footballing superman who had broken the status quo in Italy with Napoli during the second half of the 1980s.

Italy, under the tutelage of Azeglio Vicini, had breezed through most of their games at Italia ’90. Comfortably beating Czechoslovakia – including a fantastic goal by Roberto Baggio -, USA, Austria, Uruguay and Ireland to reach the final four. Walter Zenga had famously gone 450 minutes without conceding a single goal.

Italy had played all of their games at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, but the two semi-finals were awarded to Naples and Turin before the final headed back to the capital. Italy were on the side of the draw that meant in the semi final they’d be going to play in Naples. It proved to be a bad omen.

Playing in Naples against any other team wouldn’t have been an issue for Italy; in fact, playing against any other iteration of an Argentina side wouldn’t have been problematic. But this was Maradona’s Argentina, who by 1990 was nothing short of God in this part of the country, and he knew the Neapolitan psyche better than most.

In a press conference on the eve of the game, Maradona – in perhaps the gutsiest move in a career filled with them – implored Naples to ignore their nationalistic urges and get behind him and Argentina. Citing, with an element of truth it must be said, that the rest of the country look their noses down on Naples, but that he had embraced the Neapolitan way of life, and was one of them. Maradona was pouring gasoline on a smouldering fire.

Maradona’s call to arms worked to some degree; the atmosphere inside the San Paolo wasn’t as euphoric as the Olimpico had been throughout the competition. With Napoli fans holding a banner for Maradona saying that whilst they loved him, Italy was their home.

Italy struck first, with tournament-wonder Toto Schillachi putting Italy into a lead inside the opening 20 minutes. Given how excellently marshalled they had been at the back, many felt Argentina wouldn’t get back into the game. Walter Zenga, however, had other ideas.

It’s unfortunate that a goalkeeper as excellent as Zenga was throughout the majority of his career, and given how he hadn’t conceded a goal, any goal, at Italia ’90, is best remembered for his error that led to Argentina’s equaliser.

Flapping at a Olarticoechea cross from the left hand side, the goalkeeper completely misjudged the flight of the ball, lunging recklessly forward when there was no need, and gave Claudio Caniggia the easiest of goals.

The cagey affair went towards penalties, not before Roberto Baggio, on as a late substitute, forced a great save from Sergio Goycochea via a free-kick. Both teams converted the opening six penalties. Then Roberto Donadoni missed, the Milan winger sunk to his knees in despair. Next up was Maradona.

He had missed a penalty against Yugoslavia in the quarter final, but Maradona – at least at this stage of his career – didn’t miss many from the spot. He casually strolled up, took an outrageously relaxed run up, and arrogantly stroked the ball into the bottom corner, before running off to celebrate. Classic Diego.

Aldo Serena then followed, and he had to score to keep Italy in the tie. His penalty was tepid, and easily saved by Goychochea. Italy were out of their own tournament. The nation’s collective heart broke.

In the aftermath, Vicini was criticised for not retaining the flourishing Baggio-Schillaci partnership that had carried Italy to the semi final. Vicini dropped Baggio for Vialli, who’d had a particularly dire tournament. Vicini’s reasoning for the decision was that Baggio wasn’t ‘fit’ enough, to which Baggio, more jeri curl than ponytail in 1990, retorted, “I’d have eaten grass to play, I was 23!!”

As for Maradona, his antics in that press conference had crossed a line, the gloves were now off and the clouds were gathering. Rocks were thrown at his house in Naples following the victory, and without the protection of the media, sordid details of his private life become public knowledge. In March 1991, he was found guilty of using cocaine, despite the fact that he’d been a heavy user of the drug for much of his 7 years at Naples, and he was ushered out of Italy in the dead of night.

The reality is that he’d worn out his welcome, and would never play in Italy again. Napoli haven’t won a league title for 28 years.

image via fifa.com


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