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Napoli’s greatest XI of the Diego Maradona era – without Maradona – The Gentleman Ultra


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For my lira, one of the most irritating calcio comments possible is ‘Maradona single handedly won Napoli two Scudetti’. Maradona was, without question, the greatest player in the world during his time with the partenopei and it is highly likely that Napoli’s trophy cabinet would be significantly dustier without him but many of his team mates during his seven year stay would walk into an all-time Napoli eleven.

Throughout the Covid pandemic period I have been through all of the games during Maradona’s Napoli stay with my good friend Raffa Rispo for a Far From Vesuvius podcast series about this era. This process revealed that SSC Napoli assembled and dissembled two fine Scudetto winning sides during their greatest epoch. Maradona himself did a great deal of scouting on the pitch during the early days of his Napoli career to help create a team around him to bring home the first league trophy of club’s history before the dark lord of calcio, Luciano Moggi came in as director of football in 1987 to recharge the squad ahead of their UEFA Cup victory in 1989 and second Scudetto charge. This context, therefore, makes an all-time eleven of this period more difficult to assemble than many might think but, to keep things fair, I’ve benched the great Argentinean.

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Giuliano Giuliani: 1987-1990 (UEFA Cup ’89 and Scudetto ‘90 medals)

When Maradona arrived in Naples in 1984, the once impassable Luciano Castellini was between the sticks. His wayward performances that season led to the recruitment of Claudio Garella, from Verona’s surprise 1985 Scudetto side. The not-entirely-natural-athlete Garella was a huge part of the first Napoli league win but I’ve chosen to give the number 1 jersey to the fine goalkeeper Giuliani who also, unfortunately, happens to be one of the most tragic stories in the history of Calcio.

As a player, Giuliani was a confident performer and he needed to be in Maradona’s thrusting Napoli side where full backs attacked and all of the midfield tended to provide runners into the opposition area. He had a knack of steadying nerves with key early saves in significant matches – a world class stop in the opening stages of the 1989 UEFA Cup semi final second leg against Bayern Munich being a case in point. Six years after he lifted the Scudetto with Napoli, however, he was dead from an AIDS related illness.

A Gazzetta article published in 2018 has helped to shed some light on a story the club and the league have done much to obfuscate. Giuliani probably contracted HIV at Maradona’s raucous wedding in 1989 when, according to his ex-wife Raffaella Del Rosario, he committed his only marital indiscretion. Del Rosario left him after he told her of his HIV status in 1991 and a year later sensationalist headlines appear across Italy declaring Giuliani to have AIDS. Giuliani sadly passed away at the age of 38 with no one from the football world around him. Despite requests, neither Napoli nor the league organised any events to honour him or raise awareness of the illness which took his life. His legacy lives on with some heroic performances and he should be seen on the same level as many of the fantastic Italian goalkeepers of this era.

Giancarlo Corradini: 1988-1994 (Uefa Cup ’89, Scudetto ’90 and Supercoppa ’90 medals)

A world class right back is something which escaped the Napoli teams in which Maradona played. Campania born club legend Giuseppe Bruscolotti (511 career Napoli appearances) was coming to the end of his career despite being a squad member in the ’87 Serie A win but only glimpses of his powers were on display for El Diego. The versatile and pacey Giancarlo Corradini is the best pick for this role, who arrived in 1988 from Torino. He offered a more sensible full back approach to his left sided counterpart but also performed consistently for the club beyond the Maradona epoch, leaving in 1994.

Giovanni Francini: 1987-1994 (Uefa Cup ’89, Scudetto ’90, Supercoppa ’90 medals.)

In short: the best left back you’ve never heard of. Francini was electric paced, fearless in his forays into the opposition penalty box and formed an often terrifying partnership with Andrea Carnevale who also liked to cut in from a forward left position. He often scored crucial goals for the club but his attacking instincts were, on occasion, a potential weak point. Ruud Gullit often found success on the opposition right flank for the rossonieri in many of the legendary Milan/Napoli clashes of the late ‘80’s. Like Corradini, Francini became something of a club stalwart and is a no-brainer selection for left back in an all-time Napoli side beyond the Maradona years.

Ciro Ferrara: 1984-1994 (Scudetto ’87 & ’90, Coppa Italia ’87, Uefa Cup ’89 & Supercoppa ’90 medals)

Hometown boy, Italy legend and one of a handful of Napoli players to have matching winners’ medals with Maradona. Ferrara entered the Napoli team at a very young age, mostly playing at right back before forming a fantastic central defensive partnership with Alessandra Renica from the 1988/89 season. His goal and celebration in the UEFA Cup Final of 1989 is one of the emotional highlights of this era and many games included bursts forward in defence as well as man-marking masterclasses. His move to Juventus has led some Napoli tifosi to have mixed feelings about him but a disastrous managerial stint with the Old Lady has warmed some hearts with whispers of him being a partenopei double agent.

Alessandro Renica: 1985-1991 (Scudetto ’87 & ’90, Coppa Italia ’87, Uefa Cup ’89 & Supercoppa ’90 medals)

The best defender to never play international football, like Ferrara, Alessandro Renica has the full set of the Maradona era winners’ medals. Probably the biggest unsung hero of these Napoli sides, Renica was a highly sophisticated sweeper who often dictated play from the back through a precise passing radar and an adventurous spirit. He also enjoyed long range free kicks when Maradona wasn’t in the mood. Renica had two iconic moments, firstly his last minute of extra time winner for Napoli in the second leg of the 1989 UEFA Cup quarter final against Juventus. The crowd roar to Renica throwing his tall and gangly frame at a Maradona corner in the 120th minute is, in my opinion, the loudest moment the now Stadio Diego Armando Maradona has ever heard. Less heralded is Renica’s performance in the first leg of the final. When the rest of the team shrank into themselves after falling behind to Jurgen Klinsmann’s Stuttgart side, Renica carried the team with bravado from the back. This kept Napoli in the tie for Maradona’s genius to get the team 2-1 ahead by the final whistle.

Fernando Di Napoli: 1986-1992 (Scudetto ’87 & ’90, Coppa Italia ’87, Uefa Cup ’89 & Supercoppa ’90 medals)

Away from Maradona, Rambo is one of the most fondly remembered members of the league winning sides. A box-to-box midfielder who could do it all, Di Napoli also liked to drift into the right flank when Maradona roamed free across the pitch to cause problems with opposition marking systems. If you squint when watching the footage, he could be current Napoli boss, Rino Gattuso performing a similar function in Carlo Ancelotti’s famed ‘Christmas tree’ formation. His grinta and stamina busting performances made him a crowd favourite, although it took him longer than most remember to really take a grip of the side. 1988/89 was his break-through season despite creating some accidental comic relief to the closing stages of the triumphant UEFA Cup final.

Alemão: 1988-1992 ( Uefa Cup ’89, Scudetto ’90 & Super Cup ’90 medals)

A failed dressing room coup following the farcical ending to the 1987/88 Serie A campaign left Luciano Moggi with a new spine to find – with four key players all departing. Alemão’s arrival from Atletico Madrid in 1988 made this transition seamless as he brought a tactical, physical and technical presence to the centre of midfield. His tall frame, rolled down socks and iconic moustache make him an icon of the times and he scored some wonderful goals, surging forward from deep as well as keeping the side’s shape and balance together. The opening goal of the second leg of the 1989 UEFA Cup final is an excellent summary of Alemão’s unique, super-charged-bambi-on-ice playing style of which there are echoes in Napoli’s current midfield star, Fabian Ruiz. 

Salvatore Bagni: 1984-88 (Scudetto ’87 and Coppa Italia ’87 medals)

Bagni completes this midfield and, like his comrades in the middle of the park is another player who could win the ball, place a precise pass and use his technical abilities to get past players and score. The first Scudetto side played the game at incredible intensity with and without the ball and Bagni was the mastermind of this high tempo approach. Seen these days as more of a blocker than an artist, I would encourage readers to see his ‘coast-to-coast’ golazzo against Milan in the ‘85/86 season or his overhead kick against Torino in ‘86/87 to revise this history. His role in trying to unseat coach Ottavio Bianchi and unproven Camorra connections in relation to the 1987/88 league campaign mean his legacy is slightly tainted – on the pitch, however, he was a world class operator who also won nearly 50 caps for Italy.

Bruno Giordano: 1985-1988 (Scudetto ’87 and Coppa Italia ’87 medals)

Giordano is often remembered as the ‘third wheel’ in the famed Ma-Gi-Ca partnership with Maradona and Careca but, looking back at the footage, he should be most celebrated for his 1986/87 double winning campaign where he scored the only goal in two vital away 1-0 victories in April and finished top scorer in the Coppa Italia campaign. His crossing ability also provided much for the first great Napoli side of this era, with him easing the burden on Maradona with corners and wide free kicks. A tireless runner and genuine team player with a taste for the right hand flank, he could be seen as a spiritual uncle to Napoli’s more recent attacking ironman, Jose Callejon.

Careca: 1987-1993 (UEFA Cup ’89, Scudetto ’90, Supercoppa ’90 medals)

Careca was the only other global superstar to play with Maradona at Napoli and the two South American forwards formed one of the greatest strike partnerships in the history of the game – Careca and Maradona were close on and off the pitch and Diego’s musical tastes were expanded by lambada tapes made by the Brazilian in Naples. Careca came to Napoli from Sao Paolo, a year after having finished second to Gary Lineker in the ’86 World Cup Golden Boot. It’s hard to overestimate Careca’s impact in Naples, as a genuine number 9 he enabled Maradona to be able to float and playmaker from deep. The Brazilian had a fantastic header, powerful shot and explosive pace and it is hard not to draw parallels with another South American Napoli legend, Edison Cavani. Despite the headlines, the best attacking trio Careca was involved with was with Carnevale and Maradona (perhaps Ma-Ca-Ca is a little too scatological for Italian speakers). I would encourage readers to investigate highlights of Napoli’s 8-2 demolition of Pescara in 1987 to see what the three players could do together. Careca scores two and sets up three in one of the all-time great Serie A striking performances. If the stadium is named after Maradona, Careca deserves a stand.

Andrea Carnevale: 1986-1990 (Scudetto ’87 & ’90, Coppa Italia ’87 and UEFA Cup ’89 medals)

Carnevale is unfortunate to be remembered as the player who Schillaci wasn’t in the 1990 World Cup for Italy. In truth, he was a vital cog in all of Napoli’s major silverware during Maradona’s time at the club. An icy-veined finisher in the run-in to the first Scudetto campaign of 1987, he scored all but two of his league goals in the second half of the campaign, including the crucial goal in the 1-1 Scudetto deciding draw with Fiorentina. His goals were also vital to the UEFA Cup win and second Scudetto and deserves more recognition outside of the Napoli fanbase for his contribution to some of Italian football’s most challenging cup runs and league campaigns.

Bench: Garella, Romano, Crippa, Fusi, Maradona, Zola, Bertoni

The eleven includes many unsung heroes but there has to be an honourable mention for Francesco Romano, the gifted deep lying playmaker who made the team tick during the 1986/87 league winning campaign. Luca Fusi and Massimo Crippa also provided midfield versatility during the second half of Maradona’s Napoli career and Gianfranco Zola served as a hugely talented apprentice. Final word should go to Argentine right sided forward, Daniel Bertoni whose partnership on and off the pitch between 1984 and 1986 helped Maradona settle into the Napoli number 10 jersey.

Words by: Henry Bell. @drhbell


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