Unforgettable World Cup Moments: Napoli star Maradona booed at Italia 1990

With the 2022 World Cup in Qatar due to get underway in November, we're taking a look back through the history of the World Cup at the good, the bad and the amazing moments that remain in our memories to this very day and will live on forever.

Raised rough in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aries, barrel-chested and small of stature but mighty of spirit with an unquenchable appetite for good times – with a nose like an industrial vacuum cleaner – Diego Armando Maradona was the most iconic of icons – a footballer so enigmatic and mesmeric that he split the loyalties of an entire nation.

In the summer of 1990, Maradona walked on water. El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Kid) was a prime 29-years-old and he had just dragged unfancied regional club Napoli to the second-ever Serie A title in their history, cementing his status as a demi-God in Campania.

With domestic honours banked, Maradona was preparing for another World Cup campaign with defending champions Argentina, in a tournament hosted by the same lands he had only just conquered with Napoli.

After an initial ropy reception in Italy, Maradona would put his considerable powers of persuasion to use in his adopted home of Naples, where his popularity would drag an army of his devotees into a double bind between club and country.

Maradona: adored, adopted son of Naples

The intimacy shared between Diego Maradona and the people of Naples was deeply rooted and stemmed from shared experiences and struggles against discrimination.

Maradona was the son of migrants from Argentina’s most poverty-stricken territory and from an early age, he knew what it meant to be mocked and prejudiced against by the country’s middle and upper classes.

When he landed in Naples in 1984, he found a city of kindred spirits, people who had suffered racism at the hands of northerners in Italy for decades.

The north vs south tribalism in Italy – which is still present – was particularly venomous in the 1980s and early 90s when Neapolitans were treated with the same disdain that many economic migrants face today.

Diego Maradona playing for Argentina

The affluent cities in the north considered southerners as “not truly Italian”, indeed, when Maradona made his debut for Napoli in 1984 at Verona, the home fans unfurled a “Welcome to Italy” banner. That sign is still rolled out when the Partenopei come to town.

Supporters from Milan, Juventus and Genoa among others dished out the same treatment, so when Maradona’s inspirational performances took Napoli from nowhere to the summit of Serie A, the success on the pitch meant infinitely more off it.

Maradona had injected the city with a new sense of pride and allowed its people to rally back against the jeers and sneers of their northern neighbours.

However, the love garnered by Maradona in Naples was matched by the hate he summoned outside the city limits in the rest of Italy and he was about to experience first-hand just how deep that hostility burned.

World Cup 1990: Boos in Milan

Argentina were drawn alongside Cameroon, Romania and the Soviet Union in Group B at World Cup Italia 90 and La Albiceleste opened their title defence against the Indomitable Lions on June 8th in Milan.

Perhaps it was to be expected, but Diego Maradona and his Argentinean comrades were given the frostiest of receptions by the massed ranks at San Siro, who booed the country’s national anthem into oblivion before kick-off.

Maradona was Napoli personified in their eyes and the Milanese public unloaded with both barrels throughout. To the detractors’ delight, Argentina slipped to a shock 1-0 loss against Cameroon and left the city with their tails between their legs.

In the aftermath, Maradona had plenty to say. “My only pleasure this afternoon was in discovering the Italians in Milan have stopped being racists: today, for the first time, they supported the Africans,” he blasted.

Unforgettable World Cup Moments: Napoli star Maradona booed at Italia 1990

Argentina gathered themselves and bounced back to beat the Soviet Union 2-0 on matchday two – a victory secured in a much more palatable atmosphere at Maradona’s beloved Stadio San Paolo in Naples.

In a tightly-contested scuffle, Argentina needed a second, slightly less-infamous intervention from Maradona’s “Hand of God” to see off the Soviets when the attacker palmed a header off the line to save a goal when the scores were deadlocked at 0-0.

Argentina concluded their group campaign in Naples with a 1-1 draw against a plucky Romanian outfit and subsequently booked their passage to the next phase of the World Cup by the skin of their teeth as one of the best third-place finishers.

Argentina advance to the knockout rounds

Argentina had toiled and crunched through the gears in Italy, though a much-needed tinderbox of optimism was lit in the Round of 16 on June 24th, when they played their way past bitter South American rivals Brazil.

Almost the entire 61, 381 capacity crowd at the Stadio Delle Alpi, Turin were baying for a Brazilian victory as Napoli talisman Diego Maradona were again forced to battle against opponents numbering more than 11.

However, a trademark slaloming run through the middle by Maradona dragged a number of Brazilian markers into his orbit and the forward slipped a pass through to the unmarked Claudio Caniggia, who rounded keeper Cláudio Taffarel to net the game’s only goal, much to the delight of the tiny pocket of Argentinean fans present.

On to the quarter-finals and Argentina needed penalty kicks to see off a strong Yugoslavia side adorned with stars like Dragan Stojkovic, Robert Prosinecki and Dejan Savicevic in Florence and though Maradona inexplicably missed his own effort from the spot, keeper Sergio Goycochea saved twice and his heroics were enough for La Albiceleste to progress.

As fate would have it, Maradona and Argentina would cross paths with Italy in the World Cup semi-finals and the titanic last-four tussle would be decided in Naples, at Maradona’s personal Colosseum – the Stadio San Paolo.

World Cup semi-final and a city torn in two

Diego Maradona knew for certain that Argentina’s national anthem would be respected in Naples, though he was also aware of the incredible weight his words held in the city and in the build-up to the semi-final he tried to use his influence to win support for his country from his swathes of worshipers.

“The Neapolitans are being asked to be Italians for one night, while the other 364 days of the year they get called terroni (an Italian slur roughly translated as peasants),” said Maradona to reporters.

“I only want respect for the Neapolitans, both my team-mates and I know they are Italians, we cannot ask for them to cheer for us, but the rest of Italy should know the people of Naples are just as Italian as they are.”

While Maradona’s expertly constructed appeal, which would have impressed the most inspired political orator, didn’t manage to arouse a full-blown fracture of loyalties, parts of the Stadio San Paolo were still torn on July 3 when Argentina played Italy.

Diego Maradona of Argentina

One banner at the semi-final read: “Maradona, Naples loves you but Italy is our homeland” while another showed a message saying: “Diego in our hearts, Italy in our songs.”

Maradona himself was cheered unreservedly when he strode out onto the pitch for the first time, while the Argentinean national anthem was observed with respect.

Italy took a 17th-minute lead through Toto Schillaci in the 17th-minute to light the blue touch paper, however, Claudio Caniggia equalized in the second half and following a tense period of extra time, Argentina again prevailed on penalty kicks.

Diego Maradona netted his team’s fourth and crucial effort, though Sergio Goycochea was again the hero of the piece, saving twice from Roberto Donadoni and Aldo Serena to send Argentina through.

Later, beaten Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga would admit that the tepid atmosphere at the Stadio San Paolo had a psychological effect on the Italian team.

“It affected us,” he told the National. “It’s hard to explain in five or so words, but we came from Rome where we played five games, with five wins and no goals against. The whole stadium did not care whether they were Roma fans, Lazio fans, Inter fans or Juventus fans. It was complete support, all 90 minutes.

“Then we arrive in Naples, Maradona says a few things, and the atmosphere changed. We cannot look at that as an excuse for Argentina beating us, but the feeling before was different. It surprised us, but it didn’t cause us to lose.”

World Cup final and the boos return

Maradona might well have felt that he had landed a return blow or two in Naples following Argentina’s rough treatment in Italy’s northern venues, though Azzurri supporters were about to raise the stakes in an increasingly acerbic back and forth.

In the days leading up to the World Cup final in Roma between Argentina and West Germany, a series of incidents heightened tensions. Diego’s brother Lalo was collared by authorities while out and about in Maradona’s Ferrari, while an Italy fan breached security and defaced an Argentina flag at the country’s training base in Trigoria.

Ill-feeling between Argentina and their hosts was turning into open hostility and when Argentina walked out at the Stadio Olimpico in the Eternal City for the World Cup final, the entire venue erupted with a wave of jeers, whistles and insults.

The Argentinean national anthem was barely audible over the noise and when the camera made its way down the line of La Albiceleste players proudly booming out lyrics, it gave Maradona special focus as the captain mouthed the words “hijos de puta, hijos de puta” (sons of whores) repeatedly in response to the taunts.

The contest that ensued was almost as caustic as the bitter serenades from the stands. Both Pedro Monzón and Gustavo Dezotti were sent off for Argentina before Andreas Brehme won the trophy for West Germany with a late penalty kick.

Supporters in Roma rejoiced while Maradona and his bruised teammates bristled about the loss and the performance of Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal.

Argentina returned home as beaten finalists and less than a year later, Maradona also left Italy, with his cocaine misuse finally catching up with him following a failed drugs test after an appearance against Bari.

Despite his anti-Italian exploits in 1990 and unceremonious exit shortly after, Maradona has retained his status as a much-loved, figure of inspiration in Naples. Images of the icon are graffitied everywhere across the urban landscape there, and Napoli retired the number 10 jersey in Maradona’s honour in 2000. 20 years later, just after his death, they renamed the San Paolo Stadium the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in another fitting, lasting tribute to one of the city’s favourite sons.