There was once a time, not very long ago, that Europe had three major club competitions. The Cup Winners’ Cup was eventually scrapped in 1999 following a 40-year run. The European Champions’ Cup was no longer just limited to national winners and expanded into the modern-day Champions League. The UEFA Cup, in turn, was rebranded into the Europa League.
The latter has had lots of memorable winners. Counting the Europa League, Sevilla has won it five times, more than any other club, with their last title coming in 2016. Liverpool, Juventus and Internazionale are each three-time winners. However, among the 28 teams to have ever lifted the trophy, one stands out above the rest.
Napoli, guided by Diego Maradona, won the 64-team UEFA Cup in May 1989 – minus the English clubs because of a ban after the 1985 Heysel disaster – following a series of 12 matches on the way to the trophy at a time when Italian clubs were the strongest in the world.
The trophy Napoli lifted 30 years ago remains the first, and to date only, major European title the southern club have ever won. It is also the first and only continental trophy won by Maradona. While the 1988/89 season was a special time for i Partenopei, the team also finished as runners-up to Inter in Serie A and lost to Sampdoria in the Coppa Italia final. Nevertheless, it proved to be a historic season. Napoli had already defeated Italy’s traditional powers Juventus, AC Milan and Inter for the title in 1987. They were now destined to sweep aside top European foes.
For Napoli, the season contested 30 years ago could very well be the best year they have ever enjoyed since becoming an official club in 1926. Aside from Maradona, the team featured the Brazilian duo of Careca and Alemão, Italy internationals Ciro Ferrara, Fernando De Napoli and Andrea Carnevale and the underrated French-born and naturalized Italian sweeper, Alessandro Renica. The team was managed by Ottavio Bianchi, who had helped them capture the league and cup double.
Those glory years were also filled with plenty of controversy and uncertainty. The conclusion of the 1987/88 season, a year before the UEFA Cup triumph, hadn’t gone well, as the players and Bianchi reached a breaking point. Napoli had squandered their lead atop the table and lost to AC Milan 3-2 at home at a critical juncture of the season. The Rossoneri would finish first, three points ahead of Napoli, to capture the Scudetto. The Napoli players, in a press release, claimed there had been a problem with Bianchi and that team owner Corrado Ferlaino had been aware of it weeks earlier.
Over the summer, Ferlaino, instead of heeding his players’ warning, confirmed Bianchi as manager for the following season. “We all thought he was going to go, but he was reconfirmed by Ferlaino,” Maradona told reporters. “Ferlaino knows why he did that. The entire team had put together a petition against Bianchi.”
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Bianchi, who had been a Napoli player during the late 1960s, barked back, stating Maradona was neither the team president, vice-president or manager. The players who had strongly opposed Bianchi – among them fan favourites such as midfielder Salvatore Bagni and striker Bruno Giordano – were sold. Giordano and Bagni had helped Napoli win their first Scudetto; now they were gone and Maradona could do nothing about it.
Bagni had arrived in Naples in the summer of 1984, at the same time as Maradona, and got to know each other while staying with their families at the four-star Hotel Royal located along the picturesque Via Partenope overlooking the city’s waterfront and Mount Vesuvius. “We lived there for a month with our families, because we couldn’t find a home, and that’s where we got to know one another and each other’s families,” Bagni recalled.
While the two remained close friends, Napoli’s fortunes entering the 1988/89 season remained uncertain. The team had acquired Careca – a striker with World Cup experience for Brazil – a year before and added another Samba star with the purchase of Alemão, a wily midfielder who had all the speed and grit of Bagni, whose South American flair added a new dimension to the midfield.
They would surprise the sceptics once again, reserving their strongest performances not for their Sunday afternoon league matches, but instead for their European nights on Wednesdays. Ferlaino’s transfer market moves had made it so that Napoli could remain competitive. Aside from Alemão as the team’s third foreign-born player, the line-up also featured newcomers such as goalkeeper Giuliano Giuliani from Verona, defender Luca Fusi from Sampdoria and midfielder Massimo Crippa via Torino.
Napoli, playing that season with a revamped 4-3-3, went undefeated in the first three rounds, sweeping aside PAOK, Lokomotiv Leipzig and Bordeaux in the autumn of 1988. It wasn’t until the quarter-finals, played in March 1989, that the tournament got more interesting and difficult. The draw handed Napoli a familiar foe in Juventus, an all-Italian quarter-final between two of the nation’s biggest rivals at the time, geographically and ideologically.
Napoli, only a few years earlier, had been able to break Juve’s stronghold on the league. Maradona had proven he was better than Juventus’ star Frenchman Michel Platini – but that wasn’t enough. Napoli had to do it all again on the European stage.
In the opening leg that was contested on 1 March, Juventus got the better of Napoli, who donned an unusual red away kit at home. An emphatic 2-0 victory put Juventus in control of the tie, and a draw in Naples would put them through to the semi-finals.
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Two weeks later at the San Paolo, Napoli, back in their famous sky blue shirts, evened the series thanks to a Maradona penalty after just 20 minutes and a Carnevale goal at the stroke of half-time. The teams spent the second half battling for a goal, but the 2-0 result meant extra-time would be needed to decide the winner.
Just when the game appeared headed to a penalty shootout, Renica lashed the ball into the goal in the 120th-minute to send Napoli through to the semis. The miraculous victory was only rivalled by San Gennaro, the city’s beloved patron saint. Given the many murals dedicated in Maradona’s honour, it was clear that Neapolitans had made room for another man to worship.
In the semi-finals, Napoli were pitted against Bayern Munich. The Bavarian giants were in the midst of an excellent season – Bayern would go on to win the Bundesliga that season – and featured defender and captain Klaus Augenthaler, midfielders Olaf Thon and Stefan Reuter, and in attack the formidable Roland Wohlfarth. They were coached by the exciting Jupp Heynckes.
The first leg was played on 5 April in Naples. As always, the crowd support didn’t disappoint. Greeted by a sea of flag-waving fans and flares cascading from either end, the players entered the field ready for battle. Maradona, as always, was up for the big game: “He gave us confidence ahead of big matches,” recalled De Napoli, nicknamed “Rambo” by the fans for his toughness. “It meant a lot coming from him. He was the type of player that you wanted to give your all for in that moment.”
It had promised to be a tension-filled tie. Although it was the semis, the calibre of talent and history of both teams gave this the importance and feel of a final. The noise inside the San Paolo not only made it loud, but resulted in the ground shaking. Indeed, residents of Fuorigrotta, the neighbourhood on the edge of the sprawling city that housed the San Paolo, had complained to local authorities following the victory against Juventus that they feared for their safety and the possible collapse of buildings in this earthquake-prone part of Italy.
No buildings collapsed that evening, but Bayern saw their defence crack in such an intimidating setting. A seismic shift had occurred in Europe, albeit a temporary one for a provincial club like Napoli. Traditional powers such as Bayern had made way for the likes of Napoli, a team that just a decade earlier had not been a domestic title contender let alone in the running for continental glory. Indeed, the UEFA Cup that season had been more akin to the European Cup in terms of talent – and this semi should, for many, have been the final.
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Napoli took the lead via Careca in the 40th minute. The aftershock took place in the second half when a Maradona corner found Carnevale. The striker unleashed a towering header and nodded the ball into the goal to put Napoli ahead 2-0 with just three minutes left. The southern giants, determined to reach the final, also wanted to put on a show in Munich on 19 April in the return leg.
Maradona, as usual, didn’t disappoint. Before kick-off, with Napoli warming up on one half of the field, Maradona gave them a show. Sporting a windbreaker and shorts, he bounced around the field dribbling the ball like a circus acrobat. The amazing display of skill – reminiscent of a dance routine – featured the Argentine star moving the ball from his head to his feet as if attached by an invisible rope. Like a juggler, Maradona’s immense skill was on full display for the largely German crowd that was filing into the famed Olympiastadion.
“Today marks 30 years of this warm entrance with Napoli in Munich,” a recent message posted on Maradona’s Facebook page read. “It was against Bayern for the UEFA Cup 1988/89. My friend Careca scored two golazos that night and we reached the final. It reminded me when I was a youth player. We would enter at half-time and put on a show for 15 minutes.”
With the song Live is Life by Austrian pop-rock group Opus blaring through the loudspeakers and fans transfixed by Maradona’s swaying hips and ridiculous talent, Napoli had already won the psychological battle during those pre-match theatrics. Maradona had delighted his teammates in training and in the dressing room by juggling a lemon at will. If he motivated his teammates with flair, Bianchi did so in a more calm and collected tone.
The 2-0 home win was vital and Bianchi fielded his usual line-up of Maradona and Careca in attack. The Brazilian opened the scoring in the 61st minute following a defensive blunder that Maradona was aptly able to convert into an assist. Bayern drew level, but another Maradona pass to Careca, this time on a breakaway with die Roten’s defence slow to get back, saw the latter make it 2-1 in the 76th minute.
With the game all but out of reach, Bayern pulled one back through Reuter five minutes later but the damage was done. Napoli were in the final of a major European tournament for the first time in their history. The Bayern fans could do nothing but applaud what they had witnessed that evening. An all-German final featuring Bayern and VfB Stuttgart had been spoiled.
Maradona, mobbed by reporters and photographers as he jogged towards the dressing room, had come through once again. Asked why Napoli hadn’t been able to score more goals, Maradona, not shy about making a controversial statement, said: “The referee didn’t want it.”
Bianchi, a villain to many just a year earlier, was now hailed a hero and the architect of this winning team. However, he remained a model of restraint, both on the sidelines during games and in post-match interviews. “It’s what I expected,” Bianchi said after the draw with Bayern. “I am very happy for them. I live off of their victories.” Asked if they could win the UEFA Cup, the humble Bianchi smiled and replied: “You know that even though I’m from Lombardy, I have come to appreciate the Neapolitan philosophy. Therefore, I can tell you that at this point I am living day-to-day.”
The two-legged final against Stuttgart, coached by former Dutch international Arie Haan, promised to be a riveting affair. The Germans had defeated Real Sociedad in the quarter-finals and Dynamo Dresden of nearby East Germany to also reach the final of a European competition for the first time. Their road had been a bit easier compared to that of Napoli, but nevertheless they were a strong club.
The team featured striker Jürgen Klinsmann, who would go on to play for Inter the following season and help West Germany win the 1990 World Cup against Maradona’s Argentina in Rome. The Germans also featured, in an ironic twist, a striker named Maurizio Gaudino, whose family had emigrated to Germany from Naples years earlier.
The Napoli fans, known for being superstitious, were confident. They celebrated for days leading up to the 3 May first leg played at the San Paolo. A capacity crowd of 80,000 was there to greet the players, not to mention the thousands that had lined the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the players on the team bus.
The fans had already created a festival atmosphere when Gaudino, on a goal born from a free-kick, put Stuttgart ahead after just 17 minutes with a shot from outside the area that beat Giuliani. Napoli attacked the entire second half in search of a response. It finally came in the 68th minute in the form of a penalty.
Maradona, only a few meters from goal, controlled the ball with his left hand. The Hand of God – borne out of his infamous goal from the 1986 World Cup against England – was back to aid him. The moment, unseen by Greek referee Gerasimos Germanakos, resulted in Maradona’s attempt at goal stopped by the arm of defender Günther Schäfer. That was whistled by Germanakos and Maradona scored on the resultant penalty.
With the game level at one apiece, Napoli continued their relentless attacking forays. Renica, with his long-range passing, found Carnevale in the penalty area who controlled the ball for Maradona. The Argentine fed a clever pass to Careca, who was in the middle of the box, which allowed the Brazilian to score the winner with three minutes left to play. Napoli had prevailed 2-1 – but there was still plenty to play for in the Black Forest on 17 May for the second leg.
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Thousands of Napoli fans made their way from Italy to the Neckarstadion. Before 67,000 fans and a sea of blue Partenopei supporters, Napoli and Stuttgart faced off in one of the most entertaining finals in UEFA Cup history. After 19 minutes, it was Alemao who gave Napoli the lead. Stuttgart, not to be outdone, tied the score from a Klinsmann header eight minutes later. Maradona, marked tightly by defender Guido Buchwald, appeared out of sorts for much of the first half.
The Neapolitans needed a goal and it was to come from an unlikely source. Following a move that started from a Maradona corner, Ferrara, a player used to thwarting goals and not scoring them, found the back of the net. With his arms raised to the sky in jubilation and Maradona swamped by his teammates, Napoli had scored a key goal in the 39th minute.
In the second half, a Maradona assist for Careca put the game away – or so it seemed. Stuttgart would score twice more before it was over, including on an own goal following a remarkable back-pass blunder by De Napoli, but it wouldn’t be enough. The West Germans had been defeated and Napoli could finally claim their first continental trophy in a season where Italian clubs almost swept Europe’s three major club competitions. That same month, Sampdoria lost in the Cup Winners’ Cup final to Barcelona, while AC Milan, coached by Arrigo Sacchi, would go on to win the European Cup against Steaua Bucharest.
The gum-chewing Bianchi remained stoic once the final whistle blew, even retiring to the dressing room briefly while Maradona and his teammates paraded around the stadium in jubilation. “I only allowed myself to smile after the match in Stuttgart, not even after eliminating Bayern and certainly not after the night with Juventus,” Bianchi recalled. “Indeed, if you really want to know, I tell you what I did immediately after the game once back at the hotel: I thought of the league game scheduled for the following Sunday.”
Despite Careca’s 19 Serie A goals that season, Napoli would fall in the Scudetto race to Giovanni Trappatoni’s record-breaking Inter that featured German stars Lothar Matthäus and Andres Brehme as well as strikers Ramón Díaz and Aldo Serena. Even a defeat in the Coppa Italia final, played on the neutral grounds in Cremona, against the Gianluca Vialli-led Sampdoria did little to dampen Napoli’s claim to have won arguably the most-difficult UEFA Cup tournament in the competition’s long history. Indeed, years later, Ferlaino would admit that winning the trophy that year had bought him greater satisfaction than their first Scudetto.
Bianchi’s calm manner, Maradona’s sublime skills and Careca’s explosive goals, married with the passion of the fans, had resulted in another trophy a year after clouds of doubt had gathered over the club. While Napoli would go on to win another Scudetto the following year, the club’s winning ways would come to an end once Maradona departed in 1991 after failing a drugs test.
Napoli again reached the semi-finals of the Europa League in 2015 and were dumped out of the competition by Arsenal in the quarter-finals this season. Diego Maradona’s flashes of brilliance remain all but a memory for fans who haven’t forgotten the glory years, a tenure marked above all by capturing the UEFA Cup 30 years ago.
By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi