Naples parties like 'Rio Carnival'

When Napoli won its first Serie A title in 1987, Naples partied for weeks to honor the team that brought soccer glory to the much-maligned southern Italian metropolis.

Few know that better than Ottavio Bianchi, the man who was at the helm of the iconic Napoli team spearheaded by Diego Maradona and saw first hand what success means for some of the country's most passionate supporters.

A 1-1 draw with Fiorentina on May 10, 1987, sparked city-wide festivities which passed into legend. The world is waiting for more of the same this year with Napoli on the verge of its third Scudetto.

With a 17-point lead with seven games remaining, Napoli will clinch on Sunday if it beats Salernitana and Lazio doesn't win at Inter Milan. It would cap a magnificent league season that has stunned fans and defied pre-season expectations.

"I was very worried about celebrations before the title was won, especially because we were never as far in front as Napoli have been this season," Bianchi tells AFP about the first Scudetto in 1987. "But, after Fiorentina, the party was worthy of the Rio Carnival. I thought my job was done so I went back to my hotel, but the president [Corrado Ferlaino] came to get me with his wife and insisted that I join the party. So I got in his car and we drove around the city. To be truthful I wasn't really at ease but that's how I experienced the party, in his car, right through until the early hours."

Bianchi, from the far-northern city of Brescia and now 79, played in the 1960s for a good Napoli team that featured Dino Zoff and Omar Sivori. But he is most famous for coaching Napoli between 1985 and 1989, in the golden age for both coach and club. It brought the Scudetto, Italian Cup and UEFA Cup for a team embedded in the fabric of Naples. The club then won a second scudetto in 1990 under Alberto Bigon.

'Like Nureyev.' No-one personified that symbiosis with the fans more than Maradona, whose wildman-of-the-people image eventually overshadowed the talent that helped drag a Napoli to the top of what was then the toughest league on the planet.

Bianchi said that although Maradona had a reputation as a lazy trainer, he was like ballet great Rudolf Nureyev. His apparent ease of movement hid the hard work behind it.

"I don't know if you've ever seen a great musician or actor train, or if you've read the story of (Italian virtuoso pianist) Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, but the greats always train for hours," said Bianchi. "Diego was like Nureyev. Everything you saw him do on the pitch, from the Hand of God to scoring goals from midfield, free-kicks ... he did all that in training. It wasn't something he invented on the spot."

Even Maradona's infamous World Cup 'hand of god' goal had its roots in tricks he pulled in training.

"Even from two meters away I couldn't see anything," said Bianchi. "He did it so well that I never realized he was doing it."

Bianchi said Maradona will remain a uniquely popular figure in Naples even though the current Napoli team could go even further.

Napoli never got past the second round of the old European Cup, but this season reached the quarter finals of the modern Champions League for the first time.

Yet Maradona not only pushed Napoli to new heights, he also took Naples to his heart and was paid back with a tide of long-lasting affection which could cover Mount Vesuvius.

"It's difficult to say who's more important to Neapolitans, Maradona or [patron saint] San Gennaro. Maradona will always be Maradona to this city for another 50, 100, 200 years," said Bianchi. "When this city loves you like that it's an incredible, visceral feeling. Diego was loved by everyone, from the working classes up to the intellectuals."

Although Bianchi retains happy memories of Naples, he won't be traveling down from Bergamo to join his former fans.

"I didn't really take part in the party when I was one of the men who made it happen," he said. "Imagine me going down there now that I count for less than nothing."


© Agence France-Presse

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