NAPLES • Napoli honoured the memory of Diego Maradona with their entire first team wearing his iconic No. 10 jersey as they took on Croatian side Rijeka in the Europa League on Thursday.
The emotional affair was the Serie A club’s first game since the death of their greatest player, who died aged 60 after suffering a heart attack at his home in Argentina on Wednesday.
Maradona led Napoli to their only two Italian league titles (1987, 1990) and their only major European trophy, the 1989 Uefa Cup, and while the San Paolo Stadium was empty due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was not the case outside the ground.
Fans tied hundreds of blue-and-white scarves to the railings outside, chanting, “Diego, Diego” and other anthems. There was also a makeshift shrine, with flowers, pictures, candles and bottles of wine laid out.
Inside the stadium, a picture of Maradona was shown on the electronic scoreboard and banners of him were plastered all over.
Napoli rose to the occasion, carving out a 2-0 win, courtesy of an own goal by Armando Anastasio and Hirving Lozano’s strike, allowing them to go top of Group F.
Afterwards, coach Gennaro Gattuso paid homage to Maradona, who he knew personally.
“Diego is a legend and will never die,” the 2006 World Cup winner with Italy said. “He is a legend from another planet.
“Since yesterday, you could see that the city breathed a different atmosphere. We hope to dedicate something important to him and win a trophy. In this city, we have talked about it for too many years.
“I have so many good memories, I had the chance to speak to him many times. He has died but his spirit lives on. He made mistakes in his private life but he will always be alive because of what he has achieved.”
Belgium forward Dries Mertens, Napoli’s record goalscorer with 128 strikes, admitted that the sombre mood made it “tough to pull that shirt on”, but vowed the club would continue to do justice to Maradona’s name.
“It was an awful moment for me, so I can only imagine how those who lived through his time at Napoli must have felt,” he told Sky Sport Italia.
“He made such a big impact on this city and for everyone in the south of Italy. I want to be positive, and focus on my memories of a smiling man who loved football.
“I apologised to him, because my name was used in the same sentence as his and that’s not right. He was and always will be unique.”
He added on Instagram: “You were the first thing that came to my mind when I signed for Naples. Wearing the blue shirt will mean even more from now on.
“You were, and will always be, an inspiration to all of us. If my name has ever been placed next to yours, I apologise, I will never be at your level. What you did for ‘our’ city will go down in history forever. It was an honour to have met you. Forever my idol.”
Elsewhere, Arsenal and Leicester secured their place in the last 32 of the Europa League following a 3-0 Group B victory and 3-3 Group G draw with Molde and Braga respectively, while Tottenham thumped Ludogorets 4-0 in Group J.