Few were surprised when Napoli smashed the world transfer record in 1984. Fewer gave any credence to their insistence that Diego Maradona’s capture would lead to them finally breaking northern hegemony and taking the Scudetto to mainland southern Italy for the very first time. I Partenopei had, after all, parted with globally unprecedented sums to lure Hasse Jeppson in 1952 and Giuseppe Savoldi 23 years later, and neither transfer had led to them even challenging for the title. Besides, they had just finished the season one point clear of relegation.
Steady progress was nonetheless made, with Napoli achieving a mid-table finish in Maradona’s debut campaign in the sky blue shirt and then running home third behind Juventus, whose crowning meant that northern clubs had won a whopping 79 of Serie A’s 83 editions (capital duo Roma and Lazio had won three Scudetti between them, while Sardinians Cagliari had emerged triumphant once).
The Argentinian magician subsequently claimed that 1986/87 would belong to Napoli. The rest of Italy, though, had heard similar swagger from the south before and the consensus remained that it would be a three-way fight for glory between Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan. Rino Marchesi’s Bianconeri included outstanding performers such as Gaetano Scirea, Antonio Cabrini, Michael Laudrup, Aldo Serena and Michel Platini; Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Giallorossi boasted an exquisite midfield of Carlo Ancelotti, Giuseppe Giannini, Bruno Conti and Zibi Boniek; and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Nerazzurri counted on the likes of Walter Zenga, Daniel Passarella, Giuseppe Bergomi, Alessandro Altobelli and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Ottavio Bianchi had just one major name at his disposal, but with that one producing one of the greatest individual campaigns in Italian football history – and Maradona being aided by young defender Ciro Ferrara and largely unheralded new signings Fernando de Napoli and striker Andrea Carnevale – Napoli went into the penultimate round in pole position, three points clear of Juve and four above third-placed Inter. Victory at home to Fiorentina, 25 years ago to this Thursday, and they would become champions. Anything less and they could plummet agonisingly from the cusp of history – Napoli faced a tough away assignment on the final day, while Juve and Inter were both at home.
Over 85,000 packed out the Stadio San Paolo, but they were subjected to an anxious opening as Napoli struggled to find their rhythm and their guests looked threatening. However, just before the half hour, the crowd erupted as their heroes took the lead in breathtaking style. Maradona began the move with a back-heel inside his own half, and when the No10 got the ball back, he played a crafty reverse pass into the path of Carnevale, who took it masterfully in his stride, skipped away from an opponent and flicked it out to Bruno Giordano. The latter played a first-time back-heel (yes, another one!) to allow Carnevale to sneak between the Fiorentina defence and stab the ball home.
Napoli’s joy was nonetheless short-lived, as Roberto Baggio’s delightful free-kick earned him the first of what would be 205 Serie A goals and Fiorentina parity to take in at half-time. There was good news awaiting Maradona and Co in the dressing room, though: Inter were losing at Atlanta, while Juve were being held by Verona.
“The second half was the longest if the life of every Neapolitan,” explained Ferrera. “It was one of our worst performances. We couldn’t get into gear and Fiorentina caused us problems.”
As Napoli clung on, their fans, ears glued to radios, let out two communal roars: the first greeting the news that Inter had lost and the second that Juventus had drawn 1-1. The southerners just needed to survive two minutes plus injury time.
“The minutes seemed like hours during that second half and day towards the end of it,” remembered Bianchi. Eventually, though, at 17:47, the referee’s whistle blew and the San Paolo erupted.
"This is an indescribable feeling,” exclaimed Maradona. “For me it worth more than the World Cup – now I’m the son of Naples!”