Explaining the meaning of Diego Armando Maradona for the Napoli fans and the whole city of Naples is almost impossible. He was an icon beyond soccer. He wasn't just the best player in the world and probably the best player of all time, he was the man who changed the history of Naples. A city where everything seems much more difficult to happen than other cities around Italy. Imagine winning the Scudetto, or the UEFA Cup, with a team that was fighting to avoid relegation until Maradona arrived. Diego, as many citizens of the historic city in the south of Italy call him, was just something else. He represented the social redemption of thousands of people who were struggling in their lives. Many of them continued to struggle, but it didn't matter because Maradona was there. June 1984 was the month that changed the history of this city thanks to the vision of the owner of the club: Corrado Ferlaino. CBS Sports had the pleasure to sit down and talk with the person who made this dream becoming a reality, two years after the passing of the unforgettable Maradona: "There is only one way to describe him, he was a Neapolitan Argentinian", Ferlaino says.
Corrado Ferlaino (91) is an Italian entrepreneur who became Napoli president in 1969 and kept a role inside the club until the late 90's. He marked an era for Italian soccer, and his image is always linked with the transfer of Maradona from FC Barcelona in the summer 1984. A story that gives us an insight of how soccer is linked to politics, but also of how the vision of a man can change the history of an entire city. Ferlaino has told this story many times, but his eyes still shine almost 40 years after the events actually happened as he remembers every single minute of those incredible days: "I have told this story so many times that every time I kind of add new details. I don't want to say inaccurate things, so this time I will try to be as faithful as possible".
How politics got involved
To explain the transfer of Maradona to Napoli we need to take into account the financial differences between Italian clubs such as Juventus, Inter Milan or AC Milan and others like Napoli. The Azzurri were not as strong as today and the Maradona deal seemed to be only a dream, something that only the big clubs from the North could afford. This is why this is a story that includes much more than only soccer, because it's also a story about social and financial differences in the same country:
"Barcelona wanted to sell Maradona because, let's say, he wasn't really in their style, but on the other hand they didn't want to sell him for how good he was. They were undecided between two totally opposing ideas inside the club. Then, there was a financial problem. We had to find thirteen billion of the Italian lire at the time (around $7.5 million) to buy Maradona." Finding the money became the priority of Ferlaino those weeks, but he managed to find a way.
"I couldn't invest all that money myself, and the club couldn't afford it. I have to say we were very lucky, sometimes in life you just need it. Many times you lose, many times you win. I won hands down here because the City of Naples entered an economic crisis and the Italian government sent one of their former ministers in the spring of 1984, Vincenzo Scotti, to oversee the role of the Mayor. He was a good friend of mine and among other things he understood very well what the people of Naples wanted and in that moment. He convinced the bank of the city (Banco di Napoli) to finance the Maradona deal."
"The Barcelona executives were undecided, they constantly changed the terms of payments. What the bank decided one day, didn't work for the Spanish club the day after. We went on for days and the deal was postponed until the very last day of the window. The crucial points were the guarantees of the payments which should have been in three years. The moment Scotti arrived, he convinced Ferdinando Ventriglia (member of the bank's board) to proceed with the transfer of Maradona".
"The board of the bank met in the hotel where Ventriglia was staying to give the final green light, but Ventriglia was also very careful to the public opinion. I woke up in the morning and read the local newspapers, which all criticized this deal, as it always happens around here. They were saying it was wrong to spend this kind of money on a soccer player, instead of investing resources in other things for the whole community. I needed to do something".
The fake contract
Ferlaino had a vision and a dream for himself and for the Napoli fans. At that point, it kind of became personal. His love for the club and for the fans took over and completely overwhelmed any other possibility. Maradona had to play for that club, no matter what. Ferlaino knew that things could change quickly and when he understood that the bank could change its mind about this investment, he was just smarter and quicker: "After reading the pressure from the press and the criticisms on this deal from some critics, I immediately went to the bank to get the paper certifying the bank's financial support for the Maradona deal, because I knew it was necessary to anticipate a potential change of minds from the members of the bank. After getting this certificate, I took the plane and went to Milan first and then to Barcelona. When Ventriglia read the newspapers he tried to stop everything but I had already taken the paper with me and I was already in Barcelona."
"Before my arrival I had sent two of my men to Barcelona to talk with Maradona, his agent, and the club. Antonio Juliano, a former Napoli player who at the time was a member of our board and with him I sent a businessman as well, Dino Celentano, a friend of mine and a person I could trust for the negotiations. The two of them had the task to find an agreement with both Barcelona and the player. We arrived late in the evening and the final signature on the contracts arrived around midnight. While waiting to leave for Naples with the private jet, I stopped in the same hotel where we signed the agreement to drink a whisky on the rocks so that I could relax a bit after those tense days. While I was drinking it, the waiter came up to ask me where I was from.
'Where are you from?'
'I'm from Naples', I replied
'Ah, from Naples! We just scammed Napoli. We sold them a player who's not even good and also fat, did you see him?'
I never drank whiskey again in my life after that day".
All this happened while the transfer deadline was already over and Napoli couldn't technically sign Maradona, but sometimes the passion and the foxiness of an emotional owner can make the difference. "You noticed I said I went to Milan first and then to Barcelona? Yes, because I went to the Serie A offices to deliver an empty envelope that was supposed to have inside Maradona's contract which had to be delivered by that day. After Barcelona, I returned to Milan and at the entrance I told the night guard that I made a mistake in the procedure, we went up to the offices and I secretly replaced the envelope: I took the empty one with me and left there the one with the contract inside. Some journalists found out about it, but the federation was happy to have Maradona in Serie A and at Napoli, so they ignored it. Maradona arrived in Naples that same week".
Maradona was loved like no one in Naples and the city always showed him this affection when he came back years after his rowdy farewell, when he left the country without saying goodbye to the fans and the people that he loved. Ferlaino and Maradona met as well when Diego came back in the past years to visit his friends, his fans and his city. "The last time I saw him was one year before he died, he was always nice with me, like with the whole city of Naples. His passing made me sad, of course. I think they let him die, they let a sick person die, it was like a psychological suicide. He did not defend himself and could not defend himself from his problems".
"Napoli won't forget him and what he has done for all of us is just unforgettable. My love for this city is also very deep. I like to travel around the world, even at 91 I would like to have a second life somewhere else in the world, I would like to work in different places but I can't go. Everyone in Naples really loves me, and how can I leave Naples?". Ferlaino and Maradona shared some incredible moments of sports, but they also shared the love for the city of Naples and for the Neapolitans. Together, they were at the top of the world of soccer and if you give everything for Naples, this city will give everything back. In this case, even something more.