Napoli vs Spartak Moscow Throwback: Maradona’s Last European Game

The name of Spartak Moscow, which Napoli face tonight for the second time in their history, elicit some painful memories for the Partenopei fans. The last time the two sides met, on November 20, 1990, Napoli crashed out of the European Cup on penalties and Diego Maradona played his last game in a European competition. Only, he didn’t know that yet.

A few months later, El Pipe de Oro would test positive to cocaine and receive a 15-month ban which would end his adventure in Naples and, in a broader sense, his experience as a footballer. His subsequent attempts to revitalize his career would basically fail.  

But, when Napoli launched their assault to the European Cup 1990-91, Maradona still had a god-like status in Naples. Meaning that he was allowed to do pretty much everything that he wanted. Well, almost everything. There was a limit, which Maradona did pass in the occasion of the second leg of a European Cup Round of 16 against Spartak Moscow – much to his detriment and his own club’s.

Napoli had made their debut in the top European competition two years earlier, but the fate had delivered them an impossible pairing in the first round already. Opposed to Real Madrid, the Partenopei had lost 1-3 on aggregate, falling 0-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Now, after winning their second Scudetto in a head-to-head battle with Milan, Napoli were having another chance in the European Cup. The first round saw them brushing aside Ujpesti Dosza of Hungary. In the Round of 16, their opponents were going to be Spartak Moscow, the most prominent club from the then USSR.

They were a solid side, the Russians. Their roster formed the backbone of the Soviet selection and many of their players would go on to feature in the newly formed Russian national team a few years later. One of them – 22-year-old talented midfielder Igor Shalimov – would soon move to Italy to play for Foggia, Inter, Bologna, Udinese and eventually even Napoli.

The Partenopei were stronger, but Spartak were not to be underestimated and indeed the first fixture at the San Paolo ended with no goals as the Soviets snatched a precious point away. With the reverse fixture scheduled on November 20 in a frosty Moscow, the outcome of the double confrontation was still totally open.

Of course, Napoli still had Maradona on their side. The absolute added value. But El Pibe de Oro seemed to have started his untimely decline. Not necessarily on the pitch, but surely for what concerned everything else. He was becoming more and more erratic and unmanageable. And, when it was time for Napoli to board the plane to Moscow, Maradona was not there.  

Where was he? Had he missed the flight?

We will probably never know, but one thing is for sure: the club was furious. Team Manager Luciano Moggi clearly announced to the press that their number 10 star was not going to play in the European Cup.

Still, Maradona seemed to have his own plans for the game. He promptly booked a private flight and reached Moscow with his wife and his agent. Then, just like he was an average tourist, he went to visit the Red Square and Lenin’s Mausoleum and only after he joined the team. He was going to play anyway, he likely thought.

But the club and the coach Alberto Bigon stayed true to their word. Maradona was left on the bench. The whole Luzhniki Stadium – which back in the Soviet Union days was called Central Lenin Stadium – was speechless as they saw the iconic number 10 jersey worn by 25-year-old Gianfranco Zola, while El Pibe de Oro sat on the bench and gloomily donned the number 16.  

On the pitch, however, things were taking a bad turn for the Partenopei. Napoli were struggling to breach into the Spartak wall while, on the other side, Giovanni Galli had to keep his side afloat twice with some fine goalkeeping.

Around the one-hour mark and with the score still set at 0-0, coach Bigon decided that Maradona had atoned for his sins. Or perhaps that he desperately needed him.

If truth be told, Maradona didn’t do any miracle on that night. It was rather journeyman Giuseppe Incocciati to come closer to open the scoring, hitting the post with a deadly left-foot shot that still haunts the old Partenopei fans’ nightmares.

The extra times weren’t enough to break the deadlock and so it all went down to a penalty shootout. Maradona did his job there and converted his penalty, but defender Marco Baroni – who had scored Napoli’s title-decider just a few months earlier – sent his shot crashing into the end line banners. The Soviets, on the other hand, were flawless and converted all their attempts, thus booking their ticket to the Quarter Finals.

Spartak Moscow ended their run in the Semi Finals, bowing out to Olympique Marseille in what is still their best European achievement to date. For what concerns Napoli, they would have to wait 21 years before taking part again to the European Cup, which had become the Champions League in the meantime.

Little did the Partenopei supporters know that it was going to take so long. But, moreover, little did they know that, on that frosty night in Moscow, Diego Armando Maradona had just played his last game in a European competition.

It was anything but a memorable night, with Maradona starting from the bench and relegated to wear an anonymous number 16 – though one would argue that he was probably the only one to blame for that.  



November 20, 1990 – European Cup 1990-91 Round of 16
SPARTAK MOSCOW – NAPOLI 0-0 after extra times 5-3 on penalties

PENALTY SEQUENCE: Karpin (S) goal, Ferrara (N) goal, Shalimov (S) goal, Mauro (N) goal, Shmarov (S) goal, Baroni (N) out, Kulkov (S) goal, Maradona (N) goal, Mostovoi (S) goal

SPARTAK MOSCOW: Cherchesov, Bazulev, Kulkov, Popov, Pozdniakov, Karpin, Perepadenko, Shalimov, Shmarov, Mostovoi, Gradilenko (Bushmanov, Khlestov, A. Ivanov, O. Ivanov, Derbounov)  Coach: Romantsev

NAPOLI: Galli, Ferrara, Francini, Crippa, Alemao, Baroni, Corradini, De Napoli, Mauro, Zola (65′ Maradona), Incocciati (Taglialatela, Rizzardi, Venturin, Silenzi) Coach: Bigon

REFEREE: Girard (France)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Perepadenko (S), Mauro, Corradini, Galli, Baroni (N)