Temples of The Cult: The San Paolo Stadium In Napoli

Feature Photo: © Gaetano Cataldo / Wikimedia Commons
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Imagine a Tuesday evening at the San Paolo Stadium in Napoli. The sun is setting, the night is coming up. This is not a normal night, the atmosphere is that of a special night, history is being written. 50000 souls are screaming their hearts out, the smoke of the flares is all around and nobody seems to care about how dangerous this might be.

Nothing matters now, for Napoli are playing in the Champions League for the first time since the new tournament replaced the European Champions Cup back in 1992. The whole crowd is singing in unison the official anthem of the cup without knowing that what they are about to spontaneously do will become their San Paolo Stadium’s trademark in any future Champions League match: Thunderously screaming THE CAMPIOOONS as the anthem comes to its last note – a feat now being imitated by publics from all over Europe, but unmistakenly known as the Urlo del San Paolo (“The Scream of the San Paolo”)

Nowadays, seeing Napoli play in international cups is something usual, but that has not always been the case.  Since Diego Maradona’s doping ban, Napoli have had many ups and downs (more downs, actually…) and even went through a re-foundation of the club back in 2004.

One thing, however, always stood there, firmly, in all its glory: The San Paolo Stadium.

Able to house around 55000 people nowadays – but with a record attendance of 90000 spectators set on the occasion of a Napoli-Perugia match in 1979! – this stadium located in the Fuorigrotta neighborhood, closer to the sea than to the Mount Vesuvius, has been equally giving joys and sorrows to the inhabitants of the city since 1959.

Throughout its over 60 years of life, the San Paolo has hosted matches of the 1990 World Cup and the 1968 and 1980 Euro Cups. Some of the best players in history have passed through its lawn, some wearing the Azzurri shirt of Napoli, others facing them. What none of them can deny, is that the atmosphere that is lived every time the ball rolls through its midfield circle is intimidating.

Naples is a city that literally breathes football. That is visible all over the city itself, not only at their iconic San Paolo Stadium...
Naples is a city that literally breathes football. That is visible all over the city itself, not only in its iconic San Paolo Stadium…

The city of Naples is not like any other city. Located in Southern Italy, it is the most populous in the South and famous for its inhabitants – exaggerated, histrionic, and as loud as passionate. Neapolitans represent a great part of the historical image of Italians around the world.

However, Naples is also notorious for its chaos, suburban poverty and organized crime, which sometimes also infiltrates into the calcio. For better or worse, football is lived in Naples like in no other city in the country. You only need to travel around the city to find references to the team, its players and, obviously, Diego Maradona. Graffiti, shops, t-shirts, flags, scarves, the whole of Naples is painted in white and blue.

Even with the team hitting rock bottom in 2004 and having to restart from the Serie C (the Third Division) due to debts (something quite common, unfortunately, in the world of calcio), the passion for the team has not changed. Indeed, the most recent attendance record was set when the team was playing in the Third Division, with the stands full on every match day. It is also thanks to the support of their fans that Napoli returned to Serie A – where they truly belong – in only a few years.

An image of the San Paolo Stadium dating back to the '80s, before it was renovated in view of the World Cup 1990
A colorful image of the San Paolo Stadium dating back to the ’80s, before it was renovated in view of the World Cup 1990

Despite featuring a running track, the San Paolo is one of the stadiums with the greatest atmosphere in Europe. It has undergone several renovations, the most recent being a change in the seat colors so that only blue and white are now seen throughout the stands as well as on the track.

Another peculiarity of the Stadium is the presence of local hardcore tifosi on both side stands – the curve. On one hand, there is the Curva B – where older supporter groups, which lived their golden age in the ‘80s, take place. On the other hand, the Curva A is filled with more recent fan groups who are always present even when the stands host visitor supporters.

There have been several attempts to reunify all curve under a single group, or at least have them sit in the same location, but it’s been impossible to reach an agreement so far. The positive note is that the existence of these two curve causes the singing crowd to be heard “in stereo,” and not only from one side of the field, as it usually happens in most stadium. This creates an even more deafening atmosphere.

Obviously, it is impossible to talk about the San Paolo Stadium, the city, or Napoli themselves without naming the most important character in their football history: Diego Armando Maradona.

On July 5, 1984, Maradona set foot on the lawn of the San Paolo for the first time for his introduction to the Neapolitan crowd. Little did the spectators who filled the stadium know about all the joys El Pibe de Oro was going to give them.

Diego Maradona introduced himself to the San Paolo Stadium on July 5, 1985, an oceanic crowd of supporters and media waiting for his entrance...
Diego Maradona introduced himself to the San Paolo Stadium on July 5, 1985, an oceanic crowd of supporters and media waiting for his entrance… (Photo: © Alfredo Capozzi)

Although not everything was fantastic from the beginning, that was the most prolific era for Napoli, which won two Scudetto, a Coppa Italia, an Italian Supercoppa and a UEFA Cup (the only European title achieved by them to date)

The love affair between Napoli and their maximum figure was however spoiled in 1990 as Maradona felt sort of betrayed by his own people in a World Cup Semifinal match that saw host country Italy face Argentina right at the San Paolo Stadium.

Some reports indicate that many Neapolitans preferred to encourage their idol rather than their own country (and some even go so far as to say that playing at the San Paolo and not at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome was key to Argentina’s victory…) but other sources contradict this version, one example being Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary Diego Maradona where you can see testimonies of Italian fans apologizing to Diego for supporting Italy.

Seen from the outside, the San Paolo Stadium in Naples is not exactly the state of the art in architecture, but still maintains an undeniable charm despite its 64 years of age (Photo: https://gianlucadimarzio.com)
Seen from the outside, the San Paolo Stadium in Naples is not exactly the state of the art in architecture, but still maintains an undeniable charm despite its 64 years of age (Photo: https://gianlucadimarzio.com)

Be that as it may, this match represented the beginning of the end. Maradona tested positive to cocaine a few months later, which forced him to say goodbye to football for a few months and to Italy and the San Paolo forever. Still, the years have not affected the relationship between Napoli and him at all, and today it’s impossible to hear any negative word about him in Naples.

Nowadays, although it is rare to see Napoli far from the top spots in the Serie A table, it is true that the passage of time without any important title has started to make some fans disenchanted with the team. It is no longer easy to see the San Paolo Stadium full so often. It should be noted, however, that due to perspective problems the stadium always looks emptier than it is from TV. This is because the seats closest to the field are the ones with the worst view and are most often left empty – a common drawback in stadiums with a running track around the playing field.

In any case, we do highly recommend going to watch a match at the San Paolo Stadium if you have the chance. We can assure you will not be disappointed, regardless of whether your team wins or loses – if only for the passionate atmosphere you will breathe.

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