Napoli vs Milan Throwback: Football and Intrigue in the 1988 Serie A Race

Napoli and Milan are two of the form teams in Italy at the moment as both sides look to challenge for the Scudetto. Their games this season feel more important compared to that of the past few years and are likely to have strong repercussions in the title race.

This however is not the first time these giants of Italian football have met with title ambitions on the line. Once upon a time back in the heady rock and roll ’80s – precisely on May 1, 1988 – Napoli and Milan met again at the San Paolo in a huge title decider that would affect the futures of both clubs and coincidentally if you are led to believe the fate of the Camorra crime syndicate and billions of Lira.

In 1987, Napoli were Italy’s star team. Diego Armando Maradona, arguably the world’s best player had arrived to massive fanfare and celebration in 1984 for a then mind-bending fee of £12 million from Barcelona.

His arrival had coincided with Napoli’s rise up the leagues and table to title winning positions and the Partenopei became the first club from the south of Italy to break the stranglehold of the powerhouse northern and central sides (the Milan’s, Juventus, Roma) by claiming the Scudetto at the end of the 1986-87 season.

This success was met with a wave of adulation, celebration and delirium and cemented Maradona’s legacy amongst Napoli fans.

Maradona was not the only star recruited by the Azzurri. Building on their 1986 double triumph, they recruited Brazilian Careca who had just finished second in the golden boot rankings in the 1986 World Cup behind Gary Lineker.

He joined Maradona and Italian Bruno Giordano to form a lethal attacking unit nicknamed “Ma-Gi-Ca.”

Milan on the other hand were starting afresh. Recently acquired by entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi, the club had set about building the foundations for what would become one of the most successful club runs in history.

Berlusconi had installed then Parma manager Arrigo Sacchi and in the first two seasons invested in Dutch superstars, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard alongside Italians Carlo Ancelotti and Angelo Colombo . During Napoli’s successful title campaign, the Rossoneri had finished a respectable fifth as Sacchi set about constructing a side that could win titles and compete with Europe’s best.

Napoli’s form and signings led many to believe that no side could stop the club retaining their Scudetto title in 1988.

As the story goes, the confidence amongst the masses had seen a stream of bets placed on the Azzurri from all around the country with some of the largest bets being made by the clubs own supporters.

The Camorra crime syndicate has plagued Italian life in the city of Naples for years with the syndicate forming during the 17th century. This crime faction has numerous revenue streams and one of the most important during the 1980’s was the black market betting.

As the season approached, citizens from all over placed large wagers with the Camorra thinking they were onto a safe bet with El Pibe de Oro (Maradona’s nickname, “The Golden Boy”) leading the side. Though this is mere conjecture the possibility of a Napoli win would have near bankrupt the Camorra, something that they could never allow to happen.

The Neopolitans started the season on a tear. Racing to the top of the table in a blaze of goals and electric football with the team only losing two games before one of the most dramatic ends in football history.

With Napoli blazing a trail in 1988, Milan quietly built an impressive campaign of their own positioning themselves to be close to the top of the table as they could when the season entered its final few games.

As the Rossoneri drew closer, the Partenopei faltered, losing away to Michael Laudrup’s Juventus and drawing with Verona.

This set the stage for the 1988 title decider between Napoli and Milan at the San Paolo. On what was a gloriously sunny summer’s day, the two titans locked horns in what would be an extraordinary match with the eyes of the country watching.

The stadium was awash with color, fans, flags, and flares. The atmosphere was electric, a proper cauldron for a game that did not fail to deliver. Big tackles were rife and Maradona was on the receiving end of some agricultural treatment. Chances were abound and it was just after the half hour mark when Milan striker Pietro Paolo Virdis opened the scoring after a blocked free kick.

Napoli equalized as the game was heading towards half time, Maradona with a sumptuous set piece into the top corner leaving Milan goalkeeper Giovanni Galli stranded. The goals did not stop there with Virdis adding to his tally from a Gullit cross before Van Basten made it 3-1 again from a Gullit assist, the Dutchman at his marauding best.

Brazilian Careca replied for Napoli, but Milan held out for the final 10 minutes using the supreme defense built by Sacchi and led by the indomitable Franco Baresi and co (a young Paolo Maldini also featured in this game if you want to feel old). It was a tense affair and Sacchi had to be held back by the linesman from invading onto the pitch as the game entered the final few minutes.

With the defeat, the wheels well and truly came off for Napoli who lost their final two games handing the 1987 title to Milan, the Rossoneri’s first victory since 1979. That would be the catalyst for the coming decades of dominance first under Sacchi, then into the 90’s under Fabio Capello and then Ancelotti in the early 2000’s.

With the title gone, the Camorra syndicate could breathe a sigh of relief as numerous fans were left bewildered at the team’s collapse.

Rumors started to circulate and stories surfaced that led many people to believe the Camorra had possibly attempted to derail Napoli’s title chances. Maradona, the adopted saint of the city had his car destroyed while other players had their houses burgled. A warning perhaps as to what would befall them should they win the Scudetto. No one knows the true extent to the story but as they say rumors true or false are often revealing.

Napoli would go onto claim another title in the 1989-90 season but the damage had seemingly been already done. Maradona and co moved on and the club entered a state of regression culminating in a relegation to Serie B in 1997-98. From there bankruptcy followed alongside heartache.

The club’s fortunes turned though when Italian film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis purchased the side in 2004 and they have been steadily climbing the football pyramid since then. Although controversial De Laurentiis has funded the clubs ambitions and consequently the team now has a myriad of excellent players and seem to have a coach in Gattuso who understands how to get the best out of them.

Milan’s recent fortunes have not been as prosperous as the past glory years but now under the stewardship of Stefano Pioli and ownership of American hedge fund corporation the Elliott Management Corporation the team are moving towards a positive direction and have been in terrific form to start this campaign.

These teams will always draw attention thanks to their storied history and games like the one in 1988 will live long in the memory. Let’s hope that any future games between the two provide the same level of drama and excitement.


May 1, 1988 – Serie A 1987-88 Round 28

SCORERS: 36′ Virdis (M), 45′ Maradona (N), 68′ Virdis (M), 76′ Van Basten (M), 78′ Careca (N)

NAPOLI: Garella, Bruscolotti (73′ Carnevale), Ferrara, Francini, Bigliardi, Renica, Careca, De Napoli, Bagni (56′ Giordano), Maradona, Romano (Di Fusco, Sola, Miano) Coach: Bianchi
MILAN: G. Galli, Tassotti, Maldini, Colombo, F. Galli, Baresi, Donadoni (46′ Van Basten), Ancelotti, Virdis (82′ Massaro), Gullit, Evani (Nuciari, Costacurta, Bortolazzi) Coach: Bianchi

REFEREE: Mr. Lo Bello from Siracusa