On July 5, 1984, the 23-year-old -- small in stature, big in hair, tremendous in talent -- was ready to make his entrance on a new stage. For one who loved atmosphere, who adored the passion of supporters, stepping out into the Stadio San Paolo that day must've been a dream come true. 75,000 fans were on hand to welcome Diego Armando Maradona to the city of Naples.
Napoli, a club with no top-division titles to its name, a club that had finished just a point above the relegation zone the previous season, a club from the impoverished south of Italy, had done the unthinkable: they had signed the world's most iconic footballer.
Buying big was nothing new for Napoli. What was different about Maradona is that his presence did more than promise success. For the first time, success was delivered. It took a few years for the team to settle in, but by 1987, Maradona was playing some excellent football. While the core of the squad was certainly strong (Ciro Ferrara at center back, Fernando De Napoli and Salvatore Bagni in midfield, Bruno Giordano and Andrea Carnevale available up top) it was Maradona that made the magic happen.
Napoli did the double in 1986-1987. They finished second the next season, Maradona taking the capocannoniere title with 15 goals. The second-place finish put Napoli into the UEFA Cup, which they proceeded to win in 1988-1989. The following season, Maradona began to unravel -- gaining weight, missing training sessions, being photographed with Camorra members. Yet he managed 18 goals in 36 games, guiding Napoli to their second scudetto in three seasons.
These are heights Napoli have yet to reach again. They've played in European competition, of course, and they've won the Coppa Italia twice in the last three years, and they even managed to finish second in 2012-2013. But this rise is recent -- indeed, they had slid so far that at the turn of the century, they were playing in Serie B. Despite a return to the top flight, Napoli found themselves in Serie C in 2005, having gone bankrupt along the way.
The new-look Napoli, under the ownership of Aurelio De Laurentiis, has found its own heroes. And while they've hailed the achievements of the likes of Edinson Cavani and Gonzalo Higuaín, perhaps the player who comes closest to rivaling Maradona in recent years is Marek Hamšík. The Slovak has been with the club since their return to Serie A in 2007, and while he's not always been the top scorer, he's taken to Naples -- and their fans -- like one of her own citizens. The passion inherent in the Napoli faithful respond to this, and Hamšík has become a revered son.
But despite the recent success, despite the new marquee signings and the flashy displays of footballing prowess, no one comes close to rivaling Diego Maradona for the heart of Naples.
Perhaps the bond between Maradona and Naples is best captured by what occurred during the 1990 World Cup. Italy hosted the tournament that year, amidst heightened tensions between the rich north and an impoverished south. Anti-south prejudice was on the rise, with those living below Rome blamed as holding back the more prosperous, industrialized regions north of the capital.
Into the tensions stepped Maradona. 1990 was not his best year, nor was it Argentina's. They'd nearly been eliminated in the first round, finishing third in their group, but in those days, the four best third-placed teams went on to the knockout stages. After a narrow win over Brazil, Yugoslavia pushed Argentina to penalties. Maradona missed his, a weak strike, but the albiceleste ultimately went through.
Argentina were to play Italy in the semifinals, and they were to do it in the house that Maradona built: The San Paolo in Naples. Political figures pleaded with the people of Naples to support their country. Maradona crafted his own statement.
For 364 days a year the rest of Italy treats you like shit. Today, they want you to be Italians and support their team. No way. I am Napoli 365 days a year: I am one of you. Support Argentina!
A significant minority of the Italians in the San Paolo on July 3, 1990 devoted their cheers to Argentina. Again, the game went to penalties. The decisive penalty fell to the Argentina captain. This time, Maradona did not flinch. He sent in the same strike, a rolling shot, fooling Walter Zenga. Italy were defeated and Argentina were on to the final -- thanks to the Napoli hero.
The 1990 Argentina side bears few similarities to the one that will once again face Germany in the final. While the 2014 team has turned to defensive tactics out of necessity, attempting to compensate for an under-performing attack, the 1990 side was one as one of the most cynical in history, with many going as far as to say that they ruined the tournament.
There is a thread, however, weaving its way through history, tying together the last side that represented Argentina in a World Cup final with the one that will do so on Sunday. That thread connects Diego Maradona, the greatest name in Argentina football history, with Lionel Messi, the man who many say will take his place should Argentina lift the World Cup once more.
Their wizardry on the pitch, their mastery with the ball, their near-unrivaled talents prompt Messi and Maradona to be included in the same sense. Well that, and the fact that they were born in the same country. But in many ways, Maradona and Messi could not be more different. While Messi left Argentina at a young age, Maradona grew up showing his footballing wizardry to his country. He made his senior debut for Argentinos Juniors before his 16th birthday, playing there for five years before briefly joining Boca.
It was after his first World Cup, in 1982, that Maradona left Argentina. It was Barcelona, of course, that tempted him away, but they'd signed him on the strength of his domestic performances, not his rather disappointing display in the Spain tournament.
Messi, too, has been known to disappoint for his country, frequently being criticized for his inability to replicate his Barcelona form while in the albiceleste shirt. But the people of Argentina cut Maradona some slack in that first tournament. He was already their hero, a footballing phenom they could claim as their own. When he thrilled in 1986, propelling Argentina to victory with amazing, dribbly runs that ended in the back of the net, it only further confirmed his country's belief that Maradona was one of the best footballers in history.
Messi, however, must prove himself. In Argentina, he is often not seen as one of their own, but viewed rather distantly, as just another player making his living in Europe's top leagues. That's started to change in this tournament, as it has been Messi that's pulled his country through, time and again, ensuring they made it to the final. Should Argentina lift the trophy on Sunday, Messi will finally be a hero in his own country.
But even if Argentina finally crowns Messi king on Sunday evening, even if the majority of the football-loving population bestows upon him the title of World's Greatest Player, there is one place where he will never outshine Maradona. In Naples, the people will keep paying homage to their god, the man who first brought glory, both to their club and to their city.