On Thursday morning, arguably the greatest icon in the history of football was lost when Johan Cruyff passed away at just 68 years old after a battle with cancer. One of the best players and managers of all time, Cruyff helped inspire the careers of many of the great players who followed in his wake, not least of whom was Napoli legend Diego Maradona.
While Maradona's public message in Cruyff's memory was brief -- a simple "We'll never forget you" -- it's likely that was the least complicated version of what was likely a tumult of feelings in the wake of the legend's passing, as Cruyff had a profound impact on his career.
Maradona's first steps as a player in Europe after coming over from Argentina were at Barcelona in 1982, where Cruyff had already become a massive legend before leaving in 1978. In many ways, Maradona was following in the Dutchman's footsteps. Both hybrid attacking players, Maradona benefited greatly from the revolutions in how to play the game that Cruyff had created in the 70's at Ajax and Barcelona. When Maradona moved to Napoli in 1984, he brought that same kind of revolution to Italy, becoming one of the best attackers in Serie A history and helping Napoli win a pair of Serie A titles.
By the time Maradona's days in Naples were done in 1991, Cruyff had moved on to management and was leading Barcelona. Cruyff was again revolutionizing the game, this time from the manager's dugout, while Maradona spent a season battling against him at Sevilla. Sevilla was one of the few sides to take points off Barcelona that season as the blaugranes romped their way to a La Liga title and a second-place finish in the Champions League.
Both men's careers faded after that -- Cruyff left Barcelona in 1996 and largely left management afterwards, only managing the Catalonia regional team in international friendlies sporadically between 2009 and 2013 while serving in advisory roles with Ajax and Barcelona. Maradona played four a couple more years before hanging up his boots, and recently had uninspiring spells managing Argentina and Al Wasr, failing to live up to Cruyff's managing legacy as well as he has his legacy on the pitch.
Simply put, it's very likely that Napoli fans would not be celebrating Maradona as they do today if it wasn't for Cruyff. His trailblazing ways on and off the pitch set up a new generation of superstars, and Diego was at the forefront of it. So when much of the world mourns the loss of that beloved Dutch icon, Napoli fans should mourn right alongside them, because they owe the clubs most successful years to him, even if it's indirectly.