In March 1991, after a game Napoli had played against Bari, Diego Maradona failed a drug test. The Italian football authorities banned him for 15 months. He fled to Buenos Aires, where the Argentinian law authorities subjected him to continual harassment and surveillance, including a short spell in jail. Maradona called those 15 months “among the most terrible of my whole life”.
In July 1992, with the ban over, Maradona was determined to “detach [himself] from Napoli”. He joined Sevilla, managed by Carlos Bilardo, who was in charge of Argentina for the 1986 and 1990 World Cups.
Just after his arrival in Sevilla, he spoke with Bruno Bernardi, a legendary journalist for the Turin daily La Stampa whom Maradona admired deeply.
Bernardi: Would you have returned to Naples?
Maradona: When I was desperate – against Claudia’s [Claudia Villafañe, his wife], Franchi [Marcos Franchi, his manager] and the doctor’s advice – I wanted to play again, even in Naples. I made the last attempt with the 21 conditions that concerned the man more than the money. I didn’t even owe Ferlaino [Corrado Ferlaino, the owner of Napoli] a dollar because with the new contract I had already played three seasons. Rather, it was Napoli that owed me $7m, a figure that also includes the advance for 1992–93. A little goodwill would have been enough. When Careca, Crippa and De Napoli [teammates at Napoli] phoned me, they touched the depths of my heart. In Naples I have many friends, inside and outside of football. And it’s only Ferlaino’s fault if I’m at Sevilla.
Bernardi: Ferlaino wished for you a future as an executive.
Maradona: If I ever become one, I will not collaborate with Ferlaino. He and I are too different.
Bernardi: Naples has given you so much but what did it take away from you?
Maradona: Naples loved me in a suffocating way, without ever a moment of peace to let me breathe. I hoped, and they promised me, that after two or three years it would change, but instead the pressure increased. I don’t blame the Neapolitans. I seized on the promise Ferlaino made me that if we won the Uefa Cup he would release me a season early. He took it back. And that was when I freaked out.
Bernardi: Juventus would have done anything for you that season. Gianni Agnelli [Juventus’s owner] let it be understood, and [the Juventus executive] Giampiero Boniperti said you are the only great champion who hasn’t worn the black and white jersey. You were almost on the verge of coming to Turin: what would have changed in Maradona’s history if you had signed that contract?
Maradona: Juve was my great dream and I would have been the player who keeps talking and screaming on the pitch, dragging his teammates, the type of player missing since the days of Roberto Bettega and Marco Tardelli, when Juve won everything. In Turin I would have collected titles, I would still be in a city where you can walk quietly down Via Roma without being harassed, like when I was in Italy those first few months, yet in Naples I couldn’t leave the hotel. Roberto Baggio is a champion, perhaps the only one along with Claudio Caniggia, who can become my heir, but he must suffer as he is currently doing for a couple of more years to gain experience and maturity. Juve is an extraordinary club and you have to take your hat off to the Avvocato [Agnelli]. He is too strong, miles away from [Milan’s owner Silvio] Berlusconi.
Bernardi: Now it is Milan that dominates and allows itself the luxury of sending Ruud Gullit to the stands.
Maradona: Absurd. I have a lot of anger towards Berlusconi: he is an egoist who has six foreigners not so much for strengthening Milan, but to weaken the competition. He is killing football. I understand the power of what has hurt me so much but Gullit doesn’t deserve a similar treatment. And in addition to Ruud, the public is penalised by being deprived of seeing an ace like the Dutchman who brings them so much joy. If he is not needed, they should give him to Sevilla.
Bernardi: In Milan, Lentini’s market price [For a brief period, Gianluigi Lentini was the world’s most expensive player, moving from Torino to AC Milan for 18.5bn Italian lira] dwarfs the one paid by Napoli to sign you from Barcelona eight years ago. Is that right?
Maradona: It is a consequence of the demands that [Lentini’s club] Torino made. Lentini already seemed to belong to Juve and Berlusconi took him away with a contract that could not be turned down. I gather Lentini earns even more than I do. He is certainly a great forward but he’s not a phenomenon.
Bernardi: So is Milan unassailable?
Maradona: They can win the Scudetto again. Juve remain Milan’s nemesis, however, and they cannot afford to think of the future by acquiring young players; it must think about winning immediately and strengthening themselves with players full of personality. To be clear, the club needs a Carlo Ancelotti type who dominates the pitch and puts psychological pressure on his teammates and on his opponents. The other teams are not ready to compete with Milan. Not Inter, which lacks a Lothar Matthäus from their best days to hope to win the Uefa Cup. Not Napoli: Ferlaino no longer wants to make it a winning team. Neither Sampdoria that lost Gianluca Vialli. Not the Roma of my friend Caniggia. Not Toro that has a good squad, but doesn’t need the scudetto.
Bernardi: Do you miss our Serie A?
Maradona: Very much. But now I’m in Spain. I am thinking about Sevilla’s game tomorrow against Matthäus’s Bayern: you will see a great Maradona. I have also invited King Juan Carlos. And I’m thinking about my debut in La Liga on 7 October.
Bernardi: Are you not aiming for USA 94?
Maradona: It’s early, and I have so many doubts. First, I have to regain my place in the national team for the World Cup which would be my last and which could be distorted by differences in climate and time zones. At Italia 90 we went to the final because [Italy coach Azeglio] Vicini didn’t play Pietro Vierchowod: if he had played in defence, we would never have drawn [and reached the final on penalties]. And I pray to God that Sacchi’s Azzurri do not reach the heights of Milan, otherwise they will become the strongest and there will be nothing for anyone.