On July 3, 1990, defending World Cup champions Argentina played against hosts Italy in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup. The two entered the 1990 World Cup among the favorites, and the fixture remains a part of soccer’s lore.

Yet, it was more than a semifinal. It shined a light upon the divided nation of Italy. At the centerpiece of it all, an Argentine on top of both countries paused the sporting world for 120 minutes.

Therein lies a dichotomy with Diego Maradona. He wore ‘The White & Sky Blue’ jersey inside the stadium of his beloved club, Napoli. The eponymous hero of the venue would later change names to honor the player as the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium. There, Maradona fought for his native land against the country and city that adopted him as one of their own.

Before the match against Italy, Diego Maradona’s statements to the press had subtext. Neapolitans, who followed Diego Maradona like a deity, should support La Albiceleste over Italy. During the game, Azzurri fans responded with a banner. “Maradona, we love you. But Italy is our homeland.

Despite Maradona’s devotion to Gli Azzurri, the world knew of his exceptional pride for Argentina.

“When I wear the national team shirt, its sole contact with my skin makes it stand on an end.”

Saint Diego of Naples

In 1984, Diego Maradona transferred from Barcelona to Napoli for the highest fee at the time. At the time, his debatable move from the lavish Barcelona to one of Italy’s most impoverished cities shocked the world. However, Maradona did more than play soccer. His calling was to highlight Italian racism. The controversy he sparked in the Bel Paese gained him allies and foes leading up to the World Cup.

From 1984 to 1991, Diego Maradona struck 81 goals for Napoli. His play sparked major successes, garnering multiple accolades for player and club. In the time of Maradona, Napoli won two Scudettos, a Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup, the equivalent to the modern day Europa League.

For the locals, Diego Maradona mirrored the role of a Neapolitan immigrant, a part that gave him empathy for the city of Naples. Consequently, Neapolitans felt like they were rooting for their kin. Gli Azzurri fans adored Maradona, especially since his mother was of Italian descent.

The match in Naples at the 1990 World Cup put that kinship in perspective. This did not just apply to Napoli fans, but also Maradona himself.

Ultimately, the stadium’s congregation chose their native land over their prodigal player. However, the feeling in the Italy camp still likely had nerves.

Along with the pressure of facing the defending champions and the best player in the world at the time, this was Italy’s first game outside the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Before this, Italy won all five of its games in the venue scheduled to host the final.

Therefore, the Azzurri defeat in Naples arrived in a foreboding manner. In many ways, that was Diego Maradona’s home, not Italy’s.

Diego Maradona fairytale in Napoli

Italy and Argentina played a tight 120 minutes. Salvatore Schillaci got the hosts on the board in the first half with his fifth goal of the tournament. The Juventus forward put a rebound in the back of the net in the 18th minute. Italy held a ‘comfortable’ 1-0 lead at the interval.

Nevertheless, Argentina equalized the match on a header from Claudio Caniggia – an Argentine with a beguiling mixture of Italian descent who played for Atalanta. The goal was followed by various gasps intermixed with cheers from the crowd. Caniggia ended goalkeeper Walter Zenga’s scoreless streak that lasted 517 minutes. However, Caniggia earned his 2nd yellow card of the tournament just before extra time. A caution that would suspend him for the final, as the match against Italy reached penalties.

At 3-3, Roberto Donadoni missed the go-ahead kick for Italy. Despite excellent performances throughout the tournament, this is his lasting memory of playing in front of a home crowd.

Up stepped the man in the headlines. Diego Maradona’s successful attempt pinned La Albiceleste on the brink of a repeat appearance in the World Cup Final. Aldo Serena’s faulty strike caused Italians to put heads into hands. Argentina celebrated with a date against West Germany in four days time for a rematch from four years prior in Mexico City.

The Final in Rome

Italians drowned out Maradona’s attempt to sing his national anthem before the match. These Italians, who already dealt with Maradona’s brilliance at the club level, now watched Maradona knock out the hosts in dramatic fashion. In response, Maradona lipped obscenities to the crowd before the match began.

Germany defeated the reigning champions for the country’s third World Cup. Crowds booed Argentina off the field as Italians indulged in Maradona’s anguish. In many ways, this was the beginning of the end for Napoli’s saint.

Fabio Cannavaro, who played in Napoli’s youth system during Maradona’s time, understood what the Argentine meant to the city and its fans.

“Maradona is a God to the people of Naples. I’m a fan too and to live those years with Maradona was incredible.”

A Holy Messenger

Maradona preached to the media, exposing the racial slurs he endured throughout his oeuvre with The Parthenopeans. His statements were geared toward the Italian industrial north versus the easygoing south, with French, Germanic influences and Mediterranean roots spawned by the Kingdom of Iberia and the conquests of Sicily.

Since millions of Italians immigrated to Argentina in the first half of the 20th century, an influx of Argentines claims Italian ethnicity in the modern day. Diego Maradona strengthened the bond linked between Italy and Argentina.

With murals sporadic throughout Naples and the celebrated Sao Paolo Stadium now-turned eponymous with Diego Armando Maradona, the legacy of the Argentine will live on for eternity like a holy messenger sent by the soccer gods.