For some Diego Maradona is the greatest footballer of the 20th century, for others – mainly English – he is the cheating possessor of the hand of God. In Italy, however, he is and always will be the Patron Saint of Naples.
And just as saints have their altars so Maradona has his museum, an extraordinary treasure trove of artifacts that includes the left boot with which the Argentine scored twice against Belgium in the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup.
You can also find his first contract with Napoli and even the sofa from his Naples apartment where singer Julio Iglesias once sat. It’s all here in the cellar museum.
Maradona arrived at Napoli as a world record $10.48 million signing from Barcelona in July 1984.
His time in Catalonia had been difficult and Naples was a bolthole. He was to stay seven years, captaining the team to their first-ever Serie A title in 1986-7.
They did it again three years later and during Maradona’s stay the Neapolitans also won the Coppa Italia, Uefa Cup and Italian Super Cup.
It was a golden age which Napoli have never come close to repeating, so it is no surprise to find a museum that commemorates such a rich epoch.
Massimo Vignati’s museum, though, is one of a kind.
It does not appear on any map of Naples, nor is it in travel guides, and entry is free. And yet, this basement of a typical building in Secondigliano, a tough neighbourhood in the north of the city, breathes all things Diego.
It is a delightful melange of Maradona mania with photos, pennants, balls, armbands and shirts, some washed or signed, others not.
Some items equate almost to holy relics – the bench on which Maradona changed at the San Paolo stadium and the K-Way jacket which features in the memorable footage of him ball-juggling to the sound of Opus’ “Live is Life” during an incredible warm-up before facing Bayern Munich in 1989.
This astonishing hoard also testifies to the unique bond between the Argentine genius and a family which was at the heart of his seven-year stay in Naples.
“I was fortunate that for 37 years my dad was the caretaker of the San Paolo stadium and the Napoli changing rooms. And my mother was Maradona’s housekeeper and cook,” Vignati told AFP.
His sister babysat Diego’s daughters Dalma and Giannina while Massimo, as a child and then adolescent, rubbed shoulders with the city’s idol on a daily basis.
“We were with Diego from Monday to Sunday,” says Vignati, looking at the photos of a time when the Argentine’s apartment on the heights of Posillipo, an upscale district of the city, was like his second home.
“He and his wife gave us all these things because they knew we were a lot of children, five boys and six girls. I was a ballboy during Maradona’s seven seasons. On Mondays, I went to play five-a-side, I did not go to school.
“And on Tuesdays, sometimes he took me to the Napoli training session … ‘Diego, let’s go in the Ferrari!'”.
For a long time, the wonders now on display in the Vignati cellar were locked away at the San Paolo. My father had two rooms,” says Vignati, whose second son is called Diego. “One for all these memories and one for drinking a good Neapolitan coffee.
“After his death, I brought everything here. But the club knows that this place exists. If they make a museum, I will always be ready. I hope everything can go back to the stadium, it was my father’s dream.”
During his last visit to Naples in 2017, Maradona fell into the arms of Lucia, Vignati’s mother, whom he calls his “Neapolitan mamma”.
“These are just beautiful memories,” she says.
“He was kind, someone good, very passionate. When he left, it was as if I had lost a son.”
For the time being, the collection will remain in the family, whether it is at the San Paolo or down in the cellar.
“I could live on my annuities if I had accepted all the offers that were made to me,” says Vignati.
“But these are memories of my father and my family, nothing is for sale. It is a place dedicated to someone we love as a brother. For us, Diego is the twelfth brother.”
This season, Napoli have battled through to the last 16 of the Champions League but they are struggling in Serie A. The fans can only dream of a return to the golden age.
“With everything that is going on, there would have to be a Maradona, who takes everything on himself,” says Massimo.
“He is a child of Naples, he is of the people. We are found in him.
“If he comes, there will be 90,000 people at the stadium. Maradona…even if you talk to kids today, they know. He’s in the DNA of the Neapolitans.
“Maradona is San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. He is immortal.” – AFP