MADRID â€” Diego Maradona couldn’t do much on the field to keep Napoli from being eliminated by Real Madrid the last time the teams met in a European competition.
Almost 30 years later, though, he will be at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium trying to cheer the Italian club to its greatest Champions League achievement.
Maradona was Napoli’s biggest star in that European Cup encounter in 1987, when Madrid won 3-1 on aggregate. On Wednesday, he will be the team’s symbolic No. 1 fan.
Maradona and about 10,000 Napoli supporters made the trip to Madrid for what could be a historic moment for the club in Europe’s top team competition. Napoli has a chance to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in its history.
“If I was a prophet, I wouldn’t need to be a player,” Maradona said when asked about his prediction for the first leg as he arrived in the Spanish capital.
It is only the second time that Napoli is playing the last 16 of the Champions League. It also reached this stage in 2011-12, when it was eliminated by Chelsea.
The 56-year-old Maradona was invited by Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis to watch the game against the defending European champions in Madrid. He is staying at the team’s hotel and reportedly will be giving a pep talk to the players ahead of Wednesday’s match.
“With all due respect to Maradona, who was one of the greatest, I’m more afraid of those who will be on the field tomorrow,” said Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, a former France great.
The Argentina great led Napoli to its only two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990, along with the 1987 Italian Cup and the 1989 UEFA Cup. He remains the club’s all-time top scorer with 115 goals.
He played below expectations, though, when Napoli faced Madrid in the first round of the 1987-88 European Cup. Madrid won the first leg at the Bernabeu 2-0 and held on for a 1-1 draw in Italy in the return game.
“He is one of the best players in history and a good person,” Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric said. “Thank God he is not playing anymore.”
Maradona, who also played for Madrid rival Barcelona, left Napoli in the early 1990s after testing positive for cocaine, but remains highly revered in Naples.
He was greeted by a roar of applause and cheers when he walked on stage at Naples’ opera house last month as a guest honour at an event to celebrate the team’s first Serie A title three decades ago.
“I feel at home here, as I’ve always felt,” he said at the time.
De Laurentiis confirmed that Maradona has a job offer with the club once he settles his decades-long feud with Italy’s tax collection agency.
Last week, Maradona was named an ambassador for FIFA to promote the game across the globe.
The talented playmaker led Argentina to the World Cup title in 1986, and to a runner-up finish in 1990.
Brazil great Careca, who thrived with Napoli alongside Maradona in the late 1980s, is also expected to be at the Bernabeu on Wednesday.
Of the reported 10,000 Napoli fans who travelled to Madrid, about 4,000 will be in the visitors’ section, and many of the others bought tickets for other areas of the stadium, including through Madrid membership cards, according to Italian media.
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Tales Azzoni, The Associated Press