Diego Maradona is slated to be in attendance when Real Madrid host Napoli on Wednesday in the first leg of their round-of-16 Champions League series at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the stadium that witnessed some of the most thrilling, spectacular and painful of his experiences as a player.
The tie looks to be the glamour pick among this week's European competition fixtures -- especially after it was reported that Maradona would be a guest of Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis. "Even Maradona is coming," said Madrid-backing Spanish daily Marca as it cranked up the hype this week.
- MARCA (@marca) February 13, 2017
Maradona should be pretty familiar with his surroundings, having run out regularly at the stadium during the various stages of his playing career for Barcelona and Sevilla as well as Napoli. His first visit to the Bernabeu was for a La Liga Clasico in Nov. 1982, soon after his arrival at Barcelona, when he set up both goals for teammates Esteban and Quini in a 2-0 win.
More dramatic, though, was his next trip to Madrid for the final of the short-lived and now mostly forgotten Copa de la Liga the following June. A slimline Maradona ran from halfway to score an individual goal ranked among the best of his career by Argentine newspaper Ole, mostly for the fantastic composure and control he showed to calmly dribble around Madrid goalkeeper Agustin and defender Juan Jose before knocking the ball into an empty net.
Even though the game finished 2-2, Madrid fans were so impressed with his display that they reacted by applauding an opposition player, something not matched in a Clasico until Ronaldinho's hat trick in Nov. 2005. Still relatively modest at that point in his career, Maradona claimed to have apologised to Juan Jose later in the game, only to be told to "go to s---" by the embarrassed defender, who had collided painfully with a post after being tricked completely.
The 1984 Copa del Rey final brought Maradona back to the Bernabeu for one of the most controversial and memorable games of his career -- which really is saying something. The opponents were that year's La Liga champions Athletic Bilbao, which meant again facing defender Andoni Goikoetxea, whose shocking tackle the previous September had seen Maradona miss four months with a broken ankle and the "Butcher of Bilbao" banned for 18 games, lowered to 10 on appeal.
The build-up included an exchange of views between Maradona and Athletic coach Javier Clemente -- who called the Argentina star a "great player, but an imbecile. I'd tell him to his face, but he's always surrounded by 200 bodyguards."
Athletic won 1-0 thanks to Endika Guarrotxena's 13th-minute goal, but that was only the start of the drama. On the final whistle Maradona lost it completely and launched himself karate-style at Miguel Angel Sola, with Goikoetxea quickly flying in feet-first again. Barcelona captain "Tarzan" Migueli also entered the fray, as did most of the other players and substitutes, with kicks and fists flying for over a minute in what became known as "The Battle of the Bernabeu."
Maradona explained afterwards that he had only been defending himself: "They all came for me, and what had to happen happened. Goikoetxea wanted to finish the job he had begun a few months before." Whatever the rights and wrongs, the Barca player was given a four-month ban for his role in the violence, an extra factor in his move to Napoli that summer.
So he did not return to Spain for another three years until the 1987-88 European Cup first-round first leg. That game was also memorable for very different reasons, as it was played behind closed doors due to typical misbehaviour from the Ultras Sur in the previous season's semifinal loss to Bayern Munich. Such an early campaign meeting of two of the continents best teams was also not ideal for Maradona, who was rarely at his best so soon after the summer break. Amid the eerie silence, he had little impact in a tight and physical game. His one standout moment was to be nutmegged by usually less-cultured marker Chendo, as the home side ran out easy 2-0 winners.
A 1-1 draw in the return leg sent Los Blancos through to the next round without too much trouble, but the game still rankles with many in Naples who feel they were denied their best chance of European Cup glory under strange circumstances. Just this week, the club's former captain Giuseppe Bruscolotti said he still remembered Madrid coach Leo Beenhakker insulting the opposition players from the bench. "When someone like that calls me a mafioso I have to get angry," he told AS.
Maradona's valedictory La Liga season at Sevilla in 1992-93 brought him back to the Bernabeu for a game at which many of reported 105,000 paying spectators were likely there for the freak-show element. He had orchestrated a 2-0 victory for the Andalusians in the reverse game the previous December in what was regarded as his best display in a Rojiblanco shirt. By the following May, though, his mind seemed to already be elsewhere, often not even turning up for training, and the chubby No. 10 was mostly a spectator as Madrid won 5-0 at a canter.
So it is difficult to predict what memories will return to Maradona's head when he takes his seat on Wednesday evening. But the past record suggests plenty of drama -- and Napoli fans in particular will be hoping they can make up for some of the indignities suffered by their hero at the Bernabeu over the years.