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Once Upon A Time In Naples by John Ludden

Release date: 14th September, 2005
Publisher: Parrs Wood Press

List Price: 9.99
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Oh no! Not another book about Diego Maradona, this time about the seven incident-packed years he spent at Naples, during which he led them to the Serie A title? Ho, hum, you might think, as I did before embarking on the first chapter, but I was soon engrossed. John Ludden has created that rarity among the sporting genre: a genuine page-turner which rates among the best sports books I've read all year.

The book maintains a cracking pace throughout, with Ludden frequently infusing his tale with religious imagery, a constant, if unsubtle, reminder of the diminutive midfielder's status among his newly-discovered Neapolitan family. From the moment he arrives in Naples by helicopter "like an angel descending from heaven", Maradona came as close to a footballing deity as any player ever has. Lovingly embraced at first by all quarters of a city "where the devil would have needed a bodyguard", once he casts out a pregnant Cristina Sinagra, the locals begin to cast doubt on his true character and his previously divine mask begins to slip.

But this is not an elongated tabloid romp. From the outset, Ludden builds tension and excitement into each facet of Maradona's complicated Neapolitan foray, including Napoli's unlikely surge for the Scudetto, the Italian title.

In the early 1980s, Napoli's president of fourteen years, Corrado Ferlaino, was under enormous pressure to inject style, a presence, into his club which would finally allow it to challenge Italian football's northern dominance. The author's description of Naples as a dirty, poor, corrupt, grudge-bearing metropolis where gangsters have ultimate control has presumably not been sanctioned by the city's tourist board. Yet this background is important to Ludden's tale as it was, he suggests, crucial in convincing Maradona, who hailed from a similar background, to leave the sophistication of Barcelona for the toe of Italy.

Barcelona had bought the Argentine for $7.3m, but his antics and cocaine-fuelled sessions with Spanish prostitutes hastened his departure from the Nou Camp.

The enjoyable story of Maradona's transfer reads like a fifteenth century dispute between Europe's city states. A fee of $13m had been agreed between the two clubs when Barcelona's president issued a further decree to one of his emissaries, telling him "to make Naples bleed" by asking for a further $600,000. Ferlaino didn't have the cash: the money was collected from Naples' grateful poor in a day.

Maradona was understandably keen to move to Italy. The $3m he earned at Barcelona had disappeared thanks to his extravagant lifestyle, gambling, drugs and several ridiculous commercial ventures. Signing for Naples guaranteed him a $6m signing-on fee, although throughout his stay, he was "a puppet dangling on a gangster's string."

While at Napoli, Maradona played perhaps the most outstanding football of his blighted career, but a diet of unremitting debauchery is not recommended for a professional athlete. The drugs sustained Maradona for as long as he could 'do the business' on the pitch; urine samples were changed or officials were 'advised' by solid-looking men in long overcoats that Maradona should not be selected for post-match drugs testing.

The end came when Naples' powerbrokers had had enough. Recognising that the club could save two years' astronomic wages, in 1991, Maradona was 'allowed' to finally fail a drugs test which resulted in his immediate suspension. The game was up; he was no more than "a lousy cokehead" and he knew it.

Ludden underpins the lurid tales with a magnificent (and plausible) conspiracy theory, one which, no doubt, contributed to the book's title, a take on Sergio Leone's 1984 film, One Upon A Time In America. On this occasion, however, the mobsters win.

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