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Before I begin this story, I have to start by apologizing to God. And by “God,” I mean “D10S” … Mr. Maradona. I also want to apologize to my father.
Because when I was eight years old, I committed a sin. Maybe it’s not a sin to most people, but when you grow up in Napoli, especially when I was a kid, it was definitely a sin. I had just started playing for the football school in my area, and I really wanted some proper boots. I didn’t have any, because I wasn’t even supposed to be playing for the football school yet. I was too young, and definitely too small.
Thomas Lovelock/The Players' Tribune
I was a shorty!
But I didn’t care. I wanted to play football at all costs. So one day I showed up to the football school with my older brother, and I was just supposed to be watching him. But I had other plans. I forced my way onto the field by crying all day until they let me play. Man, it was dramatic. I threw myself to the ground and acted like I was dying. And finally one of the coaches said, “O.K.! O.K.! Let the little kid in for a minute.”
I think they just wanted to shut me up, but I guess I showed I could play, because they let me in the school with all the older kids. I was so happy, but now I needed some real football boots. Every day, I begged my father to buy me a pair, but there were two problems.
First, my family came from very humble means. Frattamaggiore, the neighborhood where I grew up, was very difficult. At that time, there was nothing. There weren’t many jobs, and my family did not have much money to keep us going, so it was almost impossible to buy some expensive boots.
Second, I wanted a very specific pair of boots. I wanted the R9s. The boots of the genius, Ronaldo. Do you remember those? Silver, blue and yellow. They were iconic. Ronaldo had just played in the ’98 World Cup in those boots, and it was all I would talk about.
“Papa, please, please, please get me the Ronaldo boots.”
Every day. Every day.
“Please, papa, the boots!”
Thinking back on it, he probably wanted to kill me, because the only player my father ever wanted to talk about was Maradona. I grew up with only the myth of El Diego and his greatness, and of course he is a legend all over the world …
But in Napoli?
He is like a God. My father wanted me to get some plain black boots like Maradona wore, you know? But I said, “No, you don’t understand. Ronaldo is the greatest.”
Haha! I’m sorry, Papa! I’m sorry, El Diego!
My father was a huge Napoli supporter, and of course Ronaldo played for Inter at that time, and he was making Napoli cry. But I was just a kid. I didn’t know any better, and I was obsessed with these boots. So one night, completely by surprise, my father said to me, “Come on, we’re going to the shops.”
I asked why.
He said, “We’re going to get you your boots.”
My father definitely did not have the extra money to spend. But, somehow, he did it for me anyway, and I cannot express to you the feeling of walking the streets with him that night and searching all the sports shops in the city for those boots.
The first shop didn’t have them.
The second shop didn’t have them.
The third shop had them, but not in my size.
We walked all over town.
We went to four or five shops, with no luck. I remember it was getting dark, and I was thinking maybe it was hopeless. Finally, just as all the shops were closing for the night, the last store we went into had the R9 boots, and they had them in my size.
I know for sure — for sure — that there is one memory that will stay with me for my whole life, and it’s my father handing over the money for those boots and giving the box to me. It’s better than any gift I’ve ever received. You know, it’s funny, because as a professional footballer now, I receive so many boots for free, and after a while it loses all meaning. It doesn’t really feel like anything special.
But those boots … wow. It was an indescribable feeling putting them on, because in my mind, it was like, O.K., maybe I am small, and maybe I am from humble means, and maybe I am not even very good yet … but I am wearing these boots, and Ronaldo the genius wears these very same boots … and maybe, one day, I can become as good as him.
I am not joking — I used to clean those boots every single day. We would play on fields that were not so perfect. There was a lot of dirt and rocks, you know? So I would come home and scrub the boots with a rag, because I knew what my father had sacrificed to buy them. I wore them for so long that the shops stopped selling them, and the day that they finally broke and fell apart, I cried. I actually wept, because I cared about them so much. They were sacred to me.
Perhaps I am crazy, I don’t know. But I have always been this way, according to my family. My mother tells the story that when I was in preschool, she came to pick me up and all the kids were playing with some Lego construction blocks — building houses and castles and whatever kids do — and I was in the corner of the room kicking my feet and running around. She didn’t understand what I was doing, and then she got closer and saw that I had made a football out of some paper and I was playing by myself.
I was probably supposed to be doing my homework with that paper, but I had only one thought in my head: Football.
My dream, always, was to play in the Napoli shirt at the San Paolo. For me, there was no other dream. I didn’t play any other sports. I didn’t think about anything but football. But as I grew up and got tryouts with different youth teams — Inter, Torino, even Napoli — the scouts always told me the same thing.
Well, actually they did not tell me. They told my father, and then he broke the news to me. And it was the same verdict every time.
“We like him, but he’s a shorty.”
In Italy, people are very honest like that. They all discarded me because of my height. After I was told this by Torino at 14, let’s just say that I didn’t want to play anymore. I told my family that it was useless. I was too short. Technique, strength, speed — you can just work harder and improve. But your height? What can you do? I’d wake up every morning hoping I’d grown overnight. But nothing. So I told my dad, “It’s impossible, I’m done.”
But then he said, “O.K., so what are you going to do if not football?”
And I thought about it, and I said, “Shit, what am I gonna do?”
So I kept playing with the local football school, and finally, Napoli came along and gave me another shot when I was 15 years old. There were so many kids at the tryout. So many. But for whatever reason, the scout saw something in me, and he chose me. When I got into the youth academy, it was just incredible because my family were always huge Napoli supporters, but we could not afford to go to many matches when I was a kid. So when I was in the youth system, I would always beg to be one of the ball boys just so I could go to the San Paolo and stand on the sidelines.
That feeling of being in the stadium, and feeling that energy as a Neapolitan … I can’t express it in words. I thought, Damn, if I can just play one match here in the Napoli shirt someday, I can die happy.
It was funny, because when I got to play my first game with the senior team in 2010, we were playing away in Livorno. It was such a big deal for my family, obviously. Such an honor, to be a kid from Frattamaggiore, playing in the Napoli kit. And I remember after the match, we flew back home and my father picked me up at the airport, and on the drive back I said, “Is anyone from the neighborhood waiting for me?”
And my father said, “Oh no, no, no. It’s very late. Everyone was very proud, but it’s so late and everyone went to bed.”
I said, “Come on.”
He said, “No, really, I’m sorry, but I don’t want you to be disappointed. There’s nobody waiting for you.”
So, of course, we arrive at home and the whole entire neighborhood is waiting for me in the streets, and they’re singing and shooting off fireworks, and they’ve got a special cake for me and everything. It was unbelievable. Seeing my mother’s face was the best part, because she’s crazier about football than all of the boys. I’ll come home now and I’ll find her watching the replays of Napoli matches. She will be yelling at the television, and I’ll say, “Mom, what are you doing? It already happened!”
Napoli is in our blood. And I owe everything to the club, because they stuck with me in hard times. After I made my debut in 2010, I spent two years on loan at Foggia and Pescara in the C and B leagues.
At Foggia, I was under a manager who was a real character. Mr. Zdeněk Zeman. I knew that he was super intense, and demanded a lot from his players. But it was really funny because he was like someone from an old movie. He would make all the players come into his office and be weighed at this old metal scale every morning. But he would be smoking like a chimney in there. So you would open the door, and it was all white smoke. You could barely breathe. It felt like Milan. So one day I walked in and I said, “Mister, do you think maybe you could stop smoking when we come in?”
He thought about it for a second. Then he took another puff, and he said, “… You can step out then.”
I loved him. We had a great relationship. He really believed in me, and maybe it took a character like him to believe in someone like me. I scored 18 goals that season, and when Mr. Zeman got hired at Pescara the next season, Napoli let me follow him there. That was a very, very important moment. And it was a very, very important year, because I met my wife, Jenny, that year.
If you know anything about southern Italy, it will not surprise you that I met Jenny through her cousin, who went to school with me in Frattamaggiore. Where I’m from, everybody knows everybody. Instantly, I wanted to be with her. The problem was that I was living 250 kilometers away in Pescara.
I told her, “Come with me.”
But again, if you know anything about southern Italy, then you already know what her parents said about that. They were not going to let her follow me. No, not a chance in the world. So I had a double motivation that season. I had to convince Napoli to bring me back, so I could live my dream of playing for the club, and also so that I could be with Jenny.
That season, I wasn’t going to be stopped. I scored 19 goals, and after the season ended, I had a meeting with Mr. Mazzarri, the coach of Napoli. He said, “If you want a spot here, you’re going to have to conquer it yourself.”
And I remember I said, “No problem. Ever since I grew up, no one gave me anything for free.”
Really, nothing was going to stop me. I earned my spot. Early on that season, I scored my first goal at the San Paolo against Parma, and it was so special because we had just found out that my wife was pregnant with our first son. I grabbed the ball and put it under my shirt as a dedication to him, and I remember the crowd was singing my name.
You cannot write about this feeling. It is something you can only experience in your heart.
It has been six years now that I am wearing this shirt, and I still have that same emotion when I score a goal for Napoli. It means so much to me, because I am so proud to be from my city. You know, I hear some people speak bad about Napoli, and it’s very frustrating for me, because they don’t know the city. To me, it’s the best city in the world. And if you don’t believe me, just look at my teammates. Look at how many players have stayed here instead of moving to bigger clubs. Some have been here three or four seasons, and they don’t want to leave. Our captain, Marek Hamšík, the guy is Slovakian, and he’s been here for 11 years. I ask my teammates why they want to stay, and they say, “I love the city, I love the life here, I love the fans.”
So maybe when people speak bad about Napoli, they need to wake up. Even God himself loved it here. And by God, of course I mean Mr. Maradona 🙂
My only focus now is on winning the league title. It was extremely heartbreaking to miss out on the World Cup with Italy. There is nothing I can say that will express my disappointment. It still upsets me. But I have to close that chapter and focus on trying to win Napoli’s first scudetto in my lifetime. I want to do it for my city, my neighborhood, my friends, my family, my children.
Every time I go out to play at San Paolo, I get goosebumps. Because I think about what it means for my family, and I think about everything my father sacrificed over the years to keep me going. I don’t know what he had to do to get that money for my boots, but I know it was a struggle. That sacrifice started the whole dream. And now I get to walk out on the pitch in my hometown, and I always get goosebumps because I think, “This is where the greatest player in the world played. This is where Maradona played.”
With all due respect to Ronaldo, now that I am older, and I know my history, I have to repent and say that Maradona is the greatest who ever lived.
Mr. Ronaldo, you had great boots. You were a genius. You were my inspiration. But I am a Neapolitan, and so I have to say that there is only one king, and his name is Diego.