Napoli fans flock to stadium in Maradona tribute

Leave it to Diego Maradona to draw fans to a stadium they couldn’t enter.

Thousands of Napoli supporters made a pilgrimage to the San Paolo stadium Thursday to light a candle, leave a scarf or a shirt and shed some tears in memory of their hero.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, fans were not permitted inside to see Napoli’s 2-0 win over Croatian side Rijeka in the Europa League.

Instead, Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne exited the stadium and joined the fans for a few minutes to lay a bouquet of flowers next to the supporters’ tributes.

The entire city was declared in mourning for the soccer great, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at age 60, two weeks after being released from a hospital in Buenos Aires following brain surgery.

Maradona led Napoli to its only two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990 and is considered a god-like figure in the southern city.

“He always defended us, both when he played here and after he left,” said Insigne, who is from Naples. “He always carried us in his heart. And now we need to carry him in our hearts since he’s gone. It hurts. It’s a sad day for us Neapolitans.”

“The entire squad and club lends its support to the family,” Insigne added. “He was the greatest player ever and we’re honored that he wore Napoli’s shirt and played in this stadium.”

Naples Mayor Luigi De Magistris announced earlier that he has begun the formal process to rename San Paolo the Diego Armando Maradona stadium.

In the meantime, an image of Maradona graced the big screens inside the stadium during the game against Rijeka.

All of Napoli’s players went out onto the pitch wearing shirts with Maradona’s No. 10 and his name on the back, before changing into their own numbers before kickoff. Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso also put on a Maradona shirt.

“He’s dead but he’ll never die,” Gattuso said. “Because he’s a legend.”

Both teams wore black armbands and stood for a minute of silence at the center circle before the game started. Napoli’s players interlocked their arms.

Napoli sports director Cristiano Giuntoli said, “We’re all shocked and hurt.”

Napoli won with an own goal from Armando Anastasio prompted by Napoli midfielder Matteo Politano before the break and a second-half score from Hirving Lozano.

“Let’s try to win a trophy,” Politano said, “to dedicate it to (Maradona).”

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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