'Pity Diego's not here' to celebrate Napoli title: Alemao
Retired midfielder Alemao, who won Serie A with Napoli in 1990 alongside late legend Diego Maradona, says he regrets his friend is not alive to celebrate the team's return to glory 33 years later.
"It's a pity Diego's not here," the 61-year-old Brazilian told AFP in an interview in his hometown, Lavras, in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
Seeing Napoli win the third "Scudetto" in club history "would have made him really happy -- it would have completed his party," Alemao said.
"He deserved to live longer than he did."
The Argentine great, who died in 2020 at age 60, led Napoli to their first two titles, in 1987 and 1990, earning the eternal adoration of the club's fans.
On Thursday, Napoli clinched the Italian league title for the first time since, in what many are calling a new golden era under coach Luciano Spalletti.
Napoli had been Serie A runners-up in four of the past 10 seasons -- "good campaigns," said Alemao, by a team that "never quite managed (it), for various reasons: they needed more depth on the bench, a play-maker in the midfield."
But "they worked on it, and now they've pulled it off," he said.
Just don't ask him to put current star Khvicha Kvaratskhelia of Georgia on the same pedestal as "El Diego" -- there's no comparison, Alemao said.
"Maradona was a genius."
Ricardo Rogerio de Brito -- Alemao's real name -- still gushes when he talks about Napoli's glorious 1989-90 team.
Besides Maradona and himself, it included fellow Brazilian international Careca and Italian stars Ciro Ferrara, Andrea Carnevale and Gianfranco Zola.
"We had a very tight team and a leader, Maradona, with lots of positive leadership. He always thought we would win, he always motivated everyone, and that was extremely important," he said.
"Playing with him was an enormous privilege. I miss those days. It was incredible to be with the best in the world."
Alemao, who played for Brazil in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, joined Napoli in 1988, after starting his career at Botafogo in Rio de Janeiro and Atletico Madrid.
He, Maradona and Careca -- the team's only foreigners -- formed a tight-knit group both on and off the pitch.
Fans in Naples idolized them not just for their magic with the ball, but for embodying the pride of a poor southern city sometimes treated with contempt by Italy's wealthier north.
"It was always hard playing away matches. People were really aggressive. We were treated like foreigners, with banners calling us 'Africans,' as if that were an insult," said Alemao.
"But that just made us stronger."
Alemao played a memorable role -- though he would just as soon forget it -- in the heart-stopping race between Napoli and Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan for the 1990 title.
With four matches left and AC Milan leading them by a point in the league table, Napoli were playing away at Atalanta when someone threw a coin from the stands and hit Alemao on the head.
He was taken to hospital, and officials controversially awarded the match -- which was tied at 0-0 -- to Napoli, 2-0.
AC Milan meanwhile drew against Bologna.
Napoli leapt into first place, and never looked back.
It has never been completely clear just how badly Alemao was injured beneath his golden curls, if at all.
Today, he downplays the incident.
"We didn't even need those points (against Atalanta) in the end. We won the matches we needed to," he said.
"But AC Milan felt pressured... and that made things easier for us," he admitted.
Now, a new generation has brought the title back to Napoli, whose fans will forever remember not only Kvaratskhelia but the entire team as heroes, Alemao said -- just like the 1990 squad.
"As much as Neapolitans adore Maradona, they've always remembered all of us very fondly," he said.
"They know the whole team did it together."