Opened in 1959 in advance of the 1960 Olympics it was then known as Stadio Fuorigrotta, named after the area in Naples where it is located. At the Olympics, it hosted Italy’s opening game in the group stages where Gli Azzuri cruised to a 4-1 win over China.
Later in that tournament, it saw the Italians lose their semifinal match to Yugoslavia in a shootout after a 1-1 draw. Despite the setback of failing to medal, the venue became a cornerstone of Italian calcio ever since.
In the decades following the 1960 Olympics, the San Paolo was a proud venue for a Napoli team that was solid but not elite. They won the Coppa Italia in 1961/62 and 1975/76. They also were the runners up in Serie A in 1967/68 and 1974/75.
They were the ideal definition of a club that was good but not great. They were always lacking that one piece that separated them from the top teams in the world.
That changed however on a date now famous in the entire city of Naples. On June 30, 1984 Napoli shocked the football world with at record €12 million deal to sign Argentine superstar Diego Maradona from Barcelona.
With that bold move, Napoli and the Stadio San Paolo became the center of the football world. But 1986/87 they won their first ever Serie A title and they also won the Coppa Italia in the same year. Two years later in 1989/90 they would win a second Serie A title.
Then came the 1990 World Cup where Stadio San Paolo was awarded one of the coveted semifinals games. As history played out, that semifinal game saw city-hero Diego Maradona and Argentina face off against hosts Italy.
The game was decided in a shootout and Maradona scored the final goal to eliminate Italy. Afterward he bowed to the supporters as a sign of respect. It was the last time he ever played a game at the San Paolo.
Following the tournament, Maradona failed a drug test administered by the Italian Federation. He was banned for 15 months from the sport. He would then move his career to Spanish club Seville.
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Napoli would then enter a long phase of gradual decline. Financial matters plagued the front office and the team lost all of its best players within two years. By 1997-1998 they were relegated to Serie B. Their humiliation was complete by 2004 when they were declared bankrupt and were forced to play in Serie C and change their name to Napoli Soccer.
The passion of the Napoli supporters was never diminished. They continued to pack the San Paolo and set record attendances in Serie C.
Eventually, new club owner Aurelio De Laurentiis restored their historical name Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli and brought the club’s success back steadily. In 2011-12, Napoli returned to the Champions League and the passion truly returned at San Paolo for the first time since the departure of Diego Maradona.
As a venue, the Stadio San Paolo continues to be a source of pride in a city that has seen more than its share of poverty, corruption, and crime. It is not the perfect venue. Seats at the end of the stadium are far away from the field. The small lower deck offers very poor visibility from the field. Inside the concourses it feels dated and very over crowded.
Still, it works. When Napoli or the Italian national team plays there for a big game, the stadium is electric. It brings out the best in the city of Naples and it is an environment that is unforgettable. Italy is one of the true homes of the sport and Stadio San Paolo is a good reason as to why.