An eruption of grief as Neapolitans bemoan fate of city's pride and joy

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Naples, the steaming Italian city whose civilisation dates back to Pompeii, is known for its beauty and the squalor of its teeming slums.

Naples, the steaming Italian city whose civilisation dates back to Pompeii, is known for its beauty and the squalor of its teeming slums.

It is the home of pizza. For most Neapolitans, though, modern life has been a harsh struggle for survival mitigated in recent years largely by their passion for their city's dazzlingly successful football team. Now even that solace has been denied them.

The hallowed Napoli soccer club, catapulted into the limelight by Diego Maradona in the 1980s, was ignominiously declared bankrupt this week, and for many Neapolitans their city died with it as fanatical fans faced the humiliating prospect of relegation to the third division, or amateur status.

Tension has been rising in the impoverished Mediterranean port's teeming Spagnoli slums since the Naples Tribunal ruled the club insolvent on Monday, evidently striking fear into the city's government at the prospect of club supporters' reactions.

Security will be tight around the Palazzo San Giacomo town hall today as thousands of tearful fans, notorious for their quick tempers and facility with knives, rally to demand that authorities prevent the end of a dream that began when the little Argentine striker joined the club in 1984 and spearheaded a series of victories in the San Paolo stadium that made Napoli the first division champion in 1987 and 1990 under the creative ownership of the then club president, Corrado Ferlaino.

For many Neapolitans, the collapse of Napoli with debts of some €70m was the sad end of a decline that began 17 March 1991, when Maradona played his last game at San Paolo and increasingly devoted himself to a battle against the cocaine habit nurtured during his friendship with gangsters from the Camorra, the vicious Neapolitan version of the Mafia which successive Rome Governments have failed to eradicate.

"Poor Naples, waiting for the third division," Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper sneered.

Now politicians from across the spectrum, some with alleged links to the Camorra, are vying to jump on the bandwagon to try and rescue Napoli. But ordinary Neapolitans languishing in the one-room bassi slum dwellings on the barrow, winding streets a stone's throw from the yachts and smart hotels lining the tourist-fabled Bay of Naples, evidently fear that saving the club may even be beyond the powers of San Gennaro, the city's patron saint whose blood liquefies miraculously each year in the city cathedral.

Outraged Napoli fans attended a stormy public meeting in a theatre on Wednesday evening to support an apparent bid by the flamboyant first division Perugia club owner, Luciano Gaucci, to keep 78-year-old Napoli in the second division, while the city's mayor, Rosa Iervolino, is reported to be considering asking the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to intervene in the drama. The Digos, Italy's equivalent of Special Branch, has been monitoring the activities of "Orgoglio Partonopeo", Neapolitan Pride, the supporters' movement that called today's demonstration and on 26 July mustered 40,000 fans at San Paolo stadium.

The leaders on Naples' municipal council of Signor Berlusconi's centre-right Freedom Alliance yesterday met with Franco Carraro, the president of the Italian Olympic Committee (Coni), demanding he intervene to prevent possible street riots. "We ask that Napoli remain in Serie B [the second division] for reasons of justice and sporting merit but also of public order," the delegates said.

In Rome on Wednesday, irate Napoli fans chained themselves to the railings outside the headquarters of the Italian soccer federation as Signor Rascio made an unsuccessful appeal for Napoli to stay in Serie B. The federation already had refused to allow Napoli to play in the division because of its debts and officials reiterated their ruling that Napoli can only survive professionally if a new owner starts a new franchise for the club in the third division, Serie C1, or otherwise San Paolo's fans would witness the humiliating spectacle of Napoli playing in amateur competitions.

A court-appointed special administrator, Nicola Rascio, wants Napoli to stay in Serie B because the club's worth would be higher, making it easier to deal with creditors. Lawyers for the bankruptcy administration now are preparing writs to Italy's high court demanding the whole Serie B season programme be frozen if Napoli is not re-admitted and that the third division be frozen if Napoli begins a fresh incarnation under new ownership there, meaning the fiasco could paralyse much of the next soccer season.

Four business groups have expressed interest in buying Napoli to take advantage by an 12 August deadline of the so-called Lodo Petrucci, a law introduced by Coni under which a club that goes bust can be resuscitated in the division inferior to the one it played in previously.

Napoli have struggled in recent seasons near the foot of Serie B. Of the four, Signor Gaucci has the highest-profile and yesterday showed his confidence by summoning as a publicity stunt 22 former Napoli players to attend a "training session" he said he was organising in the northern town of Tarvisio.

For many impoverished Neapolitans the relegation of Napoli to the third division would sound the death knell for their lifestyle based on a weekly escape from misery at the San Paolo stadium. Desperate fans at one of the team's last games even looked to the US, the traditional refuge of Neapolitan emigrants, for salvation, unfurling a banner saying "Bill Gates save Napoli football".

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