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John Ludden

The Story of Once Upon a Time in Naples (The book that refused to die) by John Ludden

This is the true tale of a book that simply refused to die. Originally published 2005, by Parrswood Press in Manchester, it has been on an extraordinary journey and one set to reach a pinnacle this summer when the Oscar winning Asif Kapadia releases his film ‘MARADONA’, that is originally based on Once Upon a Time in Naples. To call this book troublesome doesn’t really do it justice. Of that more later. Being a huge lover of Naples, football and gangster movies, then this heady concoction of a cocaine fuelled Diego Maradona and seven years in my favourite city making Neapolitan dreams come true, whilst partying with the Camorra. Throw in a volcano, match-fixing, drugs, murder, corruption and a patron saint San Gennaro that comes alive twice a year to bless this crazy, if beautiful place.

How could I possibly not enjoy penning such a tale?

When originally writing I envisioned the imaginary canvas of a Sergio Leone movie landscape coming alive with my words. The music I listened to throughout was also vitally important to set the mood. Mostly, the wonderful Italian composer Ennio Morricone and the one of whom it was said, ‘If God ever does return to earth then he will sing like this man’. Andrea Bocelli. For me the book needed a soundtrack to die for. Bocelli’s Conte te Partiro, as from a crystal blue Neapolitan sky, Maradona’s helicopter first flies over a packed San Paolo stadium awaiting his arrival back on 5th July 1984. Whilst in the distance Mount Vesuvius loomed large…

Once Upon a Time in Naples was my second book published. The first, four years previously was Fields of Fire: The Greatest Football Matches Ever, by Mainstream Publishing in Edinburgh. The date it went in the shops,

11th September 2001. As you can imagine, Fields of Fire kind of faded into comparison! I remember signing copies in the Printworks when news broke and we spent the rest of the day in a pub huddled with people convinced this was the end of the world. Not great for sales! In that initial book was a chapter on Maradona and Naples which basically became expanded from 3000 words into the new re-released version of 130,000. Back then it was a struggle to find stuff to go in, for so little was available, even online. Today has been more a case of what to leave out. The latest edition has 35,000 extra words and a plethora of new information and stories.

Hopefully, I’ve done it real justice.

In the beginning any pipe dreams I had of being able to give up work and writing full time on release of Once Upon a Time, due to ‘‘huge popular demand’’ swiftly vanished. Within a month of it appearing on the shelves and online, the publisher went bust and my books with it. Sold off to pay his debts. Two thousand copies drifted into the ether. I sincerely never earned a penny off it back then. Luckily, I retained author’s rights, but what good was that when the book I had the rights to had disappeared into thin air? There were highlights, amongst them being The Independent’s ‘sport book of the week’ for three weeks on the run and keeping Stephen Gerrard off top was nice. He got there in the end, a rarity for him. There was also a certain review which compared the book to my all time favourite film Once Upon a Time in America. (Guess where my title came from)?

…… ‘‘Oh no! Not another book about Diego Maradona, this time about the seven incident-packed years he spent at Naples, during which he led them to the Serie A title? Ho, hum, you might think, as I did before embarking on the first chapter, but I was soon engrossed. John Ludden has created that rarity among the sporting genre: a genuine page-turner which rates among the best sports books I’ve read all year. The book maintains a cracking pace throughout, with

Ludden frequently infusing his tale with religious imagery, a constant, if unsubtle, reminder of the diminutive midfielder’s status among his newly-discovered Neapolitan family. From the moment he arrives in Naples by helicopter “like an angel descending from heaven”, Maradona came as close to a footballing deity as any player ever has. Lovingly embraced at first by all quarters of a city “where the devil would have needed a bodyguard”, once he casts out a pregnant Cristina Sinagra, the locals begin to cast doubt on his true character and his previously divine mask begins to slip. But this is not an elongated tabloid romp. From the outset, Ludden builds tension and excitement into each facet of Maradona’s complicated Neapolitan foray, including Napoli’s unlikely surge for the Scudetto, the Italian title. In the early 1980s, Napoli’s president of fourteen years, Corrado Ferlaino, was under enormous pressure to inject style, a presence, into his club which would finally allow it to challenge Italian football’s northern dominance. The author’s description of Naples as a dirty, poor, corrupt, grudge-bearing metropolis where gangsters have ultimate control has presumably not been sanctioned by the city’s tourist board. Yet this background is important to Ludden’s tale as it was, he suggests, crucial in convincing Maradona, who hailed from a similar background, to leave the sophistication of Barcelona for the toe of Italy.

Barcelona had bought the Argentine for $7.3m, but his antics and cocaine-fuelled sessions with Spanish prostitutes hastened his departure from the Nou Camp. The enjoyable story of Maradona’s transfer reads like a fifteenth century dispute between Europe’s city states. A fee of $13m had been agreed between the two clubs when Barcelona’s president issued a further decree to one of his emissaries, telling him “to make Naples bleed” by asking for a further $600,000. Ferlaino didn’t have the cash: the money was collected from Naples’ grateful poor in a day. Maradona was understandably keen to move to Italy. The $3m he earned at Barcelona had disappeared thanks to his extravagant lifestyle, gambling, drugs and several ridiculous commercial ventures. Signing for Naples guaranteed him a $6m signing-on fee, although throughout his stay, he was “a puppet dangling on a gangster’s string.” While at Napoli, Maradona played perhaps the most outstanding football of his blighted career, but a diet of unremitting debauchery is not recommended for a professional athlete. The drugs sustained Maradona for as long as he could ‘do the business’ on the pitch; urine samples were changed or officials were ‘advised’ by solid-looking men in long overcoats that Maradona should not be selected for post-match drugs testing. The end came when Naples’ powerbrokers had had enough. Recognising that the club could save two years’ astronomic wages, in 1991, Maradona was ‘allowed’ to finally fail a drugs test which resulted in his immediate suspension. The game was up; he was no more than “a lousy cokehead” and he knew it.

Ludden underpins the lurid tales with a magnificent (and plausible) conspiracy theory, one which, no doubt, contributed to the book’s title, a take on Sergio Leone’s 1984 film, One Upon a Time in America. On this occasion, however, the mobsters win’’…….

The End


Such kind words appearing helped a little to ease my mood at what occurred. However, as the months, years passed and I started to receive regular emails off people from across the planet who were enjoying it, I started to believe something rather strange was occurring. One message off a Palestinian police officer, reading it in Gaza, whilst being shelled by Israeli helicopters during an Intifada was one that stuck out. Happily, he’s still around and we keep in contact. Cheers Fareed! Another in 2008, off an English doctor working deep in the Congo, who read the book to keep him sane, whilst caught in the midst of a civil war. Glad you survived Charles and that myself and Diego could help! Just two of many, from the Falklands, to a guy who has become my favourite Australian Italian. Ciao Marco! Then, in 2011, one Saturday night I received an email off a chap called Paul Martin, a film producer. Paul had picked up Once Upon a Time in Naples in LA Airport (Please don’t ask me how it got there). Being a huge Maradona and gangsters movies’ fan like myself. (Paul named his little boy Henry after Henry Hill in Goodfellas!) He was interested in doing a documentary on the book. After speaking to him on the phone it became clear his passion for the book matched mine and that took some doing, I simply told him go right ahead. Do whatever to make it happen. Anyway, armed with an original copy he did just. Paul’s marvellous selling line of Maradona being ‘‘Scarface in football boots’’ got him through many a famous door and this is the honest truth. Nobody ever turned it down, each was just bad timing. Finally, he approached the now Oscar winning Asif Kapadia and James Gay Rees who had recently at that time just made the wonderful and record box breaking documentary, SENNA. They loved the idea and here we are today. MARADONA is set to open this summer with 500 hours of unseen footage, of which is a book itself on how that was unearthed. I’m certain that I, we, could not be in better hands, for in a way Once Upon a Time in Naples feels as much Paul’s now as mine. All going back to the Sergio Leone landscape. I’ve provided the words and he, Asif and James will now produce the pictures. This book, with more lives than a cat, which refused like Diego to die goes on. The re-released version is truly epic in scope. I’ve thrown everything and more at this. It was emotional to return but also enjoyable for though Mancunian, a part of me will forever be Neapolitan after writing Once Upon a Time in Naples.

Forza Napoli, viva Diego and cheers.

John X


Post Note: Once Upon a Time in Naples has also been published in Italian, Spanish and I’m reliably informed there’s an Arabic version doing the rounds in the Middle East. It has never been boring and something tells me that will never change….

Book available to buy on Amazon book and Kindle: 3rd May 2018

John Ludden: Dad: writer: books, screenplays, stageplays. My ‘Once Upon a Time in Naples’ is the basis for the upcoming ‘El Diego’ Maradona film. All work enquiries @Johnludds

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