NAPLES, Italy - The face of a young Diego Armando Maradona gazes down from a mural in Naples' Miracles Square, watching the city gear up for a celebration it hasn't enjoyed since the Argentine soccer star was at his peak more than 30 years ago.
Miracles for Neapolitans, who grew up in a city steeped in mysticism and superstition, are happening on the pitch, as their team cruise towards a third Serie A triumph and prepares for their first ever quarterfinal in the Champions League.
"This comes from the soul of Maradona. It is him, watching us from above," said Raffaele Cardamone, a 51-year-old truck driver, indicating the newly completed mural portraying the stocky soccer genius, who died in 2020.
"It is the hand of God," he added, referring to the famous goal Maradona that scored with his hand in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal, which helped Argentina knock out England.
Maradona was also the driving force behind the Napoli team at that time, helping the city win its first league title in 1987 and its second just three years later in 1990.
With 11 games left to play, the southern Italian side have a 19-point lead over second-placed Lazio and their title dream could become reality as early as the second half of April, more than a month ahead of their final league fixture. Neapolitans are already celebrating the third Scudetto — literally "shield" — as the Italian league title is known, seeing it as revenge on the wealthy northern cities of Turin and Milan, whose teams Juventus, Inter and AC Milan have dominated Serie A for the past three decades.
Locals have dropped their traditional "scaramanzia," an array of rituals rooted in popular culture to keep away bad luck, which normally include not claiming victory before having secured it.
The city's craftsmen have created figurines of the city's new heroes. Cardboard silhouettes of the players line the city's Spanish Quarters, as vespas weave through the narrow lanes and blue flags flutter in front of the shops. Posters show Maradona in heaven, handing over the Scudetto to Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen and Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia — the two main stars of the current team.
Residents have launched fundraising initiatives to finance a Scudetto party that they say will last for days and aim to paint the city's walls and streets in the club's blue hue.
"The euphoria is impossible to contain," said Antonio Sarracino, 55, who keeps a collection tin for donations inside his shop.
Neapolitans hope sporting glory can be a boost to a city where poverty remains widespread, but where life is improving on the back of growth in tourism, with research institute Demoskopika estimating a 13% increase in arrivals this year compared to 2022.
"The first two league wins came in a different era. There wasn't much tourism. There were massive local celebrations but they did not go beyond Naples," said Ernesto Monte, 59, looking at the sea from a bar near the central Plebiscito square.
Novelist and poet Erri De Luca recalls that Maradona, who remains the city's biggest hero and had the stadium named after him, joined the team just a few years after the 1980 earthquake in the nearby Irpinia area, which killed 2,700.
"That was a city still shaking off the dust of the earthquake. It had Camorra mafia wars on the streets and in the prison. Tourists only came here to head straight to the islands and the coast. Today Naples is an attraction," he said.
The probable league victory might not be the only triumph for Napoli this year, with many fans hopeful that the team could make it to the Champions League final for the first time ever. They play Italian rivals AC Milan in the quarterfinals.
Pietro De Chiara, 26, last week helped paint a large Scudetto symbol on an open-air stairway called Heaven Alley, in the bustling Spanish Quarter.
"After the Scudetto, we will have the Champions League and we will finish painting the steps," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Christian Radnedge)