NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Napoli overcame Croatian side Rijeka 2-0 on Thursday in their first match since the death of Diego Maradona, the Italian club's greatest and most popular player.
On an emotionally-charged evening, the Napoli team took the field for the Europa League game wearing number 10 shirts with Maradona's name emblazoned on the back, while a photograph of the Argentine idol stared down from the electronic scoreboard.
Banners showing images of Maradona, who led Napoli to two Serie A titles during seven extraordinary seasons at the club in the 1980s, were placed around the San Paolo stadium, which was eerily empty and quiet due to COVID-19 regulations.
"From yesterday, when we went to the hotel, you could sense that a different mood had come over the city," Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso said. "It was a great loss, but Diego will never die. He is a legend, from another planet."
Gattuso had known Maradona personally.
"I have so many good memories, I had the chance to speak to him many times," he said. "He has died but his spirit lives on. He made mistakes in his private life but he will always be alive because of what he has achieved."
Although spectators were not allowed into the ground itself, however, fans gathered outside the stadium chanting "Diego, Diego" and other anthems.
Hundreds of blue and white Napoli scarves were tied to railings outside the stadium, and flowers, children's pictures, church candles and even a bottle of wine were laid out along the pavement in a makeshift shrine.
Maradona died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 60.
Once the game started, Napoli dominated and created several chances before Rijeka full back Armando Anastasio, under pressure from Matteo Politano, turned Piotr Zielinski's shot into his own net five minutes before halftime.
Hirving Lozano made the result safe in the 75th minute, controlling Lorenzo Insigne's pass before slotting the ball past Ivan Nevistic to leave Napoli top of Group F with nine points from four games, two ahead of AZ Alkmaar and Real Sociedad.
Politano said it was hard to concentrate on the game.
"It is a sad day and it was difficult to go onto the pitch in the right frame of mind," he said. "It's a difficult moment but we have to be strong so we can win a trophy and dedicate it to Maradona."
(Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Ed Osmond)