There will be a full house at Napoli's Stadio San Paolo on Tuesday night, when the Champions League visit of Manchester City is expected to generate the Italian club's highest-ever gate receipts for a single match. But even if every seat in the house is occupied, the crowd will still be smaller than that which turned up on 5 July 1984 – on a day when Napoli were not even playing.

Depending who you believe, that day somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 fans were present – on a weekday, no less – to see Diego Armando Maradona make his first public appearance as a Napoli player, treating them to a display of flicks and tricks before thanking them for such a warm welcome. "I want to be an idol to the poor children of Naples," he said. "They are as I was in Buenos Aires."Such a turnout is no longer possible in a stadium that is now all seats and holds 60,000 – though it is questionable whether even this entertaining Napoli side have captured the imagination quite in the manner of El Pibe de Oro. Napoli had won the Coppa Italia twice before the Argentinian arrived, but little else. With him they became Italian champions in 1987 and 1990, as well as the Uefa Cup winners in 1989.

So out-of-control were the celebrations of that first Scudetto that even gravestones were daubed with messages insisting "you don't know what you're missing". Maradona certainly fulfilled his ambition of becoming an icon to the people of Naples, too. As John Foot notes in his thorough history of the Italian game, Calcio, in one parish as many as 25% of all newborn boys were being christened Diego.

But Maradona's fortunes would turn, the player fleeing the country in 1991 after being handed a 15-month ban for cocaine use. Napoli's decline was more gradual, the team finishing fourth the next season before commencing a protracted and painful fall from grace, precipitated by boardroom turmoil and mounting debts.

In 1993 the team's president, Corrado Ferlaino, stood down in the wake of corruption charges and a year later he handed over his 93% share in the club to new owners on the condition that they addressed the club's debts of more than 50bn lira. And yet, another nine months on Ferlaino would win back his holding in the club, having argued successfully in court that his successors had failed to live up to their side of the bargain.

Napoli, by this stage, were at serious risk of bankruptcy, despite Gianfranco Zola and Ciro Ferrara leaving. Fabio Cannavaro and Benito Carbone would be the next to go, and performances continued to deteriorate. In 1998 they were relegated, finishing bottom of Serie A. Although the Partenopei would be promoted again two years later, they immediately dropped back down. Finally, in 2004, Napoli went bust. The club had changed hands twice more by that stage – passing first to Giorgio Corbelli and then the hotel magnate Salvatore Naldi, but neither had been able to resolve the mounting financial problems. Dwindling attendances did not help the situation. A team that guaranteed full houses during in Maradona's heyday was now drawing fewer than 14,500 fans. And yet rather than heralding the end for Napoli, bankruptcy brought a bright beginning.

In early September – just in time for the new season – the club's sporting rights were purchased by the film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis and transferred to his newly founded club, Napoli Soccer. Thanks to legislation designed to protect the heritage of cities and towns whose teams fail for financial reasons, they were put into Serie C1, the third tier.

With a squad that had been thrown together in a matter of days before the start of the season, Napoli finished fifth before losing to Avellino in the play-off final. Despite the modest football on show, the fanbase was energised. Napoli's average attendance figure for the season was more than 37,000 a game, and 62,058 fans packed into the San Paolo for their 2-0 win over Reggiana in February.

Such backing strengthened De Laurentiis's conviction, the owner rebuilding the playing staff with the help of the director Pierpaolo Marino, a highly respected identifier of talent. Over the next two years the club recorded consecutive promotions, with De Laurentiis restoring the club's original name – Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli – immediately upon the return to Serie B.

Even since the return to Serie A in 2007, Napoli's has been a story of almost constant progress – the team only once (in 2008-09) finishing in a worse position than the year before. Although De Laurentiis let Marino go in September 2009, by that point the squad had been transformed by the arrivals of the Slovakia international Marek Hamsik and Argentina's Ezequiel Lavezzi.

Perhaps more significantly, a few weeks after Marino's departure, De Laurentiis parted ways with Roberto Donadoni, naming Walter Mazzarri – a 48-year-old Tuscan who had led Sampdoria to the Coppa Italia final – as the club's third manager in eight months. The transformation was immediate, Mazzarri succeeding where Donadoni had failed in shaping a young and athletic group into an effective counterattacking unit – capitalising on the pace offered by Lavezzi and Hamsik, as well as that of the team's wing-backs Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena, following the latter's move from Liverpool in January.

Under Mazzarri, Napoli went on to finish sixth. Then, in the summer, came the real coup. Many fans were up in arms when Fabio Quagliarella was sold to Juventus, but in his stead arrived Edinson Cavani. The baby-faced forward had looked a competent if unspectacular player in three-and-a-half seasons at Palermo, but under Mazzarri he thrived – finding the first coach of his career willing to play him as an out-and-out striker, rather than a deeper-lying forward.

"We took him for a madman when he compared himself to Ibrahimovic and Rooney," admitted La Gazzetta dello Sport as Cavani blasted his way to 33 goals in 47 games – including hat-tricks against Juventus and Lazio – leading his team to a title challenge and third-place finish. In Naples they showed their appreciation by naming a calzone in his honour and preparing banners demanding "Sainthood Now" for the Uruguayan, an evangelical Christian. Inevitably, and despite their different playing styles, comparisons began to be drawn with Maradona.The Argentinian, of course, was no saint – although an entire religion has been created in his honour. Cavani has a little way to go yet to achieve that sort of status (though it is only fair to note that Maradona's Napoli won only one two-legged European Cup tie in two attempts). But if he can follow up the goal he scored at Etihad Stadium in September with a winner against City on Tuesday, he may just take a big step in that direction.