NAPLES Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona denied he owed millions of euros in unpaid Italian taxes on Tuesday after he was mobbed by media and fans on his return to Naples where he twice led the local team to league titles.
The tax collection agency says it is owed almost 40 million euros ($52.3 million) by the former World Cup winner, most of which is interest built up since 1984 when he joined Serie A club Napoli.
"I am innocent," Maradona told a news conference in the southern Italian city. "I want to believe in the Italian justice system - I don't owe them a lira."
He said he wanted to clear his name so he could return to Italy, a nation he loves, without being chased for the debts.
The country's authorities have long pursued him, seizing diamond earrings when he visited a weight-loss clinic in northern Italy in 2009 and stripping him of two watches when he went to Naples for a benefit match in 2006.
"I wanted to tell you all that I can feel, again, the air of Naples in all of my body," said Maradona.
"I have wanted to come to Naples for a long time but there was something that wouldn't permit me and I can't understand why."
Maradona, one of the world's greatest players, is still Napoli's all-time top scorer and is venerated like a saint in the city for leading the club to the Serie A title in 1987 and 1990.
The 52-year-old, who also led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup, was mobbed by photographers as he arrived for the conference while Napoli fans chanted 'Diego! Diego!'. ($1 = 0.7649 euros)
(Writing by Catherine Hornby, editing by Tony Jimenez)