On Thursday evening, Naples was the place to be. As tricolours painted with number three fluttered and a literal ship drove through the age-old narrow streets of the city which was adorned by the almost rhythmic cacophony of fireworks, Naples conveyed a sense of identity through its actions. Scenes like those hadn’t been seen in 33 years and a whole generation had never seen Naples lose itself to a sport like that. After all, football isn’t a mere sport to them. It means the world to them.
A certain amount of rawness has always been associated with the city of Naples. The unfiltered chaos in the midst of dilapidation and the unbridled vibrancy that is thrust upon by the working class residents makes it a throwback city that has always found a distinct identity in football. It is a city adored by some but also looked down upon by others, thereby somewhat existing in a grey area that forever clings on to our lives too. It is in that grey that football comes in as a source of solace, as Diego Maradona’s travails in the 1980s united the city against the more prominent north and they upstaged the adversary together.
Football gives the Neapolitans an escape from lives that aren’t always pretty and for a place which has been seen as ‘foreign’ by many in the north of Italy, Naples embraces outsiders as if they’re their own. It is quite fitting that with a hometown hero in Lorenzo Insigne gone, Neapolitans had no qualms about accepting his replacement Khvicha Kvaratskhelia as he was. The Georgian, whose move to Napoli has turned out to be quite a hit, carries himself in a rather unassuming manner. With an untrimmed beard and a mobile phone that looks like it has travelled to the future in 2023, Kvaratskhelia’s image fits right in at a city which is blessed with scenic jewels despite an often old-school vibe.
Victor Osimhen, the man Kvaratskhelia has struck an exceptional pairing with in a short time, has a personality that matches Naples’ unpretentious social and cultural importance to Italy. Humble off the pitch but an unerringly passionate customer on the pitch, Osimhen is unabashedly himself when he’s playing. He carries himself like he can run through walls at will and celebrates goals as if he means it; as if he belongs in Naples. That passionate rage and unfiltered aggression has become a reminder of Maradona’s tenacity and in the Nigerian, Napoli fans have graced another foreigner as if he is embedded into the culture of the city. He is now, well and truly.
This isn’t a club which has had a smooth ride at all. Following the Maradona-led successes, Napoli fell back into Serie C in 2004 and the Partenopei was declared bankrupt. When no saviour was in sight, Aurelio de Laurentiis took over and reshaped the club step-by-step. On the way and especially in the modern-day, the Partenopei have been associated with failing when it truly matters. Under Maurizio Sarri, their stylish brand of football didn’t lead to tangible silverware despite them once picking up a record 91 points in the league. As recently as last season, they fell apart towards the end despite once leading the title race over southern rivals Milan and Inter. Even this season, they faced naysayers who constantly questioned whether Luciano Spalletti’s men could go all the way or not.
But the club’s excellent recruitment has managed to tide over any issues that have arisen through the season. WIth Insigne, Dries Mertens, Fabian Ruiz and Kalidou Koulibaly gone, other clubs would have struggled. Over the years though, Napoli have established a hallmark for having a host of iconic players at once. Fittingly enough, that is what has happened this season too. There might not be an Ezequiel Lavezzi, an Edinson Cavani, a Gonzalo Higuain or a Jose Callejon, but there is a Kvaratskhelia, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Kim Min-Jae and Stanislav Lobotka. When the rest of Italy was struggling with finances and dealing with self-imposed transfer problems, Napoli recruited smartly and in a jiffy, the stars were replaced by sporting director Cristiano Guintoli.
In a way, Napoli’s rise over the years is quite symbolic of captain Giovanni di Lorenzo’s journey too. When the defender was released by Reggina after the southern club had gone bankrupt, he had been without a club for a month and without an agent. When hope was fading too, he used the power of personal contacts and somehow ended up at Matera in Serie C when no other club seemed interested. In six years, he has gone from playing in the third division of Italian football to captaining the Partenopei to the Scudetto. A story like that is quite unheard of in Calcio, but for a city that believes in fairytales, it isn’t new. It is not a surprise then, to see Di Lorenzo become Naples’ very own and become synonymous with the club’s identity.
Footballing fairytale is a term which is overused today, but it certainly sits right for Napoli. It is the coming together of stories of multiple players that needed this success in their careers – just like how the Neapolitans needed the silverware in their lives. Not just for the players and the people, but it is much-needed and rather deserved for Spalletti himself.
Often mocked for his idiosyncrasies and oddities in conversations in Calcio circles, Spalletti brought back the false nine in the game during his first stint at Roma. He has acquired a reputation for not just being someone who expresses his ideas about the game in an eloquent manner, but he creates teams that suits strengths of the players at hand. Inter did win the Scudetto two seasons ago, but it was Spalletti who had handed the Nerazzurri the foundation to grow, detaching them from what has famously been described as their ‘banter era’. He too, like Napoli, has often been described as the ‘nearly man’, having never won the Serie A before and despite once racking up 87 points with Roma, his Giallorossi side fell short in 2017.
His appointment at Napoli was questioned by many for as to whether he could take the club the next level or not, and whether he would settle the club into the comfort zone of the top four. Last season, there was criticism from certain sections of the club’s fans regarding the team’s title credentials under Spalletti. At a press event last year, Spalletti was heckled by angry fans that were frustrated about the sales of the likes of Mertens and Insigne. But the Italian took it all on his chin – including a Pornhub hat that was thrown at him by fans during an open training session last year. For someone who has seen a lot – including the death of his brother right before he took over at Napoli, his comments last night were heartwarming.
“The problem for those who are used to always working hard, like me, is that they can’t even fully enjoy victories. Happiness is a fleeting thing . Now I’ve won, ok, but then you have to work again. It’s a life approach that takes away something from you. Seeing the Neapolitans smile, the Neapolitans happy is the greatest emotion.
“They are the ones who transfer happiness to me. They will be able to overcome the hard moments of life by thinking back to this moment here. So it is an important thing. Now I feel more relaxed. Thank goodness, I managed to give this happiness to the Neapolitans.”
Like Spalletti, Naples is used to working hard. It is a place grounded in an ethic and it is football that makes sure that the joys aren’t fleeting, especially if Napoli win. The city breathes football and without the cultural phenomenon of the sport, it would lose a certain amount of hope. For a city like that, one that has been subjugated for years socially and otherwise, it is a story for the ages. And Spalletti is right, he should feel more relaxed. We should feel relaxed that this story has unfolded.
Kaustubh Pandey | GIFN