How Napoli finally won the Scudetto - 33 years AD (after Diego) (2024)

When Paolo Sorrentino went on stage to collect the Oscar for Best Foreign Film nine years ago, he wanted to thank his sources of inspiration “Federico Fellini, J.R.R. Tolkien, Martin Scorsese and Diego Armando Maradona.” As a Neapolitan it would be remiss to overlook Lui (Him) and anyway the film director has always claimed “Maradona saved my life.”

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During the glory years, Sorrentino used to beg his father Sasa to let him go and follow Napoli on the road. One Sunday he left their holiday home in Abruzzo to watch Maradona play in Empoli. When Sorrentino returned, he rang the doorbell but no one answered. A neighbour informed him there had been a tragedy. A carbon monoxide leak had killed his parents. D.10.S as Maradona is still known in Naples, God in a No.10 shirt, intervened to prevent him suffering the same fate. The Argentinian has regularly featured in Sorrentino’s work as divinity and artist. “He was my friend even though I never knew him,” Sorrentino said. “He made a gift of his football just as Pino Daniele (the great Neapolitan musician) made a gift of his music and Massimo Troisi (the great Neapolitan comic) made a gift of his cinema.”

Winning the league in the years AD (After Diego, 33 long years ago) has long felt impossible in the absence of a player considered not of this world. It’s why Maradona is venerated as a saint, exhibitions about his life are held in churches rather than museums and fans continue to make a pilgrimage to the murals in the city’s Spanish quarter. The rational is replaced by a magical realism. Superstition is the way.

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Napoli fans celebrate in Largo Maradona in Naples (Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

Sorrentino even deleted a scene from his television series The Young Pope out of scaramanzia. He was worried leaving it in would hex the team. The clip showed Angelo Voiello, the conniving cardinal and incurable Napoli fan, rejoicing a Scudetto under a fountain.

Recent visitors to Naples honestly won’t know what to make of it all.On the balcony of an apartment facing the rebaptised Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, a banner has proclaimed Napoli “Champions of Italy 2022-23” for weeks. Market stalls on via Giulio Cesare have been selling t-shirts showing Vesuvius erupting in the colours of the Italian flag. The entrance to a bar on the corner where Carabinieri sip coffee is now heart shaped and lit with blue LED lights. A tricolour with the No 3 (a third league title in Napoli’s 96-year history) has been fixed to it. They are everywhere, fluttering in the wind like the blue and white streamers strewn overhead in every street in town.

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Any fear at upsetting the cosmos has lifted like a low cloud over the bay. By being 17 points clear at the top of Serie A ahead of last weekend’s round of fixtures this Napoli team has even cured the city of heptadecaphobia, the long held belief as written down in the Neapolitan Smorfia, a book used to interpret dreams and play tombola, that the No.17 brings disgrazia and bad luck. Even Salernitana’s party postponing draw at the Maradona on Sunday did not cause too much despair. Luciano Spalletti looked at it this way: Napoli get to enjoy that winning feeling for longer. It’s what kept them warm in Udine tonight, all the way up there on the Slovenian border; the place where Victor Osimhen scored the title-clinching goal.

Think of this Scudetto as a superstition buster, a masterpiece rather than a miracle touched by the Hand of God. No divine intervention has been necessary.

Napoli’s movie mogul owner Aurelio De Laurentiis will no doubt keep the film rights for his Filmauro studio. His father Luigi and uncle Dino grew up in the shadow of Vesuvius in Torre Annunziata, the last stop before the frozen-in-time Pompeii. Dino produced a couple of Fellini’s Academy Awards-winning flicks as well as Serpico. If you happen to have seen Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood it evokes the time when De Laurentiis’ uncle used to attract US film stars over to Rome where the costs of production were a fraction of what they were in Los Angeles.

Raised in the Eternal City, a passion for Napoli was passed down to Aurelio by his father who took him to games in Fuorigrotta. He long dreamt of buying the club. He tried without success in 1999 a year after Napoli’s traumatic relegation. The whole thing went to court and De Laurentiis reluctantly gave up on the idea. Five years later the club had fallen on even harder times and was in the process of being wound up. De Laurentiis could not believe it. “Wound up?” he said incredulously. “What do you mean wound up?” All of a sudden — un giorno all’improvviso — he had his chance. De Laurentiis abandoned the red carpet and Hollywood boulevard to, as he puts it, be spat at by crowds in Serie C. It was quite the break with what he was used to.

To think one of his films Star Captain and the World of Tomorrow starring Angelina Jolie, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow was in post-production at the time and about to premiere. As he got to work on making Napoli a phoenix from the flames, De Laurentiis warned his actors against any Diva-ish behaviour while he flew back to Italy. He did the deal on the island of Capri with its steep cliffs, dappled in green, plunging into turquoise water. ‘De La’ had promised to meet Danny DeVito while he was there but they never saw each other. He even managed to sneak away from his wife Jacqueline and the kids to work in secret on his football project.

“Napoli practically no longer existed,” he said. He tried to find a notary on Capri but to no avail. He caught a boat to Naples, lawyered up and paid €32million (£28m; $35m) for the club. All it got him was a stack of papers. All that was left of Napoli was the brand. Nothing else came with the club. It was the first week of September, 2004, the season about to start. “We bought jerseys from the shop on the corner, assembled a team late, and trained on the Ariston pitches in Paestum.” Napoli’s old training ground in the Soccavo neighbourhood of town, nicknamed Paradiso when Maradona practised within its walls — (Heaven) — lay abandoned and destitute. “I didn’t know anything about football,” De Laurentiis admitted. “I came from the film industry. At school I played hoops.”

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Victor Osimhen celebrates his goal against Udinese (Photo: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)

Napoli were a third division team and lost a play-off to Avellino at the end of his first season. Over the last two decades Napoli fans have watched their team climb back to Serie A, return to Europe after 13 years, play Champions League football for the first time and win the Coppa Italia three times under Rafa Benitez and Gennaro Gattuso. They have bought Pampa Sosa jerseys, made up songs to sing about the Three Tenors, Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, idolised Jesus Datolo for clinching Napoli their first win over Juventus in Turin since 1988, lived vicariously through one of their own Lorenzo Insigne, cursed the traitorous Gonzalo Higuain for joining Juventus the summer he equaled the league’s single-season scoring record and replaced him with adopted son Dries ‘Ciro’ Mertens who became one of their own as well as the club’s all-time top scorer.

None of these teams won the league. Not even the Maurizio Sarri vintage that Pep Guardiola and Arrigo Sacchi tuned in to watch. They came close in 2017-2018 when 91 points was not enough to finish in front of a decade-long dominating Juventus and the view crystallised that if that Napoli team could not do it, then no Napoli could. “In the history of football there are teams that define an era,” Sarri consoled himself. “Everyone remembers the Holland side from the 1970s, not who won the World Cup. I’m convinced people will remember this Napoli team in 20 years’ time.”

Falling short played into old stereotypes about football from Italy’s south where Napoli often played passionate, slick and groundbreaking stuff — notably under Luis Vinicio in 1975 — but lacked the cold blooded, ruthless practicality of the north. In that era, trophies and the manner of victory decided the culture war over Italian football’s identity. It pitched the southern sportswriter Antonio Ghirelli, a Neapolitan, against his disproportionately influential northern counterpart Gianni Brera who, emboldened by Milan and Inter winning the old European Cup playing catenaccio, used his mighty pen to argue that defensive, counter-attacking football was innate and the only way for Italian football to succeed. It was a rejection of the south and Napoli’s style whose lot in football was to be beautiful losers.

Luciano Spalletti’s appointment seemed to conform with that notion. His revolutionary Roma team led the title race for an hour on the final day of the season in 2008 only for Inter to get their act together and break hearts under the pouring rain in Parma. In a second spell at the club in 2017, 87 points and a 29-goal league season from Edin Dzeko were not enough to secure the Scudetto against Juventus. If anyone can relate, it’s Sarri. When De Laurentiis called at Spalletti’s apartment in the Bosco Verticale — Milan’s Vertical Forest — on January 20, 2021, he did so behind the back of Napoli’s then-coach Gattuso who was mired in a bad run of three wins in seven league games. Spalletti was on the pay-roll at Inter but no longer in the dug-out. They had sacked the Tuscan and his staff at a cost of €25.8m just months after rewarding him with a new deal for ending the club’s exile from the Champions League. It was a vote of no confidence in Spalletti’s ability to win the league as Inter’s new chief executive Beppe Marotta ditched him in order to hire Scudetto sure thing Antonio Conte.

Fired insensitively at a time when his brother Marcello had just passed away, Spalletti, who we will profile in greater detail in the coming weeks, withdrew to his farm in Tuscany where he made wine, rode horses and fed his ducks. His mission if he chose to accept it was as follows. “When I first got to know Aurelio he offered me a Napoli in transition,” Spalletti recalled. “The books needed balancing, the squad rejuvenating, we had to get the team back in the Champions League after two years. To get back on track, we were going to have to play good football in order to generate some demand for our players because in the last two years, no one was interested in them because of the results.”

De Laurentiis had, by his admission, gotten carried away during Covid, paying a club record €75m for Victor Osimhen, a transfer still under investigation by magistrates in Naples, without anticipating more lockdowns, new variants and another failure to make top four. Gattuso’s last game ended with the team blowing Champions League qualification at home to a Verona side with nothing to play for on the final day of the season. Holding their destiny in their own hands, Napoli let it slip and the mood in the fanbase fell with it. Spalletti’s hope was to make supporters “fall back in love” with Napoli. He spoke at his unveiling about the team reflecting the city in its style of play; “sfacciata” and “scugnizzo”, happy-go-lucky, cheeky and streetwise, 11 artful dodgers.

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Spalletti arrived to take charge in May 2021 after a chastening time at Inter (Photo: Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

On the back of the training bibs, Spalletti got the kitman to print the opening lyrics of the chant he liked most from the Curve at the Maradona. “Saró con te / Non devi mollare / Abbiamo un sogno nel cuore / Che Napoli torna campione.” I’ll be there for you. Don’t give up. We have a dream in our hearts. That Napoli are champions again.Already in Spalletti’s first season, they hinted at that. Napoli won the first eight league games. They did not lose until a visit to San Siro to play reigning champions Inter. Piotr Zielinski gave Napoli the lead but things fell apart.

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Osimhen’s eye socket was smashed by Milan Skriniar’s elbow and he spent a couple of months on the sidelines. Three league defeats in a row at the Maradona dampened enthusiasm. The Africa Cup of Nations borrowed Kalidou Koulibaly and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa for most of January, causing De Laurentiis to vent in a fit of pique that he would no longer buy African players unless they promised not to play in the tournament. Expiring contracts proved a distraction as Insigne was pictured signing for Toronto FC in a Roman hotel two days before a Juventus game. Mertens, a fan favourite, found it “strange” the club did not take the option to extend his deal when he had offered to take a pay cut such was his desire to stay.

Top going into March, a 1-0 defeat by bogey team Milan ended Napoli’s challenge. “If we’d won that game I’m convinced everything would have changed,” Mertens said. A weird atmosphere was created. Napoli had not set out to win the league. The objective had been to qualify for the Champions League and they comfortably did so, finishing 15 points inside the top four.

But there was a palpable sense of disappointment and missed opportunity. Spalletti’s beloved Fiat Panda was stolen. A banner left outside the ground told him it would only be returned if he left the club. “It depends on what knick it’s in,” Spalletti tried to joke. “How many miles they’ve put on the clock and what state the tyres are in. If my Pino Daniele CDs are gone I won’t be taking it back.”

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Napoli have flair on the field and plenty of flares off it (Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

During the penultimate home game of the season, a 6-1 win over Sassuolo, disparaging chants about De Laurentiis were drowned out by fake whistles played over the PA system at the Maradona. Irrespective of De Laurentiis’ role in saving Napoli and all the times he has broken the club’s transfer record for Higuain (€39m), Hirving Lozano (€45m) and Osimhen (€75m), the ultras have always felt he has never spent more than he has had to.

Protests over ticket prices have continued this season. Turning a profit in 10 of his 16 seasons in Serie A has not made him popular. It has created the impression football is first and foremost a business particularly now that football rather than film accounts for 92 per cent of the revenue going through De Laurentiis’ Filmauro studio. As always fans equate cost cutting — Napoli’s wage bill came down by 15 per cent — to a scaling back of ambition and so the summer clear-out at Napoli did not augur well. When Spalletti appeared on stage at the club’s annual summer training camp in the Dolomites, fans heckled him. “Wake up!” they shouted. “Shut it!” he replied. “Get him over there to shut it, will you?”

Spalletti was listing the players that left. His first choice goalkeeper David Ospina, the flying (but grounded by injury) left-back Faouzi Ghoulam, an exquisite midfielder and long range shooter in Fabian Ruiz, and club legends like Il Kommandante Koulibaly, Lorenzo Il Magnifico Insigne and Mertens who had touchingly named his baby boy Ciro as a gesture of his affection for Neapolitans.

“No one believed in us,” De Laurentiis said. “Maybe a few people did but not enough to go against the tide of popular opinion and dissatisfaction with our transfer window. Almost no one knew any of the guys we were signing.” There was Kim Min-jae, a centre-back from Fenerbahce, and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, a winger from Dinamo Batumi, who has been the revelation of this season in European football. “A Georgian and a South Korean. It sounded like the start of a joke,” De Laurentiis laughed.

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Kvaratskhelia, the Georgian winger, has been one of the best players in Europe this season (Photo: Francesco Pecoraro via Getty Images)

Instead of walk into a bar, these guys raised it. Napoli broke the league. The chasing pack stayed with them until October but could not keep up. Eight points was the gap at the World Cup break and it became double digits at the half way mark. Any concern over a 1-0 defeat by Inter in the first game back after the World Cup break was allayed by the biggest win over Juventus since 1990, a memorable 5-1 demolition. Napoli were in a league of their own and found themselves closing in on records held by the Grande Torino of the late 1940s for the winning margin and games to spare at the point of being confirmed champions.

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The competition needed to be at its best but were all over the place. Holders Milan were unable to match the pace they set last year which was still slower than that needed to go wheel-to-wheel with Napoli. Inter lost the league on the final day last year and were expected to be better after bringing Romelu Lukaku back. But they regressed in Serie A. Scandal caught up with Juventus. For a city used to struggle this season has been hassle-free. They have not needed a rebel leader to stand up for them against the discrimination Naples has faced, another Masaniello or Maradona. They haven’t needed a miracle. Being exceptionally good at football has been enough.

When Napoli decided to move on from Koulibaly, Insigne and Mertens they let go of the emotional baggage gathered in league titles lost. This new Napoli possessed a freshness, a fearlessness, the element of surprise. The team continued to be Serie A’s best defence but went about it differently. With Alex Meret between the sticks Napoli’s goalkeeper played out from the back less than Ospina. The back four courageously kept a higher line and took on more responsibility for playmaking. Mario Rui, who looks like an extra from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, has often figured as a No 10 at left-back. “Have you seen Kim?” Spalletti asked legendary centre-back Giorgio Chiellini. “He’s an animal. When he senses danger he’s able to speed up everything he does. He always wants to play. At Castel Volturno I have to stop him joining in the game our reserves play.” He’s “the best centre-back in the world” in Spalletti’s opinion.

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Kim, the South Korean centre-back, has been compared to Chiellini by Spalletti (Photo: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The midfielders complement each other perfectly. Napoli are the only team in Italy that average more than 60 per cent possession and play more than 600 passes per game. Giving the ball to the diminutive Slovak Stanislav Lobotka is like putting it in a safe. “He gives us the chance to attack the spaces,” Spalletti said. “He’s like Iniesta. He looks easy to catch but then he gets away from you and he accelerates.” How Napoli attack this season has changed. Last year, players like Insigne and Ruiz tended to curl goals in from distance. Only Man City (15) scored more from outside the box than Napoli (13). This year, attempts from long range are down 20 per cent and only Kvaratskhelia has scored a single, solitary screamer.

The explanation? First of all, Kvaratskhelia dribbles differently to Insigne. He is ambidextrous and so rather than cutting inside and shaping to shoot on his right, the Georgia winger drives into the area and looks to tease a foul or work an opening closer to goal. Second, if you have a striker like Osimhen who has the acceleration and telescopic limbs to get in behind and the height Mertens lacked to win everything in the air, is it any wonder crosses are up nearly 30 per cent on last season. Seventeen of Napoli’s goals in Serie Ahave been headers. Opponents are asked to pick their poison. Sit deep and Napoli will either get Kvaratskhelia to dribble past you, find a line-breaking pass, or toss it up in the air for Osimhen. Press them high and they will go long for the Nigerian to chase down. You are never safe. Napoli have even scored 22 goals from set-plays.

When Osimhen, who will become the first African ever to be crowned Capocannoniere, has not been fit it largely has not mattered. Substitutes have come up with 15 goals this season. Big ones too. When Osimhen went off against Liverpool in arguably Napoli’s first statement performance of the season, Giovanni Simone came on and scored. He got the winner at San Siro against reigning champions Milan too. Giacomo Raspadori came to the fore in the 6-1 shellacking of Ajax in Amsterdam and, most memorably of all, got the title celebrations underway with a stoppage-time winner in Turin on April 23 as Napoli did the double over Juventus for the first time since 2009-10. The reception on their return to Capodichino in the early hours of Monday morning offered a glimmer of the delirium awaiting them once the title race is mathematically over.

It's Napoli in the 93rd minute in Turin! 💙

Giacomo Raspadori with an exquisite volley to bring Napoli closer to the Serie A title. pic.twitter.com/S1ICLwAvYH

— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 23, 2023

A fleet of mopeds followed the bus home like a swarm of wasps in the slipstream of their queen. A mock funeral was held for all the other teams in Serie A, the scarves of Milan, Inter and Juventus laid across a coffin. Much delight was taken in Milan’s technical director Paolo Maldini and Juventus’ coach Max Allegri getting so ruffled by Napoli winning the league. “Well done,” Allegri was overheard shouting last weekend. “You’ve managed to winoneScudetto.” But one Scudetto in Naples is worth 10 in Turin and the city will party all summer long.

“Don’t come,” my taxi driver Marco recommended when I was in town for the Champions League quarter-final again Milan. “You won’t be able to walk or breathe.” Not everyone has followed that advice. Police in Naples have already arrested a fugitive from Georgia who risked capture in order to see Kvaratskhelia play in person.

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Nicknamed Kvaradona, his approximation with Diego has been amusing. During Maradona’s seven years in Naples, 515 newborn babies were named Diego. One of Kvaratskhelia’s team-mates, the German midfielder Diego Demme, was named after him too. The same thing is happening to Kvara now. Earlier this month, Napoli fans Armando and Clara had a baby boy at the Santa Patrizia clinic in Naples. They looked into his eyes and thought the name that suited him best was Daniele Khvicha. As for Osimhen, he has inspired Naples’ pastry chefs and cooks into new creations while the lucky mask he no longer needs after recovering from surgery on his cheek bone has been blown up in cardboard and fixed to a washing line over some streets, bestowing good fortune on anyone who walks under it.

Lately every day in Naples has felt like waiting Christmas Day. They have known it has been coming for months. All the decorations have gone up. “Napule è mille culure,” as Pino Daniele sang. A city of a thousand colours including the red, white and green of the Scudetto. De Laurentiis may even see the family’s other club, Bari, earn promotion.“I’m amazed everyone is getting so excited,” De Laurentiis said. “Napoli have always put together extremely competitive teams. I didn’t say the strongest, I meant the most honest.”

The “great northern machine that spurs teams from the north on” as evoked by Roberto Saviano, the great Neapolitan investigative journalist who has been under police protection ever since his reporting into Neapolitan organised crime came to light in the book Gomorrah, never got going. Nor did the World Cup break disrupt Napoli’s rhythm. Only five members of this eclectic squad were in Qatar anyway. Napoli stayed hungry. “Today I saw something I’ve never seen in all my life,” Spalletti observed in genuine astonishment after his team beat Sassuolo in February. It was the photograph of a Scudetto-winning team and it captured the commitment and desire his players showed to stop a counter attack from their own corner. No one wanted this Scudetto more.

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For a new generation, this group of players has emulated Maradona without any Ma-Gi-Ca (as Maradona, Bruno Giordano and Careca were known). With no recourse to the super natural. When Maradona skippered Napoli he seemed paranormal.

The club’s captain this time around, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, could not, on the other hand, be any more more normal after playing at every level of Italian football. He was even made redundant when Matera went bust. A great director like Sorrentino can now count on new sources of inspiration. If he wishes he can dedicate his next Oscar to Kvaratskhelia or Osimhen. “No city loves its heroes like Naples,” Spalletti said at his unveiling. “My team and I would like to be remembered by the people. That’s what I’d like.” And that is what they have ensured.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

How Napoli finally won the Scudetto - 33 years AD (after Diego) (2024)
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