Diego would love to watch this team
IT IS matchday, three hours before kick-off, but already the crowds are congregating at a shrine unlike the humble little alcoves carved into walls across this deeply religious city. Around the plastic chairs arranged expectantly before a television screen, amid the tooting of mopeds brazenly weaving their way through the throng, there stands a giant mural to Naples’ favourite (adopted) son.
This is, quite literally, the Via Maradona. This is the legacy that winning a Scudetto, or two, can leave in this city. And that is exactly what is about to happen again for the first time in 33 years.
A 2-0 win over Atalanta on Saturday took Napoli 18 points clear at the top of Serie A. This is no motley crew, elevated by the presence of one extraordinary talent — as it was in 1987, and to a lesser extent in 1990 — but a well- oiled machine that has crushed all comers at home and on the continent this season.
A team with a manager, in Luciano Spalletti, who seemed destined to be a perpetual bridesmaid and never a bride. A mass exodus of star players over the summer. This championship charge does not really make sense.
But since the sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli worked his magic in the transfer window last year, that charge has been relentless. Kim Min-jae was poached from Fenerbahce to replace Kalidou Koulibaly and has been a rock at the heart of defence. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, 22, was plucked from Georgian side Dinamo Batumi to replace some of the creativity lost with the exit of club stalwarts Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens. He has done that and much, much more — his balletic dribbling and beguiling technique have earned him a nickname, Kvaradona, that is the highest possible praise in these parts.
When he is not scoring himself, he is setting up Victor Osimhen, the Nigerian striker who is leading the Golden Boot race with 19 goals in 22 games. ‘This team is giving fans joy,’ says Joseph Fischetti, host of the Forza Napoli podcast. ‘ Not just in terms of results, but also the style of play. It was as if the likes of Koulibaly, Mertens and Insigne took the burden of expectation with them. Their replacements play with a beautiful freedom.
‘Maradona would have loved watching this team play. They play a very attractive brand of football. He would have appreciated the quality in this Napoli side, led by Kvaratskhelia.’
Scudetto wins have added weight here. This is a working-class city in a region which has long been looked down upon by their more affluent ‘friends’ in the north. This will not just be Napoli’s first league win since 1990, but the first for any team south of Rome. It is, Fischetti explains, ‘more than a sporting success, a rare victory for the south over the north and a place that eats, sleeps and breathes football’.
Against Atalanta, Spalletti’s side started with caution though Kim’s dominance in the air and Kvaratskhelia’s elegance on the ball still shone through. But after emerging from the bowels of the amphitheatre that is the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona for the second half, Kvaradona decided to give his baying public what they were after. He received the ball on the left, took a couple of touches to set himself, jinked inside, then out, then back in again, sent three defenders on to their haunches and unleashed an unstoppable shot.
Napoli’s second was more agricultural, a looping Amir Rrahmani header from a corner that the Atalanta goalkeeper, Juan Musso, ought to have saved. But no matter, the home supporters were already toasting Serie A’s ‘campionista’ in waiting.
Some 24 hours earlier, fans had gathered at a bar in the city’s trendy Spanish quarter to watch Inter Milan’s 2-1 defeat by Spezia — a result that gave Napoli the chance to extend their lead at the top. The crowd exploded as Spezia’s goals went in, and when the final whistle blew, they launched into a song.
‘oh mamma, mamma, mamma. oh mamma, mamma, mamma. do you know why my heart is beating so hard? I have seen Maradona.
I have seen Maradona. And I have fallen in love.’
Thirty years from now, they will still be gathering in bars, still be singing about Napoli, about the boys in blue. But perhaps there will be a few changes to the lyrics.