The feeling is palpable. The expectations are high. Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen will be part of the history as Naples, which club, Napoli is at the brink of winning first Italian league title in 33 years since the legendary Diego Maradona last played for the club.
With many goals coming from either the boots or headers by Victor Osimhen, Napoli are 16 points clear from the second placed club, Lazio as the Serie A enters its home stretch.
The city is set for celebrations as the entire streets are adorned in sky blue, the colour of Napoli. Provisions are in place for a party on 4 June – the final day of the season – but Napoli’s wait for a first championship since Diego Maradona strolled these narrow streets could end in the next few weeks. Fifteen points from their final 10 games will make it certain, even if second-placed Lazio win all of theirs.
In the Quartieri Spagnoli, throughout Naples’ historic centre, up to Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in Fuorigrotta and beyond, the streets are decked with blue and white festoons. Buildings and steps have been painted the same hues.
Life-size cutouts of the current squad stand in one piazza, club shirts and player posters are pegged to washing lines in alleyways and youngsters queue for half a block to buy Napoli-coloured panino at popular sandwich shop Con Mollica o Senza.
Among the life-sized cutouts is that of Osimhen, an almost reincarnation of Maradona in terms of goal scoring.
Hotel rooms for the next couple of months have nearly all gone. Expats wanting to celebrate, football fans intrigued by Napoli’s story and visitors unexpectedly caught up in this historic moment are descending on the city. Sporting success coincides with a tourist boom.
“Naples is experiencing a moment of self-recognition and rediscovery of its greatness,” says author Angelo Forgione.
When Maradona inspired Napoli to a first Scudetto in 1987, fans placed a banner outside the city’s largest cemetery proclaiming: “You don’t know what you missed.” Now, a generation too young to remember such glory are living it themselves.
“I was six months old in 1990 but I grew up watching VHS of Diego Maradona,” says Vincenzo Credendino, from CalcioNapoli24 TV. “Now this Scudetto is like reconnecting with that time.”
Tributes to Luciano Spalletti’s players intertwine with endless Maradona artwork. He is everywhere in Naples’ charmingly gritty and dizzyingly chaotic labyrinth of streets – bar windows, bumper stickers, on billboards and etched across crumbling walls in giant murals.
At Bar Nilo, a strand of Maradona’s hair rotates as part of a shrine to the Argentine. In an underground museum the belongings acquired by his maid’s son when Maradona left the city are on display.
“Maradona is like God here,” says 23-year-old fan Maria Roberta De Iesu. “He gave people hope. Neapolitans see themselves in Maradona.”
When Maradona arrived for a world record fee from Barcelona in July 1984, the city was still on its knees from an earthquake that killed almost 2,500 people four years earlier. Feuds between the Camorra, the region’s mafia, were as bitter as ever, unemployment was huge and the Bank of Naples was facing bankruptcy.
“Yet in a Naples on the bottom, Napoli, with the help of politics, managed to buy the strongest and most expensive footballer in the world and touch the sky,” adds Forgione.
Then president Corrado Ferlaino had to lean on the city’s mayor to help finance the deal, fans offered contributions to help get it over the line, anything to get Maradona.
‘El Pibe de Oro’ was everything to Naples, and Naples was everything to him. The city resonated with its Golden Boy not just because he inspired their club to two Serie A titles and a Uefa Cup but because they recognised him. He was anti-establishment, he echoed their principles and shouldered their concerns.
“Maradona was really good with his tongue, his mouth, his attitude,” explains Credendino. “He understood how to get the heart of the Neapolitan people, he touched the right chords.”
Maradona, despite his relationship with the Neapolitan mafia, brought “justice to the people” after struggles against the north that date back more than a century to the unification of Italy, says culture expert Francesco Carignani.
“He had many problems in his life but in Naples we only remember him for the joy,” adds fan Paolo Cimmino. “We connect him as a man to a conqueror – the south won versus the north.”
No club south of Rome has won Serie A since the Napoli of Maradona, Careca, Ciro Ferrara and a young Gianfranco Zola in 1990, and Neapolitans still endure hostile taunts from their northern rivals about crime, poverty, cholera outbreaks and calls for Mount Vesuvius to erupt over the city.
People here “are first of all Neapolitans and then Italian”, explains Bellini, Napoli’s iconic stadium announcer. They have their own language, culture and history. Naples was once a thriving European capital, it remains a city of intriguing architecture, Caravaggio, pizza. Most of all, there is an intensity to life in Campania.
“Southern people in Italy, they live everything with love, with so much emotion, in different ways to the north,” adds Cimmino.
Napoli had to fall before they could rise again. Financial decline, relegation and bankruptcy followed the glory years but the fans remained. More than 50,000 attended a game in Serie C in 2004-05.
“For our city soccer is so important,” explains journalist Elena Lopresti. “It is not only football, it is a social instrument, a tool to develop us as a society.”
Film producer Aurelio de Laurentiis seized an opportunity to purchase the club in 2004 and restore top-flight and European football to Napoli, the fourth-most well-supported club in Italy after Juventus, Milan and Inter, but one whose fanbase is concentrated in the region, rather than spread “from the Alps to Sicily” as Forgione says of the big three.
“De Laurentiis had a parachute,” adds Credendino. “It was the love of the people, always ready to go to the stadium, always ready to support the team.”
Naples, Forgione explains, is a rare European metropolis represented by a single club. “Napoli’s victory is the victory of identity, of those who live it completely,” he adds.
“In Naples, football is everything,” says Cimmino. “It is joy, it is love, it is fun, it is sadness. It is a way to escape from the daily problems, a way to have fun with the people and party, and this period is happiness.”
The De Laurentiis era has been characterised by astute recruitment – Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Jorginho, Gonzalo Higuain – profitable sales, and falling short in the title race.
It was only last summer, after another championship bid slipped away, that ultras promised to return boss Spalletti’s stolen Fiat Panda on the condition he left the club.
“Now he deserves a Ferrari, not a Panda,” laughs journalist Credendino.
Spalletti is not from Naples, but he shares that Neapolitan passion. After being sacked by Inter, he spent two years on his farm in Tuscany before taking on the Napoli job. Now he lives by the training ground working relentlessly to deliver the Scudetto.
Maradona was the face of Napoli’s previous triumph but this time unfamiliar heroes have emerged – cleverly acquired by sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli and fuelled by Spalletti’s coaching.
“Giuntoli is the man of this miracle,” says Credendino, despite some fans fretting when the club sold high-profile stars Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens last year.
“Giuntoli discovered Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, he discovered Victor Osimhen, Kim Min-jae,” adds Cimmino. “Spalletti makes this talent, makes this character. He can find the right keys to get the best of all the players. [Slovak midfielder Stanislav] Lobotka now looks like Iniesta, he looks like Xavi.”
On a sold-out match day against Milan, outside the stadium that bears Maradona’s name – an amphitheatre worthy of the Greeks who founded Neapolis, the “new city” – kids sport the mask of top scorer Osimhen and Georgian flags fly for irrepressible winger Kvaratskhelia.
There are a sprinkling of Boca and Argentina jerseys too, and, if there is a likeness to Maradona in this team, it is 22-year-old Kvaratskhelia. Signed from Dinamo Batumi last summer, he’s aptly been dubbed “Kvaradona”, but Cimmino sees him like Gianluigi Lentini at Torino or Kaka during his Milan years.
“He is incredibly unpredictable in the field,” adds Credendino. “But if Maradona was a demigod, Kvaratskhelia is the Pope. He has a totally different attitude, a totally different personality.”
Kvaratskhelia plays with a rugged urgency, socks around his ankles, calves exposed. He cavorts, he conjures. But against Milan on Sunday, without 21-goal forward Osimhen – a man Spalletti calls a “dragon with two heads” – he could not stop a vacant and disjointed Napoli sliding to a jarring 4-0 defeat.
Milan were supposed to graciously pass on the champions’ baton. Instead they slapped down a reminder the upcoming Champions League quarter-final between the two – the first leg is on Wednesday – should not be taken for granted.
Neapolitans’ relationship with their club is complex. Rather than the result, the fallout was about wider issues. Scuffles broke out between different sets of ultras in Curva B over how to protest against De Laurentiis’ ticket prices and rules over which flags or banners they can bring into the ground.
“De Laurentiis has a really complicated relationship with the city because the supporters don’t like the power, and he represented the power,” explains Carignani.
“But we have to say that this victory is great for him because he is a great businessman, he put passion in the city but also his entrepreneurship view in managing the team and that has made the difference.”
In the next few weeks, supporters and the board will both celebrate Napoli’s first title in more than three decades. The fans have been asking the city’s patron saint San Gennaro for this moment, they have called on the spirit of Maradona. Residents have been saving up in preparation for the mother of all celebrations.
“We just feel this power, this emotion,” says De Iesu. “It will be a great party all around the city, all the squares will be full of people.”
“Now we are enjoying it,” adds Carignani. “It was worth the wait.”
Adapted from BBC reports