“No city loves its heroes like Naples,” were the words uttered by now-legendary Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti at his unveiling in 2021. Even for the typically passionate manager this grandiose statement was an understatement. Diego Maradona’s legacy is still pumping through every sinew of Naples as if never left the club, or indeed this mortal plane. To put it simply; Maradona is Napoli.
Like a reverse Ozymandias, the number 10’s grasp on the city seems to strengthen as the years go by, lauded as a deity by the people of Naples. As Gli Azzurri lifted the Serie A trophy for the first time in 33 years, and the first time after Maradona’s exit, the city exploded into life celebrating the triumph of Spalletti and his team.
However, it hasn’t been plain sailing for the iconic club to get to this point of ecstasy. Post the Maradona years they experienced incredibly turbulent times, including stints in Serie B and the third division of Italian football. Despite Napoli playing in such a low division in the mid noughties, they retained higher average attendances than most of the Serie A clubs, breaking the Serie C attendance record with a truly astonishing 51,000 Napoli fans at one match.
Since these darker times and their return to Serie A they had been the league’s nearly boys. Having finished second to Juve several times during The Old Lady’s 21st century dominance, thoughts of regaining the title seemed to be fading. Even with Spalletti’s appointment, the Napoli ultras took it upon themselves to steal his Fiat Panda as an act of defiance in the early days of his reign.
A notoriously passionate bunch, pressure from Napoli fans is often a feverish state of existence for managers brave enough to take the wheel (even if their own wheels are stolen). Like most Italian clubs who have had the Scudetto emblazoned on their jerseys, there is always an expectancy to do it again, even if it has been over 30 years.
With this weight of history not only comes expectations of greatness, but also a specific, enjoyable style of play. Spalletti spoke of making supporters “fall back in love” with Napoli when he was appointed, citing “sfacciata” and “scugnizzo” as ways the team would reflect the city in its style of play; cheeky and tenacious.
Nothing epitomises this prophetic language like the players that have helped seal the title in barnstorming fashion, delivering Spalletti’s promises with an impassioned kiss. Victor Osimhen, captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia – aptly and lovingly nicknamed Kvaradona – have become the new heroes of Naples.
After the title was secured with a staggering five games to play, the city of Naples displayed adoration the only way they know how to. Every corner of the gorgeous Italian locale adorned in the light blue that is so synonymous with the club. No city loves its heroes like Naples and with that Spalletti and company will forever be remembered.
Oh, and the ultras did at least return his Fiat steering wheel in the end. It’s the thought that counts.
Photography: Kane Hulse