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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Napoli emerging from Maradona's shadow

The 26th April 1990 is a day that will forever be celebrated in the city of Naples.

For it was on this day that tens of thousands of proud Neapolitans flocked to the city’s historic San Paolo stadium to watch a team of their heroes, inspired by its captain – a certain diminutive playmaker from the slums of Lanus, Argentina – defeat Lazio to secure only the second Serie A title in the club’s history.

The captain, of course, was Diego Maradona. In a six-year spell which would prove to be the zenith of an illustrious career for club and country, this flamboyant genius transformed S.S.C Napoli from the sleeping giants of Italian football into one of its leading lights and, in the process, firmly established himself in the pantheon of the game’s all-time greats.

Maradona’s achievements in the south of Italy tend to be overlooked in the light of his World Cup exploits. But he will forever be the darling of Naples because, to put it simply, Maradona IS Napoli – there is perhaps no other football club in the world whose history and identity is so dominated by a single player.

This is in part because Napoli’s achievements are almost entirely Maradona’s achievements: the Partinopei’s two Scudetto triumphs, one Coppa Italia victory and sole European success – the 1989 UEFA Cup – all came during the Argentine’s time at the club.

But there is more to it than that.

Maradona’s connection to the Neapolitan community runs deeper than simply the trophies he lavished upon them. He was not just the symbol of a club and a city; he was the physical embodiment of the spirit of its people – an icon who warranted the kind of reverence usually reserved for the Pope and the Virgin Mary.

Dave Taylor, an Italian-based journalist writing for Football Italia magazine, explains the relationship in the following terms:

“He [Maradona] was loved immediately on his arrival. He was every mother’s son, everyone’s brother, every girl’s boyfriend. He was the man who would show the world that Napoli could and would teach everyone else how to play football. Apart from his calcio skills, his social importance was of enormous benefit to people’s self-esteem and he soon became an idol of the people.”

What has enhanced Maradona’s legacy at Napoli arguably more than anything else in the last twenty years is the swift decline the club endured following his departure in 1991.

The financial problems which plagued the Neapolitan club throughout the 1990s – a direct result of the lavish spending which had brought galacticos such as Maradona, Careca and Ferrara to the club in the preceding years – resulted in several self-imposed exiles from Italy’s top flight, culminating almost inevitably in a formal declaration of bankruptcy in 2004.

The football club plunged briefly out of existence, only to be resurrected by Neapolitan film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, nephew of the late Hollywood producer Dino. Napoli Soccer, however, as they were now known, would have to start from scratch in the third tier of Italian football, and it looked as if the glory days were well and truly over.

Instead, relegation has proved a blessed rebirth. Over the last six years, De Laurentiis has presided over a sustained rebuilding program which has seen Napoli regain its name and history, work its way back up the domestic footballing ladder and re-establish itself as a fixture at Italy’s top table.

And this season it looks set to get even better.

With two-thirds of the Serie A season gone, the Neapolitans find themselves second in the table, three points behind leaders AC Milan and two points clear of last season’s all-conquering Inter. How did this happen?

Admittedly Napoli, together with the likes of Palermo, Sampdoria and Genoa, has benefited from the slow but steady decline of Serie A over the last decade.

A combination of financial mismanagement, comparatively poor television revenue and the economic fallout from the 2006 Calciopoli scandal has impeded the ability of Italy’s biggest clubs to consistently compete with the giants of the Premier League and La Liga for the world’s top players – thus levelling the playing field and opening the door for some of the country’s more conservatively-run clubs to upset the established domestic order.

But ultimately the credit for Napoli’s remarkable rise belongs to the club and the club alone. De Laurentiis’ policy of signing young talent rather than established names has proved prudent on a footballing as well as financial level. It has helped craft a young and dynamic team, possessed not only by lofty ambitions but also the hunger to achieve them.

Of course, having the league’s top scorer helps: Edinson Cavani, the big Uruguayan loaned from Palermo in the summer, has made a mockery of his previously indifferent scoring record by banging them in for fun this term – his Serie A tally currently stands at an impressive 20 goals in 26 appearances, and this golden touch in front of the net has made him such a hit with the San Paolo faithful that they have even named a pizza after his nickname – El Matador.

Cavani has undoubtedly benefited enormously from having little Ezequiel Lavezzi buzzing around him. The Argentine has only netted four times in the league this season, but his ten assists are a truer reflection of his invaluable contribution. He, like the rest of Naples, worships Maradona, and his performances have at times evoked fond memories of “the Great One” in the minds of Neapolitans.

Finding the openings for this red-hot partnership is Marek Hamsik. The 22-year-old Slovakian is rated as one of the finest young playmakers in world football, and his excellent form this season proves him worthy of such praise. In addition to his creative gifts, Hamsik has also averaged just over 10 goals in each of the last four Serie A seasons – which, achieved against the notoriously stingy Italian defences, is no mean feat.

But Napoli’s unexpected title challenged owes just as much to defensive as to attacking qualities. Their backline, superbly marshalled by Italy’s former World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, is the second stingiest in Serie A, having churned out a peerless 14 clean sheets along the way. And with promising young Spanish centre-back Victor Ruiz having further bolstered the defensive ranks in January, the Partinopei are not likely to become easier to break down any time soon.

Key to the excellent balance Napoli has achieved between attack and defence this season has been through clever use of the flanks.

Manager Walter Mazzari employs Colombian Juan Camilo Zuniga in the left and the less exotic Christian Maggio on the right of a 3-4-1-2/5-2-1-2 formation, depending on whether or not his team has the ball. This tactic flies in the face of the tendency of many Serie A teams to play very narrow in the midfield, and on many occasions this season the Neapolitans’ ability to maintain width has afforded them a vital extra dimension to their play.

It is inevitable for a club of Napoli’s stature that spectacular overachievement invariably leads to star players becoming the subjects of attention from Europe’s elite clubs – the outstanding trio of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik have all been linked with big money moves to England next summer – but De Laurentiis is adamant that turning Napoli into a selling club never has been, and never will be part of his plan.

Speaking at the start of the season, he said:

“Napoli wants to grow together with its talented players. We don’t sell players who are integral to our plans, we sell players who don’t fit in.

I’ve read that [Sir Alex] Ferguson would like to buy Hamsik and Cavani for €40m and I started to laugh. Unfortunately, many people don’t realise that it is important to keep your best players to be able to become champions.”

What’s more, it is clear from the actions of Napoli’s outspoken chairman that his insistence that his club can once again become “champions” is not merely idle talk.

Current Lazio manager Eduardo Reja led the Neapolitans to a rapid return to Serie A following bankruptcy in time for the 2007/08 season, but was shown the door the following year after falling out of contention for a UEFA Cup spot. Reja’s replacement, former Azzurri coach Roberto Donadoni, was also booted out after a few months in favour of then-Sampdoria manager Mazzari when results were deemed unsatisfactory.

In the long term, De Laurentiis expects seasons like this one to become the rule rather than the exception. And despite his financial conservatism, he is willing to spend in order to make it happen.

“Neapolitans must be calm, because I am working for the future and not for today,” he said.

“If [sporting director] Pierpaolo Marino finds us a great signing, I will go for him. I will put my hand in my pocket and pay for the player.”

So can Napoli fulfil their owner’s dream and win Serie A this year?

Their relative lack of title-challenging experience and squad depth suggests they might just come up short against one, or both, of the Milan giants. On the other hand, Mazzari’s young players have already shown they have enough fighting spirit to remain in the title mix until the very end – just under 40% of their goals this season have come in the last 15 minutes of matches. Time will ultimately be the judge.

Perhaps a more realistic prospect this season is securing Champions League football. With Napoli enjoying a four point lead over the chasing pack, a place in Europe’s premier club competition is beckoning, and the benefits would be enormous.

Not only would it provide a powerful incentive for the likes of Cavani and Hamsik to commit their long-term futures to San Paolo, it would also give the club a platform to establish itself as one of Italy’s big players for years to come.

Long-suffering Neapolitans have clung to that glorious spring afternoon in April 1990 for over two decades. Now, at long last, they have a team capable of creating new memories for them to cherish, and proving, after all, that there is life after Diego.

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