Napoli's Return to the Top Could Just Be the Beginning of Something Special
The club has struggled back from the no-man's land of lower-tier football, been renamed, shaken up the northern elite that dominate Italian football and, with a squad comprised of young talent, some local lads and led up front by a mercurial South American, SSC Napoli are now a match for anyone. But the year is not 2013; it's 1986.
After being a yo-yo club for much of their existence, the road to Napoli's first Scudetto began in the mid-1960s, when with the likes of Naples-born legend Antonio Juliano, the Partenopei actually came close to winning the league on more than one occasion. Then, with the arrival of Diego Maradona from Barcelona in 1984, Napoli found the key to unlock their true potential.
Never before had a team from mainland southern Italy dominated Serie A, never mind won it. The Milan sides, Juventus and occasionally Fiorentina and Roma were the big names on the peninsula, but with their famous first title in 1987, when they pipped Juventus to the top by three points, Ottavio Bianchi's side had changed the landscape of Italian—and perhaps even European—football forever.
A UEFA Cup win in 1989–they beat European superpowers Bayern Munich and Juventus on the way to the final with Stuttgart—and another Serie A title in 1990 elevated them to mythical status and transformed Maradona into a demi-god on the peninsula.
Fast-forward to today, and the similarities are striking. After bankruptcy destroyed the team and forced new owner Aurelio De Laurentiis to reform the side as Napoli soccer way down in Serie C1 in 2004, their rebirth has been breathtaking.
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Though it came to a head post-millennium, Napoli's woes had in truth began almost immediately after their second Serie A win. Drugs, mafia connections and a scandal involving an illegitimate son had all played a part in destroying the once-invincible Maradona, and after a lengthy ban following a positive test for cocaine, the Argentinian left for Sevilla in 1992.
Financial problems meant that top players were all sold—youth team product Ciro Ferrara and the sublime Gianfranco Zola to name two—and the death spiral had begun.
By the 19997/98 season they were in tatters and won just twice all season before being relegated, and though they were promoted once again in 2000, the damage was irreparable and the debts enormous. When movie producer De Laurentiis took over, he was taking a huge gamble. One that, thankfully, paid off.
Football has always been an integral part of the city of Naples, and crowds of more than 50,000 attended games in the third tier—beating most attendance figures in Serie A. That intense support and De Laurentiis' clever investment saw the Azzurri return to Serie A in 2007 and go on to cement their place as one of Italy's most intimidating sides, with the Stadio San Paolo becoming a fortress.
Indeed, many might remember that in their first season back in Serie A, of all the top teams only AS Roma managed to best Napoli at home, with Edy Reja's men recording memorable victories over Juventus, Milan and Inter on their way to a very credible eighthplace finish.
Since then, Walter Mazzarri has crafted one of the continent's most potent and attractive sides, doing so on a relatively modest budget while creating an ethos of attractive, attacking football in Campania. And with echoes of the 1980s, a lethal South American is leading the line and seemingly scoring at will. Edinson Cavani is being courted by Europe's biggest teams, but the Uruguayan seems acutely aware of Napoli's potential—and his own importance to both Mazzarri and the fans.
It had been Ezequiel Lavezzi that many expected to fill Maradona's shoes. Similar in stature, Argentinian and a fellow Boca Juniors man, some even suggested that the No. 10 jersey should be brought out of retirement. But the flashy Lavezzi had an uneasy relationship with the often-troubled city, and his openly-critical girlfriend strained relations with the fans before reportedly demanding a move from her partner.
With Lavezzi gone to Paris Saint-Germain, it's now Cavani who is charged with leading Napoli to glory, just as Maradona did all those years ago. Though the complete opposite of Il Diego, Cavani—quiet, religious, humble—has the self-belief and the ability to become one of the world's very best—some think him so already—and to lead the rest of this young and talented side to the very top.
Of course, others in Mazzarri's team deserve credit, too. Paolo Cannavaro never looked like becoming as influential as his older brother, but the Napolitano is now crucial. At 31, he'll never reach the international fame of Fabio, but leading his hometown club to success would make him a legend on the streets of Naples.
To be fair, their last season's Coppa Italia win—their first major trophy since the departure of Maradona—has probably already immortalised this side in the eyes of their followers.
Farther up the pitch, the creative Marek Hamšík has been an important part of the attack in recent years—an attack that only looks set to get stronger with the addition of Goran Pandev and the continued development of youth product Lorenzo Insigne.
Even the addition of the young Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas, who has yet to find his feet in the league, seems like a shrewd move. This wealth of talent, coupled with the fact that the De Laurentiis is never overly keen to sell, would seem to stand Napoli in good stead for the coming seasons.
Success in the Coppa Italia and successive European campaigns has brought Napoli to the attention of the world, and for all the threats posed by the likes of resurgent Juventus, Roma and Inter, it seems that the biggest obstacle facing the Partenopei right now will be holding on to their biggest stars.
Cavani, Insigne and Hamšík are the subject of constant transfer chatter and even lesser coveted players like Juan Zúñiga—though Barcelona are sniffing around him now, so perhaps "lesser" is not the right word—and Christian Maggio would make good additions for most top sides. Last summer saw Lavezzi depart for Paris and Walter Gargano—who had been imperious for Napoli—leave for Inter.
So far, they've been able to brush off the speculation and deal with departures, but if uncertainty about the team's future plans and ability to hold onto its biggest stars continues, sooner or later it will take its toll.
Regardless of how many young stars Napoli's scouts bring in, or how much De Laurentiis is willing to spend, no side with Scudetto ambitions can afford to haemorrhage top-class players. If Mazzarri wants to reach the very top, he'll have to convince his men that the best is yet to come.
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