What Napoli’s historic Serie A title means to the city

More than a roar, it was a rumble — a build-up toward the inevitable: tension and release. It’s fitting for a city that rises between the steaming volcanic plumes of Mount Vesuvius and the placid azure of the Gulf of Naples, dotted with ferries to the one-percenters’ island playground of Capri.

Napoli clinch first Serie A title since 1989-90
Reaction: The city of Naples goes wild with celebration

Victory comes in many forms, but this time it wasn’t a close finish; it was a double-digit length saunter, a crescendo towards the inevitable. This most superstitious of cities was more than happy to stare down karma. Even before Christmas, it set to work festooning its streets and alleys with blue and white banners with the number “three” — as in the number of titles won counting this one, which was only conquered on Thursday with a come-from-behind 1-1 draw at Udinese. They perked up the piazzas long decorated with shrines and murals to the man who had led them to their only two other Scudetti in the late 1980s: Diego Armando Maradona.

And when the referee blew for full-time in Udine, after Victor Osimhen (who else?) fired home his 22nd league goal of the season to give his team the point they needed, the pitch was swiftly overrun by visiting fans and their raw joy. Supporters mobbed their heroes and collected bits of turf as mementos; back in Naples, several thousand packed the Stadio Diego Maradona where they lit flares and celebrated, 500 miles from their champions, while watching on big screens around the stadium. You can bet the festivities will still be going by the time their heroes arrives home.

You can trace this feat back to two broad strands: passion and ingenuity. When it comes to Naples, you’re likely more than familiar with the first. This a city where the sport of football is all-permeating, cutting across ethnicities, socioeconomic classes and neighborhoods. Folks speak of fandom as faith, and it makes sense in that context.

This is also a place where religion and the paranormal coexist. Three times a year, Neapolitans gather to venerate a glass orb supposedly containing the dried blood of San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint. They chant and pray until the dried substance inside liquefies. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t, portending rough times ahead. Scientists have their own explanation; the Catholic Church itself stops short of calling it a “miracle” or even of confirming that it’s actually San Gennaro’s dried blood in the vial. But to those who believe, it’s very real.

It’s perhaps why Maradona resonated (and still resonates). He understood the fine line between the earthly and the otherworldly and their place in our lives. When he talked about the hand of God pushing the ball over Peter Shilton and into the England goal at the 1986 World Cup, Neapolitans knew what he meant better than most. There’s plenty of room for the metaphysical, the unexplained and the inexplicable in this city.

Call it irrational belief if you want, but this is a fan base that has suffered far more than its share of heartbreak and has every reason to believe in curses. In the 1950s, after going on an unprecedented spending spree under then-president Achille Lauro, a shipping magnate, they won nothing and were relegated in 1961. (A brief digression: in 1965, Lauro bought a huge ship and renamed after himself, then converting it into a cruise ship. In 1985, it was hijacked by terrorists; in 1994, it caught fire and sank off the coast of Somalia. Not much luck there, either.)

In the 1974-75 season, Napoli lost the title by two points after being beaten 6-2 by Juventus in front of the the biggest crowd, 90,736, to ever witness a football match on Italian soil. To add insult to injury, the opening goal was scored by the legendary Jose Altafini, who had spent seven seasons leading the line at Napoli (and won a World Cup in 1958 alongside a certain Pele).

In 1987-88, after leading for much of the season, they were rocked by a player rebellion, managed just one point from their final five games and were pipped to the finish by Milan — a course of events that has prompted countless conspiracy theories to this day. And in 2004, after years of mismanagement, red ink and dubious owners (and nearly getting relegated to the third flight), they finally went bankrupt. They were reformed in the third division a year later and thus began a long, patient march back to the top of the tree.

So, yeah, jinxes and curses are real here. They’re baked into the city and the fact that they were so ready to disregard them speaks volumes about the club’s achievements this season. All of which brings us to the other strand of their success: human ingenuity.

Naples as a city often gets stereotyped — and often by folks who have never been — as a byword for chaos, social ills and mismanagement. But the club itself stands in stark contrast. Over the past decade, they have been both successful on the pitch (seven top three finishes, two Coppa Italia victories) and profitable off it, despite recent heavy losses related to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a stellar achievement, any way you cut it.

This season was supposed to be a transition year. Napoli opted to cut their wage bill by 30% and let arguably their three veteran leaders leave: defensive stalwart Kalidou Koulibaly joined Chelsea, the club’s all-time top goalscorer Dries Mertens went to Galatasaray in Turkey, and native son/club captain Lorenzo Insigne moved to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. Without this trio, they relied on young under-the-radar replacements — namely Korean central defender Kim Min-jae, Italian winger Giacomo Raspadori and, of course, Georgian sensation Khvicha Kvaratskhelia — to reorient this team.

You know the story from here. Kvaradona — as some, coming close to blasphemy in this city, have dubbed him — leads Serie A in assists and has contributed 12 goals from wide areas, forming a devastating one-two punch with the masked Nigerian center-forward Victor Osimhen, who has 27 goals in 33 appearances across all competitions. (The mask, in case you’re wondering, is a legacy of a long-forgotten broken jaw; now it’s simply a good-luck charm, which kind of fits the city.)

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Those two grab the headlines, but there are success stories throughout the side. Captain Giovanni Di Lorenzo has emerged as one of the best right-backs in Europe. Kim hasn’t quite made people ask “Kalidou, who?” but he is filling his big shoes. The midfield trio of Stanislav Lobotka (who didn’t start a single game in his first year at the club, two years ago), Piotr Zielinski (a one-time wunderkind only now harnessing his considerable talent on a consistent basis) and Franck Zambo-Anguissa has emerged as one of the best units around.

And how about keeper Alex Meret? In August, many felt he was too insecure, too green and too nice to marshal a back four. Napoli were reportedly in the market for another keeper, only for Meret to prove the doubters wrong.

Here, a ton of credit must go to the man who assembled this squad: sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli, and the man who makes it tick, coach Luciano Spalletti.

Now 64, Spalletti had a reputation as something of a spiky, misunderstood genius — 15 years ago, at Roma, he pioneered the false nine revival and later become a cult figure, winning titles in Russia at Zenit Saint Petersburg — who could be difficult to deal with. Maybe it’s the wisdom of age, but he scarcely put a foot wrong this season, leading Napoli not just to the title but to a stellar Champions League campaign that saw them win 4-1 over Liverpool and 6-1 at Ajax before exiting in the quarterfinals.

This is planning. This is ingenuity. This is professionalism. And this is pragmatism, too — all things few would associate with the club, but all things critical to this success. And, in fact, that last factor — pragmatism — is emblematic.

For much of the season, the club had been at loggerheads with some of their hardcore “ultras” supporters, who provide much of the tifo on matchdays. The dispute centered around ticket prices, the club’s insistence that banners and flags be approved before entering the stadium and the proposed introduction of a “loyalty card.” These ultras are unhappy with what they consider to be the commercialisation of the club and owner Aurelio De Laurentiis’ desire to make a profit.

This tension came to a head when Napoli hosted Milan in the league last month. During the 4-0 defeat, many ultras refused to sing and support the team, even brawling with other fans who insisted on cheering. It made for an ugly, self-destructive atmosphere that seemed absurd to outsiders, especially coming during the club’s biggest season since the Maradona days. This conflict was also overcome with patience, compromise and mutual understanding, resulting in a sort of truce that enabled the city to celebrate the way it did when the title did come. And this was not something to be taken for granted given the egos and stubbornness on both sides (De Laurentiis and the ultras).

Napoli are one of the success stories of 2022-23. More than that, they show how, sometimes, you can in fact, combine oil and water — that is, irrational passion and rational planning, overwhelming love and cool professionalism — in order to achieve great things.

As for their superstitions? Well, it can’t hurt to have Diego smiling down on you from up high, and maybe even pulling a few strings on your behalf.