Part II: Where does Italy stand now since being ravaged by Calciopoli Scandal?
Now here’s a real fairytale. This club was declared bankrupt back in 2004 and was sent down to the third division. Last season they knocked Manchester City out of the Champions League. At the time of writing they’re the only team in Italy capable of catching Antonio Conte and co. Going into Round 25, Napoli are five points adrift in second, with Juventus yet to visit the cauldron that is the San Paolo stadium in Naples.
When Diego Maradona, whose place in the city’s collective memory borders on the religious, was asked what struck him hardest about his time in Naples, he didn’t mention any of the platitudes that ex-players generally spout in these situations. What he recalled was the overwhelming desire of the entire city to beat Juventus.
Napoli-Juventus, for those who don’t know, rivals Real-Barcelona, or Boca Juniors-River Plate, or Celtic-Rangers. It’s north against south, the mountains against the sea, aristocracy against underdogs, industry against poetry. The league may look like a two horse race but when Juve come to town on the first of March, it’ll be more like a pit bull fight.
After Ezequiel Lavezzi left for Paris and a mountain of money in the summer, many (this column included) thought the team would struggle. Instead Walter Mazzarri’s men have marched on and in Edinson Cavani, they have possibly the best out and out goal scorer in the world. Unlike Messi or Ronaldo, his goal is purely goals. Marek Hamsik has been at the club since 2007 and just gets better every season. The three Swiss guards of Gokhan Inler, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili offer bite and guile in the middle. Lorenzo Insigne is an exciting talent while Goran Pandev provides the ‘been there, done that and won it too’ element to a squad that’s rich on talent but less so on silverware.
The club’s last league win was with Maradona in his prime and that’s a long time ago. The fact that Napoli are mixing it with the northern giants is something of a miracle in itself. Wins over Villareal and Manchester City in last season’s Champions League show that this team is no one hit wonder. Then again, letting Chelsea overturn a 3-1 lead showed the distance left to travel.
Fittingly enough though for a city as chaotic as Naples, trouble may well come from an unexpected quarter. Walter Mazzarri is something of a rarity in Serie A as the tactician from Tuscany has never been sacked. His contract with Napoli runs out in the summer and amazingly enough, given the team’s current form and future potential, he’s stalling on a new one. It’s not clear what effect, if any, this may have on the team, but should cracks appear, it may become an issue.
Napoli have exceeded all expectations but the question is whether they can continue to do so. Second place is theirs to lose but it’s a sign of expectations earned that not many of the teams fans would take it if it was offered.
This is the Part II of our series where we throw light on the best known clubs from Italy. In the next part, we’ll look at where Inter stand years after the 2006 Calciopoli scandal rocked the sporting world.