There’s something different about football in Naples. With its foreboding stadium, its fervent locals, its shrines to days gone by, if you’re an opponent you are a sworn enemy but if you’re a hero you are immortal.
Diego Maradona knew that. He just got the club from the off. He, like Neapolitans, was from a downtrodden background, he was rough and ready, hard-nosed, determined to overcome the odds. And when he signed for Napoli in 1984 he absolutely transformed the club.
The Partenopei were an organisation with a grand total of two major trophies to their name – both of them in the Coppa Italia – in a long, largely frustrating history since their formation in 1905. But Maradona wasn’t simply a footballer, he was a state of mind. An era.
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His successes in the blue shirt are well documented. He led them to two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and a Uefa Cup in an unforgettable seven-year stint in which he delighted supporters with every touch of the ball, but in the decades since his departure it has too often felt like the club, and the city itself, is still living in the age of Maradona rather than moving with the times.
Since Diego left, Napoli have finished bottom of the league with just 14 points, they’ve gone out of business and been relegated to Serie C. They have struggled and they have scrapped and they have clawed. They have returned to prominence and won three Coppe Italia, but in the league they have never quite hit the right notes.
On Sunday night Giovanni Simeone scored an 86th-minute winner in a magnificent game of football against Roma at the Stadio Maradona. If the great man was looking down at the arena renamed in his honour following his death in 2020, he will have had more than a few tears in his eyes. Not just because they won. Not just because they are top of Serie A. But also because this is going to be the year Napoli finally win the Scudetto again.
Having never won the title without Diego in their side, the duck will be broken in 2022-23. They sit 13 points clear of the rest with 18 games to go, with champions AC Milan losing 5-2 at home to Sassuolo at San Siro earlier that day to help to extend the Azzurri’s lead over the chasing pack.
It really is no exaggeration to say that Napoli are in a league of their own. They have dropped just seven points in 20 games this season. They have conceded fewer goals than any other team in the league and have scored eight more than the second most prolific side. They also have so many of this season’s stand-out players it seems unfair.
Victor Osimhen is fast becoming the star name of this team. A dynamic, powerful but also incredibly intelligent striker, his goal on Sunday night – which took him to 14 in 16 league games this term – summed up his genius. After cushioning Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s chipped cross on his chest, the Nigerian took the ball down on his knee and then hammered it into the roof of Rui Patricio’s net before the Roma defenders had even had chance to react.
In a city which considers Maradona its patron saint, and still pays homage to more modern heroes such as Marek Hamsik and Dries Mertens, Osimhen’s achievements with Napoli look set to enter him into folklore. The likes of Kvaratskhelia, Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano and Piotr Zielinski have also become key symbols of the new Napoli.
At a time when Milan and Inter are struggling to keep pace, and even Juventus were off the boil long before their 15-point deduction for apparent false accounting, Luciano Spalletti has built a side which is as expressive and united as it is clinical. In a city which will always get behind a team that delivers performances full of heart and guts, there is also evidence of that sheer brilliance that is so rare.
And they’ve proved it on the European stage too, scoring 20 goals in a group stage campaign which was perfect in both number and style until a dead-rubber loss to Liverpool shortly before the World Cup. Up against Europa League holders Eintracht Frankfurt in the next round, there will be no fear in evidence among the players or fans in Naples given the feel-good factor sweeping through the place.
The atmosphere only grows with every step taken towards a now-inevitable third Scudetto, making the Stadio Maradona an absolute cauldron. It is exactly what Diego himself loved so much during his historic spell with the club, and it is what makes this season so special.
As one-sided title races go, this is an absolute must-watch. The emotion involved makes this altogether different. The history means it is utterly unique. The memories of Maradona will never fade, and will surely only become more significant through the passage of time. But Naples is finally – FINALLY – going to have a glorious present to sit alongside its storybook past. Football yields so few stories like this one.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change