Don't We All Want To See Napoli Triumph?

It's dangerous to say that a club or a city deserves success, but Naples is a place that would celebrate a return to greatness like no other. The team's pretty likeable too...

Last Updated: 03/10/12 at 12:09 Post Comment

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The importance of football clubs as social institutions should never be underestimated. These are places of worship, places of comfort, places of sanctuary and places of relief from the nine to five, an escape from the tedium and mundane. We are all addicted to these four statuses at differing levels.

They are, actually, even more than this - acting also as the heartbeat of the local area. Anyone that thinks this a slightly over-inflated statement should have walked through Nottingham on Sunday after derby day defeat. Glum faces, empty pubs, eyes of the public giving away the desires of 'anywhere but here, any time but now'. Go to Newcastle on the evening after a win over Sunderland and you will see the opposite. Unbridled, unmitigated joy, strangers hugging strangers just because we won. Football results have the power to shift the entire mood of a town, particularly in struggling areas where football plays an even more significant role in providing the desired escapism from the working week. Which makes it all the more strange that for SSC Napoli - one of the most passionately supported clubs in Europe - the opposite is the case.

I have seen Naples described as 'vibrant', which is a lovely sentiment - but instead I would opt for 'completely mental'. This is Italy on acid, Italy turned up to 11. Every second of every minute a thousand car horns toot to display happiness, sadness, anger and impatience, and this ear-splitting orchestra is played out on a stage piled high with rubbish and the smell of fish and urine. It is characterised by political and economic corruption, Mafioso links and a thriving black market. And yet, with almost no rhyme or reason, it is glorious and wonderful, its history, beauty and culture emerging enough to merit UNESCO World Heritage status. The locals, who have established an 'us against them' mentality with the rest of Italy, live like every day could be their last, and spending a day there makes you believe that that could easily be the case. This is a truly rollercoaster city, never still, continuously lurching between surges and falls.

So indelible is this mindset that SSC Napoli were powerless than to do anything but follow the blueprint. Rather than the town reflecting the club, this is a club reflecting the town. Match-day at the Stadio San Paolo, a 60,000 capacity bowl of a stadium, is an assault on multiple senses, symbolic of the madhouse into which you have been immersed. You couldn't be anywhere else but Naples, and Napoli have experienced associated heartache and glory made inevitable by such a location.

The club certainly doesn't do things by halves. The largest recent failure in English football is that of Leeds, who dropped from a third-place Premier League finish and a Champions League semi-final to League One in seven years. Napoli won the Serie A title in 1987 and 1990, adding the UEFA Cup in 1989 while utilising the brilliance of the world's best player. Just eight years later they were relegated, registering two wins all season. Within another six years they had regained promotion, been relegated again and then gone completely bankrupt, forced to start again under a new name after amassing €70m debts. Their highs are higher and their lows lower. Crazy town, crazy club.

In a city that just loves to be different, it is wonderfully apt that Napoli suffered their decline between 1992 and 2005, just as Italian football was booming. During these 14 years, Italy was represented ten times in Champions League finals, more than any other country. Fast-forward to 2012 and vice versa is in action.

Italian football is at an incredibly low ebb. Clubs suffered a net loss of €428million last year, the debt of Serie A alone standing at €2.6billion. Stadiums last season were only 56% full on average, despite ticket prices being less than half that of England. Here we mourn when a club suffers a point deduction for economic problems, but in Italy this has reached an almost comical level. Between Serie A and Serie C2/B, 23 clubs have received points deductions for this season and in Serie B, ten of the 22 teams are playing with points penalties suffered due to financial irregularities.

It should come as no surprise by now that despite all of this, Napoli are flourishing. After regaining their Serie A place in 2006/7, the club have since gained three consecutive top-six finishes, knocked Manchester City out of the Champions League last season, and won their first silverware in over 20 years by inflicting rivals Juventus' only domestic defeat of the season by winning the Coppa Italia in May. This season, Napoli sit level on points at the top of the table with Juve, having taken 16 points from their first six games and won their first Europa League group game 4-0. There are genuine thoughts within the Stadio San Paolo that the Azzurri could challenge for the Scudetto.

Every club founded on notable passion needs heroes. Liverpool have Paisley and Shankly and Celtic worship Maley, Stein and Larsson. For Napoli, much of the praise is reserved for owner Aurentio de Laurentiis. Having taken over in 2004 after the bankruptcy, de Laurentiis funded the club through their rise back to Serie A, changing the name back to the original Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli at the earliest possible opportunity. In Italy, such things are of crucial significance.

But perhaps the owner's greatest masterstroke was his appointment of manager Walter Mazzarri after the departure of Roberto Donadoni in 2009. He has transformed the fortunes of the Neapolitan club.

Shifting Napoli's formation to a 3-5-2, Mazzarri has allowed his side to play with an expansive freedom that makes them one of the teams to watch in European football. Wing-backs Christian Maggio and Juan Camilo Zuniga offer the natural width, whilst Gokhan Inler and much-improved former West Ham midfielder Valon Behrami or Blerim Dzemaili provide solidity in the centre of midfield. Despite often only starting with three recognised defenders, Napoli have conceded just two goals in six league games this season. The attacking holy trinity of Marek Hamsik, Goran Pandev and Edinson Cavani needs little else said - and if it doesn't make you salivate I simply can't help you - but Cavani deserves significant praise for his return of 73 goals in 103 games since joining from Palermo.

The retention of Hamsik despite interest from some of Europe's largest clubs has been crucial (particularly after last year's departure of Lavezzi to PSG), but it is a testement to Mazzarri's masterplan that the Slovakian international wanted to stay. With a squad containing 18 internationals and an adoring fanbase, there isn't much to dislike.

It is extremely dangerous to state that a club 'deserves' success, because actually, in football, you generally reap what you sow, but you would struggle to find a city and set of supporters that would celebrate a first league title since Maradona like the Neapolitans (sales of replacement car horns would certainly multiply), and there currently seems no ceiling to Napoli's potential.

Some may grow weary of being a rollercoaster club in a rollercoaster city, oblivious to where the next sudden lurch lies. But whilst the fortunes of one may be linked to the culture of the other, for most Napoli fans, simply enjoying the ride is enough.

Daniel Storey - you can chat to him on Twitter

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