With one match left, Napoli secured the point they needed to ensure qualification for next season’s Champions League.
The city went wild.
Twenty-one years have passed since Napoli last qualified for Europe’s premier competition, in the glorious reign of King Diego. Since Maradona’s decline and fall, the club has been to hell and back: mismanaged, ripped-off and then driven to near oblivion by administrative decree.
Punishment in Italian football depended for many years on who you were — and who you knew. Napoli were relegated to the third division because of insolvency while other clubs that owed a lot more money were allowed to stay in Serie A. The two Rome clubs in particular who, as it happens, are Napoli’s arch-rivals.
It took Napoli the best part of a decade to recover their position, a decade during which Italian football was disfigured by a far worse scandal than any financial jiggery-pokery.
Juventus were the culprits, and their initial sentence for the calciopoli match-fixing scandal would have ensured at least two seasons out of the top flight. But they manoeuvred and pulled strings and threatened legal action, and on appeal their sentence was subsequently revised twice, allowing the club to escape with one season in Serie B and to re-qualify for Europe the following year.
No offence to Juventus fans, but justice was done on Sunday in that respect as well. Juventus lost 1-0 at Parma, which almost certainly puts them out of next year’s Europa League as well as the Champions League.
This was meant to be their relaunch season, with a member of the Agnelli family again taking charge of the club. Instead they have stumbled.
Fate was definitely involved on Sunday. Parma’s winner came from Sebastian Giovinco, once the jewel of Juve’s youth team but now on loan and seemingly discarded by the club. Giovinco scored twice against Juventus in January as well.
Next Sunday sees the final act in the drama, with Juventus and Roma still in contention for the Europa League place that both could probably do without. For Juventus to qualify, Roma would have to lose at home to Sampdoria (already relegated) while Juventus must beat... Napoli.
Napoli fully deserve their third-place finish. With more depth to the squad they would have pushed Milan hard for the title over the closing weeks of the season.
Aurelio De Laurentiis, the film producer who owns the club, has been more cautious about finance than many of his predecessors. A lot of credit goes to two very capable coaches, first Edy Reja, now at Lazio, and then Walter Mazzarri.
Relations between De Laurentiis and Mazzarri have become strained — said not to be on speaking terms — but then the club, like the city, has a reputation for tremors and eruptions.
Every great Italian side has to have its trio of stars and in their heyday Napoli were based on Maradona — roughly as stable as Vesuvius — supported by Bruno Giordano, and Andrea Carnevale. Italian journalists love their acronyms, so they became known as Ma-Gi-Ca. Later Carnevale was replaced by the Brazilian striker Careca, so they were still magic.
Their three stars now are Hamsik, Cavani and Lavezzi, which doesn’t make as good an acronym, and they are not yet at the same level. But Uruguay striker Cavani has broken club scoring records in his first season: 26 in the league and 33 in total.
He could yet become another of Napoli’s South American heroes, if they can manage to keep him.
Luigi Necco — lifetime fan and retired TV pundit — believes the new team can potentially rival the old, although he says foreign domination doesn’t make him entirely happy: “It’s as if Italy was more like a presence in the team than part of it. And also Napoli need to be equipped like the northern clubs and accept the rule of organisation. Results at present are the fruit of favourable situations like the amazing disappearance of Juventus, Inter’s initial post-Mourinho uncertainty, and Roma changing hands.”
Luigi has learned to be cautious with his criticism though. He once denounced the president of Napoli’s local rivals Avellino for being too friendly with the notorious Camorra boss Raffaele Cutolo. The next day a gang accosted him outside a local restaurant and shot him in the legs.