Cultured Lavezzi a new hero in Naples

“It’s like a final,” said Juan Mata yesterday of Chelsea’s match against Napoli.

It is a big match for English football too, with the Premier League threatened by total eclipse in Europe at the hands of unfancied clubs. For Napoli, and for Ezequiel Lavezzi in particular, it is the chance of a new dawn.

For years, Napoli have been sustained, but also burdened, by the memory of Maradona. Naples is like a South American colony for footballers, above all from Argentina. There have been 22 in all, mostly average players, several of them complete flops.

Lavezzi is the first to evoke genuine memories of the great man and success has not come easily.

He originally tried to move to Italy 10 years ago, when he was just 16, but had problems with his passport. He signed for Genoa from San Lorenzo in 2004 — by luck he says, as the scout came to look at someone else — and was promptly loaned back for the season. One year later, Genoa were demoted two divisions after being found guilty of bribery to secure promotion and Lavezzi ended up back home again.

When he finally did make it to Naples in 2007, he was an instant hit, but his private life suffered. He broke up with his wife Debora who returned to Argentina with their young son Tomas. He sees the boy three times a year, which is a closer relationship than with his own father, who left home when Lavezzi was just two and who he says has never been to a game to see him play.

Life in the limelight has brought its problems. Last September he was interviewed by magistrates investigating money-laundering. In November his girlfriend Yanina Screpante, also from Argentina, was robbed at gunpoint, the latest in a series of assaults on prominent players and their families, including the other members of Napoli’s attacking trio Marek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani.

Criminals in Naples do not usually target players — as Lavezzi says, “most of them are fans” — and some people have speculated the Camorra are trying to put pressure on the club, just as they did in Maradona’s day.

In an interview last week, Lavezzi revealed that life in a gilded cage is getting him down. When he arrived in Naples five years ago, even the manager Edy Reja didn’t recognise him. Now he can’t go into town without being mobbed.

He is renting a seaside villa owned by film director Pappi Corsicato, an associate of Napoli owner Aurelio de Laurentiis, but says he can’t use the private beach or even look out of the window because of fans demanding an autograph or a shirt or a photo.

He still frequents the Teatro Posillipo, the elegant cinema and nightclub down the road that was also Maradona’s haunt, but says he can no longer enjoy it. “If I stay 20 minutes, people will say it was two hours. If I have a beer they’ll say I drank 10. If I return home at 1am, they’ll say I was out until 4.”

The goals Lavezzi scored against Chelsea in the first leg have ensured his star status. On the whitewashed walls of his villa you can read declarations of love and faith and pleas for him to stay, almost like the prayers for the sick that are written on the walls of the churches.

Maradona too had a white villa in Posillipo and even 20 years later it remains a place of pilgrimage.

He literally fled Naples after a series of scandals about drugs, his private life and his friendship with Camorra boss Carmine Giuliano. Lavezzi’s life is quite different. He funds a refuge and rehabilitation centre for abused children run by his brother in their home town of Villa Gobernador Galvez.

But inevitably there is speculation that he will move. Liverpool has been mentioned along with Manchester City. Judging by a recent interview, his favoured destinations are likely to be Barcelona or Paris.

“I’ve lived five years in Italy and it has helped me grow from every point of view. Culturally for example. That’s what I want, more than a great career or earning lots of money. Money helps, but the most important and most difficult thing to obtain in life is to rise up the social scale. That’s what interests me. Football is not the most important thing in my life. It’s useful because it makes my life better.”

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