Legacy of Maradona sustains emblem of Italy’s south through the hard times

You might say that Naples is a city of three volcanoes. Vesuvius looms behind the city and the bay, Campi Flegrei is the super volcano nine miles wide that lurks beneath - and then there is the football club, writes David Shonfield.

Legacy of Maradona sustains emblem of Italy’s south through the hard times

You might say that Naples is a city of three volcanoes. Vesuvius looms behind the city and the bay, Campi Flegrei is the super volcano nine miles wide that lurks beneath - and then there is the football club, writes David Shonfield.

Napoli, as a club, have enjoyed only modest success compared to their great rivals in the north: two titles and their one European trophy, the Uefa Cup, 30 years ago. The city has produced some good footballers, but their best have generally come from outside, and especially from abroad. Their worldwide fame is essentially the legacy of one incomparable star, Diego Maradona, and the team he led to glory.

It was an eruption that changed the football landscape.

History can be a burden as well as an inspiration, but the memory of Diego and his teammates has sustained Napoli through the worst of times, including bankruptcy in 2004, when they were obliged to change their name. The support has always been there, their crowds averaged more than most of those in the top flight even when they were in the third division.

The club has come to be about more than football, it represents the city of Naples, and indeed the south of Italy, in a unique way. Having broken the hierarchy of Italian football, the club became an emblem of the south, even though many southern Italians almost perversely choose to follow Juventus, the club which symbolises the wealth, privilege and arrogance of the north.

Naples the city, and its people, have more in common with Liverpool than you might expect.

Both cities have known great prosperity – and then great hardship. As major ports, both have seen millions depart from Europe for the Americas – four million through Naples, perhaps as many as nine million through Liverpool. Both cities have always been melting pots.

Naples has had an extraordinary range of influences. Originally Greek, when it was named Neapolis, it has been Roman, Norman, French and Spanish. There is an Arab influence as well. Naples is Italian, just as Liverpool is English, but as in Liverpool the culture and the language are a bit different.

You can hear it in the way people talk, and also in the music which is such an important part of Neapolitan life. While scouse is a distinctive accent, with its own vocabulary, the Naples dialect is sufficiently different from Italian, and sufficiently influential, to have been recognised as a second language by UNESCO in 2014. Fittingly, the club anthem is a classic Neapolitan song from 1915 – O surdato nnammurato translates into Il soldato innamorato (The soldier in love) in Italian.

Just as the Merseybeat had an impact on world music in the 1960s, so Neapolitan songs and singers have had a big influence elsewhere. That began 100 years ago and more, but has continued right up to the present day.

Naples, like Liverpool, has a culture to be proud of, but also a “reputation”. Italy is a country divided by history and geography. Naples had an allegiance to the Spanish and the Bourbon monarchy despite periodic rebellions and uprisings. When Italy became a republic Naples was the one big city that voted overwhelmingly for the monarchy. So many in the north came to look down on the south – even though the south provided much of the workforce for Turin and Milan during the boom years.

The city suffered badly after the Second World War, and corruption and organised crime flourished, most notoriously with the camorra, which remains a big threat in Naples and in the Campania region as a whole. Last summer, Italy’s Anti Mafia Directorate produced an updated map of the camorra in and around the city which documented the presence of dozens of clans.

Almost inevitably these clans also have a presence in football. They have their members and sympathisers among the ultras, and there are periodic accusations about attempts to buy the allegiance of players and club staff, including the likes of Paolo Cannavaro and Pepe Reina. Most of these allegations have been dismissed as unfounded or unproven. As Reina said after he came under suspicion for contacts with two criminals: “Anyone who knows me is aware that I have nothing to do with that world; I know a lot of people in Naples and you can’t keep tabs on what 300 friends do in private.”

Allegations of corruption are endemic in Italy, particularly in football, and some of them are just malicious. But Naples and its social problems make the club and its supporters the target for abuse which can go well beyond football banter. Partly for this reason, Italian football has recently adopted new regulations against “territorial discrimination” – terrace chants vilifying a particular club. Most of this abuse is directed against Napoli and their supporters, even extending to games in which Napoli are not involved, such as a recent match between Genoa and Juventus.

That sort of banter and abuse is very familiar to football fans in England, especially travelling fans. So familiar that it’s almost a game — it must be years since a Liverpool fan took offence at “Who nicked my stereo?”.

There is a nastier edge to it in Italy, however, though whether just banning certain chants will have a lasting impact must be open to doubt.

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