I get a lift to five-a-side football on a Monday night with two Italian guys called Francesco and Mariano.
They’re both from Naples but they didn’t know each other before they came to Ireland. They met in the way most men of our age seem to acquire new friends: Through their wives, who themselves met serendipitously at a baby group.
I like talking about football to Francesco and Mariano because they are both Napoli fans, meaning we have a shared hero in Diego Maradona, which in turn means we have an appreciation for the dark and complicated nature of humanity.
Also, unlike most Irish football fans, Francesco and Mariano are from the same place as the club they support, so you get that sense of street-level authenticity to their talk that you can’t get from watching The Debate on Sky Sports News.
This talk mainly involves complaining about how corrupt Juventus are using Italian swear words I can’t understand, again something you don’t usually get on Sky Sports News.
Francesco and Mariano also talk about Maurizio Sarri a lot, even though he left their beloved hometown club to become Chelsea manager this summer.
Sarri has taken the Premier League by storm in the opening weeks of this season, with his attractive and exciting brand of football captivating fans, pundits, and Chelsea’s notoriously mercurial squad alike.
Francesco and Mariano have seen it all before, of course. Sarri took them on a magical three-season adventure with Napoli, with their swashbuckling style of play so distinctive that the term ‘Sarrismo’, also known as ‘Sarriball’, got its own entry in the Italian encyclopedia.
But Francesco and Mariano exchange knowing looks in the front of the car when they’re talking about Sarri, looks that suggest they think all this will end in tears.
The peak of Napoli’s version of Sarriball came last season, when they seemed to be hurtling towards their first Serie A title in 28 years. Francesco made me promise to wear a Napoli shirt on Ireland AM if they did. They won 10 league games in a row. They led the league for 21 of the first 26 weeks. They were like a runaway train. But we all know what happened to the runaway train.
For Francesco and Mariano last season ended like all seasons do, with Juventus winning and more dark muttering about cheating and corruption. But they also talk about the downside of Sarriball, the fact that there is no Plan B and that he refused to rotate and rest the players, demanding they go full pelt, helter-skelter, until the wheels came off.
“He kill the players!” exclaims Mariano, which sounds extra meaty when said by a Neapolitan.
I ask Francesco and Mariano if they would rather finish second playing the football they did under Sarri, or win the title playing like a Jose Mourinho team? This is where they differ.
“The first one,” says Francesco. I think he is the more romantic of the pair. On the pitch he likes to pass and move, whereas Mariano sits deep and man-marks.
It’s Italian football’s innate dichotomy, Baggio and Baresi, except surrounded by overweight, middle-aged Irishmen.
Another of the reasons why I like talking about football with Francesco and Mariano is because, like most Europeans, they are happy to view sport on an intellectual level, as reflecting and informing life, rather than as merely a tool for banter or slagging.
Mariano is an architect, and in response to my question goes off on a metaphor about how tactics are like designing a building, you can come up with whatever elaborate, self-indulgent plan you want, but ultimately it has to not collapse into a pile of bricks and dust.
Remembering something I once heard on n Room To Improve, I say “Is that the architectural idea that form follows function?”
Mariano’s reply is far less pretentious. “Everything must have a purpose,” he gravely states, before running off to grapple people at corners.
Francesco and Mariano, with their opposing perspectives on Sarriball, offer insight into questions at the very heart of what defines sport. Which, frankly, is not bad going for a 10-minute drive in a family hatchback. What is the purpose of it all?
Napoli hired Carlo Ancelotti to try put struts and foundations under Sarri’s grandiose baroque folly, but last weekend they lost to Juventus anyway.
Manchester United hired Mourinho to win things while the club got on with the important business of generating sponsorship deals and social media engagements, but now nobody at Old Trafford seems to remember what the purpose of anything is any more.
If Francesco and Mariano are right, then Sarri might find himself having a similar conversation in whatever high-security Swiss bunker Roman Abramovich lives in now, maybe sometime next summer.
This will be after Eden Hazard has spontaneously combusted with four games left to go in the Premier League season, leaving Chelsea agonisingly short of winning the title despite scoring 478 goals.
Sarriball is the kind of football that it has always been thought Abramovich wanted to see Chelsea play, but given that he has frequently employed sour-faced pragmatists such as Mourinho and Antonio Conte, it’s unlikely the Russian feels any greater purpose other than satisfying the grim bloodlust that regularly firing managers achieves.
So Francesco and Mariano might be right, all this will end in tears, but at least they will still be talking about Sarriball long after he’s gone.
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