Over thirty years ago in the days before Channel Four popularised Italian Football in this country, a quite remarkable story emerged from the exotic seeming Serie A, one that captured the imagination of this at the time teenaged football obsessive. None other than Diego Armando Maradona, disillusioned after a 2 –year stint at Barcelona characterised by: illness, injury, fallings out with the infamous club president Nunez, reported issues with his off-the-field behaviour and alleged money problems, opted to sign for the relatively unknown S.S.C. Napoli in preference to the world-renowned giants of Italian football, Juventus.
The world record capture of Maradona in the summer of 1984 rumoured to be financed, at least in part, by the dirty millions of the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) sparked a truly astonishing rise to prominence for a club that was up to that point largely ignored, if not derided. The league was historically dominated by the powerhouse, industry-backed clubs of the north, no side from the south of the country had ever won a Scudetto and nine of the previous ten Serie A titles had been shared between just two cities namely: Milan and Turin.
Napoli finished eighth in Maradona’s first season and then third a year later but gradually they were starting to build a team around the maverick superstar. On his return from literally single-handedly dragging Argentina to World Cup victory in Mexico in 1986, he led Napoli to the double. The following season he was joined by another South American star in the form of Brazilian striker Careca and also by Bruno Giordano from Lazio. Together the three formed the famed Ma-Gi-Ca (literally magical) attacking trident, a second Scudetto was secured in 1990 following consecutive second placed finishes as the team established themselves among the elite of Italian football.
It was based on this illustrious history as well as Napoli being the only team capable of mounting any form of credible challenge to Juventus’ current dominance (and of course the reported best pizza in the world!) that Mrs Football Nerd settled upon the historic and eclectic city of Naples as the venue for a birthday present football weekend for this discerning football obsessive.
We spent the evening before our flight watching Arsenal overcome AC Milan in one of the bars of the Sofitel at Gatwick, not it must be understood because we are in any way posh but purely because the entertainment budget in either of the Premier Inns at the airport didn’t seem to stretch to BT Sport. At £76 for a burger, fries and 3 or 4 rounds of drinks I might well have been better off going to the match and getting a taxi to the airport the following morning! We did however ensure that we drank our fill of complementary beer and champagne in the British Airways Lounge before our flight the following day to negate the outlay of the previous evening.
As it was a week before the TV charity fundraiser Sports Relief there were a number of sporting celebrities engaged in jobs around the airport, for us we were ‘treated’ to Gary Lineker playing table football in the games room; Mrs Football Nerd opting to dodge the ‘voluntary’ donation by taking a few clandestine snaps of the former England striker.
Upon arrival In Napoli on Friday evening, the first part of our mission was the acquisition of tickets for the match, which due to Italian restrictions requires you to purchase your ticket while showing a valid ID. Despite rumours to the contrary, namely our cab driver from the airport telling us this was nigh on impossible, the reception manager at our hotel, Vincenzo, assured us that this was completely straightforward and all we needed to do was to head to a bar ten minutes’ walk away with our passports and we would be able to secure our tickets.
As we headed up a dark, secluded stairway and through an underpass surrounded by apartment blocks that resembled those that form the backdrop to the excellent, if somewhat menacingly frighteningly, Neapolitan gangster drama series Gomorra, we hoped we weren’t being sent into Camorra territory. When we arrived, surprisingly unscathed and without having been kidnapped, we saw that the bar had an attached betting shop that doubled up as a purveyor of match tickets. After cracking the language barrier which consisted of me dragging from the darkest recesses of my mind the Italian word for football, calico, we secured two tickets for one of the infamous Curvas for the princely sum of 28 Euros.
Having undertaken this daring deed, we spent the rest of the evening and most of the following two days exploring the city’s old town, which for the most part consisted of stopping in bars (only to avoid the plentiful rain of course!), seeing what tourist rubbish was on sale in the shops and eating what was truly the greatest pizza we have ever sampled. It wouldn’t be massively unkind to say that Napoli isn’t the most picturesque and architecturally beautiful city that we have ever visited but we were here on official football-watching business so it mattered not a jot. Anywhere that boasts a classically storied football team and ground, as well as cheap and plentiful sustenance and refreshment is what we are after.
Sunday evening brought matchday and given the ‘reliability’ of Italian public transport, Vincenzo sagely advised us that the most efficient method of getting to the ground was by taxi. We rocked up to the ground more than an hour and half before kick-off and being English of course ignored the advice on various football travel websites and instead of making our way into the ground to secure a decent spec, headed straight for the nearest bar.
When we eventually did enter the Stadio San Paolo we soon realised that, to paraphrase Carlo Ancelotti’s witty description of Italian traffic regulations, sitting or in fact being anywhere within the vicinity of your allocated seat was ‘merely a suggestion’. We did however manage to secure ourselves a spot right in amongst the ultras in the upper tier standing in what was at one point intended to be a gangway.
While the atmosphere was passionate, vibrant and never wavering in volume, actually being able to see very much of the match itself was tricky as our new friends all stood on their seats and were continually encouraging us to get involved in their choreographed chanting, even if we didn’t understand a word of what we were repeating. Alas attempting to take any photos or videos was greeted with finger wagging to indicate that our hosts preferred to remain anonymous.
With leaders Juventus having dropped two points with an away draw at lowly SPAL the previous evening, a game we had of course watched in a suitable bar, this game offered Napoli the chance to narrow the gap to two points if they could find a victory. Our adopted team did fashion a few good chances throughout the match, Mertens even hitting the pot with a low drive, but had to wait until Albiol’s near post flick on from a corner found its way into the net with less than 20 minutes to go to make the breakthrough. Cue pandemonium all around us.
The goal had pretty much broken the visiting Genoa’s resistance and Napoli were able to see out the game fairly comfortably. To win their first title since the days of Maradona Napoli still need another slip up or two from Juventus, but for now they are still very much in the hunt.
As we rounded off our trip with a Monday spent meandering round the narrow streets of the old town and of course having one final pizza lunch, we reflected on another excellent football trip and something told us that we would be back in this slightly rough and ready city in the not too distant future.