SSC Napoli haven’t won the Serie A title since 1990. They won’t win it this year as well. A spectacular late season collapse, culminating in last week’s 1-0 loss to AS Roma, sounded the death knell for the Partenopei’s title ambitions.
On 30th November, 2015, a majestic brace from Gonzalo Higuain saw Napoli climb to the summit of the Serie A table at the expense of Roberto Mancini’s expensively assembled Inter Milan side. Maurizio Sarri’s troops were unbeaten in 18 matches in all competitions – the longest streak in Europe’s top 5 leagues at that stage of the season. At the same juncture, Italian champions Juventus were tottering in the bottom half of the league table after enduring a miserable start to their Serie A campaign. This was Napoli’s best chance of winning the Scudetto for the first time since 1990.
But they blew it. Four months later, a stunning 3-1 loss to Udinese at the Estadio Friuli in Udine all but ended Napoli’s hopes of reclaiming the Serie A crown after a 26 year wait. A spectacular second half outburst by Higuain earned him the wrath of the Italian Football Federation, which banned him for four matches for pushing and loudly arguing with the referee after being shown the red card. Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri was sent to the stands and handed a one match touchline ban for vociferously protesting against the referee’s decision.
Juventus, on the other hand, went on an astonishing streak – winning 24 of their 25 league matches since late October – to earn their 5th successive league title.
The Northern Conspiracy
El Pipita’s ban would subsequently be reduced to three matches following a successful appeal by Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis. “Napoli will present an appeal against the bans for Gonzalo Higuain and Maurizio Sarri, because we consider them unjust and in any case excessive,” read the club’s official statement. Following Higuain’s sending off against Udinese, De Laurentiis, not for the first time in his Napoli Presidency, went on to accuse the Italian Football Federation of discriminating against the Naples club.
As a way of protesting the Federation’s decision to ban Higuain, De Laurentiis issued a gag order which prohibited Napoli players and staff from speaking to the media. After Higuain’s ban was cut to three matches, the Napoli President accused the Italian Federation of “missing an opportunity to give credibility to the entire system.”
The club hierarchy and the Napoli faithful have often accused the Federation of serving the interests of Italy’s three most successful clubs – AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus. In 2010, Italian senator Antonio Gentile urged De Laurentiis to withdraw the club from Serie A in light of several controversial refereeing decisions going against the Naples club. “This football is in mafia hands,” said Gentile. “De Laurentiis must withdraw the team from the championship.” In 2011, De Laurentiis and former manager Walter Mazzarri launched scathing public attacks against the federation officials and accused them of hatching a “Northern conspiracy” against the club. More recently, Napoli fans were prohibited from attending the club’s title showdown with Juventus in Turin in mid-February.
The accusations leveled by Napoli against the Italian Football Federation, or the Federcalcio, have a historical precedent.
Northern clubs based in Milan (Inter and AC) and Turin (Juventus) have traditionally dominated Italian football for many a decade. Before Maradona arrived at Napoli in the summer of 1984, no team from Italy’s southern mainland had won the Italian title since Serie A’s inception in 1930. The closest Napoli came to winning the coveted Scudetto was in 1968 and 1975, when they finished as runners up to AC Milan and Juventus respectively.
Capital of Italy’s south western Campania province, Naples is notoriously infamous for its crime syndicates. Back in the 1980s, Naples’ most powerful local mafia group, known as the Camorra, controlled several aspects of life in the city. The presence of successive weak local governments since the end of the Second World War helped consolidate the rule of the Camorra in Naples. Incidentally, Naples was also Italy’s most bombed city during the Second World War.
There was a huge economic disparity between Italy’s restive southern region and the more prosperous northern and central regions of the country. According to a report by CityMetric, the average GDP per person in the northern part of the country was 40% higher than it was in the south. Decades of mafia rule in Naples helped create a large economic divide between the rich and the poor in the city.
Diego Maradona – The Son of Naples
While the northerners often blamed the southerners for pulling the country down (economic & social indicators), the Neapolitans despised the folk from the North for not being “Italian enough and lacking culture”. The deep mistrust between the two regions of Italy often spilled on to the football pitch and the stands. Napoli fans travelling to some of the other stadiums in the country were often subjected to vile chants of “Lavatevi, Lavatevi” (wash yourself), “cholera sufferers” and “barefoot children”. It is undeniable that the Naples club, owing to its inglorious past, was always looked down upon by Italy’s football power blocs.
It is in this backdrop that Diego Maradona arrived at the shores of Naples in the summer of 1984. More than 80,000 Napoli fans stacked up in the Stadio Sao Paolo to welcome the most talented football player on the planet. Maradona promised them silverware and two years later, he duly delivered. El Pelusa led Napoli to their maiden Scudetto triumph in the 1986-87 Serie A season. He would eventually go on to win two Serie A titles, one UEFA Cup, one Coppa Italia and one Supercoppa Italiana during his tumultuous yet glorious 7 year stay at the club.
Maradona’s effect on the city of Naples was hardly restricted to the football field. The diminutive Argentine brought about a monumental transformation in the psyche of the average Neapolitan. His messianic aura percolated into their living rooms. He made them rediscover their pride. He inspired them to stand up to the “tyranny of the North”. Watching El Diego weave his magic on the football field would provide the Neapolitans a temporary escape from the travails of their daily lives. Their savior had finally arrived.
Maradona, too, reveled enormously in all the attention he got from the Napoli faithful. Following Napoli’s spectacular Serie A title triumph in 1987, he wrote, “We built Napoli from the bottom. The Scudetto belonged to the whole city, and the people began to realise that there was no reason to be afraid: that it’s not the one with the most money who wins but the one who fights the most, who wants it the most. I was the captain of the ship, I was the flag. They could mess with anyone but not with me. It was that simple. I consider myself a son of Naples.”
It is indisputable that Diego Armando Maradona was single handedly responsible for putting Napoli on the world football map. While Napoli have since failed to recreate the magic of Maradona’s glory days, recent success on the football pitch has cemented the club’s status as one of Italy’s footballing elite. The Partenopei’s arrival in the higher echelons of Italian football is a matter of immense pride for the people of Naples. And any perceived attempt to derail the club’s path to success will be treated by the Neapolitans as a Grand Northern conspiracy.