Posillipo Nights

Francisco Garcia joins in the celebrations.

I’m a deeply sentimental and nostalgic creature, so Naples was always going to do it for me. It took less than half a day of a week-long solo trip last June for the city to have totally captured my affections. The sentimentality, the light, the baked-in drama to completing the most mundane of everyday tasks: it all seemed too perfect to be true.

That first night, I’d taken myself to the Spanish Quarter without much of a plan. I’d heard about the Maradona mural daubed on a block of flats in the dense, warren-like city centre neighbourhood. The great man, the city’s secular saint, is depicted at the very peak of his powers, clad in a sky-blue Napoli kit, his dense, tousled, jet-black hair caught in an invisible breeze. The mural, one of countless likenesses across the city, was painted in 1990, not long after the second of two unprecedented Serie A titles indebted to his genius.

For many Neapolitans, these half-mythical glories felt a very long way away in the summer of 2022. Over the week, I did what I always try to do in any new city: I drank and did my best to befriend some locals. My ambitions were easily sated. That first night brought me into contact with Georgio, a lifelong season-ticket holder in his early thirties, and his friends at a bar in Vomero, an area as close as the city does to haughtiness. Yes, it was fair, he told me over our beers, to say the club was going to shit. Much of the team’s heart and trusted quality had either been sold off to the Premier League, in Kalidou Koulibaily’s case, or aged to the point of no return, or at least the Turkish Süper Lig and MLS, for Dries Mertens and club captain Lorenzo Insigne, respectively.

As for Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli’s long-time megalomaniac owner, it seemed as if the man was beginning to lose his grip on reality. After a solid third place finish under the tutelage of Luciano Spalletti, a respected if nomadic manager, various stalwarts had been replaced by a cadre of supposedly promising youngsters and Serie A journeymen. No, it wasn’t optimism Georgio or his friends were feeling. Not that it mattered all that much. Supporting Napoli, he told me, wasn’t meant to be easy and certainly never for the faint of heart.

May 3, 2023 saw a bright, blustery afternoon in London. It was quiet when I’d arrived at Da Maria, Notting Hill Gate’s tiny and much beloved Neapolitan trattoria. The restaurant has been here since 1980, when husband and wife Pasquale and Maria Ruocco settled in the city. It was a simple enough idea. Excellent, inexpensive home cooking, good wine and easy conviviality: the kind of humane London institution never quite far enough away from the risk of disappearance. For decades, it has been an anchor for hundreds of Neapolitans in temporary exile, or simply just on holiday, in Britain. When Dries Mertens’s parents dropped by during a visit to London in the mid-2010s, they arrived at Da Maria laden with signed photos and a signed shirt, which still hangs proudly on display.

Over the last decade, they’ve also shown every single Napoli game on TV, accompanied by Pasquale’s and his regulars’ voluble cheerleading. But this was something else: the day before a young, thrillingly dominant side finally returned the league title to Naples for the first time in more than 30 years. Over a coffee at the half-deserted restaurant, 28-year-old Luciano, the youngest Ruocco son, was relieved. ‘It’s been the ongoing wait. We’ve almost got there so many times over the years. We’ve been the Tottenham of Italy,’ he laughed. ‘My dad, my brother, they’ve all seen us win it before, but I was too young. Finally, it’s our time.’

Not even the most passionately deluded fan could have predicted what came next after the 2022 summer of discontent. At a squad presentation event, one fan had even screamed in Spalletti’s face that he had to ‘wake up’. The new signings inspired little confidence. Young Georgian playmaker Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, centre-back Kim Min-jae from Fenerbahçe and support striker Giacomo Raspadori were considered players for the future, not the present. While the rangy Nigerian forward Victor Osimhen had endured a promising first season, his durability in serious question.

Something inexplicable, however, had clicked in pre-season. The league campaign began at a ludicrous pace. In the 17 games between August and the December World Cup, Napoli won 15 and drew just two. This was no lucky streak. Not only were Napoli winning, they were ragdolling teams with a potent brand of high­-octane attacking football. Kvaratskhelia, with his unkempt mop of hair and mesmerising, if idiosyncratic, dribbling; Osimhen, with unerring finishing and canny link-up play; the unflappable Kim at the back: each came as a revelation, alongside their more experienced or previously heralded teammates.

Napoli weren’t entirely unused to flying starts. Post-Maradona decline and a period of yo-yoing between Series A and B culminated in a shameful 2004 bankruptcy, though the club returned to the promised land three years later. The early 2010s saw the arrival of new icons and wilful managers of variable popularity from Walter Mazzarri to Rafa Benitez, the latter even managing to win the 2014 Coppa Italia. But it was the phlegmatic communist banker turned footballing idealogue Maurizio Sarri who came closest to the Scudetto, with the thrilling team that fell at the last hurdle to the despised Juventus in 2017–18, despite hitting the 91-point mark. ‘It has been very frustrating being a Napoli fan these last few years,’ my friend Felia Allum, an ardent, lifelong Napoli fan, offered. ‘Coming so close to winning the title and then losing so publicly… It has almost been a form of public humiliation.’

Yet something about this new title charge felt different, as Allum and others explained. Sure, there were stars. But fundamentally, this was a collective effort. ‘The football they have played has been a real joy. They pass the ball so elegantly. Each player has something special while not necessarily being a superstar. Together they have gelled together and respect each other.’ Her joy has been bittersweet, too. Allum’s father, Percy, one of the most revered historians in the city, died last summer. ‘It has been hard not to be there,’ she told me.

When Napoli lost to Inter Milan in the first post-World Cup game, they responded with an eight-game winning streak, including a 5-0 demolition of Juventus. By March, they had opened up a 15-point lead at the summit over their malfunctioning northern rivals in Turin and Milan. For many, it was an odd feeling. Instead of a nail-biting title race, it had come down to a procession: a matter of when, not if, that wasn’t entirely comfortable for lifelong fans with well developed and entirely justified fatalistic streaks. A couple of months before the title decider, I’d headed to Da Maria to take in a cagey 1-0 loss against Lazio, now led by former Neapolitan hero, Sarri. The restaurant was packed and I’d been late, to the tune of several panicked texts from Luciano. I’d learned a lesson: a seat wasn’t something to be taken flippantly.

If that had been Da Maria at capacity, the night of the title decider was something else again. By the time I’d arrived to take in the title-clinching 1-1 draw with Udinese, the pavement outside was teeming with a crush of hyped-up Neapolitans, ready to party: a corner of west London that had temporarily become a diplomatic outpost of southern Italy. Bemused commuters jostled through a sea of sky-blue shirts and passing cars slower to take in the scene. I asked a series of idiotic questions to the tightly coiled middle-aged man next to me. How did he feel? Like he was going to explode. And did that feel good? Oh yes, it felt good.

Naples is a one-club city and it goes some way to explaining what football means to it. It is often compared to religion, and the depth and fervour of belief probably justifies that comparison. Maradona doesn’t just have murals but shrines, too. The city’s issues have been well-known for decades, if not centuries. Corruption and organised crime are facts of life. Economic prospects are less than in the wealthy northern cities, who often turn their noses up at the chaotic metropolis, which disdains them back with equal measure. Many have to leave for brighter economic prospects, like many of the Neapolitans in London who cluster around Da Maria, carving out a new life, while continuing to dream of home.

This season has been especially tough for them. Mario Gallo arrived in London in 2016, in his fresh-faced early twenties. ‘It’s difficult,’ he told me. ‘It has been so beautiful, but hard. Da Maria feels like Naples, but you are not in the city. You see all the videos and photos from your family and all of their celebrations and wish you could be with them.’ His father had made just one request of him. It didn’t matter about money, but he had to be home for the final game of the season in late May. ‘I put myself in his shoes. He has waited for so long. It’s unbelievable. He asked me to come home so that’s what I’m doing. We will celebrate as soon as we see each other.’ The season was still a blur, he conceded. ‘The north always wins. And this year it is us. We are still dreaming.’

The weekend before the final game had seen a vast celebration organised at Leicester Square. In typical Napoli fashion, they had eventually drawn the home game against lowly Salernitana, when a win would have clinched the league. That didn’t stop Domenico Improta from gathering hundreds of fans to central London for the evening. ‘It started on WhatsApp,’ he said with an air of lingering wonder. ‘In two days, there were over a thousand people in the group.’ Despite the setback, hundreds still attended a good-natured celebration that went on until midnight. Families, diehard fans and the merely curious were out in force. ‘The authorities told us that they had never seen football fans so well-behaved,’ Domenico laughed.

Where does it all go, now the almost unthinkable has happened? And what’s next, once the dreamlike glow has worn off? Neapolitans might be romantic, but they aren’t naive. Persistent rumours have already begun to swirl regarding the futures of this thrilling team’s key players. It is no secret, everyone concedes, that the financially doped vultures of European football are circling. To some, it just doesn’t make any sense. Why be a cog in Manchester City’s state-funded machine when you could remain as a god in Naples?

But not everyone wants the crushing adulation of being another Maradona figure. Individuals come and go, but ‘no one is forever’, is how Mario Gallo put it. ‘Football is all about money. If you give Naples 180 million for Osimhen, then are they going to say no? We are living in strange times.’ And would it ever be possible to match the highs of this historic season? Expectations are different now. Perhaps the Champions League might represent the next mountain to be scaled. But these are matters for the future. It is hard to plan, Gallo said, when you’ve just been crying with joy.

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