Mark BiramComment


Mark BiramComment

A club for the people and once home to *him*...

One of the deepest convictions held across all levels of Italian society is that there is an unbridgeable gap between the industrial North and the rural South of the country.

Since the unification period in the 1860s little has been done to redress a chronic economic imbalance between the two regions. The South’s geographical isolation, antiquated infrastructure and resultant high unemployment rate has allowed organised crime to thrive, and a negative stereotypical image of the region to endure. Meanwhile impressive economic progress in the latter half of the twentieth century in the Northern Industrial Triangle (Milan, Genoa and Turin) has further widened the economic gulf between the two regions.

A consequence of this has been that generations of Southern Italians have been forced to look for opportunities elsewhere: ranging from migration to the North Italy, to far beyond, creating an immense Southern Italian diaspora across the world, most notably in Brazil, Argentina and the United States.

The enmity between North and South has intensified in recent years with incendiary rhetoric from the North painting the South as an economically dependent liability. This divisive narrative has found its way into the political mainstream in the form of Umberto Bossi’s federalist Lega Nord, whose aim is to gain greater regional autonomy (or maybe even outright independence) for the North of Italy. The South, inevitably feels slurred, shunned and increasingly disenfranchised from the rest of the country.

The Lega Nord endorsed phenomenon of referring to Southerners as ‘terroni’ has its roots in the agrarian history of the South. Outrageously, with political incorrectness becoming an institutionalised part of Italian life, it has recently morphed into an even more malicious catch-all term for the downtrodden underclass, including non-Caucasian immigrants.

The economic gulf between Italy’s North and South is clearly reflected in the sporting arena which most stirs Italian hearts, Il Calcio. Teams from the Industrial Triangle alone (Juve, Torino, Inter, Milan, Genoa and Sampdoria) have scooped 81 out of 108 Scudettos between them. The rest have been divided between the capital Rome (Lazio three times and Roma twice), Piedmont (Pro Vercelli on seven occasions, Casale once and Novese once) and highly developed areas like Emilia Romagna (Bologna seven times) and Tuscany (Fiorentina twice).

The title has only left the mainland once, unexpectedly going to surprise Cagliari in 1969-70, and has only twice been won by a team from the impoverished South – on both occasions (divinely, if you believe the locals) inspired by a diminutive Argentine who, for better or worse, personifies his adopted home perfectly.

Despite the stark social divide and antagonism between North and South, if you visit almost any town or city in the Mezzogiorno, you will most likely see a good number of Juve, Milan or Inter shirts. Such is the weight of a century’s footballing failure for the South, defeatism has become deeply entrenched and the notion of resisting the all-conquering juggernauts of the North has long since been viewed as a romantic absurdity in the South of Italy.

One city where supporting the giants of the North remains anathema, however, is Naples. Italy’s third largest city has always been at odds with the rest of the country. Naples was the strongest support base for Vittorio Emanuele III in the  in the 1946 plebiscite which resulted in Italy’s monarchy being dissolved to make way for a Republic. The city enjoyed strong support from the Naples born monarch, who historically favoured the city.

More recently, Roberto Saviano’s graphic account of the Neapolitan crime fraternity in Gomorra gave us a strong sense of the city’s lawlessness and disconnect with the rest of Italy.

For much of their history, despite a considerable fanbase, Napoli fans had to content themselves with two Coppa Italia triumphs and a solitary triumph in the obscure Coppa delle Alpi. The rise to prominence of the South’s most emblematic football club only really began when Diego Maradona arrived in Naples at a then world record transfer fee of £6.9 million (or 13,500,000,000 lira). Maradona had struggled to settle at Barcelona for reasons ranging from victimisation on the pitch (see Andoni ‘the butcher’ Goikoetxea's infamous assault here) to his worsening relations with club president Josep Lluís Núñez.

His arrival in Naples was made possible by Corrado Ferlaino and the political manouvreing of Vincenzo Scoti (who secured the club an extremely competitive bank loan) in order to broker the transfer that rocked the football world. Maradona, from a downtrodden underclass family in his native Argentina (a country with a fair proportion of Southern Italian immigrants) quickly identified with the Neapolitans, and they immediately took to him. A love affair like no other in Italian Football ensued as Maradona’s genius led Napoli to two well deserved scudettos defeating a Platini led Juventus in Turin and on the second occasion coming out on top against the mighty Milan of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard.

Maradona immediately bought into the underdog narrative, fiercely defending the Neapolitans at every opportunity. This came to a head at Italia 90 when Italy faced Argentina in Naples for the Semi Final: It disgusts me that now ‘they’ ask the Neapolitans to be Italians and implore them to support the national team. Naples has always been marginalised by the rest of Italy. ‘They’ have always subjected the people of Naples to the worst racism imaginable’ (‘Me disgusta que ahora todos les pidan a los napolitanos que sean italianos y que alienten a la Selección... Nápoles ha sido marginada por el resto de Italia. La han condenado al racismo más injusto’)

Maradona’s mischievous and rather blatant divide-and-conquer attempt touched a raw nerve, as everybody knew there was more than an element of truth in it. The Naples public chose the middle ground, waving Italian flags to make it clear they were supporting their homeland, but also applauding the Argentine national anthem from start to finish (for the first and only time in the tournament). In the first phase the Argentines had been booed mercilessly in the San Siro opener against Cameroon, triggering Maradona to acerbically observe after a 0-1 reverse that ‘the only pleasure was to know that thanks to me the Milanese stopped being racist and cheered on the Africans’ (‘El único placer fue descubrir que, gracias a mí, los italianos de Milán dejaron de ser racistas: hoy, por primera vez, apoyaron a los africanos’). Maradona needn’t have bothered fanning the flames of North-South resentment. The wedge between North and South was already big enough.

When Napoli visited away grounds like Verona (a club with a fair right-wing following) in the 80s heyday, they were greeted with signs welcoming them to Italy (Benvenuti in Italia) and were taunted by a sick banner wishing for the Southern city to be wiped off the map: ‘Vesuvio facci sognare’ (Vesuvius makes us dream).

As John Foot recalls in his outstanding history of the Italian game ‘Calcio: A History of Italian Football’, such was the elation in Naples when Maradona and co finally won Serie A, the local people embarked on a week-long carnivalesque celebration which featured mock funerals for their rivals Juventus and Milan. These funerals included coffin-burning and death notices complete with the date of ‘May 1987 – The other Italy has been defeated’. For so long used to being called donkeys and much worse by their Northern neighbours, they now dressed as one, dragging Lombard and Tuscan devils by their tails through the gutters of the city.

The combination of the delirium of winning their first ever Scudetto and the release of age-old resentment felt by putting one over on their brash, superior Northern rivals gave rise to incredible scenes that live long in the memory of Napoli fans.

The figurative ‘last rites’ for Northern Italian football were followed 12 months later, by the resumption of normal service as Milan ground out the title after whittling away a seemingly unassailable Napoli lead. Napoli would, of course, prove that their scudetto was no fluke by repeating the feat, but the funeral for Northern Italian football was never going to be anything other than fanatical spare of the moment wishful-thinking on the part of the Neapolitans.

A lazy and rather absurd theory that is often posited in football circles is that Maradona was so good he won Serie A and the World Cup single-handedly. As entertaining a notion as it is, it doesn’t stand up to serious analysis. Integral though he was, The Napoli Scudetto winning side of 1986-87 had the joint-second best defence, conceding a miserly 21 goals on the way to the title. As good as Diego was, I think we can safely assume that stalwart defender Giuseppe Bruscoletti, a young Ciro Ferrara, Moreno Ferrario and Alessandro Renica had something to do with it too. Andrea Carnavale and Bruno Giordano provided the perfect foil for Maradona in the first scudetto team, with the arrival of Brazilian Careca, to form the Ma-Gi-Ca (Magic) strike force proving instrumental in later seasons.

From the moment Maradona tested positive for cocaine in 1991 (and was banned for 15 months) onwards, the club has faced innumerable trials and tribulations, from the ignominy of relegation to Serie B to being declared bankrupt and re-forming under a new name in August 2004.

Recent years, happily, have seen an incredible upturn in form, with two more River Plate region South Americans playing an influential role. The front three of Cavani, Lavezzi and Slovakian Marek Hamsik have made Napoli, arguably, the most exciting team to watch in Italy over the past couple of seasons. Defensive frailties, on the other hand, particularly from set pieces, were their undoing in the Champions League this season (not to mention Chelsea's saviour). Inevitably given their form, transfer talk is rife, particularly for Cavani, who would be extremely difficult to replace for any team.

Whatever happens on the pitch, the mass of support for the Partenopei will certainly not dwindle, as Napoli will always be a club which attracts strong support among Southern Italians, representing a vehicle of resistance to their snooty, superior Northern neighbours. It will always be the club that caused the most elaborate funeral for a geographical region known to man, and the club where arguably the World's Greatest Ever Player (sorry Lionel) played his best football.

It could be argued that the passion generated by Napoli's first Scudetto far exceeded that which is healthy, but given the historical antecedents and what Napoli means to the region who would deny the Neapolitans their week of mock-funeral excess, and who would rule out a repeat performance in the near future?

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