Italy’s southern city of Naples erupted in frenzied celebration on Thursday night after football club Napoli won the national championship for the first time since Diego Maradona led the squad to victory in 1990.
In streets festooned with blue-and-white streamers, players’ pictures and banners declaring “Napoli champions of Italy”, Neapolitans rejoiced at the long-awaited comeback of a club that had collapsed financially — and in morale — after Maradona’s 1991 departure, amid allegations against him of drug use and Mafia associations.
“After 33 years, to win the Scudetto [the Serie A league championship] is a form of social redemption,” said Bruno Alcide, whose Al Nilo coffee bar has a shrine to Maradona — with several of the now deceased player’s hairs preserved as a relic.
“We live for football,” Alcide added. “For me, and for all Neapolitans, the first thing we think about when we wake up is not work; we think of the team.
Maradona, who clinched Napoli’s first two Scudetti During his seven years with the club, remains a ubiquitous, revered presence. The Argentine superstar is visible in murals, small altars and souvenir magnets depicting him as a Catholic saint or Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.
But Napoli’s unexpected, stunning performance this year has relied less on individual brilliance and more on a group of heroes. They include Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen, with his distinctive Batman-style face protector, and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. The Georgian sensation was picked up for € 11.5mn last summer when he left Russia after Ukraine was invaded — and his estimated worth is now €85mn.
Life-size cut-outs of the two, along with others depicting the rest of the team and coach Luciano Spalletti, adorn many of Naples’ cobbled streets and piazzas. Fans pose alongside for selfies.
“The other Scudetti were Diego’s, but this is the real Scudetto for Naples and all the team,” said Salvatore Ippolito, 63, a Milan-based communications consultant.
Napoli clinched the championship with a 1-1 draw against Udinese on Thursday evening, with Osimhen scoring the title-clinching equaliser soon after the break. The tie was an away fixture in the far north-east of the country, but fans flocked to Naples ‘Maradona stadium to watch on screens set up around the pitch. Afterwards, fireworks lit up the sky and cheers echoed round the city.
The club’s triumph vindicates its owner, film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis, who bought what was a bankrupt, despondent club in 2004 and patiently shepherded it to the top.
“In Naples, there is an idea that all beautiful things are a miracle, ephemeral,” said Angelo Carotenuto, a veteran sports journalist. “Here, Naples has won with a European footprint — a business plan, a project, organization. Neapolitan improvisation — just one big player and then, bust.”
Italy’s usual Serie A winners — Juventus and the two Milan giants Inter and AC — are beset by heavy debts, bankrupt owners and — for Juventus — allegations of financial foul play. In echoes of Napoli’s efforts to bring Maradona, then football’s biggest star, to the city in the 1980s, Juventus has run into trouble after splashing out on players such as Cristiano Ronaldo.
In contrast, Napoli’s success has been built on careful spotting and cultivation of early or undervalued talent. “Napoli has discovered great talent before the others, let them grow for two or three years and then sold them for €100mn or €120mn,” said Carotenuto. “With that money, they have financed a new team. It was the magic of entrepreneurship and organization.”
Neapolitans’ fierce loyalty to their team stems from a sense of alienation from an Italian state. Many feel Rome has systematically neglected, exploited and humiliated them as their grand, cultured city — capital of an erstwhile kingdom — has decayed.
Napoli fan Delfina Buccioli, 64, said: “We are a population accustomed to suffering — to surviving in whatever manner. Naples doesn’t have enough industry or jobs. Football is everything.”
“The mass of the population loves Napoli no matter what — and supports it in good and bad times,” said Paola Aruta, a Neapolitan marketing professor at Rome’s Luiss University.” It’s a cultural reference point that unifies the city.”
For years, when Napoli played away games in wealthier northern cities such as Milan or Turin, the club was greeted with insulting banners that evoked Naples’ 1973 outbreak of cholera, or just said “Welcome to Italy”.
“Other Italians thought of Naples as the shame of Italy,” recalled Carotenuto.
Maradona’s willingness to come to Naples — though already a brilliant, highly valued player — won him fanatical loyalty. The city’s stadium was renamed after him when he died in 2020, and many of the banners designed for celebration of winning league championships featured his image as A guardian angel floating above the stadium and players.
“His choice to come to Naples..to a town with a poor team..is something we cannot forget,” said Edoardo Cosenza, a Naples city government engineer, who watched the game at the stadium on Thursday. him for all eternity.”
Genny Di Virgilio is the 41-year-old scion of a family of craftsmen that has made figurines for Christmas nativity scenes since 1830. However, he says his sales of Maradona figures have surpassed those of Jesus.
As Napoli’s victory drew closer, he and his 50 co-workers have worked round the clock to produce statuettes of players, anticipating a surge in sales. “It’s a huge, huge, overwhelming emotion,” he said.
For Buccioli, 64, Napoli’s victory was bittersweet and she wept. “I feel joy, nostalgia and love,” she said. “I just wish Maradona was here to see it.”
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi