El Pibe de Oro
Few players have captivated a city quite like Diego Maradona. Francesco Totti is adored in Rome, and Maldini in Milan, but the unique politics surrounding Napoli, and Maradona’s swagger, made it a match made in heaven for the two. Napoli have often been the anti-establishment team, being one of three teams in Serie A that reside south of Rome. During Mussolini’s reign in Italy, it was the Neapolitans that often rebelled, and speaking of rebellion, there was no one that rebelled quite like Diego Maradona.
Rumours and investigations regarding Maradona’s drug use had been intensifying during the 1990/91 season due to a tip off from ‘a shadowy figure in the Neapolitan underworld’, named Piero Pugliese. On Sunday 17th March, 1991, Napoli defeated Bari 1-0, thanks to a goal from Gianfranco Zola, but it all seemed a bit irrelevant.
Napoli’s chief medical officer, Arcangelo Pepe, approached Maradona after the game and told him he had been selected for testing. The result was going to be obvious. The scene of Maradona’s demise would be in Genoa, one week later, as Sampdoria beat Napoli 4-1, the news broke that Maradona had failed last week’s drug test. With the Italian authorities closing in on Maradona and Neapolitans feeling betrayed by El Diego, it was time for him to depart.
As the sun was rising on Sunday 1st April, 1991, surrounded by a close knit of Argentine friends and family, the man who had brought two Scudetti to Naples departed in a small jet, definitely not fit for a King, never to visit his kingdom again.
Perhaps on that faithful Sunday Neapolitans were too harsh, for they could have not known Maradona would never return to Naples due to cases of tax evasion mounting up against him. But the obsession with El Diego is arguably stronger than ever, banners can be found at the Sao Paolo stadium on matchdays and even a walk down a Neapolitan street can uncover the odd Maradona flag or banner, draped from a balcony.
So when Napoli defied everyone’s expectations and signed Gonzalo Higuain from Real Madrid, the comparisons began straight away. Napoli were re-investing money generated by the sales of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani to mount a title challenge and Higuain was prized away from the clutches of some of Europe’s giants. It was assumed that Napoli had peaked with their second place finish in 2012-2013, as their 29 nine goal striker Cavani was snapped up by PSG.
As soon as Higuain arrived, the pressure was there to emulate Maradona, even coming from the man himself.
“I hope the Neapolitans, who are always in my heart, can finally celebrate and be champions again with a team that represents them and the city in the world, just as it did during my golden years.
“Therefore I wish dear Higuain, Napoli and all my Neapolitans the very best of luck.”
I think it’s hard to quantify just how much Argentinians and Neapolitans alike are in awe of Diego Maradona. But just like every Argentinian growing up, El Pipita idolised the two time World Cup winner. And very few Argentinians become as good as Higuain and he’s arguably the first (Lavezzi was unrealistic) that can directly emulate Maradona’s achievements in Naples.
Am I too much of a humanitarian? Do I just believe that everybody is full of goodness and people disregard money? Perhaps. But I think it’s hard to explain just how much Maradona means to the people he represented, especially to western countries.
The financial side
In recent years, Italian football has become synonymous with having a poor financial state. As it has done for most of their history, this doesn’t apply to Juventus. But it hasn’t really applied to Napoli either.
Since Aurelio De Laurentiis saved Napoli from bankruptcy in 2004, the club’s first priority has been financial stability. The club has operated at a profit for eight years, until this year when the club chalked up a €13m operating loss. Benitez’s failure to finish in the Champions League squad meant the club missed out €50 million-plus in revenues by not competing in Europe’s top competition. It’s safe to say this is a financial year that can be ignored.
While ADL has always maintained that financial security is a priority. The hopes of a Scudetto can distort reality, just like dreams distort our own realities.
Say a €70m offer comes in for Higuain. That’s a huge sum for a soon to be 29 year old and we especially don’t see such figures thrown around in Italy. But the plan has always been eventually delivering a long overdue Scudetto to the city of Naples, and the only realistic chance Napoli have of overthrowing Juventus is their Argentine striker.
This is why I think that even if a huge bid came in for Higuain, De Laurentiis would decline it. As Fabio Capello once said a Scudetto in a city like Rome or Naples is worth ten titles in Turin or Milan. You never know when you’ll reach this close to the top of the mountain again, so you have to go all out.
Not to mention the ADL’s stance has always been if someone wants Higuain, they’ll pay the €90m release clause, as Napoli have no reason to sell. So this all does add up.
When will this moment come again?
This is building on the previous section, but Napoli have essentially been rebuilding since the 1990’s, in a post-Maradona era. The city has still been football obsessed but haven’t been given a team worthy of their support. But finally they’ve arrived!
Perhaps it’s a defensive mechanism within humans to assume that we’ll always be on top, that we can’t possibly sink below where we currently are. But we do, and sports are no different. Sports especially go in cycles, nobody stays on top and everybody has to rebuild/reload eventually.
So why would Napoli be trying to constantly reload when they’re so close to a Scudetto? It doesn’t make sense. This Napoli side is absurdly good and it’s tough to see where €70m would even be re-invested. Napoli would struggle to attract a striker close to the calibre of El Pipita, not to mention they’re scarcely available.
The Argentine has made no secret that he was unsure about his future at the club, but Sarri soon re-assured him that this was the club for him. “I am happy I decided to stay. Sarri has given me a peace of mind.”
Sarri completely revolutionised Higuain’s eating habits and diet, telling him they first met “You’re too lazy. If you don’t change your attitude, you won’t become the best centre forward in the world.” A very direct first meeting, it was a boom or bust tactic, in retrospect. Higuain could’ve shied away from being pushed that extra mile, instead, he was impressed that the Italian was so forward and committed.
The numbers argue that Napoli were the best team in Serie A this season. They had the best shots on target differential by some margin (27 ahead of Juventus), the best expected goals in the league, the second best expected goals against record (four behind Juve’s incredible defence!) and thus the best expected goal difference. They created the most shots from counters and possessions. They were the best team in Italy and if not for Simone Zaza smashing their psyche, we might be having different conversations.
This is only Sarri’s first year, and there’s nothing to show Napoli won’t be even better next year. Lorenzo Tonelli looks to be coming in, who is miles better than Raul Albiol and Napoli aren’t exactly that weak in other areas. This team is insanely deep.
So there’s a number of factors, some sentimental, some practical. But then again, this is my personal interpretation. Perhaps you spoke to Higuain’s mother’s aunt’s friend’s boyfriend, who said that Higuain wants to go to Chelsea. Who knows?
What I do know that if Higuain stays, the 2016/17 Scudetto race will be something rather incredible. And perhaps even fans of the Bianconeri will be hoping for yet another Scudetto race to make things interesting. Competition is insanely healthy for the league.