SSC Napoli shakes up Serie A and Champions League: Even Diego Maradona would be proud

In the summer, SSC Napoli lost a number of key players. Their replacements were predominantly “no names,” whereupon the tifosi at the foot of Mount Vesuvius went on the barricades. But in a short time, coach Luciano Spalletti has formed a team that finally has Napoli dreaming of major titles again. The focus is on a 21-year-old who is already being compared to the city’s saint.

Luciano Spalletti has been working as a coach in professional soccer for almost 30 years and should have earned enough money in that time. Starting in 2009, he spent five years at Zenit St. Petersburg, at a time when Russian oligarchs were pumping enormous sums into their clubs.
Nevertheless, Spalletti has never led a life of luxury. “I don’t care about money. Having it is reassuring. But what am I supposed to do with ten cars in the garage? I can only ever drive one anyway,” he once said.

Spalletti’s pride and joy is a Fiat Panda, or more precisely, was. It was stolen in October 2021. A day later, a banner hung at SSC Napoli’s training ground reading, “We’ll give you your car back when you leave the club.” A perfidious plan by some Napoli tifosi to get rid of the unloved coach.

Spalletti, known in Italy for his sense of humor, went along with the game. If he gets his car back, he will first check how many kilometers the thieves have driven with it and whether his CD collection of the musician Pino Daniele is still complete.

Resounding victories against Ajax Amsterdam and Liverpool FC

However, that was not the case. The Fiat Panda never turned up again. But Spalletti is still Napoli’s coach and has been amazingly successful this year. The light blue team leads the Serie A unbeaten and in the Champions League, they are banging their way through the high-caliber group with Ajax Amsterdam, Liverpool and Glasgow Rangers.

In four group games, Napoli scored 17 goals – more than any other Italian team ever before. 6:1 and 4:2 against Ajax, 4:1 against Liverpool – even the coach gets woozy.
“On nights like this, you get carried away by the atmosphere. At some point I got dizzy and thought I was seeing stars circling around my head,” said Spalletti after his team’s six-pack in Amsterdam.

Four key players left the club in the summer: Goalkeeper David Ospina, defender Kalidou Koulibaly, midfielder Fabián Ruiz and offensive weapon Lorenzo Insigne. While this flushed money into the empty coffers, it caused the fans to go to the barricades (again). Club president Aurelio De Laurentiis was even visited at his villa on the vacation island of Capri and mobbed.

The new star is Khvicha Kvaratskhelia

But Napoli landed several bull’s-eyes on the transfer market with players who had previously received little or no attention in Europe. For Koulibaly, the South Korean Kim Min-Jae (25) was brought from Fenerbahce Istanbul. “Kim had a very difficult job when he came here. Koulibaly was perhaps the best defender in Serie A,” said Giulio Martina of Eurosport Italy. “Kim has taken his place in the defense and plays largely flawlessly. He stands out above all for his tackling strength and good positional play.”

In defensive midfield, the Cameroonian Frank Anguissa (26), on loan from Fulham FC, is convincing. As a hanging point, Sassuolo loanee Giacomo Raspadori (22) has scored four goals in three Champions League games and striker Giovanni Simeone, son of Atlético coach Diego, also seems to be finally finding his fortune in Naples after countless failed attempts in Genoa, Florence, Cagliari and Verona. The 27-year-old has contributed four goals in nine competitive games so far.

But the all-important player is Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, 21, from Georgia. Kvaratskhelia was under contract to Rubin Kazan when Russia invaded Ukraine. After FIFA ruled that foreign players could terminate their contracts as a result, Kvaratskhelia returned home to reigning champions Dinamo Batumi.
Napoli’s shrewd sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli made a move – Kvaratskhelia came to Vesuvius for ten million euros. A hefty sum for a no-name player, but Giuntoli is now to be congratulated on a real bargain.

“Kvaradona” emulates Diego Maradona

On paper, Kvaratskhelia plays on the left wing, but that only matters to lineup and system fanatics. He can be found anywhere on the pitch, sees spaces that others miss, is technically strong, fast and ambidextrous. He brings razor-sharp crosses into the penalty area, but also likes to execute himself. Seven goals and seven assists in 13 competitive games are outstanding figures.

After first sinking a 25-yard shot into the corner in the 4-0 win over Monza and then finishing off a solo run with his next goal a little later, a baffled TV commentator asked, “Is there actually anything this boy can’t do?”

In reference to their eternal soccer messiah Diego Armando Maradona, who brought Napoli two championship titles and the UEFA Cup in the late 1980s, fans now only call Kvaratskhelia “Kvaradona.” Nice side effect: Kvaradona is also much easier to pronounce.

“Of course I like the nickname,” says Kvaratskhelia: “I can never match Maradona, but I’ll give everything to become a great player for this club.”

Tifosi dream of first championship title in 32 years

In Naples, fans are already dreaming of their first major title since 1990, when Maradona and Co. claimed the second Scudetto in the club’s history.

“Dreaming is allowed,” stresses Spalletti. “But there’s no euphoria in the locker room, no tendency to exaggerate, but an awareness that we’re doing something important here. These players give their heart and soul to transfer what we do in training into the game.”

Spalletti is smart enough to take Napoli’s large fan base with him in his remarks: “Every Neapolitan kid watches this team. We want to do everything we can to make their dream as real as possible. We have an obligation to the people of this city, people who have pushed us with the right motivation.”
Even if Pino Daniele’s CDs remain missing – Spalletti has long since forgiven the Tifosi. The feeling is mutual.

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