Are these Napoli's best days since Maradona? A perspective through Scottish eyes
Naples is a place that is popular for a few things. It is the center of the Campania region of Italy, a region that includes the beautiful sights of Sorrento, Capri, Ischia, Amalfi and Ravello, to name a few. It is also known, of course, for its famous pizza napoletana. One thing that people who visit Naples learn quickly, is that the city has a distinct love for its football club, SSC Napoli. Napoli became famous because the greatest player of all time, Diego Maradona, spent his peak years in a Napoli uniform. Not long after the Maradona days that club underwent tough times, including bankruptcy and rebirth. Thirteen years later, the club has returned to the upper echelons of calcio and is competing for the Serie A championship. Quite coincidentally, in a year where Napoli has perhaps its best chance to win the scudetto, Serie A is having a renaissance. As of Round 13, the top five teams are within seven points of each other. Two of them, Roma and Lazio, have a game in hand, so theoretically the gap could close to four points between five teams.
But back to Napoli. The special love Neapolitan people have for their club is contagious. This is the case of James McGhie, founder and co-host of the Sempre! podcast, an outlet for English speaking lovers of Napoli. We sat down to speak to James about all things Napoli, including their chances for this year, strategy for the Champions League, the competition in Serie A this season, the famous San Paolo stadium and of course, how a Scottish man grew to love a team from southern Italy. Here is the discussion...
Claudio: So James, after the draw to Chievo before the international break, it was important for Napoli to get back to winning ways. What were your thoughts on the game against Milan?
James: With the visit of Juventus looming large on the horizon, it was a massive match, especially with Juventus playing the day after us at the weekend just waiting to take advantage of any slip ups. On Sunday’s show, we reviewed the Milan match and Kenny was gushing in his praise of the first half performance with Mario Rui, a real stand out as he got forward down the left, which as observers know is where the bulk of our creative play comes from. Marek Hamsik looked like he is slowly getting back to his best, but again didn’t see our 90 minutes as the man many consider his natural heir, Piotr Zielinski, made it 2-0 in the second half. Milan may not be the force they once were but lessons have been learned by us over the last two campaigns and tighter games like this are the type of game we may have dropped points in previous campaigns. While we did defeat Milan 4-2 in the same fixture early on last season, this game wasn’t as wide open as that one, and it was a very pleasing and ultimately necessary three points. The high point, ironically, was the link up play between Jorginho and Insigne which showed Italy fans exactly what Ventura opted against utilising against Sweden. Credit too to VAR which was used to analyse the offside call and correctly overturn it. A system which is often lambasted, it deserves credit when calls like this are made.
Claudio: I agree about VAR, it's a great thing for Serie A. If you have the opportunity to get calls overturned and correct, it's definitely worth using. To me the match had the same storyline as Milan's other matches against the big clubs. They had a decent amount of possession but you felt like they were never really into the match and could do anything with it. The play was too slow and predictable to really make Napoli suffer.
As you already mentioned, Lorenzo Insigne was snubbed by ex-Italy manager Ventura for the play-off against Sweden, playing in only 15 out of 180 minutes. What did you think of this decision by Ventura and how do you think it will affect Insigne and Napoli moving forward?
James: For both Napoli and Insigne the effect can only be positive. We have seen the evidence of this against Milan at the weekend as it seemed Insigne was taking all his anger and frustration out on Milan after what happened against Sweden. It may sound selfish to fans of Italy, but our focus is Napoli and the fact Ventura didn’t use Lorenzo at all in that second game was music to our ears; it was the rest we’d been crying out for him get. On the show we were very much of the view that Ventura had bitten off his nose to spite his face in the most sensational manner, by punishing Insigne for what we can only think Ventura viewed as an act of petulance toward him when Lorenzo came on for Verratti in the middle of the park and gestured toward the bench in a mixture of confusion and bemusement. For Napoli, we had a fully rested Lorenzo Insigne and when you combine the fact he was fired up and more motivated than usual, Napoli had a player who on his day can be unplayable. With the FIGC and Azzurri undergoing restructure in the weeks and months ahead, the flip side is that a manager who believes in, and most importantly properly utilises, Insigne will only help further Lorenzo’s development on the international stage and result in a more complete player pulling on the Napoli shirt at the weekends.
Claudio: Have to give Insigne credit for saying all of the right things after the match as well, never throwing the manager under the bus, showing great maturity. Also, what a great point about the rest. It surely does help Napoli. There is a lot made of Napoli's depth, especially for the front three, and their rest. Do you think rest is really that important for a professional footballer. I think of Messi and how he literally plays every game for Barcelona, 90 minutes even. Insigne and Mertens especially have played a ton to start this season. As someone who follows the team closely, have you seen any visible signs that they need rest or have they just been fine playing every three days?
James: Against Chievo the squad looked tired, absolutely. It's a fair point you make about Messi, but my counterpoint to that would be that ohe's just one man. The issue we have at Napoli is that we have an incredible starting XI but out-with that there's areas which are bereft of real depth. For example, against Shakhtar we could easily see Chiriches come in for one of the centre backs as well as Diawara and Zielinski for Jorginho and Allan, but the front three will remain unchanged due to a) a lack of like-for-like, in terms of quality, options and b) because Sarri doesn't trust the squad players. We spoke about this on the show in reply to a question from one of our listeners, and he asked if there's a danger these promising young players could move on due to not getting their chance or prolonged runs in the team, and the answer is absolutely. Let's take Marko Rog, he's been here almost a year and a half and in his initial period when he broke through he played central midfield yet we now see him coming on for Callejon. There's two ways to look at it, a) Sarri wants to develop Rog into a vice-Callejon or b) he has no idea where Rog fits in his squad and he's trying him out somewhere new. If it's the second option then Rog, quite rightly, should be annoyed that some 16 months on from his arrival, the club don't have a vision for where they see him. So yeah, Messi plays every game but Messi, like Ronaldo, like Maradona, like Pele, is a one off ... for Napoli, it's not just one man, but an entire squad that needs rotating and the worry is that burnout won't just hit Mertens or Callejon, but possibly six or seven players at once.
Claudio: Very good point, continuing on the topic of depth... As you alluded to earlier, Mario Rui played in place of Faouzi Ghoulam against Milan. Ghoulam is a huge part of Napoli's recent success. Do you think Rui is a suitable replacement or will a reinforcement need to be added in January?
James: Rui has the advantage of having worked with Sarri before at Empoli, so he knows what's expected of him, although on the flip side the same could be said of Lorenzo Tonelli who has been seemingly cast aside by Napoli for reasons only known to those within the club itself. Ghoulam is a huge loss, and it's strange to hear someone say a full back is a huge loss but Ghoulam was integral to what makes Napoli 'tick'. As I alluded to earlier, the bulk of what we do comes down that left hand side as Jorginho, Hamsik, Insigne and Ghoulam work neat triangles out wide and back into the middle as they edge their way forward where Insigne will often slip a pass through to Ghoulam who's found space behind the opposition right back. Look at any pass map and the left side is overloaded, so without Ghoulam there it's a loss, absolutely. Rui came in against Chievo, looked rusty, which is to be expected given the guy came off an injury before joining us and then making only a handful of substitute appearances. Against Milan though, first half especially, he got forward and caused problems and it was heartening but still not to Ghoulam levels; which is to be expected. As for replacements, I think the club could try and address two issues with one move here, especially if the move to sign Vrsaljko from Atletico Madrid comes off. On our latest show, my friend and co-host Kenny Cioffredi pointed out that while many cite Vrsaljko as a left back, he's played more games of his career at right back; far more. We think that, should Napoli choose Vrsaliko as their man, the club will be of the opinion that when Ghoulam comes back, Ghoulam has the jersey and Rui is his back up. However, Christian Maggio will most likely retire this summer, which leaves Napoli without any form of back up for Hysaj. In Vrsaljko, Napoli could bring in someone who is comfortable at left back for the remainder of the season yet who in the summer would switch to being Hysaj's back up/competition once Ghoulam recovers.
Claudio: I think you make a good point and I've seen the reports also about Vrsaljko. Something is probably needed because if they stick with Rui for the rest of the season, they will have an issue if he goes down as well, so a reinforcement is needed.
I would like to move to the Champions League since signing a player like Vrsaljko could depend on revenues from the competition. It is widely known that Napoli is making Serie A the priority this season. They have an upcoming match Tuesday against Shakhtar Donetsk in which a win is necessary to keep their Round of 16 hopes alive. I personally think it would be bad for Italian football if the league leaders don't qualify for the knockout stages of the competition, even though I understand the importance of winning the scudetto. What do you think of Napoli focusing only on Serie A and possibly not making the Round of 16?
James: I think it's absolutely the right move by everyone at the club and again it comes back to being a little bit selfish. Napoli supporters aren't concerned about what fans of Italian football as a whole think of us if we should go out. These players stayed together for a reason; we used the phrase 'Scudetto pact' way back when the renewal talks for various players were coming thick and fast and I believe it was Hysaj and Reina who were at the epicentre of this pact. The whole squad knew that at a domestic level, we'd reached a level of consistency that if maintained over a whole campaign from start to end, would be enough to win the Scudetto.
The team took key lessons from their loss to Real Madrid last season which they've applied domestically successfully. We look at this season as possibly the best, if not the only, modern day opportunity we have to win the Scudetto. The Champions League will always be there, Italy has four participants going straight into the group stages next season, so we will always get another chance to play in the Champions League; we won't get a better chance, in my opinion, to win the Scudetto. And to finish this point, I just coined a phrase which David Amoyal used in a tweet after the defeat in Manchester. He said, "No one remembers that Maradona's great Napoli side failed in Europe, what they remember are the Scudetti." I don't think you can say it much better than that.
Claudio: I absolutely see your reasoning as a Napoli fan. I can also see the club's reasoning because this is a great opportunity for major silverware. For some reason I just see similarities in Napoli and Borussia Dortmund, who were able to make a run to the final of the Champions League, and Napoli might be capable of that. I also think about the financial aspect because making the knockout stages brings large revenues along. It would also increase brand exposure. Having Napoli play Real Madrid was something very special so selfishly as a neutral I would have loved to seen that again.
Going back to Serie A. Napoli sit at the top, four points clear of Juventus, two points clear of Inter and five points clear of Roma who have a game in hand. What do you think of the competition in Serie A this season? Do you think this is the season Napoli will win the scudetto? What are your biggest concerns?
James: Serie A this season is fantastic and it's down to an unprecedented level of consistency shown by a number of clubs. Last season, Juventus started strong and didn't look back whereas we suffered the injury to Milik in October and struggled for a month while we persevered with Gabbiadini prior to Mertens rebirth as a centre forward, which is when the season kicked into gear again. The season prior to last, Juventus had a woeful start while we surged ahead. However, Juventus started their 15 match unbeaten run in Serie A on October 31st and didn’t look back. This season however, we had no rebuild to contend with, no star players moved on, and while we did lose Milik, cruelly to another ACL injury, this time there was no upheaval as Mertens was in place and kicking on where he left off last season.
In recent memory, I can't remember such a level of consistency from so many clubs over the opening third of the campaign, and it's great for the league because in my opinion Juventus are not at the level they were and have been in previous years; they can be overtaken. Scudetto is a word we are no longer afraid to say, and I do believe that we will win the title this year. The biggest concern I have, as I touched on earlier, is burn out of several key players at once at a crucial time. If it were up to me, I'd have them drop out of Europe. I really think the less distraction this Napoli side have, the better the chances are of us winning the Scudetto.
Claudio: How would you rank the competitors in terms of who is the biggest threat?
James: The biggest threat to our Scudetto chances has to be Juventus who, a level or two below their former selves or not, know what it takes to win a Scudetto. A successful team may get older, but experience can't be discounted and they're still the main rival for 1st place without a doubt. Behind them, for me it's Inter who have been transformed under Luciano Spalletti this season. In Icardi they have the best finisher in the league by a mile and the best piece of business done in Serie A this season could well have been been Inter staving off the attention of Manchester United when they were eyeing Perisic because what a season he is having. They've got a solid base to build on with Handanovic in the form of his life right now and in Gagliardini and Valero they've got two midfielders who I rate very highly. Third, and this is a narrow third behind Inter, I've got Roma who like Juventus know what it takes to stay at the top end of Serie A for a prolonged campaign, proving that last season as they finished 2nd ahead of ourselves. I think there were a few surprised onlookers when Eusebio Di Francesco took over from Spalletti in the summer but he's done a great job and their 3-0 win over Chelsea shows what they're capable of. They've also handled the loss of Mo Salah to Liverpool remarkably well considering the impact he had on not just the team but on Dzeko last season. In Nainggolan they've got one of the best midfielders in the Europe, and their squad is packed with talent; Dzeko, De Rossi, Perotti, El Shaarawy, Manolas, Kolorov, Florenzi, etc. Yet despite this, I think Icardi and the Spalletti factor will see Inter finish top 3 this season.
So, to predict my end of season top four: 1. Napoli 2. Juventus 3. Inter 4. Roma
Claudio: Great insight into Napoli's chances. To be honest, I believe this is the year for them as well, it's time for someone to snap Juventus's streak and they have the best chance. I think Roma will finish third and Inter fourth. I think Inter have an advantage not playing in Europe, but Roma is very strong and showed it in the win against Chelsea as you mentioned. In any case, it will be a great finish to the season!
James: Absolutely, it's the most exciting Serie A season for years and if you're not watching it, then you should be.
Claudio: Couldn't agree more. In a year where it seems like Manchester City is running away with it in the Premier League, Bayern in the Bundesliga, PSG in Ligue 1 and Barcelona in La Liga, Serie A is providing a great title chase, consisting of four teams and if you want to get crazy, five including Lazio.
James: Yeah, and you know what? Serie A doesn't get the credit it deserves from a lot of people, especially here in the UK. There's the old stereotype that it's boring, it's defensive, it's subpar. And it's frustrating because having been to Manchester for the City v Napoli game, it was eye opening for sure. The experience, the package, it's very ... manufactured, it's clinical, sterilised. It feels like you're living inside a video game, it's a FIFA stadium; generic chants, generic flags, all very 'fake.' We've got it very good in Italy in that the game is authentic and while yes, Italian football has other issues which we won't go into here, Calcio is Calcio. It's passionate, it's colourful, and most of all nowadays it's entertaining.
Claudio: Totally agree. It really is terrible what happened to the Italian national team because calcio is undergoing such a renaissance right now, and that seems like a black eye for Italian football.
I wanted to get your opinions on a couple of Napoli subjects apart from this year's season. Firstly, what was your initial reaction when they hired Maurizio Sarri? He was by no means a top manager even though he did a great job at Empoli. They went from Benitez who coached big clubs to Sarri. Were you nervous, excited, etc...?
James: I'll admit right now, when we hired Sarri I was stunned. It was not what I expected and I think most Napoli fans would be brave enough to admit that when we went from a big European name like Rafa Benitez to Empoli's Maurizio Sarri, the initial reaction was to think the President was taking the cheap route. Now, has Sarri worked out beyond De Laurentiis' wildest dreams? Of course he has, but he'd never admit that! Sarri's story as a whole is wonderful, from banker to grass roots coaching to lower league and then Serie A, it's so far removed from the modern game as we know it today. What is interesting to note though is that while Sarri is a fantastic coach, he is doing what he is doing with Napoli using mainly Benitez's squad and that's a concern for the future. Because if/when the likes of Callejon, Mertens, Albiol, and Koulibaly move on then going back to an earlier point about Sarri and trusting the squad, where does that leave us? And I don't mean to put a damper on what's been a positive piece thus far, but it's a legitimate point in my opinion, even more so when you consider that the current Son of Naples, Dries Mertens, was Benitez's first Napoli signing. Sure, several of those players grew to loathe Benitez, as did club captain Marek Hamsik and our local hero Lorenzo Insigne, but it feels like for all the plaudits he's received, Sarri still needs to learn how to be a "big club" manager. However, you can't fault the job he's done with what he's got available, I just wish he'd trust the squad and more importantly, have faith in the signings HE made.
Claudio: That's really a great point regarding Benitez and his signings. Say what you want about Benitez the manager but he definitely is great at identifying talent. Also agree that it is a little worrisome that Sarri's own signings have not really panned out thus far.
You have also given me a great segue into my next question for you. You just mentioned a bunch of the star players and how they could move on. I know Neapolitan people are very superstitious, so if, and its a big if, Napoli were to win the scudetto, what do you see the future of the club to be? Will they be one and done and sell everyone off? Or will they build off of it and become a club that competes in Italy every year and maybe even the Champions League eventually?
James: De Laurentiis would never say that it's a case of 'one and done' but you have to be realistic and look at the fact most of our players have release clauses in their deals for clubs outside Italy, all of which are attainable for Premier League clubs. Now, of course, a club meeting a release clause doesn't mean the player needs to pack his bags and go, he can say he's happy and remain. And while it is a concern that players could leave, I'm not worried and I can say that because we've seen far better players than what we have today come and go; Cavani, Lavezzi, Higuain to name three huge former fan favourites. Mazzarri and Cavani had taken Napoli over the final hurdle and to the brink of what felt like the next step after the long road back to Serie A, only for Cavani to be sold to PSG and Mazzarri to be tempted away by Inter. We adapted, Benitez came in, we signed Mertens, Higuain, Callejon and suddenly you think, "Hold on, we lose one player but sign those three?" So, rebuilding is normal, we accept it as Napoli fans, and while we get overly attached to our players, they never leave us even when they leave us; well, Higuain aside! I think as long we continue to stay in that top 4, make the Champions League groups and rake in the income from there, we'll continue to rebuild and evolve, and I know that may sound like a contradiction to the earlier point when I said we were right as a club to abandon the Champions League, but this year is an exception, everything has simply fallen into place and it's an opportunity we must grasp with both hands.
Claudio: I could understand that, sacrificing this year in the Champions League in order to get that first illustrious piece of silverware. It would be great though to see Napoli a top European club. As far as the release clauses, it's really going to be up to him isn't it? The players will walk if they are offered more money from other clubs. If he offers them a new contract when the release clause is met, they might be willing to stay because like you said, the players love Napoli. Cavani still talks about going back to this day.
James: Absolutely, Cavani returning remains a dream of mine personally.
Claudio: Mine also, not a Napoli fan but I would love to have him back in Serie A and him in a Napoli jersey just seems like a match made in heaven.
I want to end on a topic that really interests me. I've noticed that there a lot of English speaking Napoli fans that have no ties to the city of Naples whatsoever. You are one of them. What drew you to become a Napoli fan?
In addition to that, have you ever been to the San Paolo?
James: So, I'll address the San Paolo question first. I've been to Naples several times but not to the stadium itself, however that will change in May when the Sempre! team visit Naples (and meet in person for the first time despite working together for the best part of two years by that point) and attend the Napoli v Torino match. We're hopeful of getting some club access, we're working on that right now, and we want to get over there and not only take in a match but create some great audio and video content for our listeners.
Claudio: That would be terrific, I would really look forward to that and I’m sure your following would.
Would also love to hear your thoughts after about the stadium itself. Everyone says it is in ruins but still provides an amazing atmosphere. It would be interesting to see Napoli play in a new stadium like the Juventus stadium, though. I could only imagine what it would be like to have 40-50,000 Napoli supporters right on the pitch.
James: The stadium itself, from what I'm told, is not fit for purpose but it's our home. I'm against building a new stadium, the San Paolo is as iconic to Naples as Maradona, they're intertwined. De Laurentiis has often mentioned building a new ground but I think he's calling the council's bluff to try and get them to sell him the San Paolo which they won't do. This is a topic which we could fill an entire article with, because theres's some many sub-plots and angles to the tale. It's an old relic of a stadium but when it's full, often three hours before kick off on big match days, there's nowhere in the world like it in my opinion and that's just from watching on TV. Naples started the now often imitated 'Champions' roar at the end of the Champions League anthem, but no one does it better than the Neapolitans.
Claudio: That’s the truth about the stadium. Would love to see De Laurentiis own it and modernize it while keeping the same atmosphere.
James: That's his dream, but De Magistris is stubborn. The council thinking some tarp over seats and moving the tunnel to the other side of the pitch with some overhead perspex sheeting is 'renovation.' They (the council) said work would begin in the summer to replace the aging red seats with blue ones; work still hasn't started, although we do now have a proper press box!
On the question of how I became a Napoli supporter, it's a story which those who've listened to the show and heard me speak on other Calcio podcasts in the past will know. A little over four years ago now, my wife wanted to go on holiday 'somewhere different,' and so she chose Sorrento. We booked it and there's just something about the entire region of Campania which captivated me. While Sorrento is beautiful, it's what I call "Naples for tourists," and I mean that in the most respectful way, because I adore Sorrento, but it's very laid back, and theres little hustle and bustle. Naples, on the other hand, is manic, it's lively, it's 100mph, and my love affair with Napoli started thanks to Giovanni, our tour guide to Vesuvius and the Cantina Del Vesuvio vineyard on it's slopes, who took us on the entire tour in his Napoli training gear. We got chatting about football and from that moment I took a keen interest in Napoli. Fast forward to 2016, I return home from our latest visit and I was dismayed (and shocked) that no English content existed for Napoli fans. There was no weekly news show, no podcast, nothing and I was excited to realise I'd found a niche, something no-one had done yet and that's when I decided to start Sempre! to cater for English speaking supporters across the world. And it's been a great ride so far, we've evolved and grown as people and as a product, the team now consists of myself, Kenny Cioffredi, Raffaele Rispo, and the latest member, Marco 'Kubani' D'Onofrio who many will know as the host of Stereo Serie A. It's been an incredible journey, we've had some amazing guests who've given us their time such as Adam Summerton who is the UK voice of Serie A commentary, James Horncastle of BT Sport, and even Daniele 'Decibel' Bellini, Napoli's iconic stadium announcer. So to do all that in our first year, is mindblowing to us and we're just thankful and grateful that people allow us into their homes every week to hear what we have to say about Napoli.
It's a strange feeling, and I cannot put it fully into words how Naples got so under my skin, but as they say; You arrive in Naples a tourist, you leave as one of the family.
Claudio: That’s a great story. As you can tell by my name, I am Italian, so I’ve been a calcio fan my whole life. I’ve just recently got into covering it and just like you said, the English speaking calcio community is really such a great place and you are definitely right at the top. You do a great job with your podcast and your love for Napoli is obvious. I really appreciate all the time you’ve taken to sit down with me and give the English speaking world some great insight into one of the best stories in world football.