S.S.C. Napoli are just a few points away from winning the Serie A championship - the most coveted title in Italian football - but, walking around the city, one might think the team had already won.
Nearly every neighbourhood is adorned with sky blue and white streamers, flags bearing the faces of Napoli players, special new jerseys, and banners announcing the title yet to come: Campioni d’Italia, Italy’s Champions.
The flags and banners have brought out the best of designers’ photoshop skills, with some showing current players arm in arm with the late football legend and former Napoli player Diego Armando Maradona. One flag in the historic center shows Maradona staring stoically out from the clouds over current Napoli players, who smile up at him.
Outside of a pastry shop, life-size cutouts of striker Victor Osimhen and left winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia are edited to appear as if they’re eating babà and sfogliatella, typical Neapolitan sweets.
At this point, the decorations have been up (and on sale) for weeks, stoking the anticipation of Napoli fans who can’t wait any longer to know for sure that the Scudetto is theirs.
“Right now I’m feeling so many emotions, but I think the strongest emotions will come the moment Napoli has the mathematical certainty [of winning],” says Mirko, known as Mirkof93, a popular YouTuber who creates videos about Napoli with the group Fius Gamer. “I don’t want to imagine it - I want to live it.”
Mirko is 30 years old, one of many younger Napoli fans who weren’t around to see the team’s first two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990. “From now until June 4th,” he says, “we’ll see a city we’ve never seen before.”
Cult of personality
Of course, displaying pride in their team is nothing new for Neapolitans. After Napoli first won the Scudetto in 1987, and then again in 1990, a culture of devotion formed around Maradona, who is largely credited for carrying the team to victory.
To this day, Maradona’s memory is honored through shrines and murals, and his nickname, “D10S,” likens him to a god. One bar near Piazzetta Nilo displays a glittering altar to what is said to be a lock of Maradona’s hair.
Another mural and open-air altar can be found in the Spanish Quarters, where Maradona’s face appears next to those of Jesus Christ and Che Guevara. Neapolitans’ love for Maradona has become a permanent feature of the city’s collective identity, one that tourists add to their must-see lists when they come to visit.
For Napoli fans, Maradona still plays a part in this year’s championship. “We Neapolitans owe a lot to Maradona,” Mirko says. “He left too soon at his age, but it’s also like he’s never left. The atmosphere of the city also revolves around him, around his unforgettable aura.”
Pride and prejudice
Maradona isn’t just beloved by Neapolitans for his football skills, though. He’s also a hero because he defended Naples against the oppression and prejudices it suffered - and still suffers - as southern Italy’s largest city. He spoke out against the racism and prejudice incited by northern fans and sought to bring pride and dignity to the people of Naples. For Neapolitans, Maradona didn’t just help them win the Scudetto - he helped them beat the north.
“In Naples, soccer is basically a social revolt against the powers of the north, and any other power there might be” says Vincenzo, the owner of Spiedo d’oro, a trattoria in the Pignasecca neighborhood serving typical Neapolitan cuisine.
A fan since his teenage years in the 1970s, Vincenzo remembers clearly the era of Maradona and the first two Scudetto victories. “It was seen from that perspective then, and it still is today. Consider that in the 33 years that have passed, there are still stories of unemployment, the lack of work, the absence of the state.”
This power dynamic between north and south ends up being debated on the pitch. Napoli’s 1987 and 1990 wins are the first and only for any southern Italian team in the history of the Serie A Championship. Since Napoli’s victory in 1990, almost exclusively northern teams have won, mainly Juventus, AC Milan, and Inter Milan.
Given this long-running conflict, rooted in material realities that have proven difficult to remediate, a 21st century win is a kind of vindication for both the team and the city of Naples. One might even call it revenge.
Importantly, this win would prove that Napoli’s potential isn’t tied solely to having been lucky enough to get a player like Maradona way back when. Napoli’s current lineup is strong, if unexpected. While Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia have shown stellar performances and become fan favorites, Napoli’s greatest advantage has been their consistency and coherence as a team, with the focused leadership of Tuscan head coach Luciano Spalletti. It is an impressive squad, even more so for managing to uphold the enormous pressure placed on it by its fans.
At the moment, Napoli fans are on the edge of their seats, as this weekend’s matches could bring the mathematical certainty they’ve been waiting for. If Napoli beat Salernitana, and Lazio draw or lose their match with Inter Milan, the sound of prosecco bottles popping would signal Napoli’s early win on Sunday.
For Italy and for the world, Napoli’s stunning championship lead and likely victory might have come as a shock. For Napoli fans, it is a chance to prove what they’ve known all along.