Opinion: How lowly Napoli became one of Europe’s best soccer teams by tearing up the business rule book

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Napoli’s striker Victor Osimhen eyes the ball during the Italian Serie A soccer match between FC Empoli and SSC Napoli February 25 at Carlo Castellani stadium in Empoli.


When Maradona promoted SSC Napoli, a perennial mediocrity of Serie A football since its inception in 1926, to the top of the Italian league in 1987, street parties erupted in Naples and went on 24/7 for days. The Neapolitans were so excited for their very first time scudetto that they took to teasing the dead. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” they scribbled on the walls of the cemeteries.

After winning his second scudetto In 1990, Napoli fell into a gradual decline in the post-Maradona years, followed by a humiliating collapse. It was relegated to Serie B, then to third-tier Serie C. The heavily indebted team were declared bankrupt in 2004, an extraordinary sin for one of Europe’s most famous football clubs in one of the continent’s most passionate footballing cities.

Today Napoli are not only the hottest team in Italy, they are one of the hottest in the world. It’s on track to win its third scudetto – only force majeure would see runners-up Inter Milan gain the upper hand – and are a contender to win the UEFA Champions League. Napoli have already defeated some of the best teams in Europe; It completely destroyed Ajax 6-1 in October and left Dutch fans stunned. As of this week, only the mighty FC Bayern Munich had more points.

How can the apparently miraculous turnaround be explained?

Napoli’s renaissance is both a business story and a coaching story. In short, the team learned to do more with less – because they had practically nothing to play with. In fact, it recently reduced its payroll, bucking the trend of paying small countries’ GDP to buy superstars. Napoli is a superstar-free zone, although some of its young hotshot players, mostly bought cheaply, have the potential to achieve that status.

An unlikely football fanatic, film mogul Aurelio De Laurentiis, started a new company 19 years ago to bail Napoli out of bankruptcy. He promised financial stability, after which a construction campaign could start.

At first, the Neapolitans, a notoriously cynical but open-minded crowd, were infidels. What did a movie guy know about soccer? (I refuse to call the game “soccer” since soccer is actually played with your feet.) Mr. De Laurentiis is the nephew of legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and is an accomplished producer himself (Woody Allen’s Bullets over BroadwayDavid Lynchs blue velvet).

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As owner and chairman, he surprised everyone. Naples’ renaissance was gradual but convincing, helped by a few bargain-priced acquisitions. The first standout purchase was Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani, who was signed for just €17m. Between 2011 and 2013 he scored an incredible 52 goals for Napoli, establishing himself as the league’s top striker. The team returned to Serie A. It won the 2012 Coppa Italia, the annual knockout competition. Napoli were back from the dead and rising in the ranks, but that scudetto – The ultimate prize of Italian football – still proved elusive.

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In a brave attempt to assert himself and appease the spirit of Maradona, who died in 2020, Mr De Laurentiis tore up the rule book.

It said you had to pay big bucks for big stars, even if there was a risk they were past their prime. Some of the prices teams pay are staggering. Paris Saint-Germain paid €222m for Neymar in 2017; a year later, the team bought Kylian Mbappé for €180m and Barcelona bought Philippe Countinho for €145m.

Mr. De Laurentiis did exactly the opposite, but he needed help to launch his risky strategy. Two years ago he recruited a new manager, Luciano Spalletti, who had successful if sometimes bumpy careers at several Italian clubs including Roma and Inter Milan but had never won one scudetto. He was in his early 60s when he landed in Napoli, and it seems it was now or never.

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Together they sold most of their prominent older players, including Lorenzo Insigne, a hometown boy who joined Toronto FC last year, and Dries Mertens, who was Napoli’s all-time top scorer. They cut more than €10m from their already low wage bill and Napoli fans were horrified. Mr. Spalletti’s beloved little Fiat Panda has been stolen. Maniacal fans (known as Ultras) hung a banner saying that if he left the team the car would be returned.

At this point, Napoli bosses appear to have learned a lesson from the book and film of the same name money ball (starring Brad Pitt) and used data analysis and adventurous scouting to find underrated players in overlooked parts of the planet. They were joined by South Korea’s Kim Min-jae, Macedonia’s Eljif Elmas, Mexico’s Hirving (Chucky) Lozano and Georgia’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (two years earlier they bought Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen, one of the world’s best forwards).

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The fresh, young line-up, combined with Mr Spalletti’s penchant for non-Italian, free-flowing attacking football, proved sensational. Mr Kvaratskhelia, who is just 22 and was bought by Georgia club Dinamo Batumi for a reported €10million – a taxi ride by Premier League or La Liga standards – has left Napoli fans in awe. “Kvaradona”, as he is already known, is one of Serie A’s top scorers.

With Serie A all but completed and Napoli’s sights set on the Champions League goal, the team has captured the imagination of Europeans, who see an underdog team fighting their way to the top. Maradona would be proud. For the money men and women of every professional sport, there is a lesson in Napoli. You don’t necessarily need a lot of money to be successful. Sometimes imagination and the courage to break the rules are enough.

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