“You don’t know what you’re missing”
(Graffiti on tombstones in a Naples graveyard after Napoli won their last Serie A title, back in 1990)
In the end, the invincibles could not become gladiators.
It was not the colosseum, but the Stadio Olimpico. They converged at the nation’s capital. The unbeaten Old Lady of Italian football. The revived mainland Kings of the South. A day like no other. The Coppa Italia the grand prize.
But things did not go according to script. The bianconeri paid for being too sentimental. They started Alessandro Del Piero. Yes, this was his last game in the black and white of Juventus. That, in itself did not merit a start. Not in the context of the game. Not when the reality was that there was a cup final to be won.
The reality became clear. Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani were having shots at Marco Storari’s goal. Napoli were the real attacking threat. Juventus struggling to find a foothold. An hour later, the deadlock broken. Storari brings down Lavezzi. Penalty to Napoli. Cavani steps up. El Matador rarely disappoints. He doesn’t this time round.
Juve have to react. But before then, the moment comes. The last we’ll ever see of Il Pinturicchio in a Juve shirt. It is the 68th minute. The fourth official holds his board up. On one side, the number 14. On the other, the iconic number 10. The icon, is at his end. He runs to the touchline. Mirko Vucinic quickly runs on. There is a sense of urgency. It’s been brought about by the Napoli goal.
It should not have not been like this. It should have been fantasy. It should have been as it was a week earlier at the Juventus Stadium. The board going up. Time standing still. Del Piero embracing his teammates. Then, leaving the armband to Gigi Buffon. Walking, nay, gliding to the touchline. Every stride seemingly endless. The whole stadium on its feet. The whole nation on its feet. Applauding. Tears in eyes. Holding the banners. “Ciao Ale”, and “Grazie di Tutto.” Del Piero coming off. Ever the gentleman, he signs the autograph of a young Juventini. The personification of class. The crowd urges. Urges for a lap of honour. They do not care that the game is still on. They want to see Il Capitano. His mates on the bench urge him on. Ale gives in. He takes a walk around the stadium. No one is watching the game now. Scarves fall at his feet like roses on the stage of a rockstar. Del Piero is moved. But he cannot cry. Not in front of these fans who adore him so. He pretends he is tying his shoelace. He sheds a tear. Nobody has seen but the turf upon which the tear falls. He gets up again. Completes his lap. Back to the dugout. Awaiting the moment that he will walk the red carpet to lift the trophy.
That was back in Turin. That was a week earlier. This is now. This is Rome. A city that does not care for reputations. A city that has been harsh on Caesars, Popes and Apostles alike. It will be harsh on Del Piero. It will be harsh on Juventus. The League and Cup double will not be won. The unbeaten run in all competitions will come to an end.
But even in this harshness, another fairy tale is coming to light. The story of Napoli. The Neapolitans are close. Close to completing the revival. A revival that started all the way back in 2004. Then, the club went bankrupt. Then, the club was relegated. From Serie B, to Serie C. Their name was stripped. They could no longer use the name ‘Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli.’ They were simply, Napoli Soccer.
A film producer came to the rescue. Aurelio De Laurentiis. He bought the club. In 2006, he bought back the history. Napoli Soccer became S.S.C. Napoli again. The tradition was back. They could now remember the former greats; Dino Zoff, Antonio Juliano, and the greatest of them all to have graced the Stadio San Paolo – Diego Armando Maradona. They climbed to Serie B. Then to Serie A. They worked their way up. To Europa League. Finally, to the Champions League. They only lost out to eventual Champions, Chelsea, in the round of 16.
But no trophy yet. Nothing to show for their resurgence. Nothing to show for this wonderfully assembled team. The trio upfront, Cavani, Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik. A lethal trident. The captain at the back, Paolo Cannavaro. Yes, the name signifies relation. Brother to Fabio. Younger, and also less decorated. But more loyal. He returned to his hometown club without thinking twice. But whilst his brother could bring a World Cup winners medal and a Ballon D’Or to the family dinner table, Paolo had nothing to show.
The time had come. Time for all the sacrifice to pay off. Time for Paolo to become the next local Neapolitan capitano to lift a trophy with Napoli. Time for all the money De Laurentiis had pumped in to bear fruit. It was still 1-0. Hamsik doubled it. It ensured that they would not be denied. It ensured that the promise the Slovak had made to his teammates would be fulfilled. If they won, he promised to shave off his mohawk. Now, Hamsik has no hair on his head. Now, Cavani and Lavezzi can leave, knowing that they have brought a trophy to Naples. Now the Neapolitans can rejoice. Party like its 1990. Because the Partenopei, is back.
And how appropriate that this win should happen in Rome. Because just like Rome, Napoli has not been built in a day.