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Monk in a Fiat is steering Napoli to glory

Luciano Spalletti could have retired. Yet not only is he back on the touchline, he is thriving

Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti during his side’s Serie A match against Cremonese last weekend. Photo: Ivan Romano/Getty

When a manager in his 60s is paid millions to go on gardening leave, we might expect that we have seen the last of him in a tracksuit and football
boots. Particularly so when that man’s retreat is 50 acres of the beautiful
Tuscan hills, with olives and grapes to harvest and grand villas to let out to wealthy holidaymakers.

The redundant man in question, Luciano Spalletti, could have retired extremely comfortably into his own Garden of Eden. He had worked his way up from the bottom, had modest successes and pay-offs by eight clubs encompassing Empoli and Roma, Zenit St Petersburg and Internazionale Milan. And he admits he found tranquillity on the family farm, La Rimessa.

Yet not only is Spalletti back on the touchline, he is thriving with SSC Napoli. Not only is the club that almost perished in debt 20 years ago running away with Serie A, its style is as much an expression of joy as any in Europe right now. The team plays on the front foot, relentlessly, flamboyantly, in Italy and in Europe.

His media conferences have a theatrical quality, as if after years of torment between sackings at 18-month intervals, he has the taste for revenge. Once, he seemed ready to burst, like Vesuvius. Now the smile lights his eyes beneath the furrowed brow, the bald pate, and the Spock ears.

One of his best lines when Napoli hired him was: “In the silence of Rimessa, I find new solutions. Like a monk in a monastery, I’m alone and I touch the depths of my soul.”

Spalletti is not taking a vow of silence. He is a football man, driven to make players fulfil their talents, many of them far better footballers than he ever was. He also said his time alone made him realise that there was much to learn from coaches further down the ladder because they had to search for ways and means beyond money.

He arrived at Naples shortly after his 61st birthday two years ago driving a
modest little Fiat Panda. It was stolen from outside his hotel. Some hardcore
Partenopei fans wanted him out before he and their club could form a
relationship. Now the “Mister” is credited with driving Napoli to their first Scudetto since Diego Maradona galvanised the team 33 years ago.

Napoli managers have had a security of tenure akin to a firefly ever since
film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis rescued the bankrupt club two decades
ago. Di Laurentiis proved ruthlessly true to his vow to restore the club, both
financially and as a force in Italy. His cast of managers hired and fired before Spalletti included Roberto Donadoni, Walter Mazzarri, Rafa Benítez,
Mauricio Sarri, Carlo Ancelotti and Gennaro Gattuso.

Sarri was the one who kindled fearless, almost furious, attacking brio. But few Partenopei foresaw how swiftly last summer’s complete remake of their team would transcend Serie A. Yes, it is a backward league in which Juventus, and the Milan clubs and Roma have spent themselves into internal combustion.

But what courage, and what vision, the filmmaker and his trusted talent spotter Cristiano Giuntoli, showed in tearing up the side that finished third
last summer and handing Spalletti the raw materials to rebuild. Club legends were sold off or given away. The wage bill was pared down by €10m. Replacements were found at prices so low that none of the European giants would have considered paying them.

How dynamic the new Napoli now look. If you haven’t seen Victor Osimhen, the powerful striker from Nigeria, or Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the magical winger from Georgia, you have missed half a season of incredible fun down in southern Italy. If you never knew that Poland’s Piotr Zieliński could be such a cunning playmaker, or that the Korean Kim Min-jae was such a rock in defence, you are probably no student of the global game.

But none of us looked where Giuntoli went scouting for fresh talent. None of us imagined that Spalletti, never a champion apart from his short spell in St Petersburg, could instantly mould them into a side that has scored 54 goals against 15, winning 19 games, drawing two and losing just once this season. And, to boot, thrashing Liverpool, Rangers and Ajax in the Champions League.

Their attack is direct and devastating. Their defence is strong. Their teamwork unflagging. When the effort slackens even marginally, the Mister is on them. “We had to learn to stand upright on the pedals,” Spalletti said. He warned that the second half of the season could be like a cycle track race in two rounds. “You must pedal the whole way, never push less,” he tells them.

In his time at AS Roma he cajoled Francesco Totti, the Roman idol, to better himself by changing his role. At the same time, Spalletti coaxed Mo Salah, a Chelsea reject, into the dynamic star for whom Liverpool paid a fortune.

But Napoli is his masterpiece. No less than 15 players have scored for the team during half a season. Premier League and Spanish vultures are eyeing
Osimhen, and doubtless would pay high multiples on the price that took “Kavra-donna” from Georgia to Italy.

Di Laurentiis says they are wasting their time. Napoli has no debts and no inclination to sell. Spalletti’s contract runs until this summer, but there is zero talk of him returning to the farm anytime soon. He is having the time of his life, seeing Naples fly.

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