If Aurelio De Laurentiis was anything other than Italy’s most blunt filmmaker, you might think this was fiction. On Sunday night Napoli, the club he restored from bankruptcy, beat AC Milan in the San Siro to complete a day of defeat for all four of the Serie A giants – Milan, Inter, Juventus and Roma; the first time the quartet had lost on the same day since February 1955.
Is this a power shift, or an historic aberration? Maybe the former because SSC Napoli, once denied the right to play in the national league because of Italy’s arcane snobbery towards the south of the country, have already thrashed Liverpool 4-1 in the Champions League this season. Unbeaten in Serie A, they lie top of a table that now reads Napoli, Atalanta, Udinese, Lazio; then Milan, Roma, Inter, Juve.
There will be sackings during this international break, quite possibly at Juventus, whose owner is one of the chief protagonists of a European Super League intended to preserve the riches of football for those who regard themselves as the elite.
But this isn’t about the Agnellis, the Berlusconis or the presumption of northern riches to prevail. Italy, like most European big leagues, is empowered these days by American dollars and (fading) Chinese yuan.
Yet none of that detracted from what was so enthralling, so exacting, and so exhausting to watch in Milan’s famous old stadium on Sunday. Here was a Napoli side striding with confidence into the 72,573-seat cauldron of Italy’s reigning champion. And just four days after winning another Champions League away game, 3-0 against a physically attritional but outclassed Rangers in Glasgow, the Neapolitans broke Milan’s 22-game unbeaten spell.
Neapolitans? There are a few homegrown footballers on the Napoli payroll. The heroes are Luciano Spalletti, the Tuscan coach as bald as a Cistercian monk but as volcanic as Mount Vesuvius, and the players he imbues with fire and fearlessness. The owner, De Laurentiis, gets through team managers with the frequency of a Roman Abramovich. Yet De Laurentiis, who was born in Rome to a family steeped in film production, picked up Napoli when it was broken, and demoted to Italy’s third tier in 2004.
The presidente has clear, often coarse views. He sees football as an extension of show business. He can be crude, lewd and full of wind, as in his comment about the agent of a playmaker he sold to Paris St Germain a few years ago.
“If Mazzoni (the agent Alejandro Mazzoni) starts being stupid,” said De Laurentiis, “I will chop his balls off.”
He opposes the right of players to fly off in mid-season to Africa or South American tournaments, once calling Lionel Messi a “cretin” for representing Argentina in the Copa America. He accused the Italian league of being corrupted by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. And he warned Napoli players who might be tempted by English money. “You need to understand this: the English live badly, eat badly and their women do not wash their genitalia.”
Yet someone at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium in Naples knows pretty well how to buy and sell in the markets. Napoli made £11.6 million profit in the summer window, shifting out half of its established team and buying replacements whom few might have considered to be improvements.
Those who were sold included Fabián Ruiz to PSG, defensive pillar Kalidou Koulibaly to Chelsea and the club’s popular forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens.
The replacements include André Anguissa, a Cameroon midfielder, Gio Simeone, the son of Atlético Madrid’s manager Diego, Kim Min-jae, a central defender from Fenerbahce, and a fellow called Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who many Neapolitans struggle to pronounce but some are happy to dub Abrakvara or even Kvaradona.
The last nickname is almost sacrilegious in Naples where Diego Maradona is so revered. The Georgian, tall and slender, looks nothing like Maradona but he is from that famous club, Dinamo Tbilisi, which once gave the Soviet Union artistry that Russia never produced – wonderful players like Shota Arveladze, David Kipiani and Ramaz Shengelia.
Kvaratskhelia, just 21, plays on the left wing but has a magical right foot. He has already mesmerised Liverpool and Rangers, and has four goals and two assists in seven Serie A appearances. He cost only £13.5m.
We are watching a new talent blossom, a new flower unfurl. We cannot yet be certain that he is durable, and on Sunday he was relatively subdued. Relatively, because two experienced Milan defenders had to be replaced at half-time after getting booked for fouling him and replacement Sergiño Dest gave away a penalty after fouling him within minutes of coming on as a substitute.
As a player, Kvaratskhelia appears as unformed as he is hypnotic. He has balance, touch, bravery and a bag of tricks. Why, then, was he available for such a bargain price when the whole of Europe now has analytics and vast armies of scouts?
And who knew that Kim, a product of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, then Beijing Guoan before Fenerbahçe, would have the steel, the courage, and the confidence to step into the shoes of Koulibaly, one of the most coveted defenders of recent times?
There appears to be alchemy afoot in Naples, and it may not last. But Roberto Mancini, the Italian national team manager, has already seen enough to call up five of the Napoli team to his Azzurri squad this week. If only he could call on Kvaradona.