In the historic Italian city of Naples, football goes very much beyond the game. This is the story of one man’s journey through the tifosa-laden streets of the Mezzogiorno and his Enterprise VIP match day experience at one of the world’s great sporting arenas.
NAPLES IS A CITY LIVING IN PURGATORY. Trapped between the heavenly Tyrrhenian Sea and the hellish prospect of Mount Vesuvius erupting again, it’s a place where waiting is commonplace. Waiting for its football club to relive the glory days; waiting for the north-south divide to be bridged; and waiting for the return of adopted son Diego Maradona to its shores.
By the Chiesa di Santa Maria, just a short hop from the imposing Monumentale di Santa Chiara, lies a unique coffee shop. It offers a telling insight into how Maradona transcended the divide between calcio and the people – “his people”, as he so often calls them. Inside is a shrine dedicated to the man, a place where Maradona aficionados and SSC Napoli lovers come together to celebrate the man who brought joy, glory and hope to the streets of the impoverished Mezzogiorno city.
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A shrine to Diego Maradona
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Naples is indeed a place where the impact of football extends far beyond the game. From the heroes of yesteryear – Maradona, Bruscolotti and Ferrara – to the stars like Gonzalo Higuaín and Marek Hamšík that dominate the scene today, the club and the city are intrinsically tied with a piece of string that is unlikely to ever be broken.
It’s on game day that Naples really comes alive. The bars and coffee shops, countless adorned with tributes to Maradona and proudly displaying the blue of Napoli, fill with fans in high anticipation of the game. Marco Massa is a Partenopei fan who has been a season ticket holder for almost two decades. He explains what game day means to the locals: “It’s a chance to come together, to forget the troubles in life. We have food and drinks around 3pm then head to the stadium. We get there early to set-up the Curva and ready ourselves to support the team.”
The fans that sit within the Curvas – literally the curves in the stadium’s structure – are the hardcore. Commonly referred to as ultras in Europe, Massa says this isn’t the case in Naples: “We are the tifosa, not ultras.”
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It’s these very fans, many of whom have been watching their side through financial hardship at home and within the Stadio San Paolo, that create the atmosphere Napoli is famous for. The choreographers arrive three hours before kick-off, set up their banners – many of which depict Maradona – and organise the chants. It’s a meticulous process, one that starts in the bars of Naples well outside the cauldron of the stadium. It’s this that sums up best how football goes beyond the game in the southern city.
Flares are common and chants are passed from Curva to Curva. One sings, one stops. One starts, the other listens. All the while, the SSC Napoli players rise to the noise. It’s their motivation; their way of knowing that the fans are behind them.
During the recent UEFA Europa League tie against Villarreal CF, one in which Napoli were eventually knocked out by their talented Spanish counterparts, the tifosa were in full flow. Few stadiums in the world at under half capacity are able to generate the noise of the San Paolo. The Villarreal delegation were heckled, booed and whistled, and even more fury was reserved for the players. It’s a sight to behold. And a noise so deafening that often it’s impossible to hear calls on the pitch.
Villarreal CF supporter Javier Alonso, who travelled from the southern Spanish city of just 50,000 inhabitants, feels Naples is a place like no other: “[I follow] The club home and away. Many cities we visit – when we play in Europe – are boring and lack interest. But Napoli is maybe the best. I have been here for four days before the game with my wife and there is still so much to see. We could stay for another week.
“I couldn’t believe how close the links are between Napoli and the city. Everywhere you go you see Napoli scarves and flags. The whole city supports just one team.”
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A street vendor in the city centre
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Isn’t that unique? In a city of three million inhabitants, few dare don the colours of a rival. Generations of SSC Napoli supporters are common in families, as is evident on game day. The stadium is brimming with the usual suspects at games in most of Europe: children, young men and middle-aged, long-term fans. But Napoli is unique. In the stadium sit countless women, chanting as vociferously as their male counterparts, and young girls with full Napoli kits on. This is a club that transcends genders, age and social class. Naples’ trendy middle-class sit with the struggling working-classes – on game day the city is a family. And that family is only interested in one thing: an SSC Napoli win.
The Enterprise VIP Matchday experience is one of the finest ways to watch this incredible club.
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Picked up from our hotel by our Enterprise driver and chaperone – is there a better way than to head to a match in a car just for you? – we arrived at the stadium three hours before kick-off – just as the SSC Napoli tifosa in the Curvas were entering en masse – and were greeted by the charming Nicolas from UEFA. An interesting, affable man, his job is to arrange hospitality at the game, and he does it brilliantly.
After a short meet and greet in the players’ tunnel, we were taken pitch side for some photos and to feel the growing atmosphere from inside the lion’s den. It’s an experience that money can’t buy and one that offered a unique insight into what life is like as a player on the sacred San Paolo pitch.
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Pitchside at the San Paolo
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After talking to more of the UEFA representatives at pitch level, and a photo on the home bench, we were taken to the Europa Lounge where we offered an unlimited supply of drinks and food. With a pleasant, busy atmosphere, our seats were just a short hop away – some of the best in the house.
It’s hard to imagine a better place to sit. Many would argue that the Curvas offer the best atmosphere, but being able to see both sides with my own eyes, almost as if the chants were being passed across me like a ball flashes in front of the umpire in tennis, was a special experience. It’s like the Curvas were singing for me, asking me to pick a side, to pick a favourite. I couldn’t and at half-time retired back to the Europa Lounge where yet more food was on offer. A quick beer and pasta later, it was back to the seats for the second half.
Despite SSC Napoli being knocked out, the seats we were afforded offered a telling insight into how deeply ingrained the club is in Neapolitan society.
Corporate seats are often adorned with people not really there to support the team, but to enjoy the great hospitality on offer and the experience provided. In the Stadio San Paolo, everyone supports the Partenopei. I found myself joining in with the chants, living every moment, kicking every ball. How could I not? Everyone around me was a Napoli fanatic. It doesn’t matter where you sit in the stadium – barring the away supporters, who were cocooned in behind a mesh curtain – you chant and you support. Because, after all, Napoli is Naples. And Naples is Napoli.
When full-time came around, the experience didn’t stop there. We were taken to the post-match press conference, spoke to a number of renowned journalists, and watched managers Maurizio Sarri and Marcelino deliver their verdicts. Perhaps Sarri summed it up best: “We were unlucky and I must apologise to the fans. They were amazing again.”
As we waited for our Enterprise driver to return, smile beaming despite the loss, like so many of the friendly, welcoming people of this beautiful city, we were taken back to our hotel, past the hoards of fans carrying flags of Hamšík, Sarri and Maradona, and left to wind down with one of the finest football memories the sport has to offer.
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Maradona is revered by the Partenopei fans almost three decades on
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It’s a memory that will live long and fresh. And that’s pertinent in a city like Naples – a place so acutely aware of its past. Just like Maradona lives forever in the hearts and minds of this dramatic, restless city, so the current squad aim to emulate his achievements. And so I leave the city with one final thought: that my experience watching SSC Napoli in the historic Stadio San Paolo was one of the finest in my football life.
By Omar Saleem. Follow @omar_saleem