(Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

May 5, 2023   8 mins

Naples has turned into a war zone. Fathers are lighting firecrackers for their children to explode on the cobbles. Hundreds of flares are spewing out sparks and blue smoke. Some people are crying and singing; others just gawp. I’m sure I can hear gunshots.

Once in a generation, a real-life fairy tale has the power to make you believe in providence again, in an eerie order to the universe. Last night, Napoli won the Serie A for the third time in its history, sparking Bacchanalian festivities and chromatic uniformity. Everything is blue: wigs, actual hair, bread. “There will be a spike in the birth-rate in nine months’ time,” shouts a Neapolitan friend to me over the din of plastic fog horns, “and they’ll be calling the babies Victor and Kvara.”

But this fairy tale isn’t just a story about the sporting triumph of an underdog. Perhaps its most extraordinary feature is the way it chimes so perfectly with what Naples, as a city, has become.

The sporting story, of course, is astonishing enough. Over the summer, Napoli had shipped out its star players: the Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly was sold to Chelsea, and the Spanish midfielder, Fabián Ruiz, to Paris Saint Germain. The two top scorers in the club’s history, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, also both moved on. Coming into this season, Napoli was weak.

But then Neapolitans have always felt like Davids against Goliaths: compared to the rich cities and teams of Italy’s industrialised north, Naples can feel poor and down-at-heel. The team and its fans are often taunted by rivals for being “terroni” (“southern peasants”) plagued by cholera. As a famous Pino Daniele song goes, “Napule è ‘na carta sporca / E nisciuno se ne importa” (“Naples is a piece of dirty paper / and nobody cares”).

That, perhaps, is why Diego Maradona was so lionised in the city where he played from 1984 to 1991. He seemed to personify Naples in so many ways: he was a diminutive scamp (what they call, in Naples, a “scugnizzo”). He, too, was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but his naughtiness was never nastiness. In an era of often dour, defensive football, there was an exuberant spontaneity to the way he played the game. He was an imp, an artful dodger, canny and cool. And that’s how Neapolitans often see themselves. They are street-smart survivors. As one local proverb goes: “Ccà nisciuno è fesso” (“nobody here is a sucker”). They revel in their ability, despite it all, to get by. As Norman Lewis wrote in Naples ’44, “everyone improvises and adapts”.

This ability to serve as a fairground mirror in which a city can see and even laugh at itself is the exception in Italian football; almost all big cities have at least two teams (Lazio and Roma, Juventus and Torino, and so on). A team hated by half a city can never speak for the whole polis. But like Newcastle, Naples only has the one major team. Football here unites rather than divides.

In recent decades, however, the ways in which the football club most reflected the city was in its suffering. Napoli hadn’t won the Scudetto since 1990 with Maradona. It had gone bust and been relegated to Serie C, the Italian third division. And in that sense, the club chimed with a city that has often been portrayed as impoverished, even wretched. In his fictionalised account of Naples during the Allied occupation of the Second World War, Curzio Malaparte writes about the “squalid, dirty, starving Neapolitan crowd, dressed in rags” and their “ancient wisdom, nourished by pain”.

Centuries of writers have observed something similar — that Naples forces people to mislay their moral compass: Malaparte called it the city’s “melma”; Lewis wrote about “the Neapolitan quicksands”, a place where “the Middle Ages had returned to display all their deformities, their diseases, and their desperate trickeries”. Even today, one senses this city is deliberately dissolute or louche: the defiance of the law, even ordinary civility, is often brazen. Everywhere there is smashed glass between the cobbles. Dog shit is smeared across pavements. Graffiti, both beautiful and ugly, colours the stone. “The city would be very different,” Vincenzo De Simone, producer of the documentary Humans of Naples, tell me, “if the citizens loved Naples the city as much as they do Napoli the football team.”

But, understandably, there is great sensitivity about foreigners pointing out the dirt or the darkness. A few years ago, I was filming a history documentary about the city for Italian TV: the camera crew were 50 metres away, wanting a long shot as I strolled through a crowded market quoting the Marquis De Sade, who wrote about the “brutality”, “infamies” and “knives” of the Neapolitan “lazzaroni” (“lay-abouts”). The market-stall holders thought they were my own words and started first shouting over me, then jostling me angrily until the director ran in to rescue me.

Yet the point about Naples is that it’s a place of infinite contradictions. Everything you say about it, the precise opposite is also true. It can appear dystopian but is also renowned as a place of “cuccagna”, a wonderland of voluptuous goodness. Everyone who goes to Naples is warned about urchins and rogues, but this is the generous city where they invented the “suspended coffee”, where people who drink one coffee pay for two so that those who can’t afford won’t go without. This is a place teeming with life but constantly aware of death, not just because of the looming volcano that might obliterate everything in an instant. It’s all “Eros and Thanatos”, erotica and death. Even the city’s old name, Partenope, reminds you of seduction and dissolution: Partenope was one of the sirens who wooed Ulysses and, having taken her own life, washed up on the shores of the river Sebeto, where the city is now found.

These contradictions are very evident as you walk around the steep, narrow streets. Everything appears to be on show. The laundry is strung from balconies. In the famous “bassi”, the ground floor flats in the Neapolitan banlieues, you often see right into someone’s living room and glimpse an old woman ironing in her nightgown, or a man in his pants watching the box. But so much is hidden, too: there are hundreds of square kilometres of Napoli underground, all the catacombs and tunnels. It’s a place of raucous, performative shouting, but also of silences and secrets.

That’s why, of course, it makes such a beguiling backdrop to books and films. Recently there has been a resurgence in global interest in the city thanks to the success of Elena Ferrante’s novels, Paolo Sorrentino’s films and the TV series Gomorrah and Mare Fuori. The setting works because there is an explosive energy to the claustrophobia. Naples is one of the most densely populated cities in the world; you’re permanently, as Pino Daniele sang, “int’e viche miezo all’ate” (in the alleys amongst the others).

The other thing for which the city is famous is its chansonniers. From Libero Bovio to Nicola Salerno, Renato Carosone to Pino Daniele, 99 Posse to Geolier, the city has always produced troubadours and folk singers, invariably writing laments about heartbreak, injustice and what Daniele called the city’s “sole amaro”, its “bitter sun”. But the city’s music is a rich infusion of jazz, ska, rap, hip-hop and more. One of my favourite musicians from the city, Enzo Avitabile, said in De Simone’s documentary that Naples “wants to be immersed in the knowledge of other cultures, to be contaminated by other populations, but at the same time to maintain its own identity”. In that sense, the city often seems an example of multiculturalism gone right: constantly welcoming outsiders but, in Avitabile’s words, with such a “strong root” that “Napolitanità” remains intact.

One might legitimately wonder, then, how this extraordinary and contradictory city could ever be reflected in a 21st-century football team. Perhaps the answer is because Naples has, for millennia, absorbed outsiders; the multi-cultural mix of modern football suits Napoli more than other teams. Lewis wrote of “how uneuropean, how oriental” Naples is, and the club’s talent scouts have tended to look East. This season, some of the stand-out players have been the Macedonian Elif Elmas, the South Korean Kim Min-jae, the Slovakian Stanislav Lobotka, the Polish Piotr Zieliński, the Kosovan Amir Rrahmani and the Georgian Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

But Victor Osimhen is a major part of the story, too: the Nigerian striker suffered multiple facial fractures in a match against Inter Milan in November 2021, and has worn a black facial mask since returning to action. He no longer requires it for medical purposes, but whether because of its talismanic value or for its psychological reassurance, he never steps onto the pitch without it. The result is that he looks like a cross between Zorro and the famous Neapolitan character from the Commedia dell’Arte, Pulcinella (the black-masked “Punch”). In a city that sings obsessively about the sun, the guy even has a yellow circle dyed into his black hair: “like he’s captured the Naples’s sun,” as one song goes.

Then there’s Kvaratskhelia, the Georgian winger. He’s a bit of a scruffy scamp — unshaven with socks around his ankles — and reminds many of George Best, zig-zagging inside and outside defenders. “The style of play,” says Gianluca Monti, Napoli correspondent for La Gazzetta dello Sport, “is very similar to the city itself: Osimhen is very direct, straight to the heart, and Kvaratskhelia embodies the fantasy for which this city is famous.”

They blew away the top teams in Europe, hammering Liverpool 4-1 at home, and Ajax 6-1 away, in the Champions League. “This is Brazil, not Napoli,” said the Italian commentator on one occasion. The team beat Juventus, their arch-rivals, 5-1 (the exact same score as when they beat Juventus in the Supercoppa back in 1990). Every statistic and number was mined for its symbolism: the fact that it’s 33 years since the last title was linked to the earthly years of Jesus, allowing one banner to make a pun between “Crist” and “Chist” (“this”). Many in the city see this victory as divinely ordained.

It’s a truism that modern football fills a God-shaped hole in many peoples’ lives, but in Naples they take it further. During the Scudetto celebrations, I met a priest, Carmine, with his dog-collar unbuttoned; we started talking about the profound correlation between religion and football in Naples and he, slightly sheepishly, showed me a song he had written in which Osimhen rhymed with “ammen”.

But as well as reflecting the city back to itself, this team has also freed it, perhaps only briefly, of one of its most ancient traits. Naples is famous for its superstitions, for its attachment to magical, talismanic objects such as chili peppers or San Gennaro’s blood. There is a public belief that certain people — the iettatore or “jinxer” — have the power to bring bad luck. Even those who scorn superstition are wary of it: the Neapolitan actor and playwright, Eduardo De Filippo, once quipped: “Being superstitious is for idiots, but not to be superstitious brings bad luck.”

A large part of Neapolitan life is an attempt to nudge good fortune your way, or to interpret what the fates have in store. And the most absolute command in the city is that you never tempt fate by celebrating a victory before the final whistle. That would jinx it. But this spring, weeks prior to this Scudetto triumph, Naples was already celebrating. The team’s points advantage was so huge that banners proclaiming their third championship went up in March. It’s hard to emphasise how un-Neapolitan this was. “It’s as if we’ve smashed a millenarian taboo,” says Mimmo, a Neapolitan friend, “as if we’ve smashed this burden of superstition. We’ve defeated our corrosive, ancestral fears.”

The city has also, says Mimmo, been liberated “from the spectre of Maradona”. Since his death in 2020, the Argentine has become a religious figure in Naples, with his own shrines throughout the city. Since he wore the number 10 shirt, “D10” is placed under most portraits (it deliberately looks like “Dio”, or God). In the stadium, there’s a permanent banner calling him “the King”. But this team has finally moved beyond his brilliant, but cumbersome character. “This championship is the victory of democracy,” says Monti. In this team, there is no monarch surrounded by lesser mortals: “the whole team is one of equals.” It is noticeable that among all the players’ faces hanging on banners around the city, there are also the faces of the team’s most humble servants, such as the long-serving kit-man Tommy Starace.

I slowly walk away from the raucous carnival towards the seafront suburb of Posillipo. From here you can see the whole gulf of Naples, with Vesuvius and Capri in the distance. There are so many fireworks going off that night is turned into day. The original name of this suburb — Pausilypon — means literally “the cessation of woe”. And that, I guess, is what this season has offered: an interlude of sheer joy. Because despite all its notoriety for noir, the city has suddenly been illuminated by a script that seems to defy the cynicism and predictability of modern football.

Tobias Jones lives in Parma. His Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football won the 2020 Telegraph Football book of the Year.