Walking down Naples’ narrow streets, they say you can taste football.
Mix with the Neapolitan people, the fans, the shopkeepers and you can feel the city lives football.
“If you see a 90-year-old lady in Naples, she is a supporter of the team,” one local taxi driver tells Copa90.
“Every young player who plays football here dreams of putting on the Napoli shirt,” says Antonio Piccolo, who works at the Arci Scampia football school in Northern Naples.
“Napoli is the pride of Naples,” adds Antonello, a Napoli ultra from the San Paolo stadium’s Curva B. “Perhaps in Milan they have businesses and industries — we only have football.”
That reference also touches upon the historical antagonism between Northern and Southern Italy.
When Napoli won its first Serie A title in 1987, the Gentleman Ultra website notes: “In the city, mock funerals were held for Juventus. Naples finally had a riposte to their overweening Northern foes: ‘May 1987, the other Italy has been defeated, a new empire is born.'”
Key to that 1987 title success was Diego Maradona, who moved to Napoli from Barcelona in 1984 for a then world-record fee of $10.5 million.
“In Naples he led a third-rate Italian club to its first-ever league championship, giving him the status of a demi-God among the downtrodden southerners,” wrote Jimmy Burns, the author of a biography on Maradona.
The Naples club won a second Scudetto in 1990, but a year later Maradona failed a drugs test and he left Italy in disgrace after he was handed a 15-month ban.
This season, Napoli are again the talk of Europe.
Under coach Maurizio Sarri, a former banker and amateur footballer, they remain the only side in the top five leagues with a perfect record.
With an exhilarating forward line of Dries Mertens, Jose Callejon and Napoli-born local hero Lorenzo Insigne, the ‘Partenopei’ have plundered 28 goals in their opening eight Serie A games.
Supporting them from midfield is the long-limbed, spiky-haired Marek Hamsik. The Slovakian has just celebrated a decade at Napoli, moving from Brescia in 2007 and has gone on to become club captain.
If Maradona is the “God” of Naples, then it might be fair to say Hamsik is rapidly becoming the second coming.
For years, this one-club city has felt shackled by the memory of the great Argentine, unable to move on from the glory years which saw Napoli claim those Scudetti in 1987 and 1990.
Arguably this season presents Napoli their best opportunity yet to find closure on that chapter of history and start writing a new one of their own.
Not only has the club already laid down an early marker for Serie A’s chasing teams, but Hamsik also needs just two more goals to break Maradona’s 26-year record.
The 30-year-old currently sits on 114 goals, needing one more to equal Maradona’s 115-goal haul and there would be no better time to achieve it than on Saturday.
At 7:45pm, the air in Naples, as former goalkeeper coach Xavi Valero described it, will be thick with the smell of football as Napoli welcome Inter Milan to the intimidating San Paolo stadium.
Currently in second place, lurking just two points behind Napoli, Inter have been Italy’s surprise package.
While the world looked on in awe at the squad city rivals AC Milan assembled in the summer, it was Inter who went about their business in a quieter, more effective fashion.
Regardless, Napoli remain favorites going into the match, though they could be without one part of their feared attacking trident.
Insigne was substituted as a precaution in Tuesday’s Champions League defeat to Manchester City and, although initial tests ruled out a muscular tear, he remains is a doubt for the match.
“The tests confirmed the diagnosis of muscular fatigue made in the dressing room at the Etihad,” Napoli said in a statement.
“The forward will receive treatment today at Castelvolturno, and his condition will be evaluated tomorrow.”
Having directly contributed to seven league goals this season (three goals, four assists), Insigne’s presence would be sorely missed.
But Inter’s last win at the San Paolo came 20 years ago and midfielder Amadou Diawara, who scored his first professional goal against Manchester City, is confident of a result.
It could be argued the match against Inter will be Napoli’s sternest test so far, but this is a team that has already traveled to Roma and Lazio — and won.
“There’s a lot at stake and we want to give everything,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough match but an interesting one too. We’re playing at the San Paolo in front of our fans, who will give us a massive boost.
“We’re really motivated to do well, but we know we’re playing a team that’s in great form. I hope it can be another magical night for us.”