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Napoli – Triumphant Return

Declared bankrupt in 2004, Napoli were promoted to Serie A in June after an absence of six years – and it is all thanks to a film producer.
When Aurelio De Laurentiis, film producer and owner of Napoli football club, was recently asked whether he would rather win an Oscar or the scudetto – the Serie A title — he barely hesitated: “The title.” For someone whose business has been film for over 30 years, De Laurentiis was revealing the degree to which he has been caught up in the passion of returning fallen giants Napoli to football’s limelight.
Indeed, the story of how a team from the poor south of Italy conquered Serie A with the help of the Argentine slum genius, Diego Armando Maradona, collapsed under a mountain of debt, only to return triumphantly to the top flight a few years later, is very much the stuff of Hollywood movies.
De Laurentiis is the producer – the money man — behind the fairytale, having bought out the bankrupt club in 2004 and then financed its return to Serie A, a feat achieved on the penultimate day of last season with a 0-0 draw away at Genoa. When De Laurentiis believes in something, he is prepared to gamble heavily on it. As the film industry bible, Variety magazine, put it: “In a land where financing a movie out of your own pocket is unheard of, producer Aurelio De Laurentiis sticks out like Mount Vesuvius, the active volcano overlooking his native Naples.”
A lifetime in the cut-throat film industry has been useful in toughening up the Napoli president, nephew of the famous Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis. When some of Napoli`s hard-core ‘ultra’ fans protested angrily last summer about the club’s modest transfer spending, lesser men might have been intimidated. But De Laurentiis told them: “Nobody is obliged to follow us. Whoever doesn’t agree with our strategy can stop supporting Napoli. We are used to working – in cinema and in football – to produce concrete results, not special effects.”
The results are there for all to see. The draw with Genoa on June 10 guaranteed Napoli second place in Serie B and automatic promotion to Serie A after just one season in the second division. This followed two seasons in Serie C1, the third division, where Napoli had been dispatched by the Italian football association, the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, in August 2004 after failing to meet the financial criteria required to enrol in Serie B. Carrying an estimated €70 million of debt, Societa Sportiva Calcio Napoli was declared bankrupt.
De Laurentiis bought the Napoli “franchise” and launched a new club, Napoli Soccer, which continued to play its home games at the mythical San Paolo stadium. After narrowly missing out on promotion at the end of the 2004-05 season – losing to neighbours Avellino in the play-off final – Napoli won the C1 championship the following season. Just one year later, the club clinched a return to Serie A for the first time since 2001.
While De Laurentiis is clearly the protagonist of the tale, there are two other characters who have played key roles in the rebirth of the club: first-team coach Edoardo ‘Edy’ Reja and director general Pierpaolo Marino.
Reja is a journeyman coach who has earned a shot at the big time through years of hard graft and a stubborn streak a mile wide. The 61-year-old former Palermo player started out coaching the youth teams of provincial clubs in the 1980s before getting his first-team break with Serie B’s Pescara in 1989. He has since coached Cosenza, Verona, Bologna, Lecce, Brescia, Torino, Vicenza, Genoa, Catania and Cagliari. He took over at Napoli in January 2005 when Giampiero Ventura was sacked after a string of poor results.
Reja’s two years at Napoli have been far from easy and on at least two occasions he was on the verge of quitting after suffering verbal abuse from Napoli supporters. The fans were particularly hostile to his frequent substitutions of high-scoring striker Emanuele Calaio. According to media reports, Reja’s contract for the 2007-08 season remained unsigned well into the summer but with the prospect of sold-out matches against the giants of Italian football like Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale on the horizon, allowing Reja to pit his wits against coaches of the calibre of Claudio Ranieri, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini, it
seemed unthinkable that he and Napoli would part company. However, Reja has twice before – with Brescia and Cagliari – taken clubs up to Serie A only to walk away on the eve of the new season because of a contract dispute.
The dour Reja and the flamboyant De Laurentiis provide the contrasting public faces of the new Napoli but the contribution of Pierpaolo Marino behind the scenes has been fundamental. Marino, one of the most highly regarded administrators in Italian football, responded to the call from De Laurentiis in 2004, leaving Serie A’s Udinese for third-division Napoli. At Udinese, Marino had revolutionised the club’s finances, overseeing the creation of a global scouting network that enabled the club to sign emerging talents from South America and Africa, often selling them on later at a vast profit.
Marino immediately introduced a salary cap of 70 per cent of turnover at Napoli, rejecting the populist shortcut of hiring one or two highly-paid stars in favour of the ethics of the collective. This is Marino’s second spell at the club, having worked there in the mid-80s when Napoli won their first league title – a period which will always be known as “the Maradona era”.
So much has been written about Maradona and Napoli that the story is well known. The period from Maradona’s arrival from Barcelona in 1984 to his departure in 1992 was one of unprecedented and nevertobe-repeated success for Napoli, with two league titles, a UEFA Cup success and a Coppa Italia. Maradona was transformed into a deity for the Neapolitans who packed the 78,000-capacity San Paolo stadium for every home game.
Those fans are the final element in the Napoli story: far more than just “extras” in the background, Napoli’s fans are an integral part of the spectacle. Although Juventus, Inter and Milan may have more fans, Napoli’s supporters are arguably the most passionate in Italy. On the day the club gained promotion in Genoa, the streets and piazzas of Naples filled with tens of thousands of tifosi producing a cacophony of car horns and firecrackers amid a riot of colourful flags and flares.
De Laurentiis and Marino will not be deflected from running the club on a sound financial footing. This will almost certainly lead to a difficult first season in Serie A, where Napoli will have to compete with clubs prepared to run up massive debts to bring in top players. At the time of writing, Napoli had signed Argentine forward Ezequiel Lavezzi from San Lorenzo, Uruguayan midfield playmaker Walter Gargano from Danubio and Slovakian midfielder Marek Hamsik from Brescia but the fans were still demanding some star names to top the bill. Despite the new additions, the squad is far weaker than that of Serie A’s glamour reams and maybe this season De Laurentiis will just have to settle for an Oscar.