Napoli and Rafael Benitez – A romance that could last

Blog by: Naveen

Head coach Rafael Benitez of SSC Napoli smiles prior to the UEFA Champions League Group F match between SSC Napoli and Borussia Dortmund at Stadio San Paolo on September 18, 2013 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)

A walk through the streets of Naples today, for those unaware of the lifeblood that pumps the very soul of this city, would inevitably throw up a number of questions. There is a sense of something bigger than the self, something that seems to uplift the spirit, a deep undercurrent of emotion that the uninitiated will mistake for the typical Italian fervour for religion; here where religion is not so much a personal choice, as it is a birth right.

In a city that may have changed with the times, but never really lost its heart, they worship a God of a different persuasion. He is decidedly mortal, and by God, does he have his flaws! But he is one of their own, the most revered of the fantasisti to have graced this city with their art.

And in his name, the name of Diego Armando Maradona, the Neapolitans have awoken to a summer of great promise and potential. But it has come in the unlikeliest shape and form; that of the rotund and much maligned Rafa Benitez. Not that anyone is complaining.

The Spaniard landed the plum Napoli hot-seat by virtue of his surprisingly good performances, whilst in the dugout at Chelsea last season. Third place and a Europa League crown are hardly accomplishments worthy of the tag of being the erstwhile defending champions of Europe, but it was a litmus test of sorts for Benitez himself, one that he emerged from relatively unscathed.

Already despised in Stamford Bridge, courtesy of the many hotly-contested duels between the Blues and The Reds during his time at Liverpool, it took a whole lot of guts for Benitez to play the managerial merry-go-round game that saw him stuck with the tag of “Interim Manager” during his entire time at Chelsea.

A move born out of a desperation to re-ignite a career that had promised so much during his time at Valencia, but seemed to be stuck in limbo after a disastrous spell in charge of Inter Milan. Although the Spaniard has picked up trophies wherever his managerial career has taken him, he is considered a bit of a maverick in those esteemed circles. A man with a tactical nous that comes to the fore in the unlikeliest of scenarios, when the odds are stacked against him, but not one who has what it takes to consistently deliver results. Still, thus far, the man has inspired much confidence among Napoli tifosi; an altogether surprising turn of events.

The Neapolitans are a simple people, one who revel in their spontaneity; in their food and wine and, of course, their football. The city is lined with street corners that pay tribute to their God and savior, the Argentine who is as much a son of Naples as he is of Beunos Aires. Maradona brought a sense of pride and respect to a tifosi that had previously never even dared to dream of the heights his time at Naples would take them to. Genius often evokes passionate emotions, but nothing in football is quite like the relationship El Diego shares with his subjects in the southern Italian province.

And despite the dizzying heights of expectation, and the sense of nostalgia rampant in Naples today, the citizens have taken to Benitez almost instantly. In a season that was perhaps going to be best remembered for the sale of talisman Edinson Cavani, Benitez’s sharp moves in the transfer market, highlighted by the arrival of a ready-made replacement in Argentine Gonzalo Higuain, together with moves that completed a Real Madrid raid, in the form of an under-rated José Callejón and defender Raúl Albiol, have completely changed the morale around the Stadio San Paolo.

Another very impressive addition has been the Belgian Dries Mertens, as Benitez decided to place his trust in the seemingly endless supply of Belgian talent now vying for places in top notch teams the world over. Pepe Reina’s loan move from Liverpool, of course, sees him reunited with the man who brought him to Anfield in the first place.

Lorenzo Insigne (R) of SSC Napoli celebrates with his teammate Marek Hamsik after scoring his team’s second goal during the Uefa Champions League Group F match between Napoli and Borussia Dortmund at Stadio San Paolo on September 18, 2013 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

But of particular interest is the core of the team that has seen Napoli fight for Champions League football in recent seasons. In vice-captain Marek Hamšík they have a truly world class talent, one who has resisted overtures from more favoured destinations (most prominently Manchester City) to grow to be the creative fulcrum in a fluent Napoli line-up.

Valon Behrami, another prodigy who hasn’t quite lived up to expectations during previous spells at Lazio and West Ham United (most prominently), is slowly but surely finding his feet in his second season in Naples;at an age when footballers typically step into the prime of their careers.

Captain Paolo Cannavaro and wing back Cristian Maggio provide a much needed Italian flavour to the defensive line, while Gökhan İnler is another name who has come into his own at Napoli. It is also where veteran Goran Pandev struts his stuff these days; with hometown hero Lorenzo Insigne completing an already glittering attack.

The hold that the youngster has on the fans is only to be expected. An immensely exciting prospect who is truly one of their own, the prodigy’s instantaneous success brings tears to the eyes of a proud Naples that wears its heart on its sleeves.

The one bright spark in the drab England U-21 vs Italy U-21 match-up earlier in the summer, Insigne provided the match-winner on that occasion, as he did in this week’s hugely anticipated Champions League encounter against last year’s finalists Borussia Dortmund.

In a match that will unfortunately be remembered best for Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp’s attempt to transform into The Hulk down on the touchline (how the match official at the receiving end did not pee in his pants, I really do not know), Insigne’s unstoppable free kick turned out to be the difference between the two sides when all was said and done.

Fun fact – reserve goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak, who came on after Roman Weidenfeller was sent off (not a good day for Dortmund, yeah), ended up chipping two front teeth on the goalpost in a vain attempt to get to Insigne’s perfect strike.

On a more poignant note, I have a curious theory as to why the Neapolitans have so readily accepted Rafa’s reign, and it is one that cannot be explained by the cold, hard truths of the transfer market. They sense in the Spaniard a soul much like their own; one that is searching for lost glory in a time of rapidly changing ethos and priorities.

Napoli is a melting pot of the modern and the ancient; through it all the city retains its spirit of romance and honour. At the helm is a man who has largely been relegated to the role of a stop-gap solution in recent years, a man capable of greatness and mediocrity in equal measure; much like Naples itself. Benitez will want to find a home, a citadel where his mercurial talents are given the appreciation that he so craves. And in the sentimental Neapolitans, he may just have found his calling.

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