There are many brilliant stories connected to Napoli and the Stadio San Paolo. I myself have been fortunate enough to see a few matches in the famous city and to be a part of the chants, flares and flags. Although Napoli vs Juventus is a unique experience, a game that for Neapolitans is, without doubt, the most important of the season. It’s a true clash of cultures, ideas, and philosophies. A divide as old as the unification of Italy itself is brought roaring back to life.
The industrious north against the passionate south.
I’d pencilled in the fixture, set for March 2019, for months. The first obstacle was simply obtaining tickets. Usually, getting tickets for almost any game in Italy is quite straightforward with some fore planning, but when tickets were put on sale they were only available to the residents of Campania. I contacted a few people that I knew and even the owner of the air B&B I was due to be staying in, but it was impossible to get them, so much so that a group of fans who had travelled from Sweden made an official complaint that received national news coverage forcing the club to relax the rules and to also allow people who had residency outside of Italy to buy tickets, I was saved.
My girlfriend and I arrived in the city and started our typical Napoli routine, which primarily consists of eating, being culture vultures, and enjoying the atmosphere. Naples is unlike any other European city I have visited. We decided to get to the stadium early, as we know that Neapolitans like to get to the San Paolo as soon as the gates open, but on this occasion, it was something else.
We arrived an hour and a half before kick-off and the situation was a kind of quasi-organised chaos. Fuorigrotta, the area around the ground, was packed with fans, vendors, and police. There were lots of police present, but I could understand why though, as there was electricity in the air, a current of energy radiating itself through the thousands of enthusiastic fans. It was most definitely derby day.
Also with the league as it was, a Juventus win would effectively make them champions. Napoli, who were second, needed the old lady to start dropping points, and what better place to start than at San Paolo. We found our gate and waited. And waited. And waited some more. We queued for an hour in total, just to get into the ground, this was due to the fact that everyone was being searched and their tickets double-checked. But once inside the stadium, the queue, the police and the vendors were all left firmly outside.
The ultras were in fine chorus and as Juventus came onto the pitch to warm-up the sound of boos was deafening, I could feel a physical pressure on my ears that totally blocked my hearing for a good few seconds, it was surreal. Most of this negativity was aimed at Cristiano Ronaldo who seemed to enjoy the pressure being forced upon him. I can only imagine the thoughts that must have been running through the minds of some of the less experienced players.
The match started and at 25 minutes in, a flash point. Ronaldo was in a one on one situation with the Napoli goalkeeper who was deemed to have fouled the forward. The goalkeeper Alex Meret was duly sent off and the subsequent free-kick was scored majestically by Miralem Pjanic, much to the displeasure of the home supporters. Then Juventus scored a second courtesy of midfielder Emre Can. After this moment the attitude of Juventus totally changed, and they played in a very contained manner until the interval.
As the second half commenced, a ray of light for Napoli. The aforementioned Pjanic was sent off for a second bookable offence, creating a level playing field. Napoli scored on the hour mark via Jose Callejon, and a comeback was on the cards, Napoli threw everybody forward in the hope of at least getting an equaliser and with Juventus sticking to their tactics this seemed even more likely and then it happened, a moment of destiny.
A late penalty for Napoli. Lorenzo Insigne, the local hero, who had grown up in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius stepped up. Silence replaced sound. Expectation replaced hope. He struck the ball well, it hit the left post and ricocheted into safety. A collective gasp echoed around the ground, shock coupled with total disbelief sank into the hearts of the Neapolitans and a few moments later the referee called an ending to proceedings. Juventus went to their supporters and celebrated as if they had just won the league (which some could argue now they had) and were met with another chorus of boos. The ultras, although disheartened, were still in great voice and continued to sing to their players well after the final whistle.
We left the stadium without incident, I am happy to say, and made our way to a pizzeria. As we were waiting for our pizza, an old man, needing to express his dismay at what he had just seen, tells us in an almost ancient form of Neapolitan dialect that, “It must be true then, it’s all fixed.”
As only with the intervention of corruption could such a perfect moment be soiled. For that night the whole city mourned their loss to the old northern enemy.
Words by James Nye