Tonight’s Champions League opponents, Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli (SSC Napoli, or just Napoli for short), have a fascinating history, especially by Italian standards. Although their trophy cabinet is hardly brimming from past glories, they maintain one of the largest, most passionate fan bases within the country, and the success that they have had is unique among Southern Italian clubs.
Although the club officially designates 1926 as their founding, they can trace their earliest roots to an English sailor William Poths, who started Naples Foot-ball and Cricket Club in 1904. However, official Italian association football was strictly a Northern Italian exercise until 1926. So while Juventus, Milans AC and Inter, and so on, were stacking up titles, the club that would become Napoli were stuck mostly playing English sailors.
That all changed in 1926, when they were admitted into Divizione Nazionale, the top flight division that would become Serie A. While they were big for a Southern club, the titles hardly came rolling in for Napoli in the decades that followed. In fact, they wouldn’t lift their first major trophy until 1961/62, when they won their first of 5 Coppa Italia titles. They won another Coppa Italia in 1975/76, followed by a semifinal run to the UEFA Cup Winners Cup the next year. However, in the next decade, they would make a move for a player that would bring about the most successful period of the club, and make the world stand up and take notice of Napoli.
Of course, I’m talking about Diego Maradona. In 1984, Napoli broke the world transfer fee record (€12 million, how quaint) for the Argentinian, who is rightfully remembered as one of the best ever to play the game. From 1984 to 1991, Napoli won their only two league titles (1986/87 and 1989/90), becoming the first Southern team in Italy to accomplish the feat. He also helped the side lift the 1986/87 Copa Italia, and their solitary European title, the 1988/89 UEFA Cup (Europa League). For good measure, he added a Supercoppa Italiana in 1990 to his impressive trophy haul with Napoli. Maradona was so important to the identity of the club that his number 10 has been officially retired, an exceedingly rare move for any football club.
Since Maradona’s departure, Napoli have only managed two Copa Italias (2011/12 and 2013/14), and a Supercoppa Italiana (2014), though they have managed three runners-up finishes in the league, including last year.
The Azzurri famously share a nickname with the Italian national team. However, like Liverpool supporters and England, the local support for the national team remains lukewarm at best, largely from a history of maginalization and inequality compared to their Northern counterparts. The nickname comes from their famous sky blue kits, which they have more or less worn from the inception of the club, though occasionally with navy blue accents or stripes.
Their other nickname, I ciucciarelli, literally translates to “the little donkeys.” It started as a derisory term during their first full season of association football in 1926/27. The city symbol is a black stallion, so calling the team donkeys was quite the insult. However, it eventually became a term of endearment or affection, which remains to this day.
Liverpool will be facing Napoli in the Stadio San Paolo, built in 1959, and renovated in 1989 ahead of the 1990 World Cup. It has been the focal point of a recent conflict between UEFA and the club, with the stadium not up to their standards for hosting Champions League football. Famously, it was the location of the Argentina-Italy match, wherein Maradona asked Napoli supporters to cheer for him (and Argentina) over the home side.
It should be a fascinating match up between these historic clubs.