With Napoli on the brink of their first Serie A title in 33 years, Editor of The Culture Division, Liam Miller, found himself in the city of Naples where he would bear witness to history and a moment that transcended sport. This is his story, told over three parts.
It was a welcome that spoke a thousand words
I am incredibly envious of those with impeccable timing. Those people who always seem to be in the right place at the right time. It is a freakish thing to me. I had always wondered if there was a secret to it, or just the appearance of one: luck masquerading as skill.
Whatever the fateful combination is, it was bestowed upon me in late May. Napoli would play three games across the week I had planned to spend travelling from Florence to Naples, via Rome. That was, in effect, three match points. In all likelihood, that elusive third Scudetto would have been sewn up on the day I arrived–a Sunday. But as the early evening sun had started to drop in the sky, casting long, cool shadows on Florence’s cobbled streets, bubbles were bursting some 300 miles south. A Salernitana equaliser. Party on hold.
At this point, the title was just a formality. Such was their astonishing lead in the Campionato that they needed just one more point from their remaining six games.
The train rolled into the edge of the city around midday, skirting the ominous cone of Vesuvio to my left and passing by rundown apartment blocks to my right. From almost every balcony hung a blue flag, some adorned with the faces of heroes past and present, others had simply handwritten or spray painted the number ‘3’–a ubiquitous symbol of the city’s soon-to-be-recognised triumph. It was a welcome that spoke a thousand words.
Then, the final whistle. It was done. Napoli, Campioni d’Italia
But the city was not to be my final destination on this day of days. I left the station and caught a bus to the port, where I boarded the hour-long ferry to Ischia, a large mythical island to the west of Naples. As the boat approached the harbour, the power of the late-spring sun hit me for the first time since I landed in Italy. To be here, a place conquered by countless empires for its natural beauty and frequented by Hollywood icons like Elizabeth Taylor and Alain Delon, rather than in the heart of the action for the crowning moment, was nothing to feel embittered about. This would do.
On the night of the game, I found a seat in a seafood restaurant along the Corso Vittoria Colonna, a street somewhere up from the port of Ischia. It was a small setting, and the walls were covered in photographs and newspaper clippings of a man and what looked to be his son posing valiantly with catches of varying sizes. All the seats were oriented to face an antiquated television set high in the corner. Its picture was a little blurred, and its lack of sound had been supplemented by a radio balanced precariously on top.
The restaurant was only half-full with locals, presumably making the most of the calm before the tourism storm that would kick off in a matter of weeks, with day-trippers from Naples and the Amalfi Coast soon to be clambering ashore in relentless fashion up until the start of September. The man in the picture, who I’d worked out to be the owner and proprietor, emerged and took my order: two beers, a fritto misto with sardines and an octopus salad. He was leisurely and relaxed, in a way that only a long life on an island could ever nurture. His son, who I’d estimated to be in his early twenties, walked and paced around the back of the restaurant by the kitchen pass, and then out onto the street, frantically checking his phone. He was the nervous opposite of his father.
Over the course of the next two hours, between cold, unfiltered Peroni’s, a panna cotta, espresso, and more beers, the bar ebbed and flowed with the game, cursing and cheering and ooh-ing and ahh-ing in unison. An Udinese goal. But then a Napoli goal. As the minutes ticked slowly by, the restaurant, long disinterested in serving any more food, had become more and more busy; the mood was one of open-armed celebration. Then, the final whistle. It was done. Napoli, Campioni d’Italia. Men and women cried real tears. The owner’s son, who just as the game kicked off finally settled into a seat at the table next to mine, embraced me with a hug so strong he lifted me off the floor and into the air. Before long, the restaurant’s speakers came alive, with all the abruptness of a jump-started car, and began to fill the night air with the voice of Nino D’Angelo.
the streets of Naples were more alive than ever
Slowly at first, but then all at once, the streets filled with people, scooters, banners, airhorns, all seemingly heading in one direction. The restaurant owner’s son, who I’d now learned was called Davide, put his arm around my shoulder and herded me like a sheepdog into the flow of the crowd.
After spending a few hours in the small but lively Piazza Degli Eroi, singing and laughing and cheering at the endless flow of scooters and cars who passed through at rapid speeds, all of which had flags and scarves flowing behind, we called it a night.
There would be more celebrations to come, and the next morning I was going to catch the early boat to Naples. I bid farewell to Davide and promised I would see him again if I ever returned. It was not a promise made in the throwaway fashion that tends to befit that kind of drunken stupor, but one of sincerity–a sort of solemn recognition of a moment we had shared together, a moment not shared in this part of the world for 33 years.
I headed back to the apartment along the shore. Ahead of me, a gloriously full moon hovered in near-perfect alignment above the craggy islet upon which sat the Castello Aragonese, illuminating a remarkable stillness in the bay. A handful of small rowing boats bobbed with melancholy on the surface of the water, which flickered and sparkled in the moonlight. Some 30 miles behind me, the streets of Naples were more alive than ever.
This story was originally published in The Culture Divison.
The Culture Division is a digital platform and collective that creatively celebrates, investigates and analyses culture, art, lifestyle and other subcultures through the lens of the beautiful game.