It is the morning after the night before and The Culture Division, Editor, Liam Miller has woken up in the beautiful bosom of Naples to the realisation that Napoli is once more the Champions of Italy. It wasn’t all just a glorious dream. After 33 long years of hurt, number 3 had arrived at last.
I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance with the city’s other saint: Diego Maradona
The next morning I checked out of the hotel and walked down the hill to the port. My head was fuzzy, but not in the menacing, dread-inducing way. I tried to make sense of the night that had passed me by, admiring the confetti and streamers and empty bottles that lined the street. Down at the port, I bought two Gazzetta dello Sport newspapers: one to read, one to keep as a souvenir. “NAPOLI IN PARADISO”, read the front page.
The apartment I was staying in was just a 20-minute walk from the port in Naples, in Forcella. I dumped my bags and headed straight out. The ferry crossing was calm and breezy, but it was still early and by all accounts, a scorching day lay ahead. I intended to make the most of it.
I walked in a near-straight line along Via Forcella, stopping where it intersects with Via Duomo to admire Jorit Agoch’s mural of San Gennaro. It is an artistic wonder; a colourful and inspired representation of the city’s first patron saint. As I gazed up at the figure, the crossroads buzzing with the business of a Friday lunchtime, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance with the city’s other saint: Diego Maradona.
This was the Neapolitan welcome; love who they are and they will give you the world
Naples is a city that forces you to enjoy yourself; it is simply impossible to not have a good time. In the depths of the city, open spaces are few and far between. There is a breathlessness about even the most leisurely of strolls through its streets; laughter, merriment, emotion is all compressed and channelled along its narrow alleyways and back around. You must surrender yourself to the ecstasy of that feeling of human connection.
I carried on further, through the narrow Via San Biagio Dei Librai, stepping away from the madness of that street and into an espresso bar for a coffee and a brief moment of reprieve, before heading back out into the flow of people. In that walkway my senses worked overtime: all manner of colourful decorations hung overhead, seemingly all the way up to the clouds; waiters and shop owners conversed and gesticulated wildly at breakneck speed, raising and lowering their volumes like an orchestra over the swirl of people passing by; the acidic sharpness of espresso and fluffy sweetness of soon-to-be-baked pizza dough mixed in the humid afternoon air. This was the vigorous whir of a city in celebration.
I eventually emerged onto Via Toledo, one of the city’s main arteries, before cutting across into the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarter), a rabbit warren of pizzerias, rowdy bars and the sort of joints where you can buy a Spritz for no more than a couple of euros. I took a seat outside a bar and admired the sheer ingenuity and randomness of some of the homemade celebratory tributes I had seen so far on my journey. A life-size coffin, housing a lifesize cutout of Juventus manager Max Allegri, a much-maligned figure in these parts, stood out to me, as did the repurposing of a roundabout to build a giant paper mache model of Vesuvio, spray painted in the colour of the Italian flag, bearing the obligatory ‘3’. I ordered a drink.
The waiter, whose contagious smile stretched from ear to ear, brought out an ice-cold beer before darting into the women’s hair salon opposite, as if in a hurry. He emerged about 10 minutes later, his entire beard dyed bright blue, and his smile even wider than before. He resumed seeing to tables, moving with purpose and freedom, taking orders between singing and laughing with passers-by. The women in the salon opposite attempted to call him back in, presumably to wash the dye off, but he was oblivious to their calls, and the cat-and-mouse game became a street-wide matter of entertainment.
He passed by my table as I finished my beer, stood up, and set down a note to pay. With a firm but warm arm across my shoulder, he asked what I thought of his new look, all the while beaming his unwavering smile at me. “Incredibile!” I returned, attempting to match his vigour in my compliment. “Grazie! Buona giornata!” he said, before skipping off to the next table. As I walked further along the alley, leaving the bar behind, I thought about how long his beard, and these streets, would remain blue.
That evening I met some friends in Piazza Borache, a little up from the Spanish Quarter. They were unsurprisingly half-drunk, high on the city’s blissful atmosphere and the dozen or so empty Spritz glasses on the table. We sat there for a few hours, sharing stories and reliving the magic of the past few days.
A few seemed most pleased that many of the northern press outlets had been sent home without a story to tell, having headed to Naples only for the Salernitana game. They implored me to visit the Sansevero Chapel to see Giuseppe Sanmartino’s Veiled Christ sculpture before I left. “It’s the best thing in the city!” they argued. I made them a promise, understanding their desire to reflect Naples as a city that is more than just its football team. As we parted ways, their tone, both passionate and resilient, left me with an incredible sense of duty to honour their wishes. This was the Neapolitan welcome; love who they are and they will give you the world. In that moment, the feeling of collective joy had a gravitational pull. A profound sense of belonging washed over me.
I didn’t have a ticket, I didn’t care. I knew it before I’d even arrived: that palpable sense of anticipation was the reason I made this journey
I walked back to the apartment through yet more narrow streets. The motion from a passing scooter, weaving an impossible line through the alleyway, missing bystanders by mere millimetres, knocked over another lifesize cutout, this one of Kvicha Kvaratskehelia. The downing of the Georgian prince–whose diminutive stature, gazelle-like prowess and mazy dribbling has caused many to anoint him as Maradona-reincarnate–was such an act of horror that the table of diners sat opposite gasped and yelped in unison. “Ah! Kvara! No!” they shouted, before barking expletives at the long-disappeared man on the scooter.
Recognising the gravity of the situation, I bent down to help the flailing Kvicha back to his feet, dusting him off and setting him back to his previous position. He appeared unhurt. My act of heroism was met with a round of applause and cheers from the table of diners opposite and the table next to it, which had also turned to witness the commotion. I threw up a hand of appreciation and chuckled at the incredulity of it all. Seconds later, the diners returned to their conversations and meals, as if nothing had happened. A fleeting swing of emotions in the chaos of normal life. I quickly learned that these moments, intimate in their nature, were the blood that coursed through the veins of the city. Millions of simultaneous individual moments of joy and interaction and intrigue.
Sunday came around quickly. Napoli were playing Fiorentina in a homecoming match at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, their first since becoming champions. I didn’t have a ticket, but I didn’t care. I knew it before I’d even arrived: that palpable sense of anticipation was the reason I made this journey.
Some three or four hours before kick off, I headed towards Piazza Plebiscito, where I’d heard everywhere that the atmosphere would be most electric. Even along the smaller streets people were gathering. Nearly every shop front had hauled out and propped up speakers of varying shapes and sizes, each creating a mini dancefloor that spread out into the centre of the road.
There are few places on Earth as alive as the city of Naples
I finally reached the impossibly busy Via Toledo, which was packed almost shoulder-to-shoulder with blue and white shirts. It was an explosion of fanfare only comparable to that of Rio de Janeiro during carnival season. Georgian, Nigerian and Argentinian flags could be seen regularly, celebrating the city’s newest and oldest heroes. Kids and adults alike wore black superhero face masks like their talismanic goalscorer Victor Osimhen.
A deafening mix of whistles and air horns provided a constant sense of occasion. Every few hundred yards a more tightly gathered crowd would huddle on one side of the street, pausing to join in with a spontaneous rendition of Sarò Con Te or La Capolista Se Ne Va or some other emotive anthem. Then, when the song had petered out into a faint murmur, a Christ-like figure would emerge in the centre of the crowd with a red or blue flare in hand, pushing the group outwards in a frenzy. Flares of all colours were omnipresent, which was surprising, as a waiter had told me earlier that morning that the city had run out completely.
A euphoric chaos filled Piazza Plebiscito. I spent some time taking it all in. Enormous groups formed around buskers who played Neapolitan classics like ‘O Sarracino and ‘O Surdato ‘Nnammurato, and of course the admiring onlookers knew every word and danced every beat.
Kick-off was approaching, so I left Plebiscito and cut back into the Spanish Quarter to look for somewhere to watch the action. I settled for standing precariously on a bench with a few others outside a bar that was projecting the game onto the opposite wall of the alley. It was the only way I could see over the huddle that had formed in front of the pitch.
I worked my way through more than a few one-euro Spritzs in the first half, ordering from my spot on the bench in batches of six and sharing two each with the two guys balanced on either side of me. It did cross my mind that a goal might cause this whole house of cards to collapse, sending Aperol and beer and all manner of liquids flying across the heads of those around us, not to mention our limbs and the bench itself.
A 75th-minute goal from–who else?–Victor Osimhen would prove my fears correct. But I didn’t care. Nobody cared. The whole cacophony of madness: out-of-place limbs, air-bound drinks, contorted faces and toppled furniture looked like a Hieronymous Bosch painting. It happened in slow motion, and seemed to take a good five minutes for people to recover their equilibriums. The deep orange ember of a freshly ignited flare, lit in an almost ceremonial fashion, faded out to a dark red hue and recaptured my focus. In that moment, the feeling of collective joy had a gravitational pull. A profound sense of belonging washed over me.
Festivities continued long after the final whistle. In fact, they had only just started. I ambled merrily back to the apartment along the wide and fast Corso Umberto road, with thousands of others, just after the day gave way to night. A never-ending convoy of hatchbacks and scooters whizzed past, hammering their horns with one hand and clinging to enormous flags in the other. People stopped along the side of the road to applaud each one in turn, like heroic knights returning from a successful day of pillaging. Teenagers stood defiantly in the central reservation holding flares and twirling scarves in the air. In sporadic intervals, the sky would surge with a flash of light, and the million tiny sparkles of a firework would rain slowly down over our heads.
I cannot be one of those who claim to know or understand even the idea of Naples. It is a patchwork city. It is religious and sacrilegious, welcoming and hostile, simple and complex, all in equal measure. There are few places on Earth as alive as the city of Naples. To attempt to understand it is to misunderstand it completely. The only option is to give in, to open yourself to one of those million tiny moments. They are indelible.
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.