On Saturday, Napoli will face Juventus in a match that could, come the end of the season, decide the Serie A title race. The blue-clad partenopei from Naples have spent all season long shocking Italy, blasting through the league to stand atop the table with a two-point lead over their hosts, who also happen to be the four-time defending Serie A champions and the most-decorated team in Italian history. If they win, Napoli might just be able to completely turn the league on its head and change Italian football for a long time to come.
Long have Italy's glamour teams reigned supreme in Serie A. The rich northern clubs have dominated for decades, with Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan mostly just passing the scudetto title between themselves. As a team in the south, Napoli have rarely enjoyed the same glitz as their northern counterparts. Only two other southern teams have won Serie A since Napoli's last title in 1990, when capital clubs Lazio and Roma won it in back-to-back years at the turn of the century.
In fact, that trio represent the only southern teams to win multiple titles in Italy's top division. Roma have three, Lazio have two and Napoli won it twice during the heyday of football legend Diego Maradona, an era still thought of as the peak of the club's history.
That history took a darker turn after Maradona left, with a decade of struggles followed by financial ruin that saw the club relegated to the lower divisions of Italian football. Rebuilt by movie magnate Aurelio De Laurentiis, who bought the team in 2004, Napoli began a meteoric rise that has seen them reach for ever-loftier goals. They've moved from wanting to qualify for Europe to qualifying for the Champions League and now fighting for the title. With less financial resources than their northern counterparts, Napoli have ascended through years of smart scouting and effective financial management.
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Even during their rise, though, most of Italian football has seen Napoli as "that other" team. Not worth taking seriously, not when compared to Juventus or Inter or Milan, even in the face of the struggle and turmoil the latter two clubs have gone through in recent years. De Laurentiis had hoped that a "name" manager like Rafa Benitez would help improve his club's standing, but all Rafa did was crash them out of the Champions League twice, choke down the stretch of two seasons and then scamper off to Real Madrid.
So how did Napoli respond? By making the team more, well, Neapolitan. The core of the squad was already similar to that of the Maradona era -- a high-quality Argentine striker accompanied by either players from the Naples region or whom had made it their home. This time, the striker was Gonzalo Higuain, and those players were Naples-born Lorenzo Insigne, plus foreign stars in Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon, Jorginho, Faouzi Ghoulam and Dries Mertens. All of them had fallen head-over-heels in love with the city and found the desire to fight for it, even if Naples lacks the glitz and glamour of Milan, Turin or Florence.
Now with Naples-born manager Maurizio Sarri in charge, they've taken Serie A by storm. They've proved again and again that they're afraid of no opponent, beating Juventus, Inter and Milan in decisive fashion earlier this season, as well as handing humbling defeats to several other bigger Italian teams along the way. Now Juventus are in their sights again. A victory over their arch-rivals in Turin and the big shiny Juventus Stadium would be a huge coup for Napoli, as well as a firm announcement that this team is not a short-run fluke, and they are not going away.
It's time for Italy to change, for new teams to step up into the limelight. Napoli have spent years trying to kick down the door in Serie A. Saturday may be the day the status quo in Italy finally falls.