… Mi innamorai di te.
I first traveled to Naples in 1996 as a writer for The Berkeley Guides, a now-defunct series of travel guides. I chose to cover Southern Italy because I had a friend who lived in Naples whom I had met in a German language program in Berlin the summer before. I stayed with her in her father’s apartment in Santa Lucia (I think), a quiet neighborhood near the water and the Castel dell’Ovo, for about two weeks. During that time I took overnight trips to Ischia and Capri and a day trip to Procida. (And after leaving Naples, in Amalfi, I saw a wedding party leaving the cathedral, with its huge bronze doors and wide steps. For years I wanted to get married in that cathedral. Not being Catholic made that unlikely.)
Like many visitors, I fell in love with Naples, one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the home to the best pizza anywhere. (New Haven is a respectable second.) Travel guidebooks tend to be a pastiche of the words of successive generations of writers, but I’m pretty sure I wrote this, which you’ll find in the 1997 edition:
“Lifelong Neapolitans claim that theirs is the most beautiful city in the world. Approaching Naples (Napoli) from the water at sunset, as the moon rises over Mt. Vesuvius, or looking down from the Vomero Hills over the sweeping curve of the bay, you may be moved to agree.”
That’s how I used to write when I was in my twenties, in case you were curious.
I didn’t go back to Naples for the next twenty-six years. For a decade or so, most of my travel was work-related, and my company didn’t have any customers or prospects in Italy while I was there. Then there was family. But Naples has always kept a special place in my memory.
And, since my visit in 1996, Napoli has been my favorite Italian soccer team. Loyal readers will recall that my favorite team in Europe was Paris Saint-Germain because I lived in Paris in part of 1993 and most of 1994 and went to several matches at the Parc des Princes. But I eventually became disappointed enough with the business of sportswashing that I gave them up in favor of Napoli a couple of years ago.
And what timing! this year Napoli had a historically successful season, running away to a huge lead in the standings (one of the popular stadium songs is “La capolista se ne va,” or “The leader is going away [from everyone else],” despite having shed five of its most well-known and highly-paid stars from the previous season and replacing them with relatively unknown players from places like Georgia and Korea.
I convinced my son to go with me to Naples a few weeks ago—I admit, the pizza may have been a bigger selling point than the soccer team—and we had a fabulous trip. The city was much as I remembered it—loud, chaotic, filled with people, motorcycles, and parked cars—only now covered in blue and white streamers and banners. It’s especially gratifying to see banners dedicated to Korean central defender Kim Min-Jae; in the 1990s, many Italians had trouble grasping the fact that I could speak Italian.
One thing that is remarkable about Naples, and has been widely commented on recently, is the degree of support of the city for its soccer team. There are few European cities as large as Naples that only have one top-level soccer club, and none in Italy. Strangers became friendly when they saw my Napoli cap (“Che bel capello,” one said) and made predictions about the team’s margin of victory in the match we were going to see. The team’s successful season, combined with a thirty-two-year title drought, created background climate of celebration that you would never find in Milan or Turin, where the teams are accustomed to winning, let alone Paris, where most people are not particularly attached to PSG.
It’s a cliché that European soccer audiences are more passionate than any American sports audiences, but the atmosphere at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona still went far beyond anything you will see in, say, the Premier League. What I recall from the matches in Paris is hundreds of fans shouting insults at opposing players and the referee. What I recall from Napoli is non-stop singing, loud enough to drown out almost everything else, coming not only from the two ends but often from the entire stadium. I’ve been to the NBA Finals in Oakland and San Francisco, and, while the whistling when the other team has the ball is deafening for the first five minutes, by the middle of the second quarter the crowd is quiet. At the Maradona, the whistling was painfully loud every time the other team had the ball for the entire match. I also remember what seemed like the entire crowd chanting “Kim, Kim, Kim, Kim” whenever the Korean defender moved the ball up the field or took the ball away from an opposing player like a man taking candy from children.
On Thursday night, Napoli mathematically clinched the league championship, setting off a celebration of epic proportions. This is what the city looked like after the match:
In one sense, of course, spectator sports don’t matter very much. But in another, there aren’t many things that can give so many people so much joy, at the same time, in the same place, for the same reason. Whenever any team wins anything, some people are happy. But this is one of those rare occasions when almost an entire city of three million people — as well as millions more people in the south of Italy, descendants of the worldwide southern Italian diaspora, and visitors like me and my son — can celebrate all at once.
As my old friend from Naples texted me that night, “Sempre forza Napoli.”