Napoli’s first Serie A title in over three decades was won in spectacular fashion, with the Partenopei dominating rivals all over the pitch. One player, the Georgian Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, has managed to grab headlines for his dazzling attacking contributions. He looks at home on a football pitch, writes Alex Connor, blissfully playing the game at his pace.
Depart at the Napoli Piazza Cavour station, and make your way down the Via Foria, which merges onto the Corso Amedeo di Savoia to the Via Toledo, which borders the Quartieri Spagnoli – a rugged and archaic neighbourhood with an unmatched marriage to the beautiful game. Situated in the middle of this sacred area is a mural painted by Mario Filardi in 1990, dedicated to Diego Maradona, the demigod who spearheaded the Partenopei toward two Scudettos. Naples still worships those days. Reminisces over those days. Treasures those days.
It has been an endlessly painful journey. The title has eluded the Partenopei since 1990, the days when the Stadio San Paolo weekly showcased the unparalleled brilliance of Diego. Since then, the stadium has been renamed to commemorate ‘El Pibe de Oro’ – the golden boy.
This city is different. Even in glistening sunshine prior to this upcoming season, there is a palpable and intoxicating essence of excitement. A sprawling metropolis overflowing with chaotic, raw, and untameable energy. Yearning and craving their lost status as Italy’s most elite football club.
Now, the wait is finally over. Napoli have returned to their pedestal in an untouchable season and have barely spent a day off their perch. The club has triumphed in 27 of the 36 league matches and sits 18 points clear at the summit. Luciano Spalletti has developed a dynamic, ruthless, and technically astute side, who have followed in Diego’s footsteps and are set for immortalisation in Neapolitan folklore by one of the globe’s most passionate fanbases. The Argentine had recently passed on to a higher realm. The reincarnation of this diminutive genius, Napoli’s new magisterial nucleus, has come in the form of a 22-year-old Georgian, signed from Dinamo Batumi for just €10-12 million. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has emerged as a revelation for Italian football.
The winger was signed last year to replace fan-favourite and club-captain Lorenzo Insigne. Napoli also lost Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens, which plummeted many supporters into anguish, questioning the motivation of club president Aurelio De Laurentiis and how he was planning to build upon their third-place finish last season. The hot-headed supporters have had to endure northern dominance over the league for eternity – the triumvirate of Juventus, Inter, and AC Milan had all been crowned champions in the past three years, and the transfer business in the summer did nothing to enthuse or inspire any title-conquering dreams. The Campagnia outfit was deemed to be spiralling out of control and their grip was increasingly loosening upon the ultimate ambition.
However, from the shadows, the modest signing of the unassuming Kvaratskhelia has materialised as the title-winning catalyst.
The forward emphatically announced himself on his debut against Hellas Verona at the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi with a goal and assist. He netted thanks to a towering header out of the reach of the Verona goalkeeper Lorenzo Montipò, before his perfectly weighted through-ball was latched onto by Piotr Zielinski, who classily rounded off the blistering counter-attack. The match finished in a resounding 5-2 victory for the Neapolitans, which flawlessly set the tone.
Kvaratskhalia crowned his debut at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium against Monza with another sublime performance. He opened the scoring 35 minutes into his Neapolitan homecoming, cutting inside from outside the area, before he magnificently executed a right-footed curling effort into the top corner. In the second half, he spun Monza centre-back Valentin Antov into oblivion, before he unleashed an unstoppable left-footed strike into the bottom corner.
“The first time I played at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium, I really felt like a professional player,” remarked Kvaratskhalia after this pulsating launch into the spotlight. The first three goals of his Napoli career – all different, but equally dazzling – were individual masterpieces within a rapidly growing portfolio. They set the tone, which has continued, unabated.
To pinpoint his most memorable display is a long but rewarding process. English opposition has also faced the unenviable task of attempting to contain this stratospheric talent. Last September, on a hot, sticky and unforgiving evening in southern Italy, Kvaratskhelia tortured Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez in a 4-1 demolition of Jurgen Klopp’s men in a Champions League group stage game. He hugged the left touchline and hopelessly dragged the Englishmen out of position. Alexander-Arnold was unable to deal with his incessant dribbling, hypnotic skill, and endless energy. The winger kickstarted the move for the second Napoli goal – his relentless press dispossessed Gomez, before he fed Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who combined with Zelinski, to then coolly finish. Kvaratskhelia then rinsed the Liverpool duo again: he tapped the ball around Alexander-Arnold and skipped past Gomez, before delivering a pinpoint cross for Giovanni Simeone to score the third.
Kvaratskhelia repeated this against the Old Lady earlier this year, with a wonderfully guided finish and inch-perfect cross for Victor Osimhen in a devastating 5-1 victory. He seamlessly slotted into one of the most aesthetically pleasing sides in Europe. The pitch was his canvas, and each performance was a masterstroke in his spell-binding museum of football mastery.
He was sending shockwaves across Europe and his homeland. Narimanidze Irakli, a renowned criminal from Georgia, was reportedly arrested in Naples prior to a game against Lazio after he had travelled to Campagnia on a private jet to watch his countryman grace the turf. Spalletti’s men, unfortunately, lost that contest, but when Atalanta visited the cauldron in their next fixture, Napoli’s opponents weren’t to be awarded any mercy.
The clock trickles into the 59th minute, the attacker receives a pass from Osimhen as he motors toward the 18-yard box. The defenders are petrified to commit and with his hypnotic trademark twisting and turning motion, he works the ball onto his stronger right foot and lashes the ball into the roof of the net. As he wheels away in glorious celebration, seven stricken Orobici players are frozen in the penalty area.
A deafening roar enveloped the stadium, a collective acknowledgement of the new jewel of the Partenopei’s crown.
The joyous technician possesses an uncoachable brilliance and a natural raw talent. He looks at home on a football pitch, blissfully playing the game at his pace. The close control effortlessly blended with an unbelievable competence with both feet has created a magical player that has orchestrated a faultless league run.
The city has been asleep for 33 years, but its dream is still alive and finally ignited by the irrepressible Kvaratskhelia. The south-western coast of the nation will bounce, rejoice and memorialise their accession as the best team in the land. Whilst Diego remains the king, Naples has adopted another son, whose legacy has only just begun.