Cities

Where the heart is

The San Paolo: synonymous with passion, seismic activity and a certain Argentinian. We take a closer look at Napoli’s beloved home

WORDS Fabio Mandarini | PHOTOGRAPHY Valerio Pennicino

Let me start with a warning: the Stadio San Paolo does not have the comforts of some other major stadiums in Europe. There is no free wi-fi, no museum, no shops, no parking, no restaurants. What the stadium does have, however, is an extraordinary gift for generating passion. It’s a passion you truly feel when you step into this concrete bowl. And it is a passion that reverberates – literally – in the streets of the surrounding neighbourhood, the Fuorigrotta district in the west of the city. 

These are streets that Napolitani walk on their way to the sea, streets carrying the names of Roman emperors, streets taking students to the University of Naples’ engineering faculty across from the ground. Fuorigrotta is home to about 80,000 people; not a chic district but one that breathes life, especially at night when the pizzerias, bars and restaurants are open until late. And, even more so, when Napoli play.

Fabio Cannavaro, Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning captain, can vouch for that. He grew up in Fuorigrotta and was a ballboy at the San Paolo during the 1990 World Cup, so he will know what I am talking about when I mention the third tier added to the stadium for that tournament, taking the capacity to 73,000 spectators. Fans in that tier actually made the surrounding buildings shake according to the seismograph at the Osservatorio Vesuviano, an observatory that monitors the region’s volcanic activity. Because of this passion-fuelled trembling, the third tier had to be closed off. Yet sometimes, still, there can be explosions of noise and celebration that cause small seismic recordings. This is normal in Naples.

Attending a crucial Champions League game here is a genuinely authentic experience; on a good day, the fans are unmatchable. It is love, and the San Paolo is our home. Perhaps not a luxurious one, but home nonetheless. To me it has always been thus, and the same goes for all those who have played in it – including Diego Maradona. Especially Diego Maradona.

Ho visto Maradona!” – I saw Maradona! – is a chant the San Paolo crowd used to sing. It is something I still tell myself today. Yes, truly, I saw him playing at the stadium alongside the Brazilian Careca, another hero of a golden era. I was a young fan, holding my father’s hand. Then I met Diego in person. I have interviewed him three times as a journalist, the first time on a date I’ll never forget – 9 June 2005 – at the farewell match to mark Ciro Ferrara’s retirement. The big defender played alongside Maradona in the team that won Napoli’s two league titles, in 1987 and 1990. There were 80,000 of us at the San Paolo on that day in 2005. We had waited 14 years for his return to Naples. When El Pibe de Oro entered the press room, I stretched out, reaching past the security men, just to touch him. I could have been thrown out. It was worth it.

I have heard them chant for Maradona at La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors, and it was amazing. Those people are his story, his life. But I would argue that Napoli people do it even better. And it really is the people – il popolo – of Naples, because simply calling them fans would not do them justice.

But the San Paolo has been our home since 1959, so the memories are about more than the Argentinian. The first time I went there, back in 1986, I was eight years old. Then it could hold 90,000 people. We had seats, my father and I, but matches were followed by standing, by jumping up and singing. Today the ground holds 54,700 fans, the reduction in capacity a consequence of refurbishments carried out before the stadium hosted the Summer Universiade in 2019.

“THE SAN PAOLO IS A STADIUM WHERE YOU CANNOT BE INDIFFERENT, NOT EVEN AS AN OPPONENT"
Yaya Touré

Of course, I will always remember the 1-0 victory over Lazio in 1990 that sealed Napoli’s second Scudetto. But I recall plenty of moments from the current period under Aurelio De Laurentiis too, the owner and president who brought in the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamšík, Gonzalo Higuaín, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raúl Albiol. I remember Champions League victories over Manchester City, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and, most recently, current holders Liverpool.

And the noise of the Napoli supporters remains unchanged. Even Cristiano Ronaldo looked taken aback by the sound of the crowd chorusing the final words of the Champions League anthem before Napoli’s round of 16 encounter with Real Madrid in 2017. This practice is now a tradition, which began with Villarreal’s visit in September 2011. It was Napoli’s first home European Cup game of the Champions League era and the old stadium filled with a unified cry of “The Champions!” as the anthem reached its crescendo. As Yaya Touré, a visitor with Manchester City that same season, put it: “The San Paolo is a stadium where you cannot be indifferent, not even as an opponent.”

It is not just about those European nights. Far from it. During Napoli’s second post-bankruptcy season in Serie C, 2005/06, the club ended the campaign with an average home gate of 37,080, Italian football’s fifth-highest attendance that year. More, I might add, than Juventus.

My most emotional memory of all, though, comes from the following season, in Serie B. Curva B, one of the main stands of the San Paolo, prepared a beautiful tifo spelling out, in capital letters, Ti Amo (I love you). It was the last home game of the campaign, a 1-0 victory over Lecce. And on that June day in 2007, looking at that display, the players, fans, directors and even cynical journalists were moved to tears. So you can keep your free wi-fi because that, ladies and gentlemen, is Naples.

Let me start with a warning: the Stadio San Paolo does not have the comforts of some other major stadiums in Europe. There is no free wi-fi, no museum, no shops, no parking, no restaurants. What the stadium does have, however, is an extraordinary gift for generating passion. It’s a passion you truly feel when you step into this concrete bowl. And it is a passion that reverberates – literally – in the streets of the surrounding neighbourhood, the Fuorigrotta district in the west of the city. 

These are streets that Napolitani walk on their way to the sea, streets carrying the names of Roman emperors, streets taking students to the University of Naples’ engineering faculty across from the ground. Fuorigrotta is home to about 80,000 people; not a chic district but one that breathes life, especially at night when the pizzerias, bars and restaurants are open until late. And, even more so, when Napoli play.

Fabio Cannavaro, Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning captain, can vouch for that. He grew up in Fuorigrotta and was a ballboy at the San Paolo during the 1990 World Cup, so he will know what I am talking about when I mention the third tier added to the stadium for that tournament, taking the capacity to 73,000 spectators. Fans in that tier actually made the surrounding buildings shake according to the seismograph at the Osservatorio Vesuviano, an observatory that monitors the region’s volcanic activity. Because of this passion-fuelled trembling, the third tier had to be closed off. Yet sometimes, still, there can be explosions of noise and celebration that cause small seismic recordings. This is normal in Naples.

Attending a crucial Champions League game here is a genuinely authentic experience; on a good day, the fans are unmatchable. It is love, and the San Paolo is our home. Perhaps not a luxurious one, but home nonetheless. To me it has always been thus, and the same goes for all those who have played in it – including Diego Maradona. Especially Diego Maradona.

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Ho visto Maradona!” – I saw Maradona! – is a chant the San Paolo crowd used to sing. It is something I still tell myself today. Yes, truly, I saw him playing at the stadium alongside the Brazilian Careca, another hero of a golden era. I was a young fan, holding my father’s hand. Then I met Diego in person. I have interviewed him three times as a journalist, the first time on a date I’ll never forget – 9 June 2005 – at the farewell match to mark Ciro Ferrara’s retirement. The big defender played alongside Maradona in the team that won Napoli’s two league titles, in 1987 and 1990. There were 80,000 of us at the San Paolo on that day in 2005. We had waited 14 years for his return to Naples. When El Pibe de Oro entered the press room, I stretched out, reaching past the security men, just to touch him. I could have been thrown out. It was worth it.

I have heard them chant for Maradona at La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors, and it was amazing. Those people are his story, his life. But I would argue that Napoli people do it even better. And it really is the people – il popolo – of Naples, because simply calling them fans would not do them justice.

But the San Paolo has been our home since 1959, so the memories are about more than the Argentinian. The first time I went there, back in 1986, I was eight years old. Then it could hold 90,000 people. We had seats, my father and I, but matches were followed by standing, by jumping up and singing. Today the ground holds 54,700 fans, the reduction in capacity a consequence of refurbishments carried out before the stadium hosted the Summer Universiade in 2019.

“THE SAN PAOLO IS A STADIUM WHERE YOU CANNOT BE INDIFFERENT, NOT EVEN AS AN OPPONENT"
Yaya Touré

Of course, I will always remember the 1-0 victory over Lazio in 1990 that sealed Napoli’s second Scudetto. But I recall plenty of moments from the current period under Aurelio De Laurentiis too, the owner and president who brought in the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamšík, Gonzalo Higuaín, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raúl Albiol. I remember Champions League victories over Manchester City, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and, most recently, current holders Liverpool.

And the noise of the Napoli supporters remains unchanged. Even Cristiano Ronaldo looked taken aback by the sound of the crowd chorusing the final words of the Champions League anthem before Napoli’s round of 16 encounter with Real Madrid in 2017. This practice is now a tradition, which began with Villarreal’s visit in September 2011. It was Napoli’s first home European Cup game of the Champions League era and the old stadium filled with a unified cry of “The Champions!” as the anthem reached its crescendo. As Yaya Touré, a visitor with Manchester City that same season, put it: “The San Paolo is a stadium where you cannot be indifferent, not even as an opponent.”

It is not just about those European nights. Far from it. During Napoli’s second post-bankruptcy season in Serie C, 2005/06, the club ended the campaign with an average home gate of 37,080, Italian football’s fifth-highest attendance that year. More, I might add, than Juventus.

My most emotional memory of all, though, comes from the following season, in Serie B. Curva B, one of the main stands of the San Paolo, prepared a beautiful tifo spelling out, in capital letters, Ti Amo (I love you). It was the last home game of the campaign, a 1-0 victory over Lecce. And on that June day in 2007, looking at that display, the players, fans, directors and even cynical journalists were moved to tears. So you can keep your free wi-fi because that, ladies and gentlemen, is Naples.

Let me start with a warning: the Stadio San Paolo does not have the comforts of some other major stadiums in Europe. There is no free wi-fi, no museum, no shops, no parking, no restaurants. What the stadium does have, however, is an extraordinary gift for generating passion. It’s a passion you truly feel when you step into this concrete bowl. And it is a passion that reverberates – literally – in the streets of the surrounding neighbourhood, the Fuorigrotta district in the west of the city. 

These are streets that Napolitani walk on their way to the sea, streets carrying the names of Roman emperors, streets taking students to the University of Naples’ engineering faculty across from the ground. Fuorigrotta is home to about 80,000 people; not a chic district but one that breathes life, especially at night when the pizzerias, bars and restaurants are open until late. And, even more so, when Napoli play.

Fabio Cannavaro, Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning captain, can vouch for that. He grew up in Fuorigrotta and was a ballboy at the San Paolo during the 1990 World Cup, so he will know what I am talking about when I mention the third tier added to the stadium for that tournament, taking the capacity to 73,000 spectators. Fans in that tier actually made the surrounding buildings shake according to the seismograph at the Osservatorio Vesuviano, an observatory that monitors the region’s volcanic activity. Because of this passion-fuelled trembling, the third tier had to be closed off. Yet sometimes, still, there can be explosions of noise and celebration that cause small seismic recordings. This is normal in Naples.

Attending a crucial Champions League game here is a genuinely authentic experience; on a good day, the fans are unmatchable. It is love, and the San Paolo is our home. Perhaps not a luxurious one, but home nonetheless. To me it has always been thus, and the same goes for all those who have played in it – including Diego Maradona. Especially Diego Maradona.

Ho visto Maradona!” – I saw Maradona! – is a chant the San Paolo crowd used to sing. It is something I still tell myself today. Yes, truly, I saw him playing at the stadium alongside the Brazilian Careca, another hero of a golden era. I was a young fan, holding my father’s hand. Then I met Diego in person. I have interviewed him three times as a journalist, the first time on a date I’ll never forget – 9 June 2005 – at the farewell match to mark Ciro Ferrara’s retirement. The big defender played alongside Maradona in the team that won Napoli’s two league titles, in 1987 and 1990. There were 80,000 of us at the San Paolo on that day in 2005. We had waited 14 years for his return to Naples. When El Pibe de Oro entered the press room, I stretched out, reaching past the security men, just to touch him. I could have been thrown out. It was worth it.

I have heard them chant for Maradona at La Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors, and it was amazing. Those people are his story, his life. But I would argue that Napoli people do it even better. And it really is the people – il popolo – of Naples, because simply calling them fans would not do them justice.

But the San Paolo has been our home since 1959, so the memories are about more than the Argentinian. The first time I went there, back in 1986, I was eight years old. Then it could hold 90,000 people. We had seats, my father and I, but matches were followed by standing, by jumping up and singing. Today the ground holds 54,700 fans, the reduction in capacity a consequence of refurbishments carried out before the stadium hosted the Summer Universiade in 2019.

“THE SAN PAOLO IS A STADIUM WHERE YOU CANNOT BE INDIFFERENT, NOT EVEN AS AN OPPONENT"
Yaya Touré

Of course, I will always remember the 1-0 victory over Lazio in 1990 that sealed Napoli’s second Scudetto. But I recall plenty of moments from the current period under Aurelio De Laurentiis too, the owner and president who brought in the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamšík, Gonzalo Higuaín, Kalidou Koulibaly and Raúl Albiol. I remember Champions League victories over Manchester City, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal and, most recently, current holders Liverpool.

And the noise of the Napoli supporters remains unchanged. Even Cristiano Ronaldo looked taken aback by the sound of the crowd chorusing the final words of the Champions League anthem before Napoli’s round of 16 encounter with Real Madrid in 2017. This practice is now a tradition, which began with Villarreal’s visit in September 2011. It was Napoli’s first home European Cup game of the Champions League era and the old stadium filled with a unified cry of “The Champions!” as the anthem reached its crescendo. As Yaya Touré, a visitor with Manchester City that same season, put it: “The San Paolo is a stadium where you cannot be indifferent, not even as an opponent.”

It is not just about those European nights. Far from it. During Napoli’s second post-bankruptcy season in Serie C, 2005/06, the club ended the campaign with an average home gate of 37,080, Italian football’s fifth-highest attendance that year. More, I might add, than Juventus.

My most emotional memory of all, though, comes from the following season, in Serie B. Curva B, one of the main stands of the San Paolo, prepared a beautiful tifo spelling out, in capital letters, Ti Amo (I love you). It was the last home game of the campaign, a 1-0 victory over Lecce. And on that June day in 2007, looking at that display, the players, fans, directors and even cynical journalists were moved to tears. So you can keep your free wi-fi because that, ladies and gentlemen, is Naples.

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