For our Napoli fan reporter Alessio Costabile, even though the pain of his side’s quarter-final exit may linger, it doesn’t diminish his pride at what they have achieved
The next few lines you will read will compose the article that I probably least wanted to write in the course of this hobby of mine where I string together words and ideas to talk about football. I think calling it a 'journalistic activity' is quite a daring hyperbole.
The very strong temptation is to anaesthetise, to use a deliberately dry, lean, reporting style, forcing myself to write a piece that would sound something like: “Napoli were eliminated in the Champions League quarter-finals by AC Milan, with the latter team able to impose themselves, at the end of the double-header, with an overall score of 2-1.” But that would probably be a profound injustice to everyone: the readers, the team, the Neapolitan fans and even to myself. For 94 minutes I sat, wetted by rare and isolated sprinkles of rain, watching 11 blue-tinted lads intent on trying in every desperate, furious and painful way.
The fairest thing to say is probably that Napoli were eliminated from the Champions League quarter-finals by AC Milan, after having tried, tried and tried again, unfortunately, to no avail. The fundamental difference between the two teams at the end of the tie was summed up perfectly by the famous Italian sports website L'Ultimo Uomo: Napoli tried, Milan succeeded.
AC Milan succeeded in leaving the first consistent stain on the season of a team that’s been leading Serie A from the very first day, with an almost video game-like advantage over their pursuers in terms of points, statistics and playing style. It made me wish I had never left Rome – the city where I currently live and work – to embark on a three-and-a-half-hour car journey with two friends with whom I shared silent hopes and loud fears.
Napoli tried to improve on an already historic achievement – the first ever quarter-final qualification experienced here at the foot of Mount Vesuvius – with something that would have directly grouped this bunch of players with the club’s greatest legends . They tried to make up for the obvious difference between them and AC Milan in terms of experience with freshness and the drive of the 52,000 people present at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona. The very drive, hunger and foolishness that can propel you to reach out and grab the stars above your head. And, without mincing words or sugarcoating the pill, they failed to do so.
A few days later, the wound is still open and smouldering. I'm sure it will not stop being painful even when it gives way to a scar, mainly because it is a blow that has been inflicted by one of our historical rivals and traditional contenders for the Scudetto.
Yet not everything is bleak. Just as penalties are only missed by those who kick them, as they say here in Italy, only those who play in the Champions League are eliminated from it. The Azzurri are currently at the apex of a cycle characterised by constant growth, by champions who have trod the Fuorigrotta turf and by feverish, freezing, delirious nights of celebration. This cycle is slowly and laboriously leading us to our first Scudetto of this new era, more than 30 years after Diego Armando Maradona's epic and almost 20 years after a nightmarish and scorching bankruptcy that made us restart from the minor leagues and the dusty suburban fields.
The article that I probably least wanted to write in the course of this hobby of mine closes, therefore, with a seemingly crazy conclusion.
Fifteen years ago, if someone had told me that my team would find themselves playing on equal terms for access to the semi-finals of the Champions League, with a third Scudetto in the club’s history already (almost) sewn on its chest, I would have suggested that they pursue a career in stand-up comedy. But here we are and on we go.
Would I make the same suggestion to someone who told me, today, that in fifteen years Napoli could find themselves reaching the most unthinkable achievement in European football?