Tuesday, 19 April 2011

WHAT’S IN A NEAPOLITAN GRIMACE?

The only business open to customers on Viale Augusto on a Sunday afternoon is the local betting shop where the football-crazy gambling-mad punters scour form books as they attempt to strike lucky.
When Napoli play at home, the main drag heading towards the San Paolo spills over with pedestrians, cars and scooters careening their way to the stadium.

Fans stop by for a quick bet on the weekend’s fixtures and also a flutter on the lottery. This is when La Smorfia comes into its own. The ancient rite of interpreting dreams has adapted with the ages, held sway in popular culture, embedded itself in everyday life. The purpose of La Smorfia is to yield meaning from the odd array of characters who populate nightly visions, the figures strange and familiar who also creep into woken existence.

Serie A Round 33, Il’Anne ‘e Cristo, the age of Christ, already a good omen if ever there was one.
20 wins from 32 matches for Napoli before heading into the meeting with Udinese. 20, ‘a Festa, the party, another positive portent.

Walter Mazzarri’s team has been beating the odds since Round 11, when the Azzurri defeated Cagliari in Sardinia by a solitary goal in the 93rd minute from Ezequiel Lavezzi – who hurled himself into the advertising hoardings, inventing a painful but memorable style to celebrate - to climb back into third place, which apart from one week’s blip, is the lowest spot occupied since November 10th.

The coach from Tuscany has managed to build a team capable of challenging for a Champions League place, a team capable of competing for the... STOP! In such a superstitious city, the word scudetto must not be uttered. If spoken, all hope of lifting the league winners’ trophy for the third time in the club’s history evaporates into thin air.  

Mazzarri has replaced the unspoken word with sogno, a dream for the inhabitants of the city-by-the-sea with well-noted problems. During the pre-match press conference for Udinese’s visit, the 49-year-old again intoned he had a dream, and the city dreamed along with him.

The fans flocked to Fuorigrotta, more than 55 thousand again, the third largest attendance of the season. Only visits from Juventus and Lazio had brought more fans to the Neapolitan shrine to football. Now more than one million have paid their respects.  

The Azzurri were enjoying their best spell of form of the season, four straight wins – the last, away to Bologna, witnessed an influx of 15 thousand supporters to the Dall’Ara to deck Bologna’s stadium in sky blue. Four, ‘o Puorco, you lucky pig!

Five matches unbeaten, the longest unbeaten run. Five, ‘a Mano, the hand pointing to glory.
As much as Napoli were on the up, Udinese on the other hand, were on the down. Two consecutive defeats, against Lecce and Roma, appeared to have put paid to hopes of ousting Lazio from fourth place, and the right to scrap in the Champions League preliminary round.

The crushing last-minute defeat to the Giallorossi last weekend was compounded by the loss of Serie A top scorer Toto’ Di Natale on top of the confirmed absence of El Nino Maravilla Alexis Sanchez, both through injury.

Two and two, 22, o’ Pazzo, the mad man was laughing at Udinese’s misfortune.
The signs were evident: The unpronounceable dream could/would/must continue through to Easter weekend, when hope springs eternal.

Yet, the dream ended on Sunday, 17th April. The number six ruled.

In Round 33, the sixth from last match of the 2010/11 Serie A season, six minutes separated Gokhan Inler’s non-celebration after scoring the opener from German Denis’s goal, non-celebrated by apologising to the stunned onlookers.

Napoli lost at home to Udinese to slip six points behind leaders AC Milan.

The Switzerland international, whose overall performance showed why the midfielder is on sporting director Riccardo Bigon’s wanted list for next season, became the first player in the history of the game not to celebrate a goal so as not to hurt the feeling of future fans. Meanwhile, El Tanque was obliged to alter his delightful existence near the Amalfi coast last summer – not that life in Udine is anything to complain about – and his hand on heart gesture was met with a polite round of applause.

Six games were left, six minutes between the two non-celebrations, six points behind the Rossoneri: 666 or simply 6, which La Smorfia explains is chella ca guarda ‘nterra. And that which looks upon the ground did not look favourably on Napoli.   

66 per cent of possession by the home side was rewarded by leaving huge gaps for Francesco Guidolin’s honed midfield to slash an irreparable tear in the dream fabric which had been spun around Naples.

Again Mazzarri was unable to outmanoeuvre a coach of a team still competing for a place in “the tournament that counts” as Aurelio De Laurentiis, president of the Partonepea prefers to call it. Only one victory all season, that memorable 4-3 success over Lazio, against the other top teams. On the receiving end, two defeats against Milan, two defeats against Udinese, one a piece against Inter and Lazio.
Six again. Read it in the signs.

The fragile nature of the Napoli dream was clear for all to see, from the fans, who never recovered their voice once Inler’s swerving shot nestled into the back of Morgan De Sanctis’ net; also, from the players, too stunned to attempt yet another comeback. Stunned and incredulous, and on the verge of letting the tension tip over into folly.  A late penalty was saved by Samir Handanovic and stopped Edinson Cavani from catching Di Natale as capocannoniere.

Di Natale’s family hails from the outskirts of Naples. The player whose hat-trick sunk Napoli back in late November was not present at the stadium although his father was, draped in sky blue, happy and sad.

The feeling of contented disappointment was displayed by the entire support at the final whistle. The players were treated to a dignified ovation as the cold wind painted a painful grimace on the Neapolitan faithful.

Fitting when you consider the general meaning of smorfia? Grimace.

1 comment:

Nick Bibby said...

Excellent post Paul...what an entertaining and interesting read! Looking fwd to the next one already.