September 12, 2011

Upon winning their first league title in 1987, Napoli supporters daubed the words "You don't know what you're missing?" on the wall of a local cemetery. The graffiti became one of the most iconic images of the incredible seven-year spell through which the southern Italian team was blessed with the brilliance of Diego Armando Maradona. It was a period in Napoli's history littered with memories and joy that the club's fans will never forget.

But last season's impressive third-place finish enough for it to gain entry -- for just the third time ever -- to European soccer's highest competition, has granted it the chance to create new memories of its own as Napoli looks to write some modern chapters in the story of a club often guilty of living in the past.

There was much excitement surrounding the late August draw with fans, players and the club's management eager to see who Napoli would be paired with. Seeing the names of Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Manchester City being placed into Group A had strange echoes of the team's first dalliance with the competition, which it entered courtesy of that Maradona-inspired Scudetto win 24 years ago.

That day it would be Real Madrid drawn against it in the very first round, a link to Maradona's past in Spain and a team forced to play behind closed doors after crowd trouble against Bayern Munich the previous year. Napoli would be eliminated 3-1 on aggregate, its always vociferous support left deflated, their long wait to see the Partenopei pitted against Europe's elite over before it truly began.

It is hard to think of one club more intrinsically linked to a single player than Napoli is to Maradona. Before he arrived in 1984 the team had finished in Serie A's top three positions only seven times in its largely anonymous 80-year existence. After a tumultuous first two seasons it would manage two incredible title wins -- the only ones in the club's history -- two second and one third place finishes before, almost as suddenly as he arrived, "el Diego" was gone again.

In the intervening period Napoli won more major trophies than in the rest of its entire history, adding the 1987 Coppa Italia and the 1989 UEFA Cup to those Scudetti. Even more resonant than silverware are the indelible images that define this period; Maradona's ritual of kissing physio Salvatore Carmando on the forehead before matches, the tears of legendary club captain Giuseppe Bruscolotti when the first title was won, local boy Ciro Ferrara's UEFA Cup Final goal and countless mosaics, memorials and tributes to the man who will always be "their Diego."

After his departure the club would return to its normal state, managing a best placed sixth in 1994 and twice suffering relegation to Serie B before the fateful summer of 2004, which started another arguably more important seven-year period that just ended this past month. In August that year Napoli was declared bankrupt with debts of approximately €70 million ($95M).

Filmmaker and showman Aurelio De Laurentiis was forced to create a brand new club in Italian soccerl's fourth tier, a league it dominated in a season where its attendances dwarfed all but the two Milan clubs as it averaged gates of around 37,000. Winning successive promotions the new owners were then, under Italian legislation, effectively allowed to "buy back" the original name and Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli was back in the top flight. With careful planning and prudent but intelligent investment, the club steadily improved to the point that it now finds itself back in the Serie A elite.

The current team plays an interesting 3-4-2-1 formation, a well-drilled defense marshaled superbly by veteran 'keeper Morgan De Sanctis. Central midfield was last season's weakest area, a problem addressed this past summer as Swiss star Gökhan Inler -- unveiled at a bizarre news conference at which he wore a lion mask -- arrived from Udinese and his probing passing combined with impressive tactical understanding makes him a superb addition.

Wingbacks Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena patrol the flanks and stretch the pitch, providing a width and balance not seen from many Italian sides in recent years. However, although Napoli's opening Serie A match against Cesena was a comfortable 3-1 victory, the spaces behind the pair were a cause for concern. The changes in central midfield almost certainly contributed to those gaps, a situation that must be rectified before facing the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry or David Silva. However, in possession those wide players directly benefit a front three talented enough to worry any club with Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi contributing both goals and creativity behind Edinson Cavani.

The Uruguayan striker stole the headlines last season, making a sensational start to life in Naples as his 33 goals in 37 games put him ahead of much bigger -- and more expensive -- names. Cavani netted just 37 times over his three years with Palermo but also added seven international goals last season to his previous tally of just two for La Celeste, proving that his consistent form is not confined to domestic soccer. Finishing second to Antonio Di Natale in the Serie A scorers' chart meant he came closer than anyone to matching the only player in the club's history to end a campaign as the league's top scorer.

Of course it was Maradona who managed the feat in 1987-88 and clearly the Champions League draw has clearly been no less kind than it was in the Maradona era, a result of UEFA's seeding system that has drawn the obvious clichéd references. Recalling that the morning after those first unbelievable Scudetto celebrations, fans awoke to find "Who says we missed it?" etched on that same graveyard wall, a "Group of Death" would seem to be the perfect place for SSC Napoli.

Adam Digby is a Turin-based freelance writer covering Italian soccer and is the co-founder of He can also be followed on Twitter at @adz77.

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