On May 23, 2018, after managing Napoli to 91 points — the highest point total ever in the history of Calcio A without winning the title — Maurizio Sarri, a former banker, parted ways with the club.
Sarri: a walking dichotomy
It was unavoidable. The split between Napoli and Sarri was borne out of controversy, necessity, and perhaps a bit of arrogance, and it’s hard to say that Napoli made the wrong choice. Sarri was, in a wide variety of ways, an old school coach that clashed with modern times in both society and football. The cigarette-smoking Italian was embroiled in numerous unflattering events over the three years, including accusations of homophobia, numerous unflattering remarks about females in the media room, and generally clashing with journalists every few months. On the field, he insisted, to the team’s detriment, on playing the same eleven players each week, and his refusal to rotate might have cost the team the title this season, as their play dropped off noticeably over the final few months.
The football though? The football was anything but old-school; a high pressing, possession based team that played pure liquid football, brilliant combination and link-up play. They attacked so well that Pep Guardiola, the best coach in the world, said after beating Napoli 2-1 in the Champions League group stages: “We faced one of the best sides I faced in my career – probably the best. It is one of the wins I am most proud in my career.”
Close to the impossible
When Kalidou Koulibaly rose up in the 89th minute and powered a header past Gigi Buffon and pulled Napoli within one point of the Calcio A winners with four games to go, I thought Sarri had done it, pulled of the impossible. Juventus operates at a different financial level to every other team in Italy, like Bayern in Germany or PSG in France. Having so much more capital than their competitors meant that every year, the Old Ladies should win the title. And if another team won, then it would have to out-defend and out-luck Juventus, an impossible task. For Napoli to beat them, and to do so through scintillating, attacking football, would’ve been a fitting capstone for the era, sealing Sarri’s name as immortal in Napoli, and possibly even Calcio A, history.
Of course, Juventus snuck wins over Inter and Roma, while Napoli stumbled on the last few hurdles of the season, too drained to make the final push. Sarri’s name swirled around in rumors, linking him to vacant jobs at Arsenal, PSG, and Chelsea, while signals from the board indicated that Sarri was on his way out. Last Wednesday, it became official. Sarri and Napoli had parted ways, with Carlo Ancellotti posied to be the next manager. And so Napoli was relegated to the “critically acclaimed” teams of sports history.
Damned by faint praise
Critically acclaimed. It’s for TV shows and movies that were the best and the brightest, but never got the awards or viewing to show for it (see, The Wire or Arrested Development). It’s for the musical albums and songs that never get the credit they deserve (Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreak). It’s for products that break new ground, that explore places and spaces people hadn’t thought about, those things that arrive too soon and can’t be understood. And its for the sports teams that are memorable, revolutionary, but can’t quite get the trophy or title they deserve.
The best example is the Seven Second or Less Suns from 2004-2008. Lead by Steve Nash and coach Mike D’Antoni, the Suns embraced the rule changes that favored offenses, upped their pace to (at the time) crazy high levels, and favored the most efficient shots (three pointers and lay ups). The results were spectacular. The Suns became the most entertaining and exciting team in the NBA, reaching the conference finals three seasons in a row only to be outdone by rotten luck and their nemesis the San Antonio Spurs. Another example is the Fab Five at Michigan. Uber-talented, a predecessor to teams like Duke and Kentucky today in recruits choosing schools based on other recruits. And yet, a title slipped away thanks to Chris Webber’s timeout and sloppy basketball at the worst possible moment.
All of them end the same way; too soon and suddenly. The Suns inexplicably traded for Shaq to neutralize Tim Duncan in the playoffs, but the move only hindered the Suns breakneck style (and didn’t even work – Duncan drained a game-tying three over Shaq when they meet in the playoffs). The Fab Five ended because Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and the other players realized that the NBA was way, way more lucrative than college (no matter how many dollars they were paying them under the table). And Napoli’s Sarri era ended just as abruptly – no warning until a month ago, and now Sarri is off flirting with the biggest clubs in Europe while Napoli fans ponder what could have been.
An enthralling story in a tedious season
Does it matter that Napoli never won a title or a cup? On some fundamental level, it probably does, and, as highly competitive players in one of the biggest and most entertaining leagues in the world, the players undoubtedly feel disappointed. In many other ways, however, it doesn’t. Juventus’s title this season was one in a long list of trophies; Napoli’s challenge was one of the few genuinely exciting and enthralling stories in this tedious and rather dull soccer season, along with Real Madrid’s quest for the three-peat and Barcelona’s attempt at an unbeaten season. Ten years from now, the first thing that will come to mind when thinking about this year – much like the Suns and the NBA in the mid-2000’s, and the Fab Five and college basketball – will be Sarri and Napoli.
Tragedy might burn and hurt, but it is far better than a farcical comedy (like Arsenal) or a boring, pre-ordained ending (like Bayern). Watching Mertens and Isigne and Hamsik and Jorgihno and Koulibaly was more than pleasure, closer to ecstasy, and the pain of the failed title challenge makes the moments – Koulibaly’s header, Diawara’s last minute winner, numerous unbeaten runs – a little sweeter when looking back. Sarri might have not been able to push Napoli over the finish line, but, at the end, I doubt the fans really care.