Sale of the Century

Napoli’s win at Juventus last weekend blew the Serie A title race open, as the reigning champions’ lead at the top of the table was cut to just one point, but there has been plenty of talk this season that manager Maurizio Sarri and a raft of his first team squad will be bidding ‘arrivaderci’ to the Stadio San Paolo this summer, regardless of how the title race ends. So what happens to a successful team when they’re torn apart?

The image of Kalidou Koulibaily, Napoli’s gatekeeper and one of the most outstanding performers in Serie A this season, rising six feet above a static Juventus defence and powering home a header in the last minute may become the most enduring of the season in Italy. The goal, which reignited a title race that had looked all but over in the weeks leading up to the game, was met with tears of joy and whoops of delight from Napoli fans and neutrals alike the world over. After six titles in a row, could Juve’s monopoly on the Serie A title finally be broken? If it is, then surely there are few teams as lovingly crafted and expertly drilled as this Napoli side, who’ve been a breath of fresh air over the past few seasons. But for those wondering whether a title win in Naples could spell the beginning of a new era – we’ve been here before. Rumours have been abound all season that, regardless of the outcome, manager Maurizio Sarri will look for a new challenge come the summer, having already taken this side to 2nd and 3rd placed finishes since his arrival in 2015. Plenty of his players, too, have attracted the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs, and after losing Gonzalo Higuain to Juventus in 2016, Sarri will be expecting several of his key players to leave come the end of the season. This is, of course, the football food chain. Though far from a small club, Napoli’s resurgence has only come about in the last eight years or so, having suffered the darkest days in clubs history at the turn of the century when the club were relegated to Serie C after filing for bankruptcy. Since their return to Serie A, they’ve established themselves as a top six side, but still fail to hold the kind of weight that a Juventus, Milan or Inter have when it comes to attracting and retaining key players. So if the worst were to happen, and their title challenging side were broken up in the summer, where would that leave Napoli?

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The most obvious modern day example of a successful side being pillaged for their talent comes in the form of one the world’s most famous. Many may point to the Red Star Belgrade European Cup winning side of the early 90s –  including Vladimir Jugovic, Robert Prosinecki, Sinisa Mihajlovic, and Dejan Savicevic, all of whom were quickly snapped up by clubs in Italy and Spain and went on to enjoy illustrious careers in Europe’s top leagues – as the original Exodus Team, though it’s worth considering the standing of the Yugoslavian league in the wider context at the time, as well as the conflict in and around the country that undoubtedly influenced the transfers. But when Ajax were raided for their best players in the mid-nineties, they were already established as one of Europe’s giants. After three European Cup wins in the 1970s, thanks in no small part to the influence of Johan Cruyff, Ajax’s continental success had dried up somewhat, save a Cup Winners Cup win in ’87. They were still a major force domestically, though the rise of PSV Eindhoven had certainly knocked them off their perch, and in 1991 they made the bold move of installing Louis Van Gaal as manager, after the former youth-teamer had worked at the club as Leo Beenhakker’s assistant. In his first season Van Gaal secured a second place finish in the league and won the UEFA Cup with a young side filled with Ajax academy graduates. Frank De Boer, Wim Jonk, Aron Winter, Dennis Bergkamp and Bryan Roy were all under the age of 25, and quickly caught the eye of teams across Europe – by the time Van Gaal had won his first Eredivisie in 1994, Bergkamp and Roy had been snapped up by Inter Milan and Nottingham Forest. The 1994/95 season was the pinnacle of Van Gaal’s achievements in Amsterdam, with another Eredivisie secured thanks to an unbeaten league season, Ajax headed to their first European Cup final since 1973. Again his side were full of young, exciting players, with Jari Litmanen, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf all the right side of 25. It was the 19 year old Patrick Kluivert, brought on for the final twenty minutes, that had the most decisive impact on the game however, scoring the only goal to beat Juventus and earn Ajax their fourth European Cup.  That triumph made the world sit up and take notice of this crop of players, and slowly but surely over the next few seasons, Ajax’s players were picked off one by one. Part of the mass departure was down to the introduction of the Bosman rule, allowing players freedom of movement once their contract had expired, and with the lure of Italy, England and Spain proving too much, the entire European Cup winning side had left the club by 1999, while Louis Van Gaal had left for Barcelona two years earlier. The loss of a group of such talented players had a massive knock-on effect, and having posted their worst league finish for 35 years in 1997, they fell to 6th in the Eredivisie by the turn of the century. Whilst they have since returned to the top table of Dutch football, the quality of the league is now at an all-time low, and Ajax haven’t gone beyond the quarter-final stage of the Champions League since Van Gaal left.

Napoli aren’t the first Serie A side to steal our hearts either, but the story of Parma’s team in the 90s should serve as a cautionary tale. Up until 1990, Parma had enjoyed a fairly unremarkable existence in Italy’s lower leagues, but the appointment of former Milan midfielder Nevio Scala as manager in 1989 changed the clubs fortunes dramatically. Promotion to Serie A was secured at the first time of asking, and dairy giants Parmalat ploughed money into the club to help them compete with the likes of Milan at the top of the league. Success quickly followed, and having established themselves as a top six side in Italy and winning the Coppa Italia, Parma embarked on the first of many European adventures, winning the Cup Winners Cup in ’93 and the UEFA Cup in ’95 with a team featuring the likes of Faustino Asprilla, Gianfranco Zola, and Tomas Brolin. Parma 1.0 was quickly raided, with the aforementioned trio all heading to the Premier League, but the funds brought in from player sales allowed Scala and his successor Carlo Ancelotti to build a team capable of challenging for the title. The additions of Lillian Thuram, Hernan Crespo and Fabio Cannavaro helped Parma to their highest league finish, second behind Juventus, and in 1999 they would claim another UEFA Cup with an emphatic victory over Marseille. Unfortuantely, that was the top of the hill for Parma. Over the course of the next few seasons they would begin to slide down the table, and the players that had fired them to such heights were quickly jumping ship. By this point Ancelotti had already left for Juventus, and in 2000 the fire sale began. Juan Sebastian Veron, Enrico Chiesa and Nestor Sensini were the first to go, bringing in almost €50m. The next year, Crespo, Mario Stanic and Dino Baggio followed, bringing another €70m in transfer revenue. The foundations of the team were sold off in 2002, with Juventus poaching Gigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram for a combined €90m, and Fabio Cannavaro, the last cornerstone of Parma’s title-chasing side, left for Inter in 2003. All the while, Parma were throwing bad money after good, outspending their incomings on inferior players and posting poor results in the league. By 2005, they were scrapping towards the bottom of the table, despite reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. They’d rolled the dice on the likes of Marcio Amoroso, Savo Milosevic, and Evanilson in the hopes of replacing their superstars, and the new boys had come up short. Parma were a ticking timebomb. In April 2004, Parmalat suffered a financial meltdown, and the club were placed into administration. Amidst financial trouble and a revolving casts of managers, Parma were relegated in 2008. A brief renaissance saw them return to Serie A and challenge for Europe, but eventually their improvidence caught up with them, and the club was declared bankrupt in 2015, and immediately dropped to Serie D. They are currently fighting for promotion back to Serie A, but it’s been a long and painful journey for a side that two decades ago sat at Europe’s top table.

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Less of a cautionary tale, but perhaps a team chopped down in their prime were the early 00s vintage of FC Porto. Having taken a punt on a young up and coming manager following a disappointing season in which the club finished behind Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, Porto were transformed. In his first season in charge, Jose Mourinho won the Primera Liga and the UEFA Cup, fusing together silk and steel as the Dragons finished the season eleven points clear of Benfica, with the meanest defence in the league. The following year Mourinho and his players went one better, retaining the league title and winning the European Cup for only the second time in the clubs history, beating Manchester United en route to the final. By this point both manager and players had attracted attention from Europe, and just days after beating Monaco in the Champions League final, Mourinho was announced as Chelsea’s new manager, and the newly dubbed Special One would take the foundations of his Porto defence with him, as Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira moved to Stamford Bridge. Deco, who would later join his compatriots, was snapped up by Barcelona, but despite finishing runners up the following season Porto’s dominance would continue over the course of the next decade, winning seven of the next ten league titles. As far as Europe goes, however, they’ve failed to progress past the Champions League quarter-finals since 2004.

Last season’s Monaco side, too, have shown that competing domestically is still a possibility despite having the guts of their squad picked up by the vultures of European football’s elite, having gained a cult following during their run to the Champions League semi-finals last season. Having pipped Paris Saint Germain to the title playing an enviable brand of attacking football, Monaco then found themselves at the mercy of oil-funded clubs, with the prodigious talent of Kylian Mbappe one of the first to be picked off, by none other than PSG themselves. Manchester City helped themselves to Monaco’s right hand side by securing the signatures of Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva for a combined £96m, while Chelsea prised dynamic midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko away for £36m. Around half of that money was re-invested to bring the likes of Keita Balde and Youri Tielemans to the club, and Monaco have managed to maintain their place towards the top end of the table. Much like their forebears, however, they’ve struggled in Europe, crashing out of the Champions League in the group stage. Other key players, including Thomas Lemar and Djibril Sidibé are expected to leave in the near future, along with coach Leonardo Jardim.

So what of Napoli? Well if the gossip columns are anything to go by then Maurizio Sarri is high up on Chelsea’s hit-list to replace Antonio Conte in the summer, while there’s every chance that Real Madrid may be on the lookout for a new coach after their disappointing domestic season. On the playing staff, Pepe Reina has already confirmed that he’ll be leaving the club at the end of the season, while Dries Mertens has strongly intimated similar. Midfielder Jorginho has been heavily linked to a move to England, with Manchester City and Liverpool both attributed with interest, while Faouzi Ghoulam and Elseid Hysaj are on Jose Mourinho’s shopping list, though he faces stiff competition from PSG. Lorenzo Insigne, too, will have plenty of suitors lining up should he become available, while Koulibaly – the man who helped Naples to dream again – has been linked with a move to England for the past few seasons.

Still, before all that they’ve got a title to win, and should Napoli’s current crop manage to emulate the vintage of Maradona and co. and secure the league, they will surely go down in the club’s history. It’s up to President Aurelio De Laurentiis to ensure this is the beginning, and not the end, of an era for Napoli.

 

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