Naples gets into your blood. It’s a visceral city that flirts with your senses. It is history and profound beauty bound inextricably to myriad imperfections, refreshingly unhidden. It’s loud and crowded. No fewer than a dozen people are undertaking a range of tasks, anywhere, at any moment. It’s an unending barrage of life in a uniquely detached setting. To the timid or easily overwhelmed, it’s chaotic and probably intimidating. To those inclined to embrace life’s imperfections and appreciate its messiness, it’s alluring and symphonic, yet tinged with danger – some perceived and some very much lurking, just beneath the surface.
In Barcelona or Paris, also cities in which one is rarely bereft of company, the voices of the people with whom you share a portion of an evening but will likely never speak meld into a charming soundtrack of social white noise. In Naples, each person is there to be heard, a percussion instrument in his or her own right.
More than anything, Naples is a city that is cold and honest in its assessments, both of itself as well as its relationship with the country in which it sits. It is acutely aware and very proud of its history, but is not defined by it. It’s a city unconcerned with outside opinions and unimpressed by blustery self-importance. It possesses an inborne assuredness, a defiant acceptance of the world as it is, not as we idealize it. This is the product of decades of dismissal and disdain from the north of Italy, and being made to feel like peasants, second-class citizens in their own country.
It’s in this cauldron that Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli resides. The club itself has been hardened by a near-century-long roller coaster ride, during which fans have experienced utter euphoria in the days of Maradona, but also heartbreak, as the club has twice had to rise from the ashes of financial ruin – most recently in 2004. Against such a backdrop, it’s little wonder that Napoli is not merely a sporting institution to the Napolitani, but a vehicle of resistance, a wellspring of hope that triumph can be achieved at home, without reliance on the north.
Given all of this, it’s unsurprising that a Napoli starting eleven (plus subs bench) is comprised not only of exceptional footballers, but of individuals with an understanding – be it through birth or immersion – of the club’s relationship with the city, and the city’s relationship with the outside world.
Luciano Castellini (1978 – 1985; 258 appearances in all competitions for Napoli, 1 cap for Italy)
Castellini spent the eight seasons prior to his move to Napoli with Torino, where he made 201 appearances, winning the Coppa Italia in 1970-71 and the scudetto in 1975-76. His time in Naples didn’t bring more silverware, but he did secure a place in club history. Castellini made 203 appearances with Napoli, and is widely considered the club’s best-ever goalkeeper. A highlight of his stint with Napoli is his run of 531 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal – one of the best such streaks in club history.
Giuseppe Bruscolotti (1972 – 1988; 511 appearances/11 goals for Napoli)
A powerful, imposing right-back, Bruscolotti retired having set club records (both since eclipsed by Marek Hamšík) for appearances, in all competitions (511) as well as in league play (387). Over the better part of two decades with Napoli, Bruscolotti contributed to the 1976 Anglo-Italian League Cup and Coppas Italia in 1975-76 and 1986-87. During that 1986-87 season, in the twilight of his career, Bruscolotti captained one of the great Maradona-led sides to Napoli’s first-ever Serie A crown.
Giovanni Francini (1987 – 1994; 250 appearances/17 goals for Napoli, 8 caps for Italy)
A tireless defender who anchored the left side of the defense with composure and consistency. Francini garnered little in the way of recognition during his playing days, but this was a man seemingly tailored for a particular time and place. Francini has been referred to a “perfect” player for Italian football in the 1980’s and 90’s –always running, sacrificing for the shirt, snuffing out opposing attacks, immune to mental errors, and “never taking less than a 6” for performance.
After nearly a decade with Torino (minus a short loan spell in Reggiana), Francini moved to Napoli ahead of the 1987-88 season, joining the newly-minted Serie A champions. His seven seasons with I Partenopei proved no less glorious, as Francini was a member of the sides that captured the 1988-89 UEFA Cup and the 1989-90 scudetto.
Antonio Juliano (1962 – 1978; 505 appearances/38 goals for Napoli, 18 caps for Italy)
A commanding midfield presence adept both in defense and on the attack, Juliano is one of Napoli’s stalwarts of the pre-Maradona era. The native Neapolitan spent 16 years with the club, an incredible twelve as captain, during which he contributed to the 1966 Coppa del Alpi, 1975-76 Coppa Italia and the 1976 Anglo-Italian League Cup, not to mention the 1968 Euro win for Italy. Juliano left the club in 1978, to spend the final season of his career with Bologna. At the time of his departure, he held the record for appearances in a Napoli shirt, with 505 – a mark since eclipsed by Giuseppe Bruscolotti and the current record holder, Marek Hamšík.
Juliano returned to Napoli after his playing days, as Sporting Director. It is in this role that he made perhaps his greatest contribution to the club, when, in 1984, he oversaw the world-record transfer that delivered Diego Maradona to Mezzogiorno from Barcelona.
Ciro Ferrara (1984 – 1994; 322 appearances/15 goals for Napoli, 49 caps Italy)
Ferrara was a fixture for the entirety of the Maradona era, during which Napoli won its two scudetti, the 1986-87 Coppa Italia and the 1989 UEFA Cup. Naples born and bred and a product of the Napoli youth setup, Ferrera was more than merely a rugged center-back. He was a versatile and skilled defender who displayed composure and technical ability, which enabled him to play anywhere along the back-line. Hardly a prolific goal scorer, Ferrara memorably scored the fourth of five goals in that two-legged UEFA Cup Final, from which Napoli emerged victorious against Stuttgart, 5-4, on aggregate.
He debuted with his hometown club as a teenager in 1984, and turned in an outstanding ten-year spell. In 1994, in response to the club’s severe post-Maradona financial distress, Ferrara, age 27 at the time, was controversially sold to Juventus. Though no longer universally revered by the Napolitani, his contributions and place in the club history are undeniable.
Moreno Ferrario (1977 – 1988; 397 appearances/11 goals for Napoli)
Ferrario started his two-decade-long career with Varese, and ended it bouncing around Roma, Avellino, Siena, Carrarese and Saronno. In between, he spent 11 years with Napoli, making 396 appearances, more than all but three players (Hamšík, Bruscolotti, Juliano) in club history. A center back and sweeper, Ferrario was a key member of the now-immortal 1986-87 side that captured both the Coppa Italia and Napoli’s first-ever scudetto.
Fernando De Napoli (1986 – 1992; 242 appearances/9 goals for Napoli, 54 caps/1 goal for Italy) Aptly-named, De Napoli arrived a Napoli in 1986 and, along with the likes of Ferrara, Renica and, of course, Maradona, played a vital role in the entirety of the club’s golden era. A consummate pro, Rambo, along with Salvatore Bagni, formed a defensive midfield gauntlet.
The return on his six years at the club are staggering, as Napoli captured its only two scudetti, the Coppa Italia in 1987, the UEFA Cup in 1989, and the Supercoppa Italiana in 1990. A tireless and rugged man-marker, but also possessing technical skill and a powerful shot, De Napoli embodied the spirit of the squads in which he featured.
Marek Hamšík (2007 – 2019; 520 appearances/121 goals for Napoli, 114 caps/24 goals for Slovakia)
After beginning his club career with Slovan Bratislava and Brescia, Hamšík was acquired by a Napoli side which had just fought its way back to Serie A from the lower leagues, following the club’s 2004 bankruptcy. In his time in Naples, the Slovakian became a mainstay, helping the club to two Coppas Italia, a Supercoppa Italiana and regular participation in European competition. He also served as captain following Paolo Cannevaro’s departure in 2014, until his own exit in February 2019.
Hamšík’s energy, intelligence, leadership, creativity and eye for goal set him apart as a player. However, the versatility and adaptability that he exhibited should not go overlooked. His preferred role is in the center of a midfield trio, but Hamšík was deployed as a central midfielder, an attacking midfielder, a winger, and even as a supporting striker or inside forward.
In a dozen years with the club, Hamšík scored 121 goals in 521 appearances in all competitions – both of club records. Also a club record is his 408 appearances in Serie A, while his 100 league goals rank second club history. Hamšík was named Serie A’s Young Footballer of the Year in 2008, and was a member of the Serie A Team of the Year in 2011, 2016 and 2017. He scored in Napoli’s first-ever Champions League victory, in September 2011, and added the second in a 2-0 triumph over Juventus in the 2012 Coppa Italia final.
A fan favorite and an symbol of the club’s renaissance, Marek Hamšík will long be revered as Napoli’s best-ever non-Maradona import.
Attila Sallustro (1926 – 1937; 266 appearances/108 goals for Napoli, 2 caps/1 goal for Italy)
The child of wealthy Paraguayan parents, Sallustro’s family relocated to Naples when he was very young, as his father dreamed of his son playing football in Italy. Sallustro featured for Napoli for more than a decade, choosing to accept no financial compensation for his efforts, with the exception of one luxury car.
He was a focal point for Napoli for twelve seasons, serving as captain his last four with the club. Nicknamed “Il Veltro” (the greyhound) and “Il Divino”, Sallustro was one of Napoli’s first true superstars and remains one of the most prolific scorers in the club’s history.
Diego Maradona (1984 – 1991; 259 appearances/115 goals for Napoli; 91 caps/34 goals for Argentina)
With Messi, it’s that we simply can’t comprehend it. With Diego, the moments seem as though they are powered by raw, pulsating emotion, for which words feel insufficient. That, as much as any on-pitch achievement is what’s made Maradona a borderline deity in Naples. He is not simply a a once-in-a-lifetime superstar that inspired a long-suffering club from an unfancied city to, by far, the greatest era in its history.
To be fair, he did do all of that as well. When Maradona arrived in Naples in 1984, no mainland southern club had ever won the Italian top flight. During his seven-year stay, he powered the club to not one, but two top flight titles and its first-ever major European trophy (the 1989 UEFA Cup), as well as the 1986-87 Coppa Italia and the 1990 Supercoppa Italiana.
Maradona left Napoli as the club’s all-time leading goal scorer and remains the clear-cut greatest player in the club’s history. It is Naples that Maradona, arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport, reached the peak of his powers. That, however, is far from the whole story.
Murals of Maradona adorn the city. A lock of his hair is kept guarded in a shrine. Napoli’s #10 shirt was retired at the moment of his departure. There is no statistic that captures the true reach of Maradona’s impact. The magic of Maradona is that he understood city’s struggles and immediately took up the battles of Naples as his own, his flaws and insecurities, unshrouded by even the thinnest of veils, only adding to his allure. A perpetually defiant, self-proclaimed outsider and resistance fighter, Maradona perfectly embodies what it is to be Neapolitan. Brash, recalcitrant and fueled by passion, Diego speaks to the Napolitani as one of their own.
Edinson Cavani (2010 – 2013; 138 appearances/104 goals for Napoli, 114 caps/48 goals for Uruguay)
Cavani took the field 138 times for Napoli, tallying 104 goals –a staggering .754 per appearance. On a per-game basis, Cavani is, by some distance, the most potent of Napoli’s top goal scorers. He netted 33 goals in each of his first two seasons with the club, and 38 in his final campaign, 2012-13. His 29 league goals that season earned him the honor of Capocannoniere, as Serie A’s top goal scorer. Cavani played a central role in Napoli’s run to the 2011-12 Coppa Italia – the club’s first major trophy since the days of Diego 22 years earlier – and led all scorers in the competition. He spent just three seasons in Naples, but Cavani’s devastating productivity in front of goal are impossible to ignore in any discussion of the club’s all-timers.
On the bench
Christian Maggio (RB, 2008 – 2018; 308 appearances/23 goals for Napoli, 34 caps for Italy)
Hard-working, attack-minded and athletic, Maggio was a staple of the sides that returned Napoli to silverware in the early 2010’s. A right-back in his previous stops, Maggio’s versatility was put on display in Naples. Under Walter Mazzarri, he was deployed as a right winger/wing-back in a 3–4–2–1, a move that maximized his talent in attack, without sacrificing his strength and stamina on defense.
Maggio won two Coppas Italia and the 2014 Supercoppa Italiana with Napoli. He was vital to the side that snapped a 22-year trophy drought, and contributed to the club’s 2013-14 Coppa Italia run – though he missed the final after being hospitalized with an injury to his lung. When healthy and at his best, he was recognized as such, three times earning selection into AIC Grand Gala Serie A Team of the Year.
Though his time Naples included injuries to the ACL and the meniscus in his right knee, as well as the aforementioned lung injury, in ten seasons Maggio made 308 appearances, sixth-most in club history at the time of writing. As importantly, he wound down his time at the club as a beloved figure, bowing to the fans at the San Paolo before his final league match with Napoli in May 2018, before a banner honoring him.
Alessandro Renica (CB, 1985 – 1991; 194 appearances/17 goals for Napoli)
Acquired in 1985 from Sampdoria, Renica was a vital member of the back line that anchored the most successful period in Napoli’s history.
As a member of I Partenopei, Renica contributed to two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia win in 1986-87, the 1990 Supercoppa Italiana and the 1989 UEFA Cup. He scored a vital second leg goal in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup to help Napoli get past Juventus, en route to the club’s only-ever European trophy. The latter part of his career was marred by injury, but Renica remains a key figure from the glorious Maradona era.
Kalidou Koulibaly (CB, 2014 – present; 212 appearances/10 goals for Napoli, 38 caps for Senegal)
Outstanding in the air, an excellent passer and sufficiently versatile to be deployed across the back line, be it a three or a four, and even as a defensive midfielder, if needed. Koulibaly joined Napoli in 2014, and contributed to the club’s victory in that year’s Supercoppa Italiana. In all four seasons since, he’s been named in the Serie A Team of the Year, with Napoli finishing top-three each season. Perhaps most memorably, he scoring a thunderous header to defeat Juventus in Torino 2017-18, to keep alive Napoli’s best title challenge since the days of Maradona.
Intelligent, elegant, technically gifted, physically imposing and powerful, Koulibaly is a lynchpin of Napoli’s recent era, during which he’s become one of the world’s very best defenders.
Paolo Cannavaro (CB, 1998 – 2000, 2006 – 2014; 278 appearances/9 goals for Napoli)
Another son of Naples, and the younger brother of 2006 Ballon d’Or winner Fabio. Paolo Cannavaro actually began his career with his hometown club, appearing in a pair of Serie B games in 1998-99 before signing with Parma, with whom he spent most of the next seven seasons.
Tall, tactically and technically capable, and fantastic in the air, Cannavaro returned to Napoli in 2006. In his absence the club had endured a brutal stretch, declaring bankruptcy in 2004, and suffering administrative relegation to Serie C1. By the time of his return Napoli had battled back to Serie B and, in his first season back, earned promotion back into Serie A. On Napoli’s return to the top flight, Cannavaro was named captain, an honor held hold for seven years, until his departure in 2014.
During his time with the club, Napoli not only returned to the top flight, but also qualified for the UEFA Cup in 2008, the Champions League in 2011, and won its first major trophy in 22 years – the 2012 Coppa Italia.
Pierluigi Ronzon (DM, 1961 – 1967; 227 appearances/15 goals for Napoli, 1 cap for Italy)
A solid, if not towering defensive midfielder from Friuli, Ronzon was a staple of the Napoli squads of the 1960s, serving as captain from 1961-1966. He played a crucial role in securing the first major trophy in club history, scoring the winning goal in the 1961–62 Coppa Italia final against Spal. Not only did this mark the club’s most significant success to date, but made Napoli the first club from Serie B ever to win the cup.
Antonio Vojak (ST, 1929 – 1935; 194 appearances/103 goals for Napoli, 1 cap for Italy)
One of Napoli’s first superstars, Vojak featured alongside Attila Sallustro in the late 1920s and early-1930s. He scored his 103 Napoli goals at a rate of .531 per appearance, good for third-best among players with at least 50 goals for the club. He is Napoli’s best-ever goal scorer in league play, with 102 in 102, and remains the sixth-best goal scorer in the club’s history.
Dries Mertens (2013 – present; 280 appearances/109 goals for Napoli, 84 caps/17 goals for Belgium) Signed at age 26 from PSV Eindhoven in 2013, Mertens has made the most of his time in Naples. Speedy, hard-working and versatile, Mertens has excelled in numerous roles for Napoli in the six seasons since his arrival – his favored left wing, on the right, in the middle and, under Maurizio Sarri, as both a primary striker and “false nine”.
His first three seasons, during which he was largely as a substitute, were prolific in terms of silverware. At the end of his first season, Napoli reached the 2014 Coppa Italia final. Mertens scored third in a 3-1 win over Fiorentina. Later that year, Napoli triumphed on penalties over Juventus in the Spercoppa Italiana.
The sale of Gonzalo Higuaín in 2016 allowed Mertens to thrive individually, as a more central figure in attack. He made most of the opportunity. His best season came in 2016-17, when he scored 34 goals in 46 games in all competitions, and came up one goal shy of the Capocannoniere, with 28 in Serie A. His scoring pace has since slowed, but Merterns remains a key member of the squad, with 41 goals and 23 assists in all competitions over the past two seasons.
More recently, he has been racking up the milestones. In the spring of 2019, he overtook Maradona as Napoli’s third-leading scorer in Serie A (fourth in all league play), and then leapfrogged Sallustro for third on the club’s list of scorers in all competitions. With any luck – rather, in the absence of catastrophic luck – he ought to finish the upcoming season no worse than second, as he trails Maradona by six, and is thirteen shy of Marek Hamšík in the top spot.