August 2004; SSC Napoli are declared bankrupt by a Naples court with debt reported, at the time, to be in the region of £46.1m. Napoli’s license to play in Serie B was also refused to compound their dismal position and worsen matters. The history of Napoli and its free-spending habits were set to haunt them.
And thus came the end of Napoli, but not the end for professional football in Naples, with a new Italian football regulation allowing a city whose team had collapsed to retain a ‘franchise’ under a new company.
A month later, in September 2004, Naples had a new team, Napoli Soccer 2004. Italian film producer, Aurelio De Laurentiis, bought what was left of the defunct Napoli club, starting in the Italian third tier, Serie C1.
Two years later and De Laurentiis had returned the club’s history, restoring its name to Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli. But how did Gli Azzurri find themselves in such a precarious financial position, only 14 years after they won the Serie A title? How did they manage to recover and become a force in Italian and European football once again?
This tale is not of great triumph but rather a disastrous decline traced back to the glory years and the departure of a club icon.
A brief History of Napoli
The club can trace its origin back to 1905, a team known as Naples Foot-Ball and Cricket Club, founded by an English sailor and his associate, William Poths and Hector M. Bayon.
A few Neapolitans were involved, including Amedeo Salsi, who would later become the club’s first president.
In its early form, the Italian Football Championship was limited to just Northern clubs – meaning those in the South competed against sailors or in cup competitions like the Thomas Lipton’s Lipton Challenge Cup, which Naples FBC won three times.
In 1912, the club would split in two – with the foreign contingent of the club forming Internazionale Napoli, with Naples FBC remaining. But after ten years, with the clubs surviving the First World War, both merged due to financial pressures, forming Foot-Ball Club Internazionale-Naples (FBC Internaples).
And four years later, the members of Internaples agreed to adopt a new name for their club – Associazione Calcio Napoli.
Napoli fans’ first great pre-Second World War hero was Attila Sallustro, who took no salary due to his wealthy upbringing. In the 1928/29 season, Sallustro scored 22 goals in 28 games for the club.
The 1929/30 season would see Napoli join the Serie A, and it would be over 30 years before the club began to achieve any success as they fluctuated between Serie A and Serie B.
The rise of Napoli
While in the Italian second tier, Napoli achieved their first major honour when they won the 1961/62 Coppa Italia. Two years later, the club changed its name again – becoming the more recognisable Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli (SSC Napoli) on June 25th 1964.
The change of name culminated in I Partenopei (The Parthenopeans) being promoted as runners up in Serie B, and it was back to Serie A they went at the end of the 1964/65 season.
And in their first season back in the top-flight, the club managed to finish in an impressive third place in 1965/66, as well as defeating Juventus in the Coppa delle Alpi trophy.
1967/68 would be the closest SSC Napoli had come to claim the Scudetto, finishing just behind AC Milan. During this period for the club, they had a host of players who were recognisable worldwide, including future 1982 World Cup winner Dino Zoff, striker José Altafini, and Naples-born defender Antonio Juliano.
It would be the 1974/75 season where the Naples club would come closest to capturing the Serie A title, finishing two points behind eventual champions, Juventus.
The following season saw Gli Azzurri achieve their second Coppa Italia, beating Hellas Verona 4-0 in the final, thus qualifying for the 1976/77 European Cup Winners’ Cup, where they reached the semi-finals – succumbing 2-1 on aggregate to Belgian side Anderlecht.
Maradona and the glory years
At the beginning of the 1980s, SSC Napoli oversaw third and fourth placed finishes in Serie A. But in 1984, Napoli was on the world map when they captured the signing of Argentine superstar Diego Maradona from Barcelona.
And thus began the most significant success in the club’s history. However, this success was not instant, with the club achieving an eighth-place finish in 1984/85 and a third-place finish in 1985/85.
It would be 1986/87 that proved to be the clubs finest hour. On May 10th 1987, the city of Naples was silent. Citizens crammed into bars, restaurants, and if lucky, the Stadio San Paolo (now known as the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona) – ready to celebrate.
It prompted anthropologist Amalia Signorelli to write: “The world had changed, the noisiest, most crowded and most chaotic city in Europe was deserted.”
The world may not have changed, but Napoli had just won their first Serie A title after 61 years of existence – with the previous desolate streets transformed within minutes, full of celebration and colour. Their title success also made them the first and only mainland Southern Italian team to win the league, a record that still stands to this day.
The Scudetto was not the only piece of silverware that Napoli and Maradona claimed that season. The club won a third Coppa Italia, beating Atalanta 4-0 to complete a famous double. After a runners-up spot in Serie A the following season, Napoli entered the UEFA Cup for the 1988/89 season and would see the club earn their first piece of European silverware.
Victories against Juventus and Bayern Munich in the quarter-final and semi-final, respectively, set up a two-legged final against VfB Stuttgart.
Goals from Maradona and Careca saw the Blues victorious in the first leg, 2-1. The second leg saw the two sides play out a 3-3 draw, with Napoli winning 5-4 on aggregate, sealing their first European trophy.
SSC Napoli also reached the final of the Coppa Italia that same season, only to be beaten by Sampdoria 4-1 on aggregate. The following campaign, 1989/90, saw the Partenopei claim a second Scudetto in four years, finishing two points clear of AC Milan.
And in the curtain-raiser for the 1990/91 season, Napoli was victorious in the Supercoppa Italiana, defeating Juventus 5-1, a record margin of victory in the competition that stands to this day.
This would be the club’s last major honour for 22 years. Following testing positive for cocaine, Maradona departed Naples in 1991 amid the start of the club’s financial problems.
While the decline of Napoli can be traced to the club’s financial difficulties, it is hard to ignore Maradona’s influence on the club.
During his time with the Naples outfit, he won 5 major honours and took them to the next level.
Napoli has won 11 major honours in their history – Maradona was involved in 45.5% of those triumphs.
The club’s slow decline began after the victory in the 1990 Supercoppa.
One by one, players including Gianfranco Zola, Daniel Fonseca and Careca all departed. During the early years of the 1990s, SSC Napoli still held their own in the league – although considerably lower than the Maradona era.
After a fourth-place finish in 1991/92, Gli Azzurri’s league form began to diminish, and by the end of the 1997/98 season, the club had been relegated to Italy’s second tier.
The club did reach the 1996/97 Coppa Italia final but saw defeat by Vicenza, who won 3-1 on aggregate.
But at the beginning of the 1997/98 season, a large number of the club’s players were sold to help improve the financial situation. An instant return for Napoli didn’t occur, and they had to wait until the 1999/2000 season to achieve promotion back to Serie A.
Their return was a short one, as they were relegated back to Serie B after one season back in the top-flight – with fellow strugglers Lecce and Hellas Verona having one more point than the Blues.
The club could not gain promotion back to Serie A in the 2001/02 season, missing out by one place. This failure set off a spiral effect which saw the club slip further down the league, finishing 16th in 2002/03 and then 14th in 2003/04.
Following the end of the 2003/04 season, with debts over £45m, SSC Napoli were declared bankrupt in August 2004.
Ultimately, their world-record fee of £6.9m in 1984 for Maradona, a sum only met because local politician Vincenzo Scotti used his connections with Italy’s banks to secure Napoli a loan and fund unsustainable spending – has cost the club dearly.
Rebirth and current success
Bankruptcy would not mean the end of professional football in Naples. A new Italian football regulation, a law, known as ‘Lodo Petrucci’, allowed a bankrupt club to reform and start again at a lower level.
September 2004 saw Italian film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis buy the Naples club for £29.8m, enlisting them in the Serie C1 under the new team name, Napoli Soccer. De Laurentiis intended to ensure the city of Naples was not left without a football team.
Following his purchase of the club, he attempted to rally supporters: “A new era is beginning, and I hope fans have the patience and the respect for this club that it requires.”
In Napoli Soccer’s first season in Serie C1, the club narrowly missed out on promotion to Serie B after losing 2-1 to Avelino in the playoffs. However, they did win the Serie C1 title the following season after a 2-0 win against Perugia.
It spoke volumes for both Napoli’s prestige and their fans’ loyalty that, even during this all-time low, the Stadio San Paolo could still attract crowds of 50,000 plus – a Serie C record.
Following the club’s promotion back to Serie B, De Laurentiis restored the history and SSC Napoli name. I Partenopei would earn back to back promotions at the end of the 2006/07 season, finishing second behind Juventus, who were also in the division as a consequence of the Calciopoli Scandal.
The club consolidated its position back in Serie A over the next few seasons finishing 8th in their first season back and 12th in 2008/09.
Under the tutelage of manager Walter Mazzarri and star players Marek Hamšík and Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Blues would finish the 2009/10 season in 6th place and qualify for the following season’s UEFA Europa League competition.
And the following season, after adding Edinson Cavani to the ranks, Napoli finished in third place, handing qualification to the 2011/12 UEFA Champions League.
A fourth Coppa Italia was added in the 2011/12 season after a 2-0 win over Juventus, who were unbeaten in the league – their first major piece of silverware since winning the Serie A in 1990.
2012/13 saw Gli Azzurri achieve their best league finish since that Scudetto win in 1989/90 when they finished second and nine points behind champions, Juventus.
Napoli claimed another Coppa Italia in the 2013/14 season after defeating Fiorentina 3-1, following that up with the Supercoppa a few months later. Under managers Maurizio Sarri and Carlo Ancelotti, the club would finish second on three further occasions in 2015/16, 2017/18, and 2018/19 – with the 2017/18 season seeing them amas 91 points, only to be bettered by an impressive Juventus haul of 95 points.
A sixth Coppa Italia was achieved at the end of the 2019/20 season, beating Juventus 4-2 on penalties after a 0-0 draw in normal time.
With Diego Maradona’s death, the club announced in December 2020 that they would rename the Stadio San Paolo to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in his memory.
You would be forgiven, considering the club’s success domestically, for not knowing the history behind the fall of SSC Napoli. But it is one that cannot be ignored.
The glory years the club had between 1980-1990 will never be forgotten, but the spending during that period, as well as Maradona’s departure, played a massive part in the club’s demise.
Napoli, and the fans, are incredibly fortunate to still have that history, given the club’s liquidation. Many a football club here in England have fallen by the wayside, all of which would long for their club to be reborn and not lost in the abyss of football history.
You can always long for success by paying vast sums of money, but doing it the right way and sustainably is necessary to secure longevity.
It is a tale that fans should be wary of. It is a fate that cannot be fathomed but one that befell this Italian giant.
Touching on Napoli and its history, by Alex Mcnulty – @AMcnultyJourno
Graphic by Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_