“And if we sign Messi?” The question circulates these days by word of mouth, and from phone to phone, in the Sanhedrin of Aurelio de Laurentiis. It is told by the old septuagenarian friends of the president of Naples, those wise men who advise him how to design his squad following a method that is at the opposite end of the technocrats who presume to manage the big data. Pure intuition, pure life experience, pure ancestral knowledge of the game. sheer audacity. The idea of signing Messi, Maradona’s heir to the club that crowned Maradona, and paying his salary with the €100m they hope to get from the Osimhen sale, is a conjecture that De Laurentiis greeted as something fantastic rather than real. But it is also a symbol of the magic that surrounds this Naples, a company that went from bankruptcy in 2004 to put together a team that this season, with a salary mass of 110 million euros, barely a fifth of what the big players spend from Spain, practice the most approximate football that has ever been seen since Guardiola’s Barça.
Min-Jae Kim, the best centre-back in Europe this season, has the most unorthodox pedigree imaginable. He made his debut for Gyeongju, a semi-professional team in the Korean league. From there he went to Jeonbuk Hyundai, and when he established himself at Beijing Guoan, in the first months of 2020, there were Tottenham scouts who recommended his signing. His progression did not stop when he passed through Fenerbahçe. When he turned 25 last year, the reports of the most accredited experts in the analysis of defenses described him as a chosen one: the most skilled footballer in the art of anticipation since Beckenbauer. The big clubs on the continent already knew that there was a pearl there when Fenerbahçe priced him at 20 million euros. But… who signs a Korean who plays in the Turkish league?
A brave leader was needed who would not be intimidated by the scant media impression or the risk of criticism. That man was De Laurentiis, who knew nothing of Kim but relied on the advice of his friends and the charisma of Cristiano Giuntoli, his brilliant sports director, an egoless Tuscan who joined Napoli in 2015 after officiating a prodigy. : He achieved four promotions with the minuscule Carpi, from Serie D to A in five seasons. Someone very capable of validating with his position the maneuvers of the council of elders and officiating as a buffer against the incendiary Neapolitan public opinion.
“Our goal for next year is to win the scudetto”, Giuntoli proclaimed, very serene, when in mid-July 2022 he offered a press conference to explain the sale of Koulibaly. Until then, Koulibaly was widely considered the best defender in Europe. The fans were furious. But Giuntoli knew that another genius was coming.
A few days later, Napoli bought the rights to Kim for just over 15 million euros, after paying 11 million for Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, another unknown player for the general public. At the end of last March, sources close to Arsenal and United indicated that both Premier League clubs sent emissaries who presented De Laurentiis with an offer of 200 million euros for both players. In less than a season, it was the confirmation of the most exciting revaluation in history multiplied by two. “This had never happened in the football market,” says a consultant associated with a Premier club with direct knowledge of the operations to acquire the rights of two of the footballers who have driven Napoli to win the first scudetto of its history without Diego Maradona.
If there was a club capable of causing a revolution by buying and selling players, it was Napoli. Since De Laurentiis acquired it after filing for bankruptcy in 2004, the company has grown without interruption or the need to borrow. It has been enough for him to hit after hit in a market in which he never stopped obtaining advantages. The great launch took place between 2012 and 2013. In two successive summers, he sold to PSG the players that his fans praised as successors to Maradona. First to Ezequiel Lavezzi, bought in 2007 for five million and transferred for 30; then Edinson Cavani, bought in 2011 for 12 and sold in 2013 for 70. With those levers, De Laurentiis built his empire.
Higuaín, Hamsik and Mertens brought the club closer to the top of the table. But the key to the football arc was Kalidou Koulibaly. Signed to Genk for eight million euros in 2014, the Franco-Senegalese defender became, by all standards, the best central defender in Europe in the next five years. When Koulibaly insisted on signing for Barcelona last year and announced to De Laurentiis that he was leaving, Luciano Spalletti, the coach, an essential teacher of the epic of scudetto, was about to declare mutiny. “President,” he told De Laurentiis; “If you sell Koulibaly I will chain myself to a goal”.
The fans protested. As she had protested the sales of Lavezzi and Cavani. As he reneged with the departure of Insigne or Fabián. The continued unpopular decisions did not falter the pulse of De Laurentiis, whose greatest gift was detecting wisdom in his advisers and acting with determination. Giuntoli showed his face: “I tried to keep Kolibaly but it was not possible,” said the sports director, in the midst of a storm. “I was not capable. But Napoli will keep going strong. We will sign very good young players, players who will be respected. I have faith in the future. I am not worried. The fans must have faith in a society that in the last 15 years has played eight in the Champions League”.
The extraordinary intelligence of Spalletti, an undercover alchemist in a Sunday tracksuit wearing Adidas Copa Mundial, developed the most dynamic 4-3-3 in existence. The model elevated Lobotka’s ingenuity, Kvaratskhelia’s penetration and Kim’s leadership to maximum power until an unforgettable team was launched into orbit. This spring, appraisers from Deloitte, among other specialized firms, concluded that Kim had become the first defender in history with a starting value of 100 million euros. No one would pay more willingly than Pep Guardiola, dazzled by the imagination shown by the guy the Italian press calls the show. Now Manchester City, United, Arsenal, Liverpool and PSG are scrambling to recruit him, encouraged by rumors that his contract contains a clause that would allow him to be released with just €40 million, provided they are paid within a 15-day window. specifics next summer.
Giuntoli’s prognosis came true. De Laurentiis, 72, also got what he wanted. “The American funds came to offer me 900 million euros for Napoli,” he said in The Wall Street Journal, at the beginning of the season, “but I don’t want to retire yet. Let me have fun!”
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