Napoli look the best in Europe

WEEK-BY-WEEK, people are getting increasingly excited about Napoli and their goalscoring antics, and little wonder, for they have opened up an eight-point lead at the top of Serie A and they also walked through their Champions League group, scoring goals for fun. For the first time in years, a club that hasn’t won Serie A since the days of Diego Maradona is being talked of as realistic scudetto winners. This could certainly be their time for Juventus are struggling by their own standards and Inter and AC Milan are not quite clicking as they should. If nothing else, Napoli look the most exciting team in Europe, but they could also be the most functional at this precise moment.

The club’s owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, believes the current team is the best he has seen in his time in charge. He was actually criticised for selling players like Kalidou Koulibaly (€ 40 million to Chelsea), David Ospina, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne in the summer, all of whom were in their 30s and Fabián Ruiz was sold to Paris Saint-Germain for € 25 million. Simultaneously, they also acquired some very promising talent, notably Georgian forward Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who has caught the attention of every major club in Europe after his first few months at Napoli.

The pundits claim Kvaratskhelia is the most exciting player to arrive in Serie A since Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus in 2018, and they might be right. Napoli fans were hoping that Pablo Dybala was heading to the club from Juve, but he opted to join Roma, but Kvaradona, as he is affectionately known, has made them forget their disappointment. In the summer, sports director Cristiano Giuntoli got busy and nine players were brought in, either on permanent deals or via loan arrangements.

The response from some of the new boys has largely been impressive, with Luciano Spalletti’s side playing crisp, attacking football. The way they dismantled Liverpool in the Champions League raised many eyebrows, but they also scored prolifically against Ajax and Rangers in the group stage. They now face Eintracht Frankfurt in the round of 16, a tie they can look forward to with some degree of confidence.

Napoli have also benefitted from the form of the powerful Victor Osimhen, who has scored nine Serie A goals in 11 games, including a hat-trick against Sassuolo. The club’s biggest problem may be working out how to keep the Nigerian striker when the transfer window opens.

Napoli Serie A results 2022-23

Home  Away 
2. MonzaW4-0 1.VeronaW5-2
4. LecceD1-1 3. FiorentinaD0-0
6. SpeziaW1-0 5. LazioW2-1
8. TorinoW3-1 7. AC MilanW2-1
10.BolognaW3-2 9. CremoneseW4-1
12.SassuoloW4-0 11.RomaW1-0
14.EmpoliW2-0 13.AtalantaW2-1
15.UdineseW3-2   

Napoli also have some strength in depth up front in the form of Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone, while the fresh impetus at the club seems to have been the catalyst for the rejuvenation of players like midfielder Stanislav Lobotka. Huge South Korean defender Kim Min-jae, who was signed from Fenerbahce for € 18 million, and Juan Jesus, who joined on a permanent basis from Roma after a loan period, have also been starring in defence.

Spalletti, who is from Tuscany, is a curious character, driving around Napoli in a modest Fiat Panda rather than a conspicuous statement on wheels. After leaving Inter, he spent two years on his farm, concentrating on olive oil and wine production. In addition, his self-imposed sabbatical gave him the chance to reassess his approach to the game. He’s never been short of would-be employers and has coached eight Italian clubs, including Roma, Inter and Napoli, and also spent four and a half years with Russia’s Zenit St. Petersburg.

Napoli have gone close to winning Serie A over the past decade, but lacked the staying power to keep up with Juventus and also lost their nerve when they were leading the pack. The summer clear-out was arguably a big positive for the club as it enabled them to create something of a blank canvas to mount a title challenge in 2022-23. The opportunity is real as the big northern clubs are not at their strongest while Napoli appear to have bought very well in the close season. It will be 33 years since their last scudetto, so the big prize is long overdue, and don’t rule out a prolonged Champions League campaign.

Soccer City: Zürich – not just gnomes, after all

THE first thing I was ever told about Zürich was that it was “boring and too tidy”, a place where the time-obsessed Swiss eat high quality chocolate, wind their expensive clocks and watches and stamp their feet when a train is just a minute late. As for football, the city was supposed to be a dead duck, or a dead grasshopper, and was firmly in the shadows of Basel and Bern. Ignoring the cliché and stereotyping, nothing could be further from the truth; Zürich is civilised, moves at the speed of its friendly and comforting trams and has a taste for the good life. And from a football perspective, it has two relatively big clubs, both of whom play at the same arena.

The Swiss can poke fun at themselves and when you arrive at Zürich airport and board a shuttle train to the terminal, you hear cow bells, yodelling and other sounds synonymous with Switzerland. It’s a beautiful country, make no mistake and its cities are attractive and well managed. Needless to say, the trains seem to run on time. And there’s something quite attractive about Swiss football and that’s not just because some of their stadiums have good backdrops.  The Super League had a higher goal-per-game ratio in 2021-22 (3.25) than any of the big European Leagues.

Zürich, to many people around the world, is the capital of Switzerland, which is of course a misconception. It has been the financial centre of the country for decades, with an international banking community that doesn’t command quite the same level of respect it once enjoyed. Swiss banks are trusted no more than any financial institution these days. Talking of trust, FIFA is based in Zürich, another organisation that is widely assumed to be corrupt or at the very least, misguided and incompetent. While Switzerland is not in the same bracket as Europe’s big leagues, there’s no doubt that the nation has played its part in the history of the game.

Zürich

Population415,000
LanguageGerman
First tier clubsFC Zürich, Grasshopper
Second tier clubs 
Third tier clubsYoung Fellows Zürich, FC Zurich II

The two Zürich clubs have experienced mixed fortunes in recent years, both suffering from relegation but also proving they are too big for Swiss Challenge League football. FC Zürich won the Swiss Super League in 2021-22, surprising everyone because in 2020-21, they had only just avoided relegation. They appointed André Breitenreiter as coach in the summer of 2021 and he appeared to work some magic, adopting a very fast and direct style, not dissimilar to the approach taken by Leicester City when they won the Premier League in 2016. Zürich benefitted from the goals of Gambian striker Assan Ceesay, who netted 20 goals before leaving at the end of the season to join Lecce on a free transfer.

Zürich won the Swiss Super League by a margin of 14 points, with favourites Basel and Young Boys trailing behind. These two clubs have dominated Swiss football since 2009, with Basel winning seven years in a row up to 2017 and since then, Young Boys winning four consecutive titles. These clubs are also the strongest from an economic perspective, with operating revenues in 2020 of around CHF 30 million. FC Zürich’s income in 2020 was about 75% of that figure.

The pandemic left its mark on Swiss clubs because they traditionally made 35% of their revenues from matchday – there are no huge broadcasting revenues in the Super League. The Swiss government did provide some support during the crisis, but it was revealed earlier this year that some clubs received more than they were entitled to and they have been ordered to pay back CHF 4 million to the federal authorities.

Zürich enjoyed an increase in attendances at the Letzigrund with an average of 10,575 at their home games. The league average was 11,400, a pretty constant figure over recent years. But since winning the title, everything seems to have gone wrong for FCZ. Brietenreiter left to join Hoffenheim and Zürich began 2022-23 disastrously. His replacement, former Austria coach Franco Foda, has also gone.

Zürich are still without a win and are currently bottom of the league. They failed to get past the second qualifying round in the UEFA Champions League and are competing in the UEFA Europa League group stage, where they are up against Arsenal, PSV Eindhoven and Bodø/Glimt. They’ve lost all three of their group games, the most recent a 5-1 humbling at home to PSV. Goals seem to be the problem since Ceesay departed, but the feel-good factor that accompanied Zurich’s success in 2021-22 has all but evaporated.

Grasshopper, who share the Letzigrund after leaving the Hardturm in 2007, are faring better than their co-tenants and are sitting in mid-table. The idea was for a new Zürich stadium to be built that would house both clubs, but the project didn’t receive the necessary approval and has long since stalled. The Letzigrund itself is an attractive ground with an unusual appearance. The original ground dated back to 1925 but a new stadium was constructed for the 2008 European Championships.

Because of their name, Grasshopper are of the most well-known clubs in Europe. Founded by a Blackburn Rovers supporting biology student, Tom Griffiths, in 1886, Grasshopper suffered relegation for the first time in their history in 2019, but they returned a year later to the Swiss Super League. The last time they were champions was in 2003, but they won the Swiss Cup in 2013.

There is fierce rivalry between the two Zürich clubs for what is the only major derby in Swiss football. The two clubs have met this season at the city-owned Letzigrund with an attendance of almost 17,000 seeing a 1-1 draw. The derby games are characterised by tifos, pyrotechnics and the usual chanting of insults and jibes!

There is another Zürich football institution, SC Young Fellows Juventus, a rather quaint name for a club that plays at the tiny Utogrund. This club is the result of a merger in 1992 between Young Fellows Zürich (founded 1903) and Società Calcistica Italiana Juventus Zurigo (1922). Unsurprisingly, the club plays in black and white stripes. They are in the third tier of Swiss football, the Promotion League and so far in 2022-23, they’re not doing so well.

Football in Switzerland may not seem as frenetic as other countries, but when FCZ were relegated in 2016, there were riots among fans, so nobody should dismiss Swiss football as lacking passion or enthusiasm. Furthermore, Zürich is one of the most powerful cities in the world and regularly features at the top of surveys on the quality of life. It’s certainly one of the most pleasant places I’ve watched a football match.