As Dries Mertens rolled the ball across the turf at the Stadio San Paolo in the 38th minute against Sampdoria, Marek Hamsik knew this was it: the chance to make history.
It was an opportunity that had looked inevitable, to break a record that loomed over and consumed him for months and weeks, to overtake Diego Maradona as the club’s record goal-scorer.
Of course he didn’t miss, delicately lifting the ball over the on-rushing Emiliano Viviano into the roof of the net to give Napoli the lead, and indeed the victory.
Maradona, Hamsik revealed, sent a message of congratulations, from one Napoli captain to another. While it’s never nice to see your record broken at a club you have done so much for, there’s no doubt Diego was genuinely happy that it was Hamsik who did it. For no other player has given as much to the Neapolitan cause since Maradona.
Whilst Hamsik hasn’t driven Napoli to anywhere near the same success levels as Maradona in the late 1980s, he’s risen to almost rival the deity-like figure in the popularity stakes in Naples. Hamsik doesn’t have a bar decorated in his honour or any wall-size murals (at least not yet), but walk around the city and you’ll see an abundance of Hamsik merchandise.
It all seemed so unlikely a decade ago, when the then mohawk-less 20-year-old signed from Brescia. Napoli had just gained promotion to Serie A for the first time in six years and Hamsik was thought of as someone to keep an eye on for the future. A decade and some 481 games later, Marekiaro has embedded himself into the very fabric of the club, and indeed the city.
Hamsik grew to prominence as one third of the ‘three tenors’, with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani. Hamsik wasn’t the flashiest of the trio, nor made the headlines as often, but was a driving force in that Walter Mazzarri side. Hamsik then watched on as the three tenors disbanded, first with Lavezzi going in the summer of 2012, and Cavani following a year later.
Both Lavezzi and Cavani won the adulation of the Napoletani. For Pocho, it was due to a combination of tireless work ethic and mazy dribbles, in Cavani’s case it was down to the absurd number of goals he scored inside threee seasons. However, by the end, neither could stomach the suffocating atmosphere that comes with living in the fishbowl environment of Naples, and departed for the bright lights and nouveau riches of Paris.
By the time Cavani had left, Hamsik had already rebuffed advances from Juventus, Milan and a host of others. Despite he and his wife being robbed at gunpoint during his 10 years in Naples, there’s always been a feeling that Hamsik would stay put, that his loyalty was never in question, and so it’s proved. He’s been the greatest signing of the Aurelio De Laurentiis era.
Hamsik, barring any serious injury, will in all likelihood shatter Giuseppe Bruscolotti’s 30-year record for Napoli appearances by the end of the calendar year. Currently sitting in third, he’s a mere 30 games shy of the former defender, who played 511 times during the 1970s and ‘80s.
With Napoli going into the winter break as champions, Hamsik realises that it may be now or never to win the league. He’s also astute enough to recognise that he’s now on the wrong side of 30, and hasn’t got many more years left of rampaging into the opposition box to score goals.
If Napoli could finally bring home the Scudetto for the first time in nearly three decades, Hamsik may surpass even Diego as Napoli’s greatest player.
Fabio Capello once famously remarked, “one title in Rome is worth 10 in Turin or Milan”. One could feasibly argue that a single title in Naples is equal to 20 in either of the two Northern cities.
And if it does indeed happen, and Hamsik raises the trophy high into the Neapolitan sky come May, he might just get his own mural alongside Maradona in the Spanish quarter of the city. His legend secured.