Once upon a time there was Naples, a city whose people were so in love with football that the God of the sport himself decided to descend from the heavens to join their team. He took them to heights they'd never even fathomed and brought the most beautiful trophies the city had ever seen. But one day, sadly, he had to leave.
The years that followed were marked by bitter nostalgia for Diego (such was the God's name). Napoli went bankrupt, were demoted down to Serie C and the fans started wondering if footballing glory would ever return to their city. But 22 years later, things started to change.
In 2012, Walter Mazzarri's Napoli won their fourth ever Coppa Italia by beating Juventus in the Final, the club's very first trophy since the Maradona days. Earlier that year, they had almost upset Chelsea in the Champions League Round of 16, putting the city of Naples on the footballing map for the first time in over two decades. At the time, the Azzurri were known for their stellar attack featuring the likes of Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani, also known as the Tre Tenori. The following year, Napoli would finish second in Serie A, their best league placement since the 1990 Scudetto.
Rafa Benitez followed, winning both a Coppa Italia in 2014 and a Supercoppa in 2015, but failing to impress as much as his predecessor both in Serie A and on the big European stage. And then, one day, a heavy smoking former Italian banker whose tactics had particularly impressed at Empoli was appointed as their new manager.
He went by the name of Maurizio Sarri, and although many failed to see him as an upgrade, it didn't take him long to make a widely respected reputation for himself. Even more than when the Three Tenors had enchanted Naples with their spectacular attacking football, the Azzurri started to look like they could finally be taken seriously as Scudetto contenders.
What's most impressive is that they did so by playing what some regarded as the world's most beautiful football, and without the big investments that are nowadays required to be competitive at the top level.
What the former banker managed to put on display at Napoli was indeed mesmerizing. Smart possession, quick passes, perfect triangles, all topped by some of the most satisfying team goals a sports lover could be gifted with. It's not an exaggeration to say that, in recent years, that kind of football has only rarely been seen away from the Nou Camp.
It felt like Sarri's men played by heart, they didn't even need to tilt their head up to see where their teammates were on the pitch, because they simply knew. "Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is", the late Johan Cruyff had famously stated. The seemingly effortless way in which Napoli played was the quintessential expression of that philosophy.
Unfortunately, Sarri never managed to bring the Scudetto nor any other trophy back to the city, and not even Gonzalo Higuain's record for most goals scored in a Serie A season (36) would be enough to dethrone Max Allegri's Juventus in 2016.
The closest Napoli ever got to winning the league was in 2018, but their 91 total points were simply no match to the Bianconeri's staggering 95. And then, instead of making the much-needed investments the team needed to keep competing with Juventus, Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis decided that the problem was Sarri himself, and that his football would never be enough to win any trophy. In a rather classless way, the club sacked the manager that had come closest to Diego Maradona's incredible feat all the while enchanting the city of Naples and the rest of the footballing world.
Sarri was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, but not even one of the most successful managers in history was able to take the Azzurri to the next level. If anything, his brief spell at the club highlighted how much Sarri and Napoli were a match made in heaven.
Despite many of the players being the same that Sarri himself managed, the current team aren't even close to being a copy of who they were just two years ago. Because they've never moved on from losing their only, true manager, the trust he had in them and the tactics that suited their characteristics so perfectly. Ever since Sarri's departure, their chemistry has been slowly fading away, and now it has quite possibly vanished forever.
Now led by Gennaro Gattuso, Napoli are sitting 11th in the Serie A table after a streak of three consecutive league losses. And on Sunday night, they must defeat the impossible Serie A odds on Oddspedia by beating the mighty Bianconeri at the San Paolo. Except this time, it's none other than Maurizio Sarri who will be guiding the visitors from the touchline.
Sarri too has not been able to replicate the well-oiled machine that was his Napoli. He only had a season at a Chelsea side unwilling to fully commit to his ideas, while Juventus are taking a long time to change the habits of a decade. It’s no mean feat for them to switch from Antonio Conte and Allegri to Sarrismo while remaining top of the Serie A table, but they’re doing enough so far.
When he steps into the Stadio San Paolo for the first time, though, they’ll all realise that it can never be the same.