When Juventus face Napoli on Saturday night, one of the biggest games of the season will take place with no visiting supporters. Just like last time, the Partenopei will walk out at Juventus Stadium without any fans to back them. The same has been true for the Bianconeri’s last two trips to the San Paolo. Such is the hostility, it’s just not deemed safe.
Much of the enmity is rooted in social and sporting history, and in truth runs deeper one way than the other. The South of Italy was - and to an extent still is - very poor. Turin, an industrial hub and the seat of Italy’s royal family, stood in sharp contrast to Naples, a sprawling and chaotic city at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.
The Northern stereotype ran that the South was corrupt and backward. For Southerners, the North was aloof and cold, its prosperity draining the best and brightest toward Turin, Milan and Genoa. On the pitch, Napoli remain the only mainland club south of Rome to have won the Scudetto - 85 have gone to the aforementioned cities.
For the people of Campania, Napoli’s rise in the 1980s was as much about North v South as taking on Juventus. Consider the Bianconeri and the Partenopei’s greatest stars of that era. In the black and white corner, the Frenchman Michel Platini - middle class, graceful, languid. In light blue Diego Maradona, a fiery midfielder from the slums of Buenos Aires. El Pibe de Oro was brilliant, but as volatile as the mountain whose shadow he played in.
Napoli wrested the Scudetto from the Old Lady’s clutches in 1987, adding another three years later, but it was a temporary upset of the established order.
As the Partenopei collapsed slowly into bankruptcy, so the significance of this fixture dwindled for Juventini - there may have been disdain, but no-one could call it a rivalry. When the two renewed acquaintances in 2006, it was in Serie B, Juventus having been brought to their knees by Calciopoli.
As Italy’s most-hated club, demotion brought much mirth on the peninsula, but the Bianconeri won the division. Napoli went up behind them and - though no Neapolitan would ever admit it - there may even have been a grudging mutual respect, two fallen giants climbing back to the top table.
The heightened tensions we see today began in the 2011-12 season. Under Antonio Conte, Juve secured the Serie A title unbeaten, but the rivalry became a two-way street. The 2012 Coppa Italia Final was supposed to be a glorious send-off for Bianconeri legend Alessandro Del Piero, but Conte’s side were beaten by Napoli. Seeing their captain leading a dejected squad under the Curva was no way to say goodbye, and hurt more than most Juventini would care to admit.
The pair jousted for the Scudetto the following season, with a rock smashing the window of the Juve team bus as a tempestuous title race reached its peak at the San Paolo. The Bianconeri took the Scudetto in the end.
Last season ratcheted things up further still, with Napoli winter champions only to see Juventus take the Scudetto again. Indeed, the turning point was a 1-0 win in Turin, Simone Zaza’s deflected effort winning the game in the last minute in a match where Napoli were on top. It was just so…Juventus.
Still, the San Paolo faithful could take comfort in the fact they had Capocannoniere Gonzalo Higuain…
“Higuain will not go to Juve,” Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis predicted in July. The Argentinian had a €90m release clause in his contract, but surely the Bianconeri wouldn’t dare activate it?
On July 26 it was official. Higuain made the move to Turin, becoming Serie A’s most expensive player ever. For Napoli fans, this was the ultimate betrayal - not just leaving, but for THEM? The rich Northerners opened their chequebook and took the San Paolo’s crown jewel - could there have been a slap in the face more emblematic of this complicated rivalry?
Higuain shirts were burned in the street, and even ‘Gomorrah’ scribe Roberto Saviano would feel more confident of walking the streets of Naples than Pipita these days.
“Juve have Maserati, Fiat, Ferrari and a century of history behind them,” De Laurentiis said recently, the film producer immediately seizing the narrative. “We don’t have the history of Juventus, but the image of Napoli is strong because Neapolitans are the true protagonists in Italy.”
This distinction is felt so keenly that rules introduced to fight racist chanting were extended to include ‘territorial discrimination’ – namely insults aimed at Southern Italians. Juventus paid many fines and had a partial stadium ban because of the repeated chant: ‘Vesuvius wash them with lava.’
There won’t be any of them in Turin on Saturday night, but as the two best sides in Italy face off, make no mistake: this is now the most bitter rivalry in Serie A.