If you are not interested in Italian soccer, go read something else. As of the current week (Oct. 18), Naples is in the middle of the standings in the lowly C-league and is clearly struggling to satisfy hometown fans. More than 60,000 of them showed up at San Paolo on Sunday evening to watch Naples play to a lackluster 0-0 tie with Avellino. (The high attendance was an historic record for any C-league game, ever. Most other teams in that league are from small towns, play in small stadiums and are lucky to draw 5,000 for a match.) The game was somewhat of a "cross-town" rivalry (30 miles is close enough) since both teams now play in the same league. It is what Italians call a "derby", borrowing the English word with the non-English meaning of what they used to call in baseball in New York a "subway series". In Italy the term is usually reserved for two teams from the same city playing one another. There was an "A-league" atmosphere about the game. Naples' record after 5 games: 2 wins, 1 loss, and 2 ties, in a system that awards 3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, and 0 for a loss.
What is Naplesóthis former powerhouse team, representing a city of millions, twice winner of the national "A" league championship in the 1980s and 90sówhat is Naples now doing, playing not even in the "B" league, but in the C league with the likes of Benevento, Padova, and Foggia?
The Italian soccer leagues are set-up in hierarchical fashion. There is a "major" league, called "serie A" followed by "minor leagues"ói.e., B, C1, C2, and D. The intriguing point is that entire teams are promoted or demoted from league to league, depending on where they finish in the standings at the end of the season. In theory, then, even a small-town team can win its way up from the bottom of the lower leagues into the A league where they, too, might win the national title. That seldom happens, but the hope of being just such a "Cinderella" team keeps soccer going in smaller cities and towns.
Conversely, a big city with a once high-and-mighty team such as Naples can lose its way down and out of the A league and into the B league and beyond. That happened in the late 1990s to Naples. They went to the B league, struggled back up to the A league for a season and then went down again to the B league. It happened more recently, as well. At the end of last season, Naples had been in the B league for a few seasons.
Could things get any worse? Yes, and they did. In order to participate in league play, a team is required to pay a yearly subscription fee. The Naples football club went bankrupt a few months ago, the team could not pay the B-league fee and was sent down to the C league as a form of administrative punishment. There was much controversy about this, and the current soccer season was actually delayed until a solution was reached. Naples had barely been hanging onto the last, safe "don't demote" spot in the B league anyway, so perhaps the court decision to relegate the team to the lower league was not much of a change.
It did produce an atmosphere of gloom in the hometown fans, however. Recently, though, new enthusiasm was generated when film producer Aurelio De Laurentis bought the Naples team. The club was refounded as Napoli Soccer. De Laurentis is dedicated to giving back to the city a team that can play in the A league. His goal is to help create a world-class team againóone, he says, that is worthy of "playing Manchester United at San Paolo [the Naples stadium]". Thus, Naples is starting at the bottom and working its way back up. The huge crowd at the stadium the other night did their part.