Mazzarri out, Calzona in: At Napoli, the next plot twist is never far away


The film about Napoli’s first league title in 33 years has entered post-production. Movie mogul and owner Aurelio De Laurentiis would like to release it in April. “It’ll obviously be pay-per-view,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be so expensive to make.”

He plans to distribute it to cinemas, screen it at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona and sell it to a streaming platform. “I’ve been winning at cinema for 50 years. Now I’m winning at TV.” A sitcom with Carlo Verdone, the great comic actor of his generation, “has been No 1 on Prime Video (in Italy) for three years”, De Laurentiis boasted.

Paramount+ recently bought the second series. Napoli also came back for a new season, this time with less romance, more drama and De Laurentiis doing an Orson Welles. He has acted and directed in a genre that defies categorisation. Is it farce? A ‘How not to prepare for a Champions League knockout tie’ mockumentary? A disaster story? Or Squid Game even? Critics don’t know what to make of it.

On Sunday, the latest plot twist in this reality show leaked.

As was the case in September when Rudi Garcia picked up the papers and read reports about De Laurentiis sounding Antonio Conte out to replace him, Walter Mazzarri, his actual successor, took training at Castel Volturno on Monday afternoon knowing his players must have seen the tweets forecasting his imminent dismissal. Even if the receptionist at the training ground turned off all the TVs, the writing was on the wall.


Walter Mazzarri spent three months as Napoli head coach (Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Some camera crews waited outside the gates for Mazzarri who, still in his training gear, buzzed the window of his Mercedes down and refused to say anything other than “ciao ragazzi.” Other troupes of journalists congregated outside the Hotel Britannique where, as Mazzarri will have seen on the news bulletins, De Laurentiis was holed up with his executive team finalising the appointment of yet another coach, Napoli’s third of the season.

After making his name in cinepanettone, the Carry On-style Christmas specials set in ski resorts like Cortina d’Ampezzo, De Laurentiis, genius that he is, appears to have hit on a variation of a theme: calciopizza. In a city renowned the world over for the margherita, he sent Mazzarri away and ordered a calzone: Francesco Calzona to be precise. It is a move as surprising as Naples’ most acclaimed pizzaiolo Gino Sorbillo making it his mission in 2024 to lift the taboo around pineapple on pizza, historically a deportable offence in these parts.

While dwelling on Mazzarri’s future, De Laurentiis knew he could not re-call Garcia. He had undermined the Frenchman in the job and out of it. There was the anecdote about how, in hindsight, he should have sacked Garcia the minute his unveiling at the Capodimonte palace finished in June. The reason? Garcia revealed he had not watched a single Napoli game last season.

Then came De Laurentiis’ version of events from Garcia’s last game, a 1-0 defeat to Empoli at the Maradona in November. De Laurentiis stopped by the dressing room before kick-off to tell Garcia his line-up was wrong. He then returned at half-time and said: “Are you trying to get sacked?’ before relieving him of his duties at full-time. De Laurentiis has been slightly more graceful with Mazzarri than with Garcia. “Mazzarri is a friend of the De Laurentiis family and a friend of Napoli,” he said. “It’s always painful to sack a friend.”

The decision to hire Mazzarri in the first place was as badly judged as naming Garcia as Luciano Spalletti’s successor. Mazzarri knew the club but his last spell at Napoli was a decade ago and he couldn’t keep Cagliari up in his last job. His first press conference was spent defending himself from the charge he was bollito: cooked or finished at the highest level. Seventeen games later, De Laurentiis put a fork in him. He’s done.

Fourth when he took over, Napoli fell to ninth and are 29 points off the pace they set last year in what must rank as one of the worst title defences of all-time. They’re out of the Coppa Italia, eliminated by Frosinone in a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the Maradona, and lost the final of the Super Cup to Inter in Riyadh in stoppage time.

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Napoli are ninth in Serie A (Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)

Mazzarri, the likeable mumbler, deserves a measure of sympathy. His first four games came against Atalanta, Real Madrid, Juventus and Inter. He compromised his principles to gain De Laurentiis’ approval, mimicking Spalletti’s 4-3-3 as best he could before alternating it with the 3-5-2 he knows best. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the Serie A MVP, has been double or triple-marked and kicked to pieces this season. Victor Osimhen and Andre-Franck Zambo Anguissa were unavailable during AFCON and the scale of Napoli’s intervention in the January transfer window acknowledged mistakes and oversights last summer.

Mazzarri was only supposed to be a traghettatore, the ferry boatmen who gets you across to the other side. De Laurentiis hoped to review things in April and in the meantime line up a permanent coach for next season. But the good ship Napoli kept sinking. A team that scored more than a 100 goals last season was goalless in seven games under Mazzarri. On Saturday, they needed a last minute equaliser from winter pick-up Cyril Ngonge just to get a point at home to newly promoted Genoa, a sign, Mazzarri thought, that the players were fighting until the end and still very much behind him.

Calzona, like Mazzarri, knows the club and “80 per cent” of the players from his past as one of Sarri and Spalletti’s assistants. He left 18 months ago to go it alone and will be one of four Italian coaches at the Euros after qualifying Slovakia for the tournament. Rather than leave his current role, Calzona will job share. For now, his assistant Marek Hamsik, the former Napoli captain, will not follow him. Calzona and his staff arrived only this morning. “I’ll introduce him to all the guys, although he needs no introduction apart from with some of the new guys who joined in January or last summer,” De Laurentiis said. “Then we’ll dash to the stadium for this eagerly anticipated UEFA press conference.”

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Francesco Calzona will manage both Napoli and Slovakia (Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images)

Calzona somehow has to find the time to pack in a training session. Twenty four hours isn’t a lot of time to game plan for Barcelona and Wednesday’s game already feels like a missed opportunity against one of the least impressive Blaugrana sides in a long time. Last year, De Laurentiis believed his team could and should have won the Champions League. “Inter reached the final and finished 20 points behind us in the league. Why couldn’t we have done it?”.

But now the spell appears to be broken. Osimhen might not be fit and insists, despite signing a new deal, that his mind is made up over his future. Piotr Zielinski, one of Serie A’s most skilful midfielders, hasn’t been included in the Champions League squad after his intention to leave on a free in the summer became clear.

The team is drifting. How Calzone rights the ship remains to be seen. Beyond Barcelona, he needs to work on closing the nine-point gap between Napoli and a place in next year’s Champions League. Fail to qualify and the job will have less appeal to a big name. Qualify and a big name might turn De Laurentiis down anyway.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Victor Osimhen and the stuttering season indicative of Napoli’s shoddy title defence

Recently, it was put to Napoli’s owner that coaches no longer want to work for him. Sarri left then Spalletti did too. He even cracked a joke (sort of) that working with De Laurentiis was like starring in a horror film. Thiago Motta, the best up-and-coming coach in Italy, didn’t fancy the job either. “Those who know me always tells me that this story about my character isn’t true,” De Laurentiis said. “Otherwise, my wife wouldn’t have stuck with me for 50 years.”

De Laurentiis has asked supporters and media to give him a pass this season. He has earned the benefit of the doubt. Napoli won’t go down as they did under other owners, nor will they go bust. “In 19 years, we’ve never betrayed you,” he said. Napoli’s last set of accounts showed a €118m profit, a record for an Italian club. Box office figures.

It remains to be seen how this season ends in Naples. You can’t write it. De Laurentiis keeps flipping the script.

(Top photo: Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis; Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)





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