Simone Pepe’s late winner at Stadio Olimpico last night was good news for more than just Juventus. Defeat for Lazio threw open the race for fourth place, meaning that both Roma and Udinese would finish the weekend within a point of the Biancocelesti, and Juventus within four. But with fresh uncertainty over the destination of Italy’s final Champions League spot came certainty at last for the team in third. Napoli are now guaranteed a top-four finish.
Indeed, with three rounds of fixtures left to play and an eight point advantage over fourth-placed Lazio, only the most disastrous end to the season could see Napoli miss out on a top-three finish – and hence automatic progress to the Champions League’s group stages. For a team that has not played in Europe’s top club competition since 1990, and which started the season with a wage bill approximately one-sixth the size of that belonging to last year’s champions Inter, that is not bad going.
But for all the excitement, there is also a growing sense of unease. A time that should have been reserved solely for celebration is gradually being overshadowed by uncertainty over the future of the manager Walter Mazzarri, who has consistently refused to confirm that he will be at the club next season. A number of media outlets have linked him with potential vacancies this summer at either Juventus or Roma.
“The season needs to finish first,” insisted Mazzarri when asked if he was ready to make a statement on his future following Napoli’s 1-0 win over Genoa on Saturday. “First you need to reach your objectives, then you can worry about these things. A manager has many things inside him that he needs to understand, and the directors know that at the end of the season I will sit down with them to discuss my future.”
For Serie A it is a familiar tale. As Mazzarri himself noted in the same press conference, it was an open secret this time last season that the Sampdoria manager Gigi Del Neri was preparing to join Juventus even as his team closed in on a most unlikely fourth-place finish. Mazzarri’s suggestion was that it was better to wait until the end of the season to discuss these things, though had he been present Del Neri might have pointed out that his team still reached their goal.
Either way, the problem Mazzarri now faces is that many have begun to interpret his silence as evidence that he is indeed planning to depart. “Mazzarri’s dance offends Napoli,” rails today’s Corriere dello Sport. “The manager is talking about the possibility of leaving as though he does not have a contract until 2013.”
In reality, of course, Mazzarri has done no such thing – in public at least. But there is still a sense of hurt among supporters that the manager should not have come out by now and declared the opposite. Why, after all, would he not want to come back for another year? This is a Napoli team on an upward trajectory, one whose star players – Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik – are still young enough to improve even further and whose fanbase have continued to offer magnificent support even as the Scudetto dream has faded.
“Whoever wants to go … should go. Whoever wants to stay … all the better – it’s been a wonderful year” read the banners that were unfurled by the home supporters at the Stadio San Paolo on Saturday, but deep down they will know how important their manager has been. The Partenopei were 15th in Serie A when Mazzarri took over from Roberto Donadoni in October 2009, but went on to finish the season sixth and are now set to go even higher.
This, though, is also the problem. A deeply ambitious man, Mazzarri has climbed the footballing pyramid step-by-step in Italy, taking his first management job with Acireale in the fourth tier just under a decade ago, and working his way up one division at a time. Having exceeded expectations at just about every stop along the way, Mazzarri knows his own worth. He feels ready to coach a team at the very top level. Napoli may be on that level, but the question Mazzarri will be asking himself is: can they stay there?
Football, after all, is a business, and Inter are not the only ones outspending Napoli on a weekly basis. In fact Napoli’s total wage bill is only the seventh highest in Serie A. No less than four top-flight teams are spending more than twice as much.
That is not to say that everyone else is getting as good value for money, of course. Lavezzi and Cavani are both expected to be offered improved contracts in the summer, but even at the higher end of the figures being quoted in the press, the combined salaries of those two and Hamsik would still add up to less than what Zlatan Ibrahimovic alone is receiving at Milan.
Napoli, and in particular the sporting director Riccardo Bigon, deserve immense credit for having been able to construct such a strong squad on such modest wages – and their success in doing so has been a major factor in the club being able to spend so aggressively in the transfer market. As the football business blogger Swiss Ramble pointed out in a recent post, Napoli’s net spend on transfers has been the highest in Serie A over the last four years, and yet they have continued throughout that period to post a profit.
As a financial model it is the envy of Serie A – proof that it is possible to succeed while still meeting the requirements set out by Uefa’s new Financial Fair Play rules. Furthermore, Napoli’s large stadium – even if communally owned – is one of the largest in the country, with a capacity of over 60,000. The club’s recent successes have brought more full houses, and there is room still for the matchday revenue to be improved.
But Mazzarri is a manager, not an accountant, and in the end he will want to be known for winning trophies, not overachieving on a budget. Champions League football next season will bring significant financial reward but also fresh strains on a thin squad as it attempts to compete on several different fronts. And if it was tough securing a Champions League berth this year, imagine how tough it will be to get back again next year, when only three are available.
“Mazzarri wants technical guarantees,” claimed Hamsik’s agent, Fulvio Marrucco, this week – the suggestion being that the manager had asked for his squad to be significantly upgraded in time for the new season. Each of Juventus and Roma, the clubs with which he has been most heavily linked, are expected to be among Serie A’s most active protagonists in the summer transfer window. In deciding whether to stick or twist, that may ultimately be his greatest consideration.
All of which puts the club in a tricky position – left to choose between sticking to the model of measured, steady growth which has served them so well, or gambling on the manager’s ability to turn additional funds into continued excellent results. The owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis, has deep pockets, but will be wary of putting so much on the line at a club which he only rescued from bankruptcy as recently as 2004.
With Mazzarri remaining tight-lipped, it is a conundrum that De Laurentiis has a few more weeks to ponder.