Aurelio De Laurentiis is rarely short of an opinion. From informing the world that “English women don’t wash their genitalia” to defining Lionel Messi as a “cretin”, the Napoli owner has never been backwards about coming forward when he has something to get off his chest. Which is why, when Ezequiel Lavezzi’s girlfriend Yanina Screpante took to Twitter a few nights ago, defining Naples as a “shit city” and threatening to take her other half elsewhere, you knew it was only a matter of time before he issued a response.
Screpante was understandably distraught at the time of her outburst, having just been robbed at gunpoint, but De Laurentiis was utterly without sympathy. “In a climate of recession I think you should not go around with a Rolex on your arm,” he declared of the golden watch – a gift from Lavezzi – that Screpante had stolen. “Dear Yanina, I am sorry, it is reasonable that you should take fright, but maybe you are not yet Neapolitan enough. At times you can think you are untouchable just because you are Lavezzi’s other half.”
De Laurentiis’s relationship with the original half of Lavezzi has been combustible enough down the years, the owner noting his forward’s apparent enthusiasm for the Naples nightlife in 2009 with the infamous words: “If you are an athlete you don’t go out drinking at night then see prostitutes.” When the same player was delayed in returning from international duty later that year due to a misplaced passport, he growled: “We are tired of having to deal with careless Argentines and their scant professionalism.”
Yet while many observers might feel De Laurentiis’s hard-line approach has worked with Lavezzi – the player evolving in the intervening period from a flaky and erratic performer into one with drive and consistency who has helped propel Napoli into the Champions League – he might on this occasion be facing up to a problem beyond his control. Screpante later apologised, saying she had been distressed and retained great affection for the city. But later that evening, Lavezzi’s agent Alejandro Manzoni painted a somewhat different picture.
“Naples is not a safe city,” he insisted, noting how Napoli’s other stars had been similarly targeted. Just last week Marek Hamsik’s pregnant wife had her car stolen at gunpoint, while her husband himself has previously had a watch taken under similar circumstances while driving in the city. Edinson Cavani’s house was burgled while he was away on international duty with Uruguay last month.
It was a thread which has been picked up by a number of the leading newspapers. Even La Repubblica, less prone to sensationalism than many other Italian titles, ran with a lengthy article on how footballers had been targeted by the city’s criminal element. “There are no untouchables in the Malanapoli,” wrote Giovanni Marino, utilising a cover-all term for the Naples underworld. “Indeed, [footballers] might be first on the list. Rich and famous footballers; stars with millionaire salaries.”
As Marino would later acknowledge, footballers might enjoy some advantages over regular victims of crime. It was widely reported that Hamsik’s stolen watch was returned to him once associates of the criminals in question found out where it had come from (though this story remains unconfirmed), and famously Diego Maradona had a whole collection of wrist-pieces brought back to him after they were snatched from the Bank of Naples during his time in the city.
Even Maradona, a man who had been photographed fraternising (and even sitting in a jacuzzi) with Camorra leaders before the end of his time in Naples, did not get back the item he cherished most – his Golden Ball from the 1986 World Cup. The former gang boss Salvatore Lo Russo has since claimed to have attempted to recover the item, only to discover that it had already been melted down into a gold bar.
Of course, crime is hardly a uniquely Neapolitan problem. In the last month, both of Roma’s Juan and Gabriel Heinze have had their homes broken into, while Inter’s Lucio had his BMW stolen by a man pretending to work as a valet in Milan’s Porta Romana (Cristian Vieri, incidentally, had his Porsche Cayenne in an identical ruse back in his playing days for the club). As Goffredo Buccini notes in Corriere della Sera: “We could send out two teams [of footballing crime victims] with a full set of subs – from Eto’o to Brehme, from Zalayeta to Menez, from Ronaldinho to Sneijder.”
Many would argue, indeed, that Naples is no more dangerous than the rest of the peninsula. At time of writing, 48% of respondents to a poll on La Repubblica’s website believe Naples is more violent than Italy’s other major cities, but 49% say it is no worse than Rome or Milan (3% don’t know). De Laurentiis himself, in his response to Screpante, had proclaimed the former as Italy’s “capital of crime” (though he might be a touch biased).
But perception does not always conform to reality, and in spite of her retraction it is easy to see how Screpante’s view of Naples might have changed irreversibly after such an event. Manzoni would suggest more than once during his round of interviews that his client’s girlfriend is now afraid to leave the house on her own. This, he argued, becomes an even bigger problem in the context of Lavezzi’s lifestyle as a whole.
“Lavezzi’s private life is difficult,” Manzoni said. “Pocho the footballer has everything in Naples: he is loved by the fans, he is supported, he feels like a protagonist for his team. But as regards Pocho the man … my client has been living for four years in his house, without his son – who lives in Argentina, and who cannot even be taken to the park when he does come to visit because they will be mobbed … he cannot leave his house and now his girlfriend is afraid to go out on her own.”
Later the same evening he would insist in another interview that Lavezzi “is not thinking of leaving Napoli”, though that too has the whiff of a tactical manoeuvre. It is inconceivable that De Laurentiis would consider selling such an integral figure in the January transfer window. It is far less inconceivable that the agent is beginning to lay the groundwork for a transfer further down the line.
How could Lavezzi not want to leave, after all, if the picture was truly as bleak as his agent suggests? Similarly, how could Cavani not be at least have considered – even if only momentarily – the possibility of fleeing to a different city, when he himself was so shaken up by the burglary at his house that he immediately relocated to a new, more central property which is guarded day and night by armed security?
There is no doubt that both players are enjoying their football at the moment, reveling in their roles in the team which De Laurentiis has built as well as the way in which they have been embraced by the team’s fans. With Champions League money pouring in this season and a sensible wage structure in place, there is also no financial reason why the owner would have to sell – even if it is clear that such players have caught the eye of the world’s richest clubs.
But not every problem can be solved with deep pockets, nor even with a sharp tongue. And right now his players are wrestling with an issue far greater than football: fear.
Paolo Bandini covers Italian football for guardian.co.uk and Astro SuperSport, as well as The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Paolo_Bandini.