These ought to have been a positive few days for Napoli. Walter Mazzarri’s team have opened the new Serie A season with two wins, seen promising young forward Lorenzo Insigne called up to the national team, and convinced their best player, Edinson Cavani, to extend his contract through to 2017.
Better yet, they even managed to enjoy a joke at the expense of the latter’s suitors along the way, the team’s owner Aurelio De Laurentiis announcing at a deadline day press conference that Cavani had his heart set on a move to “cold Manchester”. The player, sat alongside him, played along for a moment before confirming that it was all lies, stating the belief that he could win trophies with Napoli as he prepared to sign his new deal.
It was a classic piece of De Laurentiis theatre, the latest in a line of such stunts from a man who made his fortune producing movies and last summer had his team’s biggest signing turn up to meet the press wearing a lion mask. Not even De Laurentiis, however, could have sufficient charisma to distract viewers from the shocking state of his team’s pitch during their first home game of the season.
“It’s beach soccer at the San Paolo,” exclaimed the headline on the website of Italian broadcasters Sky Sport on Sunday, and the accompanying pictures made for grim viewing. Patchy, uneven and covered in sand, the field was in a far worse state than the one at San Siro last season which prompted an official complaint from Barcelona and which led Milan and Inter to install a new, partially artificial pitch over the summer.
Mazzarri made no attempt to sugar-coat the situation. “That pitch is something really disgraceful, you can’t play like this,” said the manager in the wake of his team’s 2-1 win over Fiorentina. “They have assured me that within 15 days the situation will be better. Against Parma, after the international break, the layer of grass should be almost perfect. We shall see. Otherwise I will have to take my team to train on the beach at Castelvolturno.”
“They” was presumably a reference to his own club’s hierarchy, since De Laurentiis quickly confirmed that the responsibility for the maintaining the pitch lay with Napoli, not the local administration. Although the stadium is communally owned, the club took over its operation and maintenance in 2005, operating under a long-term lease which was originally set to run for five years but has since been extended to 2015.
De Laurentiis stated confidently that the club understood the nature of the problem and would hold immediate discussions geared towards its resolution. In Naples, though, many were left wondering why such conversations had not been taking place much sooner. The state of the pitch might have come as a surprise to viewers from outside the city but those closer to home knew that it had been headed this way for some time.
Although the situation had not been quite as dire when Olympiacos visited for a friendly on 19 August, it certainly was not in the sort of state a top-flight club should aspire to so close to the start of a new season. Gazzetta dello Sport had described its condition then as “embarrassing”, suggesting that urgent action needed to be taken.
On Monday, the club’s head of operations, sales and marketing, Alessandro Formisano, finally came forth with a more detailed explanation. Rather than a “virus”, as De Laurentiis initially explained it, the pitch had been attacked by a fungus, which had initially taken hold around the away bench in early August. Aided by a scorchingly hot Neapolitan summer, in which the surface of the pitch has reached temperatures as high as 124F (51C), it rapidly spread across the rest of the field.
According to Formisano, the worst damage was done in the two days after the Olympiacos friendly. Since then, he claimed it has seen significant improvement. “Actually the field for the match yesterday had responded well to our treatments,” he told Corriere dello Sport, detailing an intensive re-planting operation in which grass seeds were cooled in fridges before being sown so as to give them the best chance of surviving the heat. “The grass has regrown over 75% of the pitch, although for now it is still very short.”
That process had been undertaken with guidance from the league’s own agronomist, Giovanni Castelli, a fact which may explain why Napoli were not condemned by the authorities on Sunday. The “discussions” referenced by De Laurentiis most likely referred to the fact Castelli was set to return to the city on Tuesday to help the club to plan their next move.
But if this situation was already humiliating for Napoli, a team whose ultimate aim—as evinced by the commitment to retaining Cavani—is to establish themselves as one of Europe’s leading clubs, then it is rendered all the more galling by the fact that it is just two years since they invested €500,000 in upgrading the surface at San Paolo.
In the summer of 2010, with his club having secured a place in Europe for the first time since he rescued them from bankruptcy in 2004, De Laurentiis decided the time had come to resolve problems inherent at the venue since upgrade work done before the 1990 World Cup. “We excavated to one metre below the surface and we found everything: plastic, girders, steel, and sand which is not appropriate for this type of grass,” he said at the time.
“We decided then to make a radical intervention, putting into place a state-of-the-art drainage system. We did it so that in future players would never have to suffer injuries caused by the less-than-perfect state of the pitch.”
More recently, in January of last year, they also terminated their contract with the company that had been responsible for maintaining the pitch at Stadio San Paolo for the last 12 years, taking on another in their stead. It is a decision that will inevitably come under intense scrutiny, with observers wondering why it was not possible to take preventive action after the initial fungal outbreak.
For now, though, Napoli’s focus is not on pointing fingers but finding a solution. Mazzarri, too, suggested that the safety of players was his greatest concern, a consideration that was very much to the fore when Milan and Inter made their switch this summer.
There are those who believe the new surface at San Siro has had a negative impact on results—namely, those clubs are yet to win a competitive game on it—but should it hold up through the course of a full season, you can be sure many other Italian sides will soon follow its example. The Milan clubs themselves only got the idea from clubs such as Cesena and Novara, but success at such a high-profile venue would have a far greater impact on public opinion.
Napoli, though, need more immediate solutions. Just four days after the visit of Parma on 16 August, the Partenopei host Sweden’s AIK in the Europa League. They might not have the eyes of the world upon them, but De Laurentiis will be anxious that even a modest international audience is presented only with the show that he wants them to see.