Napoli are one of Italian football’s great outsiders. A combination of a strong Neopolitan character, their presence as the only genuine superclub in the south and, crucially, the fact they are one of the few one-club cities among the elite gives them a unique identity.
It’s harboured a rebellious streak which has led to the tifosi embracing so many maverick talents with such affection; while the significance the city’s port plays in its culture and economics could be behind why so many of these favourite sons have been imports.
Ciro Ferrera, Giuseppe Bruscolotti and Antonio Juliano retain iconic status within the Stadio San Paolo but the real revered superstars of the Partenopei, those who have entertained and excited, particularly in their most successful eras, have been from beyond the borders of Italy: Diego Maradona, Careca, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and now Marek Hamsik.
Maradona heads that list, given his achievements in dragging Napoli from regional irrelevance to two Scudettos and a UEFA Cup, and his position in club folklore as ‘The King’ is unlikely to ever be usurped.
However, one player close to etching his name above El Diego, at least in the record books, is Hamsik.
The Slovak is six goals behind Maradona’s all-time record of 115 and while it’s unlikely he’ll be celebrating reaching the mark over their two Champions League ties against Real Madrid – the first leg kicking off on Wednesday at the Bernabeu – his position among the legends of Gli Azzurri past is assured.
It’s now commonplace to see his portrait adorning the walls of cafes and bars in the city next to the Argentine genius. A vibrant goalscoring midfielder, who, like Maradona, carries a subversive persona with his mohawk and tattoos, has inked himself into the culture of the club, literally and figuratively.
“Once I met a fan who had a tattoo of my face on his body. I gave him my signing and when I met him later, I noticed that he has tattooed also my autograph,” Hamsik tells Sport360. “They are incredible.”
“They are interested only in football, everything is happening around this game. They are passionate and live for their team. All kinds of people support Napoli by their heart.”
It’s not just Hamsik’s goals which lead to this adoration, his ferocious all-encompassing midfield style stirring crowds. Whether via his incisive passing, energy or ability to cover so much space on the field, or his selflessness and willingness to track back and defend.
This inspirational way of playing has made him seem a natural fit as club captain, but he admits leadership is a quality he’s had to work on. At 22, he was named Slovakia’s youngest ever skipper, however a year later he had lost the armband to defender Martin Skrtel following a dressing room referendum.
He adds: “I have been a captain in all teams I have played in but personally, I do not think that I am a born leader. The reason why I always wore a captain’s armband was rather that coaches believed in me.”
In his early teens, Hamsik starred for local club Jupie Podlavice, earning a trial at Czech heavyweights Sparta Prague. However, an offer was never forthcoming so he instead chose to move to Slovan Bratislava, but Slovakia’s most successful club were experiencing financial problems; players had to shower in cold water and they couldn’t afford the €5,000 transfer fee.
In stepped father Richard, who sold the family’s Skoda Felicia and borrowed the rest to raise the money and facilitate his son’s move at 14.
Hamsik recalls: “I stood in front of a very important decision: to leave my home. My parents let me decide. I wanted to exploit that chance and move to a higher level.”
And higher he rose, very rapidly; just six matches into his career at Bratislava, Brescia came calling to whisk the 17-year-old to Italy for ¤500,000 in 2004.
Two strong seasons in Serie B then alerted Napoli who paid €5.5m and, 430 appearances later, he stands on the brink of overtaking a legend of world football.
“There is only one Maradona, I will never be a bigger player than him. However, I would be very happy to beat his record. I can do it this season, but if I don’t manage it, I will try it again next year,” he said in the wake of Napoli’s 7-1 mauling of Bologna earlier this month.
Hamsik can talk in terms of “next year” because he signed a four-year contract in the summer, turning down a lucrative offer from Tianjin Quanjian in China.
That loyalty has also only fuelled his cult status. Whereas Maradona, Careca, Lavezzi and Cavani all eventually moved on, Hamsik’s love for Naples appears eternal.