‘Kvaradona’ has Napoli fans daring to dream after summer of discontent | Serie A
‘Kvaradona’ has Napoli fans daring to dream after summer of discontent | Serie A

They have stopped worrying about how to pronounce Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s name in Naples. When the player’s transfer to Napoli was announced in April, Aurelio De Laurentiis was asked for guidance. “I’ll make something up,” replied the club president. “We’ll call him something. He can be ‘Zizì’, that’s not bad.”

A more obvious abbreviation was adopted elsewhere, ‘Kvara’ becoming accepted shorthand. Two Serie A appearances later, however, a new nickname has taken hold. From the alleys of Naples’s Spanish Quarter to the headlines of national newspapers, the Georgian was being hailed on Monday as ‘Kvaradona’.

Perhaps one or two optimists embraced that soubriquet before he arrived, placing their trust in scouting reports that promised an audacious young dribbler. Kvaratskhelia had been hailed by his international teammate Zuriko Davitashvili as the “Georgian Messi”. Stats from his time with Rubin Kazan in Russia showed him taking on his man as regularly as Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain.

Most, though, were hesitant to place a 21-year-old in the same breath as Napoli’s greatest player. They wanted to see the evidence with their own eyes. A group of about 1,000 of them got the chance at the Stadio Bentegodi on the season’s opening weekend, travelling to watch their team win 5-2 at Verona.

Kvaratskhelia scored Napoli’s opening goal, his header drawing them level in the first half. After the interval, he set up Piotr Zielinski for the strike that made it 3-2, releasing his teammate with a first-time through-ball from just inside the opposition half. It was an astonishingly confident pass from a player who already looked like a fully integrated component of a smooth-running machine.

How could that be? Were Napoli not supposed to endure a season of transition after bidding farewell to Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens – their captain, vice-captain and all-time leading goalscorer respectively?

Fans wave the Georgian flag in support of Napoli’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Sunday.
Fans wave the Georgian flag in support of Napoli’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona on Sunday. Photograph: Franco Romano/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Throughout the summer, Ultra groups had protested over what they perceived as insufficient activity to replace them. The Napoli manager, Luciano Spalletti, was interrupted during an event introducing the team at their training camp in Dimaro by a man screaming at him to “Wake up!”

The relationship between De Laurentiis and the fans has long been fraught. He has upset different groups at different times with outlandish statements – he once suggested Neapolitans don’t know how to cook pizza – and high ticket prices, but the greatest hostility has come from those who believe he is more interested in enriching his family than winning trophies or improving club infrastructure.

From another perspective, such criticisms might seem absurd. De Laurentiis restored Napoli from bankruptcy in 2004. Under his presidency, they returned to the top-flight within three years and have since won the Coppa Italia three times, as well as finishing among Serie A’s top three in eight of the past 12 seasons.

But the picture is complicated by his family’s investment in a second Italian club. De Laurentiis’s media company, Filmauro, completed the takeover of another fallen giant, Bari, in 2018. With his son, Luigi De Laurentiis, as president, they have already climbed two divisions to Serie B.

New regulations have sought to prohibit the simultaneous ownership of two clubs. The chaos caused by the promotion of Salernitana, co-owned by the Lazio president, Claudio Lotito, to Serie A last season provided a vivid illustration of the problems such arrangements can cause. Yet Filmauro appealed successfully for an exemption that allows them to own Napoli and Bari until 2028 – as long as they don’t wind up in the same division.

As Insigne, Koulibaly and Mertens packed their bags, it was easy for fans to believe their club was being neglected. On social media sites, the hashtag #A16 was launched – a reference to the motorway that links Naples and Bari. De Laurentiis’s doubters wanted to see him drive off down it and not return.

But then the season began. Kvaratskhelia was not the only player to impress in the win over Verona, Victor Osimhen grabbing a goal and an assist and Stanislav Lobotka dominating the midfield. Another new signing, Kim Min-jae, made a confident debut at centre-back.

Napoli followed that result with more signings: the 22-year-old Italy forward Giacomo Raspadori from Sassuolo, Tanguy Ndombele from Tottenham and Giovanni Simeone, who racked up 17 goals and five assists last season, from Verona. Suddenly, Spalletti had a wealth of options up front.

Against promoted Monza on Sunday, he chose to stick with the group who had been working together throughout preseason. That meant another start for Kvaratskhelia, who marked his first appearance at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona with two goals in an emphatic 4-0 win.

His first could almost have been a homage to the man he has replaced on the left of Napoli’s attack. Cutting in from that flank, Kvaratskhelia unleashed a bending shot – ‘u tiraggir’, in the local dialect – towards the top-right corner, Insigne’s trademark move. Not even the Italian struck many this sweetly though, the ball sailing on an unstoppable trajectory off the woodwork and into the net.

The Italy international Giacomo Raspadori was a high-profile arrival in Naples in the off-season.
The Italy international Giacomo Raspadori was a high-profile arrival in Naples in the off-season. Photograph: Vincenzo Izzo/Shutterstock

That was the first goal of the game. Osimhen added the second before Kvaratskhelia struck again. This time he showed off his ambidexterity, opening up as if to shoot across goal with his right foot but instead hooking the ball back, unbalancing the defender in front of him and taking a touch to go past before burying it with his left.

In two games, Kvaratskhelia has completed a perfect hat-trick – one goal with his head and one with either foot. Not bad for a player who arrived for a modest €10m fee.

That is a testament to the work of Napoli’s sporting director, Cristiano Giuntoli, who moved decisively to agree the deal to sign him from Dinamo Batumi in April. Kvaratskhelia had joined the Georgian club one month before, quitting Rubin Kazan after Fifa ruled that foreign players in Russia should be free to break their contracts after the invasion of Ukraine.

Spalletti believes Kvaratskhelia has much more to show us. “He still has too much pressure on him,” said the manager. “As soon as he frees himself from that pressure, he will show people what a player he is. Today there were a few more times when he held up the ball and doubted himself in the one-on-one.”

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Serie A results

Saturday: Inter 3-0 Spezia, Sassuolo 1-0 Lecce, Torino 0-0 Lazio, Udinese 0-0 Salernitana. Sunday: Atalanta 1-1 Milan, Bologna 1-1 Verona, Empoli 0-0 Fiorentina, Napoli 4-0 Monza. Monday fixtures: Roma v Cremonese (5.30pm), Sampdoria v Juventus (7.45pm).

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A scary thought for opposing defences. Napoli have scored nine times in two games and Spalletti suggested Raspadori and Simeone will have to earn their right to play for the first team.

Now is not the moment for getting ahead of oneself. Neither Verona nor Monza offered much defensive resistance and tougher tests lie ahead. Napoli began last season with eight consecutive wins before a defeat by Internazionale, and Osimhen’s fractured cheekbone, took the wind out of their sails.

The buzz and excitement to see more of this team, though, is real. ‘Kvaradona’ has announced himself to the league and even Kim got in on the act, scoring Napoli’s fourth goal on the day the player he replaced, Kalidou Koulibaly, was picking up a red card for Chelsea. “We are on a good path,” said Spalletti. “Now we need to continue.”



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