The Shirt Remains: Lessons in Loyalty from Napoli

Blue smoke rises before a soccer match in Italy. Photo by Katherine Wilson.
“Napoli, I’m crazy for you, I’m in love with you and I’ll never leave you,” they sang. “Our only faith is in Naples.”

The players change, but the shirt remains.” My husband has uttered this sentence to placate his child innumerable times in the last 24 hours. Our 11-year-old son is desperate: the star player for Napoli’s soccer team, Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain, was sold to the rival team Juventus for 90 million euros.

Papà, it’s impossible,” our son cries. “It’s not fair!”

“The players change, son, but the shirt remains.”

“But without Higuain, who’s going to lead the offense?”

“The players change, son…”

And so on and so forth.

I was impressed by the calm in my husband’s tone. I’d expected him to hug his son and wail, or at least mutter Neapolitan curses he hoped would befall Higuain as he packed his bags to leave Naples. If I’ve learned anything from my 20 years with an Italian soccer fan, it’s that the emotions one associates with the end of Puccini operas — passion, betrayal, rip-your-heart-from-your-chest — are not unique to opera houses. In Napoli, they are the stuff of the stadium.

I experienced first hand the love affair between Higuain and Napoli. This spring I accompanied my husband and son to the curva of the San Paolo stadium — the area where the die-hard Napoli fans watch the matches. Napoli hadn’t had a season this good since 1989, when Diego Armando Maradona led them to win the championship for the second time (and in so doing became a patron saint of the city.) This year, thanks to another Argentine, Napoli had a real shot at winning the title: Gonzalo Higuain scored 36 goals in 38 matches. Although Juventus pulled into the lead in the spring, the season gave Napoli fans a thrilling time.

Cursing in the curva

I am American, female and like to talk about sportsmanship. I was bred on cheerleaders chirping, “Gimme a C!” The curva, on the other hand, with its huge rippling Napoli flags piercing the haze of blue smoke, was something to be reckoned with. I looked around me to see lots of “N” tattoos and fierce belligerent faces. A man who looked like a cross between Andrea Bocelli and Richard Gere stood before our section and started shouting at us in a hoarse voice. He was the capo, the leader of our section, my husband explained, and we had to obey his orders.

“First, bad words. I want to hear them all. I want to hear the worst of them. No holding yourselves back.” He looked at me, the only woman in this section of the curva. “Capito, mamma?” Got it, mom?

I gave him a dorky little thumbs up and smile.

“Second, hand gestures. I need to see you gesticulating, and the movements need to be big and decisive.”

My son looked at me. The kid had just been given the green light not only to say every possible curse word he’d ever heard right in front of his mom and dad. He’d also been told to flip the other team the bird, grandly and often. Anthony looked at me questioningly, eyebrows raised. I turned to my husband for support, but he was watching the leader and nodding solemnly.

The last instruction from the head of our group was quite simply to SING.

Eat, Sing, Love

The capo then opened up a giant bag of sandwiches. This is one of his duties, my husband explained to me later. To provide food for his “team” of fans. He offered them to us, senza complimenti, go ahead! Don’t be shy, have some!

I politely declined, noting the impressive manners there among the Ultras. I had brought some slices of frittata for the three of us, and was shocked to see that my husband was getting up to offer them to our group. “I got exactly three!” I hissed at him, to which he responded, “We have to offer them some. Otherwise we’ll make a brutta figura” (an ugly face in Italian, meaning a terrible gaffe).

Oh great, we were going to end up without lunch! My husband took the little paper tray of oily frittata over to the head of our fan group and said, prego. Please, go ahead. Fortunately, they all refused. This was simply good manners, Ultra etiquette. Nobody was ever going to take a piece of your coveted frittata, dear.

After everyone had eaten, the match began like clockwork (were we really in Italy?) and the choruses started soon thereafter. The music made by the Ultras was extraordinary. One led to another — there was a veritable repertoire of songs speaking of faith, of love, of honor. They were accompanied by gestures to the heart, gestures appropriate for a serenade of Romeo to Juliet on her balcony.

“Napoli, I’m crazy for you, I’m in love with you and I’ll never leave you,” they sang. “Our only faith is in Naples.”

If during a song there was a call that one of the fans didn’t approve of, however, he would shout a loud “mbocca a mammete!” (your mother gives blowjobs!) before picking up again with a melodious “how I love you, my Napoli!”

Mercifully, the match was won by Naples. Gonzalo Higuain performed a brace, and came below the curva to sing together the new anthem of Naples, an aria to the Argentine himself. This was true love.

“One day, suddenly, I fell in love with you. My heart started to beat like never before. Don’t ask me why! Time has passed, but here I am, I am still here today defending the city. You are everything to me!”

It brought tears to everyone’s eyes. But as we packed up and hugged our fellow fans, my eye caught a massive banner on the other side of the stadium. “I giocatori cambiano, ma la maglia rimane.” The players change, but the shirt remains.

This week, my husband taught our son that lesson by surrounding him with those who embody it the most. The players change, but the fans remain.

Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from My Italian Mother-in-Law published by Penguin Random House on April 19, 2016 in the US, and is additionally available in the UK, Germany, and more. Copyright © 2016 Katherine Wilson

Available for purchase at Amazon, Books A Million, Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and iBooks.

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