History isn’t bunk, as Henry Ford once declared it, at least not in the Champions League.
And that’s bad news for Napoli, taking on AC Milan tonight.
Not just because Milan beat them at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona 4-0 just the other weekend, despite being 22 (twenty-two!) points behind Napoli in Serie A.
It’s more that AC Milan have seven European Cups/Champions League trophies and Napoli have never previously made the quarter final of the competition.
They really are, despite their own unique heritage, new kids on the block in this tournament.
Not that you would know it, given the attitude of Napoli fans right now.
Travel to Naples and, other than the fact that almost every taxi driver has a mini icon of Diego Maradona hanging from his rear view mirror, what is startling is number of the banners already pronouncing the team Campioni D’Italia.
Napoli have never previously made the Champions League European Cup quarter final
AC Milan have seven European Cups and can take confidence from the fact they beat Napoli at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona with a convincing 4-0 victory earlier this month
Three stars, representing the club’s third title and adding to the two the Diego Maradona team won in 1989 and 1991, adorn the scarves and knock-off shirts sold outside the stadium dedicated to Diego, even though, even with a 16-point lead at the top of Serie A, it is likely to be next month before they are officially champions.
However, not for Neapolitans the coy refusal to pronounce on a title win until it is mathematically impossible.
The celebrations are in full swing.
Indeed, prior to the AC Milan match in Serie A, coach Luciano Spalletti commented on how the fevered sense of anticipation in the city was becoming difficult to manage.
Take Liverpool’s charge to the title in 2020, which was so eagerly anticipated yet emotionally muted by lockdown, multiply that by hundred and you have some idea of the – local geographical metaphor alert – the volcano of fevered celebration which is about to erupt.
Napoli is different.
Every club claims this but even the Liverpudlians who worked with Rafa Benitez in the city during his time there would concede it is like Liverpool and then some.
The obsessive intensity is more like Newcastle, given that it is a one-club city, yet it has a Latin sensibility which is expressed in a less-repressed manner.
There might still be some unclear as to magnitude of what Napoli are about to achieve and for those who are, watch Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona film.
It is as good a primer as you will get into what the title means to the city. The north-south divide in Italy is particularly stark.
The industrial, wealthy cities of Milan and Turin have won every title since 2002.
Luciano Spalletti mentioned how the fevered sense of anticipation in Napoli was becoming
Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has enjoyed a fantastic debut season for Napoli
From the more rural, less economically developed south, only Napoli have broken the hold of those three cities, Rome, Genoa and Verona since 1970.
The chants that Juventus and AC Milan sing about the cholera epidemics in Naples, the most recent in of which was in 1973 (though that one was mercifully contained), is an indication that levels of poverty in the city have often been at a level incomprehensible to most northern Europeans.
It is why hundreds of thousands decamped to the USA in the 20th century.
It is also the reason why Maradona, from a shanty town background in Buenos Aires, was such a natural, charismatic leader here.
Despite it possibly offending more prudish celebration police puritans, there is no harm is prematurely celebrating their title, for they will, of course, be champions.
Only you wonder how that might affect their Champions League performances.
Because there is an opportunity here to surpass even what Maradona did.
The best his team could do in the old European Cup was reach the last 16, where they were knocked out by Spartak Moscow.
Every football hipster worth his or her salt is backing Napoli to make the final in Istanbul, though UEFA, having fouled up last year’s final to the point of almost visiting disaster on fans, are probably less keen on what would be a huge invasion.
But the romantic image of a traditional club that is not Real Madrid, Barcelona or haber oku Bayern Munich nor a club funded by petro-state with a human rights record to hide, triumphing in the Champions League does seem like a throwback to the 1980s.
Like Nottingham Forest or Aston Villa winning the European Cup.
Pep Guardiola had them down as the best team in Europe earlier in the season and Liverpool, Ajax, Juventus and Eintracht Frankfurt, who have all be been mauled by them, might agree.
They look to be the most-exciting team in the competition.
Spalletti seems to have burst through the structured tactical patterns we associate with Italian coaching, in that his team is adaptable to the moment and allow a degree of (very well coached) freedom.
Diego Maradona’s team reached the last 16, where they were knocked out by Spartak Moscow
Man City boss Pep Guardiola had Napoli down as the best team in Europe earlier in the season
‘Systems no longer exist in football,’ says Spalletti.
‘It’s all about the spaces left by the opposition. You have to be quick to spot them and have the courage to strike.’
You feel Johan Cruyff and his most notable protégé, Guardiola, would agree. That said, their ability, when necessary, to sit deep and go long to Victor Osimhen, is less from the Cruyff handbook.
His 25 goals, strength and speed make him the go-to £100m centre forward in the market his summer.
Sadly, none of that will be on display at the San Siro tonight, as he is out injured, another reason for thinking AC Milan might surprise a few.
What is counter intuitive is that this team isn’t built on a detailed study of analytics and data in the transfer market, as Liverpool’s resurgence partly was.
Nor is down to a middle-eastern state deciding a football club might provide cover for their human rights record.
Napoli don’t bear the hallmarks of a modern football success.
The stadium looks good on TV but is, frankly, a crumbling wreck. The training ground, which Benitez was forever complaining about, is in the run-down town of Castel Volturno, north of Naples, where six innocent African migrants were gunned down by drug dealers while hanging out on the high street in 2008.
The town also proudly boasts the world’s only 16-hole course as hole 17 and 18 were appropriated for said training ground and you can imagine just how far removed the playing surface was from what Benitez expected.
The transfer policy, which has been one the most-successful in Europe, in terms of net spend, still seems more driven by contacts and scouts than the analysis of geeks with maths doctorates from MIT.
Take the £10m signing of season’s sensation Khvicha Kvaratskhelia from Dinamo Batumi.
By the age of 22 he had already been traded through Dinamo Tbilisi, Rusati (in Georgia), loaned to Lokomotiv Mosow and sold to Rubin Kazan (Russia) and leaving for Dinamo Batumi when the war broke out before finding his way to Naples.
That’s a circuitous route which suggests it doesn’t matter how good your thesis on expected goals from Cambridge University is, it won’t much help you establish the right relationships to clinch the deal.
Napoli will at some point sell Kvaratskhelia for £100m plus, which will go add to the kitty that saw them get £80m for Gonzalo Higuain, £60m for Edinson Cavani, £50m for Jorginho and £32m for Kalidou Koulibaly in the last ten years.
This team was built on those deals and has done extraordinarily well yet tonight and beyond is a brave new world.
As such, tonight’s clash with AC Milan ought to be more intriguing than Chelsea’s with Real Madrid’s, which seems a much more straightforward game to predict.
Napoli in the Champions League final is an enticing prospect and Henry Ford would back them.
History, however, says otherwise.