ROME – There are two great religious passions in Italy, two core repositories for Italian loves and hates, dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears: One is popular Roman Catholicism, especially devotions to saints, mystics and healers, and the other is soccer – or, as the Italians call it, calcio, which is literally the word for “kick.”
Thus it’s natural that as residents of Naples celebrate their Italian championship clinched Thursday night, many are expressing their joy in overtly Catholic fashion.
Last Sunday, which marked the first occasion when Napoli mathematically could have secured its third national title in the team’s 97-year history, the parish of San Vitale a Fuorigrotta, which is about a 10-minute walk away from the club’s Diego Maradona Stadium, chose a novel way to conclude its Sunday liturgy.
(Maradona, of course, was the Argentine prodigy who led Naples to its previous titles in 1987 and 1990, and who, to this day, is revered as almost a demi-God in the city.)
Instead of intoning the usual ending – “The Mass is ended, go in peace” – Father Fabio De Luca instead led the congregation in a rousing version of “Sarò con te,” “I’ll be with you,” a song fans sing at the stadium during Napoli matches. A video of the congregation at San Vitale belting out the anthem quickly went viral.
As it turns out, the parish was a bit premature – Napoli actually tied Sunday night with Salernitana, which meant the city had to wait until yesterday evening, when another tie with Udinese sealed the victory.
San Vitale wasn’t the only Catholic church in Naples primed for a party.
At Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Father Valentino De Angelis last week placed a large version of the Italian scudetto, or “shield,” the symbol of winning the championship, above the main entrance to the church with the number 3 prominently displayed, prophesying the club’s third championship.
“As you can see, the neighborhood is getting ready for the event, and the church couldn’t help adding a little bit of color,” De Angelis said.
Outside the Chiesa del Carmine in Naples, a life-size mural of Maradona festooned the exterior of the church, while scudetti and blue and white Neapolitan flags hung from the overhead power lines in the days leading up to Thursday’s breakthrough.
Recently Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who served as the Archbishop of Naples from 2006 to 2020, recently announced that he sees no reason why the popular coach of the Naples team, Luciano Spalletti, couldn’t be declared a saint someday.
“Not too soon, though,” Sepe added. “He’s got more titles to win. Then, we’ll make him a saint.”
For many Neapolitans, there’s undeniably a sense of divine justice about the victory.
Naples is considered the capital of the Italian south. Prior to 1861 it was the capital of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and to this day, many southerners regard the unification of Italy under the northern Savoy dynasty not as something they did, but something that happened to them – virtually a form of colonialism imposed by northerners, who have exploited and suppressed the south ever since.
Southerners come of age surrounded by reminders of the inequities in national development. To take an example, just one region of the Italian north – Lombardy, where Milan is located – has as many miles of railway track as all seven southern provinces of the country combined.
Noble Prize-winning Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal once described this development gap in terms of “Italy’s failure towards its South: A solemn, undeniable, immense failure that should prompt a large-scale examination of conscience on the part of all honest Italians.”
The same disequilibrium applies to soccer titles. Aside from Napoli’s two previous championships, every other Italian scudetto has been claimed by a team from the north. The paradigmatic case is Juventus, based in Turin, which has a full 36 league titles to its credit.
Even this year, Naples may have won the championship, but northern hegemony remains intact. Naples is the only southern team among the top 13 squads in the standings at the moment, and the other three Champions League spots will still go to northern teams – right now, they would be Lazio (Rome), Juventus and Inter Milan.
“In Naples, soccer is basically a social revolt against the powers of the north, and any other power there might be,” said Vincenzo, the owner of Spiedo d’oro, a restaurant in the Pignasecca neighborhood serving typical Neapolitan cuisine, in a recent interview with EuroNews.
“Consider that in the 33 years that have passed [since Napoli’s last championship], there are still stories of unemployment, the lack of work, the absence of the state,” Vincenzo said.
What does he mean by the “absence of the state?”
Well, the southern Italian city of Matera, despite being designated a European “capital of culture,” still does not have its own state-funded railway station more than 160 years after the country allegedly was unified. As part of Italy’s post-COVID recovery plan, a station is supposed to be constructed beginning in 2023 and to become operational in 2026, but few in Matera are holding their breath in anticipation.
For Neapolitans, therefore, their victory has more than a touch of religious ecstasy about it – and across the Italian south, where levels of faith and practice continue to be robust by European standards, no doubt churches and shrines and sanctuaries will echo between now and June 4, when the season ends, with hosannas of gratitude.