How a De Laurentiis email led Napoli from Serie A title to disarray


A trophyless season beckons for Napoli, just a year after dominating Serie A and reaching the quarterfinal of the Champions League. And when the regret fades for not overcoming an injury-hit Barcelona in the round of 16 — they had their shot and didn’t take it, though maybe if Jesper Lindstrom’s header had been on target, and if Pau Cubarsí’s challenge on Victor Osimhen had been punished with a penalty, who knows? — they may reflect on what happened to their club over the past 11 months. Maybe, one day, it will make a Harvard Business School case study and you’ll be able to pick one up here. Except it will be a compendium of worst practices, rather than best practices — a string of don’ts instead of do’s.

This is the story of how a single, ill-advised certified email started a chain of events that led to the destruction of the greatest Napoli side since the days of Diego Armando Maradona. And all in less than a year.

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Flash back to mid-April of last season. Napoli have just been knocked out of the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but it’s OK: they’re running away with the Serie A title. Osimhen is scoring a ton of goals, Georgian sensation Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has been dubbed “Kvaradona” (without charges of blasphemy) and coach Luciano Spalletti is the toast of Serie A.

Spalletti is a proud and somewhat eccentric man. His contract is up on June 30, but everyone assumes his extension is a slam dunk, and with a hefty raise too. He built this team, he loves the club and the city, he’s settled and happy there. All he needs to do is sit down with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis and work it out.

Except … De Laurentiis has a flash of inspiration.

Napoli have the unilateral option to extend Spalletti’s deal by a season on the same salary. In real terms, it doesn’t mean much — no club, in any sport, is going to keep a coach against his will — but maybe it can be an opening gambit in the negotiation? You assume that’s what De Laurentiis was thinking as he (or his assistants tasked with his emails) hit “send” on the certified missive informing Spalletti in dry legalese that his option year had been exercised.

Rarely has anything backfired so badly.

Maybe it would have worked with someone else, but not Spalletti who, to put it mildly, was offended. He’s not a Lexus whose lease can be extended. Yeah, De Laurentiis is his boss, but he’s a human being. They have a relationship. Surely this is something you discuss face to face? Instead, this was the equivalent of your significant other giving you an unsigned Hallmark card on your anniversary.

Spalletti resigned. (Before you feel too sorry for him, consider that he did land another job nearly three months later: he’s now the Italy coach.) With director of football Cristiano Giuntoli also moving on — he left for Juventus, though in his case, unlike Spalletti, he wanted to go — De Laurentiis was left on his own, scrambling for a replacement. After several coaches turned him down, De Laurentiis appointed French coach Rudi Garcia, who was last seen coaching Cristiano Ronaldo at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr.

Garcia had big shoes to fill, but there was reason to be hopeful. Napoli had only lost one starter, defender Kim Min-jae, who joined Bayern Munich. As often happens, Giuntoli’s role in building the side was minimised, with plenty opining that he was more of a “coordinator” than a talent-spotter or negotiator anyway. There was plenty of talent: the side was arguably “plug-and-play,” while Osimhen and Kvaratskhelia were only going to get better.

Twelve games into the season, with the club fourth in the table but 10 points off the Serie A lead, Garcia was fired on Nov. 14. He wasn’t popular with some players, and as De Laurentiis himself would later point out, when the owner told him he was screwing things up, Garcia had the temerity to ask that he be allowed to do his job. “So I told him to f— off,” De Laurentiis said.

More managers turned Napoli down, and De Laurentiis made another disastrous appointment. To be fair, few were surprised this one turned out badly.

That same day, he called on Walter Mazzarri, who had managed the club more than a decade earlier and led the club to third- and second-place finishes … except Mazzarri had come up short in each of his next four jobs, getting fired early in all of them. What’s more, he had enjoyed his success playing an entirely different scheme (with a three-man defence), and Napoli were built to play with a back four.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Napoli went from bad to worse under Mazzarri. How much worse? When he was fired on Feb. 19, Napoli had slipped to 10th place and were 27 points off the top of the table — also just 16 above the relegation zone. Napoli were also humiliated at home in the Coppa Italia round of 16 by Frosinone, losing 0-4.

De Laurentiis splashed cash on four players in January — defender Pasquale Mazzocchi, midfielders Hamed Traoré and Leander Dendoncker, forward Cyril Ngonge — in an attempt to turn things around. (It hasn’t worked yet, with Ngonge and Dendoncker yet to start a single game.) But, as if to make up for it, and in what looks like a fit of pique and pettiness, he ordered the club to leave midfielder Piotr Zielinski out of the squad for the knockout phase of the Champions League.

Zielinski, 29, had been a Napoli mainstay for the previous six seasons, but he had rejected both a move to Saudi Arabia and a contract extension, choosing instead to become a free agent next June. We can’t know for certain whether this was the club’s way of “punishing” him for wanting to leave on a free transfer — and, obviously, it doesn’t mean that they would have overcome Barcelona with Zielinski in the team — but it’s hard not to put two and two together. Especially since the Poland international has been a regular all season long, starting 20 of Napoli’s 28 league games and all six Champions League group stage matches.

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Back to Mazzarri. Things got so bad that De Laurentiis felt the need to fire him just two days before the first leg of Napoli’s clash with Barcelona last month.

Whom did De Laurentiis get to replace Mazzarri? Perhaps convinced that managers in a job are going to be better than those who are unemployed, he opted for a guy named Francesco Calzona, the manager of the Slovakia national team. Prior to his appointment, Calzona had logged exactly zero minutes as a head coach in professional club football, but he had been at Napoli before as an assistant and he came cheap since he was going to perform double duties, having retained his gig as Slovakia boss.

Calzona did not set pulses racing when he was announced as interim coach, possibly because few knew who he was and because his body of work with Slovakia is so limited. (In any case, coaching a national team is a very different skill set). That said, he did qualify Slovakia for the Euros by finishing ahead of Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia and Liechtenstein — make of that what you will.

What makes all of this so frustrating is that for most of the past decade, Napoli had been a model club, balancing the books and punching way above their weight. And much of this was down to De Laurentiis’ savvy as a businessman and as a football operator. He can be outspoken, aggressive and needlessly rude — on Tuesday, he reacted to the news that Maurizio Sarri, one of his former coaches, had resigned his job at Lazio by saying: “It’s too easy to just quit. … Those who quit are losers!” — but when it comes to running a football club, he knows what he’s doing.

Or, at least, he did … until about 11 months ago.



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