Priced out of the Discount Rack: Napoli and the Struggle of Smart Spending in Soccer

There’s a running joke that S.C.C Napoli, the largest soccer team in Naples, is the most punk squad in Europe. Their nickname, the Partenopei, derives from the siren that committed suicide after Odysseus rejected her song. The club chairman has a reputation for saying whatever comes to mind, not to mention trying to fight coaches. The captain has a Mohawk; the oldest player maintains the same haircut as blink-182 circa 2001. A prodigious amount of neck tattoos proliferate among the team, even in comparison to the rest of the heavily inked soccer community. The coach smokes 300 cigarettes a week, while the 33-year-old goalkeeper pranks any sleeping teammates he finds. In short, they look and act like the roadies for a Sex Pistols reunion tour. There’s a good reason for the outcast aesthetic, however; that’s exactly what they are. Napoli famously bought Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edison Cavani for a combined 18 million euros, only to sell them for more than five times that a few years later. When they were bought, Lavezzi’s nickname was “El Pocho,” or “the chubby one,” and Cavani’s play was considered as primordial as his forehead. The magnificently mohawked Marek Hamsik was purchased for €5.5 million while Napoli were wallowing in Serie B, the second tier of Italian soccer. Nine years later, he’s El Capitano, the heart and soul of a team in the Champions League. José Callejón, signed from Real Madrid for less than 10 million, was seen as an overly lanky winger who could run and do little else.[1] He’s scored 45 goals for Napoli in three years. By raiding other teams’ unwanted bin, chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis has built a squad that routinely competes with Juventus in Serie A without being in a financially perilous position—a place almost every other Italian team calls home.

The past two transfer windows, however, have been disappointing for the squad. They entered January in first place in the league, with ADL (as De Laurentiis is affectionately known), promising big signings to reinforce the team down the stretch. Their sporting director, Cristiano Giuntoli, entered negotiations for Hector Herrera, Max Kramer, and Davey Klaassen, only for their clubs to raise the price each time Napoli agreed to a sum. In the end, Napoli bought Alberto Grassi, a young player who has yet to play in a minute in a Napoli jersey, and received Vasco Regini on loan. Regini played, in total, 14 minutes for the Partenopei. The combined fee for the two was €12.5 million, a surprising overpay by De Laurentiis.

This summer began with ADL reiterating his promise of strengthening the squad, starting with the signing of defender Lorenzo Tonelli from Empoli, where he played under current coach Maurizio Sarri. Since then, the rumors have been flying thick and fast. Axel Witsel, Hector Herrera, Marko Rog, Marko Pjaca, Antonio Candreva,[2] Piotr Zielinksi, and Arkadiusz Milik are all have rumored to have deals lined up to join the Azzurri. But, like clockwork, shortly after the chatter started, the selling team would leak that the deal was not going through as is. Sometimes it was because another team offered more; more often, the selling club decided to up the price. Given De Laurentiis’s history, The Partenopei faithful’s first instinct was to complain about ADL lowballing the clubs and drawing up ridiculous contracts—but upon further inspection, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Napoli offered Porto €15 million or so for Hector Herrera, with the Portuguese responding by asking for €20 million. By the end of negotiations, Napoli was offering €23 million—Porto was now demanding €25 million, with the implicit assumption being that if the Partenopei matched that, the price would go up again.[3] The same thing happened with Witsel and Zenit. Udinese agreed to Zielinksi for 12 million, then when he dragged his feet on personal terms, it jumped to fifteen. When you’ve made a name of playing teams for fools, opposing club presidents are going to start buttoning their back pockets when you approach.

This isn’t as much of an issue in American sports because of the myriad of areas to find inefficiencies, as well as the general parity. Even the most lopsided of trades return at least some value. Billy Beane may usually win, but other teams are never too unhappy. Beane got Lester and Gomez; the Red Sox got Cespedes. And even if teams did stop trading with the A’s, the free agent pool and draft offer a bevy of opportunities to find diamonds in the rough. European soccer’s free agency, on the other hand, is a something resembling a sad joke, and developing youth players is a voodoo that no one can really do with any consistency.[4]

And this isn’t even touching upon the rumor mill. Bleacher Report has nothing on Corriere Dello Sport. We whisper of stars being shopped—European tabloids begin yelling if the fourth string centerback disparages a local restaurant. For a team perpetually on the cusp of bigness, especially one with a reputation for finding gems, this poses a conundrum. Napoli made a double bid on Rog and Pjaca. Within twenty-four hours of this becoming public, Juventus and A.C. Milan, clubs that have literal bags of money as stadium insulation, both publicly declared interest. Zielinksi also magically became the target of Milan once Liverpool abandoned pursuit and Napoli seemed poised to close the deal.[5] The tabloid system, along with a transfer market that relies almost solely on cash (on which there’s no limit) instead of players, creates an exploitive system. If the Yankees and Dodgers hijacked every Oakland and Tampa Bay deal by offering double, they’d eventually run out of quality players. But the Manchester’s and Juventus’s of the world would sooner get caught bribing refs[6] than run out of money (or debt, as it may be).

This is the true inequality of modern soccer. Being a big name feeder club appears to be untenable in the long term. Eventually, the big boys get tired of dealing with your shit and challenge you at the source. There’s the old cliché that soccer isn’t played on paper—but bidding wars are, and the biggest name with deepest pockets always wins. In 2016, even the bargain bin has gotten expensive.

Odysseus rejected the siren’s song, but at least someone was listening. Juventus cut a deal with Dinamo Zagreb. Pjaca has medical on Wednesday. €25 million for someone who’s never played in a big league before—what a steal.

[1] All fees are in euros from Transfermarkt, and are usually estimates rather than precise amounts.

[2] Oh please god no.

[3] Update: Napoli abandoned its pursuit of Witsel and refocused its attention on Herrera, agreeing to the 25 million euro fee. Porto responded by demanding €30 million.

[4] For example, the Dutch—traditionally the shining city on the hill of nationwide youth development—are going through a fallow period, particularly Ajax, who in the past produced Dennis Bergkamp, Ronald De Boer, and Johan Cruyff. Similarly, Cruyff’s adopted home of Barcelona’s famed La Masia is currently a sad joke.

[5] While Milan may have gobs of money compared to the rest of Italy (besides Juventus), the EPL’s new TV deal makes Berlusconi’s squad paupers in comparison to even the most average of Premier League Squads.

[6] Oops.

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