How the 'Italian Sheikh' Aurelio De Laurentiis is bidding to bring the glory days back to Napoli

The film producer owner of the Serie A side has made £110m available for new signings - yet this was a team in the doldrums just a few years ago

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Aurelio De Laurentiis has never been one to shy away from dramatic demonstrations, while retaining his own unique sense of style in doing so on countless occasions.

The Napoli president unveiled Gökhan Inler in a lion mask at the Swiss midfielder’s official presentation in 2011. At a press conference to announce Edinson Cavani’s contract renewal until 2017 last summer, he opened by saying: “Edy is about to board a flight to cold Manchester.” The Uruguayan striker subsequently entered the room to declare he would be extending his stay at the Partenopei.

However, the film producer’s latest declaration has been a serious one of intent towards Europe’s heavyweight clubs with an extravagant spending spree in the transfer market after revealing the team has in the region of £110m to spend this summer. Rafael Benítez has been convinced to take the managerial reigns and put pen to paper on a two-year deal with an option for another season – after restoring his reputation at Chelsea. 

The marquee signing of Gonzalo Higuaín, along with adding his former Real Madrid teammates José Callejón and Raúl Albiol, plus a host of other arrivals including Dries Mertens and Pepe Reina have led the local media to refer to the eccentric owner as the ‘Italian Sheikh’. “We are targeting players with a few years of experience to hit the ground running,” clarified the seasoned Spanish boss. “But we also want to integrate youth, and native players such as [Paolo] Cannavaro and [Lorenzo] Insigne.”

‘DeLa’ has succeeded in retaining his sense of flair as the footballing world has shifted its focus on Naples. Sky Italia interviewed a supporter at the team’s secluded pre-season training camp in Dimaro – a tiny village in the shadows of the Dolomites - ahead of the upcoming campaign who displayed a jersey signed by the president as ‘Aurelio Higuaín’ before the Argentine’s move had even been confirmed.

It is easy to get caught up in De Laurentiis’s antics and the anticipation surrounding a promising project at Napoli, but the situation at the southern outfit has not been as auspicious for 25 extensive years.

Under the guidance of long-time president Corrado Ferlaino in the late 1980s, a Partenopei side spearheaded by the one and only Diego Maradona triumphed. They won the only two Serie A titles in the club’s history, a UEFA Cup, Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana. The Argentine legend left the peninsula disgraced in a drugs scandal in 1991 and Ferlaino followed out the door in 1994.

Napoli went through a series of owners and honorary presidents who could not prevent their prolonged fall from grace. In 2004, the outfit was found bankrupt with debts approaching £70m. Luciano Gaucci, an owner of several Italian teams, most notably Perugia, was prepared to step in but lacked the financial clout. De Laurentiis rescued his hometown team’s professional status by paying the courts £25m.

Rather dishearteningly, they were forced to drop their full historic mantle of Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli and start from scratch as Napoli Soccer in Serie C1 (Italy’s third division) – only restoring their original name by repurchasing it two years later. De Laurentiis presented a coherent five-year plan to catapult the team back to Serie A and hastily poached director of sport Pierpaolo Marino from the consistently overachieving Udinese and appointed wily journeyman coach Edoardo Reja as manager.

The entire operation appeared doomed from day one as the newly assembled hierarchy began with no training ground, equipment and crucially, no players.

Against all the odds De Laurentiis accomplished his objective with two years to spare. Marino employed shrewd tactics learned from the Pozzo family in Udine in the scouting department to bring in the likes of Marek Hamšík and Ezequiel Lavezzi for a pittance. After sealing a shock eighth place in their first season back in the big time, their faithful fans had reason to be optimistic. However, the team’s growth was stunted by a series of mistimed decisions - which De Laurentiis later admitted to regret. The popular motivator Reja was dismissed and Marino’s contract was terminated by mutual consent in 2009.

Industrious Tuscan tactician Walter Mazzarri proved to be the man to take Napoli up a notch. His dynamic 3-4-3 system thrived by centering on blistering the opposition with rapid counter-attacks.

Cavani’s arrival from Palermo in 2010 created a trio known as the  ‘three tenors’ with Lavezzi and Hamšík, and they flourished in tandem upfront as the club qualified automatically for the Champions League for the first time in 21 years by concluding the 2010-11 campaign in third.

Napoli had officially returned to the pinnacle of the domestic and continental game. They steered their way out of the Champions League’s ‘group of death’ at the expense of Manchester City, but despite a spirited display over two legs they could not overcome Chelsea in the last 16. Mazzarri’s man then convincingly dispatched a Juventus side who went unbeaten throughout their 2011-12 title win in the Coppa Italia final – gifting the club their first major trophy since 1990.  

Mazzarri resigned after the final match of last season against Roma as he judged the players “needed new stimulation” after four successful seasons.  

Results off the pitch also proved a testament to the astonishing work De Laurentiis and his management team have accomplished since 2004. The club has recorded profits for five successive seasons, an almost unfathomable concept in Italian football, by focusing their efforts on commercial revenue and not depending entirely on broadcasting funds. The figures released in January for the year 2012 detailed a record set of net earnings of £12m – with the sale of Lavezzi bringing in over £25m alone. 

De Laurentiis has embraced social media to disclose his ambitious proposals for Napoli, in particular being active on his personal twitter account launched in March.

Buying a satellite club is an aim - in similar vein to Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo purchasing Spanish side Granada in 2009 and Championship outfit Watford in 2012 – with the target being to expand the brand in “Italy, the US, England and Brazil” with Leyton Orient linked as a potential buy in the press. Reja would be “appointed as manager of the English team” should the opportunity arise.

Expanding the council-owned Stadio San Paolo has also be a priority for De Laurentiis. UEFA previously warned Napoli that their 60,000-capacity ground, built in 1959, is in need of maintenance. On a less urgent note, on the list of requirements is also an “authorized group of cheerleaders” for the outfit - as De Laurentiis has discussed at length in several question and answer sessions on twitter.

Napoli has spent the majority of the £53m they received from Paris Saint-Germain for Cavani - but the splurge is far from over. Prolific Porto striker Jackson Martínez is reportedly next in line to join the movement. Marco Verratti’s agent Donato Di Campli revealed De Laurentiis offered PSG a “monstrous” fee to tempt his client back to the peninsula as his contract negotiations have stalled. Reports suggest director of sport Riccardo Bigon has been sounding out possible defenders such as Madrid’s Fábio Coentrão and Feyenoord youngster Bruno Martins Indi for their next significant buy.

The only Italian club in the last decade to touch the vast £85m mark (or more significantly 100m in euros) in a season was Juventus in Antonio Conte’s debut campaign at helm - with the figure splashed over the course of the two transfer windows in 2011-12 campaign. Napoli appears certain to reach that feat. The Bianconeri have claimed back-to-back league titles since, and the real question hanging over the new era under Benítez is whether they can turn the clock back and recreate the successes of the Maradona years by genuinely challenging for the Scudetto and breaking into the top echelon of European teams.

The certainty with De Laurentiis involved is Napoli will never lack in thrills and spills.