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SERIE A

Osimhen’s Naples paints the town blue for first Scudetto since Maradona era

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Cardboard cutouts of Napoli soccer team players are displayed outside a bar in the Spanish quarters as Naples paints the town for its potential first Scudetto championship win in 33 years, in Naples, Italy, March 22, 2023. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

The face of a young Diego Armando Maradona gazes down from a mural in Naples’ Miracles Square, watching the city gear up for a celebration it hasn’t enjoyed since the Argentine soccer star was at his peak more than 30 years ago.

Miracles for Neapolitans, who grew up in a city steeped in mysticism and superstition, are happening on the pitch, as their team cruise towards a third Serie A triumph and prepares for their first ever quarter-final in the Champions League.

“This comes from the soul of Maradona. It is him, watching us from above,” said Raffaele Cardamone, a 51-year-old truck driver, indicating the newly completed mural portraying the stocky soccer genius, who died in 2020.

“It is the hand of God,” he added, referring to the famous goal Maradona that scored with his hand in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, which helped Argentina knock out England.

Maradona was also the driving force behind the Napoli team at that time, helping the city win its first league title in 1987 and its second just three years later in 1990.

With 11 games left to play, the southern Italian side have a 19-point lead over second-placed Lazio and their title dream could become reality as early as the second half of April, more than a month ahead of their final league fixture.

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Neapolitans are already celebrating the third Scudetto — literally “shield” — as the Italian league title is known, seeing it as revenge on the wealthy northern cities of Turin and Milan, whose teams Juventus, Inter and AC Milan have dominated Serie A for the past three decades.

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Locals have dropped their traditional “scaramanzia”, an array of rituals rooted in popular culture to keep away bad luck, which normally include not claiming victory before having secured it.

The city’s craftsmen have created figurines of the city’s new heroes. Cardboard silhouettes of the players line the city’s Spanish Quarters, as vespas weave through the narrow lanes and blue flags flutter in front of the shops.

Posters show Maradona in heaven, handing over the Scudetto to Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen and Georgian winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia — the two main stars of the current team.

Residents have launched fundraising initiatives to finance a Scudetto party that they say will last for days and aim to paint the city’s walls and streets in the club’s blue hue.

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“The euphoria is impossible to contain,” said Antonio Sarracino, 55, who keeps a collection tin for donations inside his shop.

Neapolitans hope sporting glory can be a boost to a city where poverty remains widespread, but where life is improving on the back of growth in tourism, with research institute Demoskopika estimating a 13% increase in arrivals this year compared to 2022.

“The first two league wins came in a different era. There wasn’t much tourism. There were massive local celebrations but they did not go beyond Naples,” said Ernesto Monte, 59, looking at the sea from a bar near the central Plebiscito square.

Novelist and poet Erri De Luca recalls that Maradona, who remains the city’s biggest hero and had the stadium named after him, joined the team just a few years after the 1980 earthquake in the nearby Irpinia area, which killed 2,700.

“That was a city still shaking off the dust of the earthquake. It had Camorra mafia wars on the streets and in the prison. Tourists only came here to head straight to the islands and the coast. Today Naples is an attraction,” he said.

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The probable league victory might not be the only triumph for Napoli this year, with many fans hopeful that the team could make it to the Champions League final for the first time ever. They play Italian rivals AC Milan in the quarter-finals.

Pietro De Chiara, 26, last week helped paint a large Scudetto symbol on an openair stairway called Heaven Alley, in the bustling Spanish Quarter.

“After the Scudetto, we will have the Champions League, and we will finish painting the steps,” he told Reuters.

-Reuters

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

SERIE A

Ademola Lookman wins Atalanta’s ‘Player of The Season Award

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Nigeria’s Super Eagles winger and silver medal winner with the country at the last AFCON 2023 tournament in Cote D’Ivoire, Ademola Lookman, has emerged as the Atalanta Player of the Season.

The pint-size forward has won the converted award Back-to-back with the Bergamo-based side after his exploit in the domestic and European matches for the side.

Atalanta qualified for two finals with the Nigerian International playing an active role in the campaign.

He was instrumental to Atalanta winning the UEFA Europa League beating Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 in the final with the Nigerian scoring all the goals.

The club announced on its official website on Thursday saying, “It’s him again, Ademola Lookman! The reigning champion defends his title and is crowned straight-a student for the second year in a row after staving off an unsparing competition, to the point of both bringing the contest to an overtime runoff and stepping the pose down up to the Instagram profile after the regular session ended in a tie. Kudos to Mola for his back-to-back Player of the Season!” it noted.
It went further that,” building on his 17 goals and 11 key passes in all competitions (making him the team’s second-best seasonal scorer and wingman) and with the hat-trick scored in the magical Dublin final as his main leg-up, Lookman tips the ItalianOptic branded crown once again,” the web remarked.

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Aside from Ademola, the second and third-best positions were also announced as the midfield duo of Jose dos Santo Éderson and Teun Koopmeiners.

The Nigerian had a brilliant AFCON experience with Nigeria where he scored three goals and his exploits so far have put him in strong contention to win the next ‘African Footballer of the Year’ award which will come up before the end of the year at a venue yet to be announced by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).

Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen is the reigning winner of the award alongside Asissat Oshoola who retained the version.

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SERIE A

Napoli reduces Victor Osimhen’s value

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Former Serie A champions Napoli are reportedly ready to drop their asking price for Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen as his future grows ever more uncertain.

The 25-year-old is looking for a move away from Serie A but Napoli’s initial €150M release clause has warned off any potential suitors.

Quoting from another Italian outlet, Calciomercato, Getfootballnewsitaly reports that Napoli are ready to lower the initial valuation to €100M, in the hope that they can free up much needed transfer funds for new boss Antonio Conte, who is understood to be desperate to land Belgian international striker Romelu Lukaku this summer.

It is also stated that the English Premier League sides, Chelsea who were understood to be in pole-position to sign the Nigerian international, has never opened any negotiation with the 2023 Serie A champions.

The only avenues open at this time seem to be the Saudi Pro-League, where a reported salary of €40M a season has been offered, or Paris Saint-Germain, with Osimhen not keen on either option, preferring a move to the English Premier League.

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SERIE A

Osimhen’s Napoli European hopes end with 0-0 draw against Lecce

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If Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen remains in Napoli in the next season, he will not have any action in UEFA competitions.

Napoli lost their slim chances to participate in European competitions next season when they were held to a 0-0 home draw by Lecce in their last Serie A game of the campaign on Sunday.

Last season’s champions Napoli finished 10th on 53 points, level with ninth-placed Torino who were beaten 3-0 at Atalanta in a simultaneous kick off on Sunday.

Despite their loss, Torino can now still earn a Europa Conference League playoffs spot if eighth-placed Fiorentina, who have a game in hand, win the Europa Conference League.

Fiorentina face Greece’s Olympiacos for the title on Wednesday.

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Napoli needed a win to maintain their European hopes but despite 24 shots, five of them on target, they ended their disappointing campaign winless in their last seven games.

Substitute Cyril Ngonge had a good chance to give Napoli the lead just after the break but his shot from the edge of the box was saved by Lecce goalkeeper Wladimiro Falcone.

Jens Cajuste hit the far post with a low strike shortly before Ngonge hit the bar in the 64th minute.

Europa League winners Atalanta, meanwhile, secured at least fourth spot after Gianluca Scamacca, Ademola Lookman and Mario Pasalic were all on target in a 3-0 win against Torino.

They sit fourth on 69 points but can still leapfrog third-placed Juventus, on 71 points, if they beat Fiorentina in their last remaining game next Sunday.

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-Reuters

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