With Title Near, Naples Shed Superstition and Starts to Believe

NAPLES, Italy — The surveillance room at the Vesuvius Observatory, the oldest volcanology institute in the world, is barely a mile from the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona: a few minutes’ walk, or a single stop on the train line from Napoli’s home. It is just far enough, though, that the noise from the stadium does not quite reach it.

Inside the observatory, a team of volcanologists, geologists, physicists and chemists continuously monitors a bank of screens, tracking the region’s three active volcanic centers: Vesuvius itself; the island of Ischia; and the largely submerged caldera of the Campi Flegrei, just off the coast.

The screens display a continual screed of real-time data and images from a sophisticated network of measuring stations, thermal cameras and video surveillance systems, information that is of vital importance to Naples, a city of two million people. The monitors are never used to watch soccer.

The surveillance room, though, does not need to see a game or hear the roar of the crowd to know, almost immediately, when Napoli has scored. “We don’t need to watch,” Francesca Bianco, the observatory’s director, said. “The instruments tell us.”

It is not just home games, either. Goals scored hundreds of miles away have a notable effect, too. “If tens of thousands of people jump up to celebrate at the same time, we see it,” Bianco said. Her colleagues know to disregard these bits of data, of course, and she has not noticed anything particularly unusual over the last few months. Seismographically speaking, she said, all goals look the same.

The only difference, really, is that they have been more frequent. There is an easy explanation for that. Napoli has scored more goals. It has recorded more wins. It has had more cause to celebrate. Inside the surveillance room, the scientists have noticed. That is what all that data on the screens is for, after all: to tell when something is about to explode.

At his stall outside the Maradona stadium, Mariano pulls down yet another sky blue scarf and hurriedly, unceremoniously, flings it at a customer. It is emblazoned with the words “Napoli Campioni.” He barks out the price and stretches out his hand, impatiently, to take the bank note.

His trade is brisk, and has been for some time. That was one of his last scarves. The banners decorated with the Italian flag and No. 3 have almost gone, too. Fans have gobbled up anything and everything celebrating Napoli’s coming league title, its first Italian championship since 1990 and only the third in its history. The fact that Napoli has not actually won it yet appears to be immaterial.

Few expected the club’s — and the city’s — long wait for glory to end this year. It has been less than 12 months, after all, since a group of fans stole Manager Luciano Spalletti’s car and promised to return it only if he agreed to quit his job. Over the summer, Napoli lost its longstanding backbone — defender Kalidou Koulibaly, the homegrown playmaker Lorenzo Insigne and the beloved forward Dries Mertens — in the transfer market. It had the air of a transition season.

Instead, Napoli has obliterated its competition. It has occupied the summit of Serie A for much of the year, stretching off into the distance as its theoretical rivals fell by the wayside one by one. A few months ago, its lead had grown to 19 points, the largest advantage the Italian top flight had ever had.

In the last few weeks, that has been whittled somewhat. Napoli has faltered just a little, beaten heavily by A.C. Milan in the league and then eliminated by them in the Champions League. Lazio, its last remaining rival in the league, has cut its advantage to 14 points. Still, with only eight games to play, everyone agrees it is too late for Napoli to be reeled in now.

As early as January, Roma Manager José Mourinho, was (possibly sarcastically) congratulating the club on winning the league. Stefano Pioli, Mourinho’s counterpart at A.C. Milan, declared that Napoli would win the league title after watching his team thrash it in Naples. “I only have good things to say about them,” he said.

Even those inside the club are not worried about tempting fate. Spalletti has described his team as one that is winning the title. Victor Osimhen, the striker whose goals have proved so vital to Napoli’s ambitions, has said that he cannot wait to see the scale of the celebrations when the triumph is official.

Perhaps most striking, though, is the fact that the fans share that confidence. Naples is a proudly superstitious city, its streets and its buildings and its people struck through with genuine belief in and respect for scaramanzia: the power of superstition.

“It is in our DNA,” the journalist and author Michelangelo Iossa said. “It is a tradition, a way of connecting us to the story of our city, all the way back to Greek and Roman myth. We have absorbed aspects of a lot of different cultures over the last 2,000 years. It is part of our identity in southern Italy in general, but in Naples in particular.”

At some point this season, though, Neapolitans seem to have collectively decided that it was all a load of hokum. Quite when that happened is disputed. “It was a few weeks ago, early in March,” said Michela, another vendor outside the Maradona. (Like Mariano, she declined to offer a surname.) Daniele Bellini, better known as Decibel, Napoli’s stadium announcer, dates it back further. “Everything changed after we beat Juventus, 5-1, in January,” he said. “That scale of victory had not happened since 1990.” That, to his mind, broke the seal.

After that, the shibboleths started to melt away. The flags and shirts and scarves celebrating what was to come appeared for sale outside the stadium and across Naples. “We’re all loyal fans,” Michela said. “But now we’re comfortable selling them.”

Mariano was a little more blunt. “È già fatto,” he said in Italian. It’s already done.

In 1987, the year Diego Maradona dragged Napoli to its maiden championship, the celebrations were so frenzied that an iconic piece of graffiti appeared at one of the city’s graveyards. “You don’t know what you’ve missed,” it read. Naples has waited long enough to recapture that spirit. This time, it did not want anyone to die wondering.

Naples does not so much have the air of a city waiting for a party to start as one of a place that is several drinks in. Napoli’s colors, sky blue and white, have been splashed not just in Fuorigrotta, the suburb where the stadium sits, but across the tight, winding alleys of the ancient districts that act as Naples’s heart: the Spanish Quarter, the Centro Storico, Rione Sanità.

On crumbling buildings, flags hang from balconies and block out windows. Jerseys flutter off clotheslines. Shop windows feature mannequins decked out as Napoli players, regardless of what is for sale. Whole streets have sprouted canopies of banners and bunting.

There are staircases painted to resemble the scudetto, the shield that graces the jerseys of Italy’s reigning champion. The No. 3, for the team’s third title, is omnipresent. Naples is no longer a city with a soccer team. It is a soccer team with a city attached.

The decorations have become an attraction in themselves. One cafe in the Spanish Quarter has installed life-size cutouts of the team’s players, arranged on the cobbles in the tactical formation they would assume on the field. So many people — fans, locals, tourists — descended to take selfies with them one Sunday morning last month that the cafe ran out of coffee. The owner said they had sold about 3,000 foil-topped cups of espresso by lunchtime.

“There are thousands of visitors every week,” said Renato Quaglia, the director of FOQUS, an organization working to improve education and opportunity inside the Spanish Quarter, still one of the city’s most underprivileged neighborhoods. “It is a new form of tourism.”

The centerpiece is the top of Via Emanuele de Deo, where a giant mural of Maradona looms above the street. It has been a destination for years, Quaglia said, but its popularity has blossomed since Maradona’s death in 2020. “Great players, as well as film and TV personalities, have come to be seen here,” he said.

Now, with Napoli on the edge of glory, the crowds have swelled even more. On the streets of the Spanish Quarter, it feels as if the imminent victory has the potential to change the city. The tourist boom has led to the rise of an impromptu, somewhat unofficial economy: street vendors and stall operators selling whatever they can think of, as long as it is Napoli blue and white.

Quaglia does not quite see it that way. “This is a speculative bubble, a phenomenon to be exploited in the moment,” he said. Like all booms, he fears, it is underpinned by an inherent fragility. He hopes there may be some lasting impact: a few overnight businesses that survive and a few more tourists including the city on their itineraries, making their own pilgrimages. But that is not the same as solid, lasting, impactful change. Once the initial rush of jubilation ends, once the championship is won and the party is over, whole swaths of this new economy will disappear.

“Winning the league is a priceless moment after 33 years,” he said. “But it is also the illusion of the redemption of a city.”

Whole cities do not change, not overnight, and particularly not ones that have stood for thousands of years. Naples may not feel much like a superstitious place, not when the sort of victory that will shake the earth is so close at hand, but that wariness is there, just beneath the surface.

Osimhen, so integral to everything Napoli has nearly achieved, has spent the entire season wearing a face mask, the legacy of a collision with an opposing player in November 2021. It is not clear if he still needs it, medically, but it has become something of a talisman, for him and the team.

Late in March, while away on international duty with Nigeria, he lost it. Nobody is quite sure what happened. A few days later, he picked up an injury. He missed Napoli’s league game against Milan. Napoli lost. He missed the first leg of the Champions League game against Milan, too. Napoli lost again. The club immediately commissioned a bespoke replacement to be made. Scaramanzia may be finished. The title may already be won. But there is no point in taking chances.