For Naples

In Naples, we don’t just have one football manager.

We have three million.

Every man, woman and child knows what’s best for Napoli. Every four-year-old boy at the park knows how we can score more goals. Every 90-year-old woman tending to her garden can tell you why we need to change our formation.

That feeling … that passion, it’s in their blood.

In Naples, football is like a religion, and the Stadio San Paolo is the church. Napoli is the only major club in the area, and Neapolitans feel part of it — because they are. Football is what they think about when we wake up, it’s what they talk about all day, and it’s what they dream about at night. Sometimes, football feels like it is the only thing that matters.

I’m used to that. Football has been my life for 29 years. So those feeling that run through the veins of every Neapolitan? Well, they’re inside me too. They have been since the days when I was a seven-year-old in Slovakia, and I watched two Brazilians run wild in California.

BPI/Imago/Icon Sportswire

The 1994 World Cup was in the U.S., and in Banská Bystrica, the city where I lived, the games would come on around 11 p.m. My parents were too tired from working all day to stay up and watch, so I would sit by myself in front of the television in our living room. Slovakian TV showed a lot of Brazil’s matches. That team was so fast. I had never seen anything like it.

Brazil had these two forwards, Romário and Bebeto. I was mesmerized by them. The dribbling, the passing, the speed — I watched every game of theirs that I could. The football that the Brazilians were playing was different from anything I’d ever seen in Slovakia, or even in the big European matches that I watched on TV. It was free-flowing and creative.

In Naples, football is like a religion, and the Stadio San Paolo is the church.

Marek Hamšík

I had been playing football for three years at that point. My parents bought me my first pair of boots before I ever even played. When I started, my coach put me in midfield. He told me that he wanted to me to go forward often. And after that I never changed positions. I loved the number 10 role right away. I was allowed to be creative, and I could see the entire pitch.

So when I watched TV, I tried to find the players who played my position. I watched Zinedine Zidane and Pavel Nedvěd. They were fast, but not too fast, just like me. They were great passers and read the game very well. I wanted to be like them. So I made sure — whatever team I was on — I stayed in that position.

I was 15 years old when I left home. I moved to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, to join Slovan Bratislava. It was bigger club than anything we had back home, and offered a higher level of football. But I wasn’t there for long. Just two years later I moved over 800 kilometers away, to a new club, to a new country and to a new way of life — to Italy.

I was further from home, but I was also closer to my goal of being a professional football player.

Brescia is a small city in the north of Italy. Adjusting to life there wasn’t very difficult — I felt at home right away. The people were so friendly and welcoming, I couldn’t help but feel like I belonged. I had to go to school for the first couple of months that I was there, which was tough because I didn’t speak Italian. But the feeling of love was overwhelming. Every kid at my school wanted me to feel at home. They would invite me over to their houses for dinners and show me places around the city — trying as best at they could to describe to me the foods that we were eating or the places that we were going.

Gradually, the Italian way of life became my way of life. And on the football pitch, I adjusted my game, as well. I began to play with Brescia’s senior side, and the quality of football was better than anything I had experienced before.

Three years later, I was on the move again. This time it didn’t feel as different, at least at first, because I stayed in Italy. Brescia sold me to Napoli in 2007.

S.S.C. Napoli

My first day in Napoli was also the first day for Ezequiel Lavezzi. Officials from the team showed us around Stadio San Paolo and later introduced us to the press. During those few hours, I could tell that the place was different from anywhere I had ever been, or would probably ever go.

I saw the pictures of the great Napoli players on the walls of the stadium. Legends like Maradona, Ferrara and Bruscolotti. I saw the Serie A trophies and the Coppa Italia trophies — it was obvious that Naples was a special city and that Napoli was a special football club.

When I was looking for my first house in the city, just a few days after I had signed my contract, it seemed that everyone I met already knew my name and my story. I couldn’t believe it. That love I felt in Brescia was almost nothing compared to the passion of Napoli fans. In Brescia, I was just a young boy who nobody really knew. But in Naples, I couldn’t get a coffee without meeting a Napoli fan.

“Napoli fan” is almost meaningless in Naples. If you’re from Naples, you are a Napoli fan.

After a few years, I thought I understood the passion of the Neapolitans.

But when we won the Coppa Italia in 2012, I saw what Naples could be. It had been 25 years since Napoli had won that trophy, and after our win in Rome, I saw a different side of the city. It was … mad. I think that’s the best way I can describe it. Like a really, really good mad. The best type of mad. When we returned from Rome, there were people pouring out into the streets from every apartment, flags hanging from every window in the city — it was magical. When you win here, it’s better than winning anywhere else in the world. Because, we as players have not just won, but we as a city, as a people, have won. That’s what makes it so special.

Since then, games in the Champions League and Europa League have shown me another side of Naples. Teams from across the continent come here and you can see in their faces … they are blown away by the passion and noise of our fans. We might not have the biggest stadium in Europe, or even in Italy, but our supporters make it feel larger than life.

To stand on the pitch of the San Paolo and listen to the Champions League anthem echo around the stadium … that’s a perfect sound to me.

Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

I have everything I’ve ever needed in Naples, and in Italy.

Football is important to me, and to be able to play for Napoli for 10 years has been one of the greatest honors of my life. But the reason I have stayed so long is about more than football. In Naples, I am part of community — a family — that holds a very special place in my heart. I need to have more than just a paycheck and trophies. I need to feel something in my soul.

Naples gave me that, and I am forever grateful.

Thank you.