x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

De Laurentiis doing it his way as Napoli aim to hold off Chelsea

As Chelsea look to overcome 3-1 deficit at home to Napoli in Champions League, it will be East meets West in the executive seats as to supremos with very different styles meet.

Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli president, took over at Napoli in 2004.
Aurelio De Laurentiis, Napoli president, took over at Napoli in 2004.

When the respective owner and the president of the clubs in tonight's most compelling Champions League match take their seats ahead of Chelsea against Napoli, their thoughts will turn to progress. Roman Abramovich knows that at least a 2-0 win must be coaxed from his inconsistent Chelsea if a quarter-final berth is to be gained against a Napoli side 3-1 up from the first leg.

Meanwhile, Aurelio De Laurentiis, who presides over the Italian club, will look at the notion of progress in a distinct way. Whatever the result at Stamford Bridge, he has already seen his club go further than ever in Europe's principal club competition. Momentum is with Napoli in a way that, with Chelsea, it has not been lately.

De Laurentiis and Abramovich seem like chalk and cheese. One is a small man with a big public voice, gregarious by nature. The Russian is eerily silent.

De Laurentiis made his fortune in films. Abramovich entered the sport with a fortune made from an understanding of the privatisation process in post-Glasnost Russia. In the VIP section, West meets East, glamour meets gas and oil.

Yet the glamour club here is supposed to Chelsea, in the ritzy part of the English capital, a potential investment apparently picked out as the one he wanted because of its shiny arena and location when Abramovich abruptly fell in love with football in 2003.

A year later, De Laurentiis bought Napoli, though it was more because he had a family attachment to Italy's vibrant but very unritzy southern city and not because he thought Napoli's crumbling San Paolo arena looked flashy. It didn't then; it does not now.

Napoli were bankrupt when De Laurentiis took over, as he recounted to me the other day. "When we decided to buy Napoli. I went to the court building," he smiled. "You know what I found? A piece of paper. 'Where are the players?' I asked. 'There's no players Mr De Laurentiis', they told me. 'Where are the offices?' 'No offices, Mr De Laurentiis'. 'Where are the employees?' 'No employees, Mr De Laurentiis'. I paid €32m. 'Okay', I asked, 'so where must I start?' 'From Serie C, Mr de Laurentiis. The prior owner went bankrupt, you see, Mr De Laurentiis'."

Measured against that beginning, progress has been startling. Napoli do have a golden past, the period of two Diego Maradona-inspired Serie A titles of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the De Laurentiis era owes little to that. While Abramovich bought a club in a league that was functioning quite well, the movie mogul took over a wreck.

De Laurentiis has a provocative streak. He once urged his players not to transfer to English clubs who courted them "because the English don't know how to wash".

It was a joke, he said. "I admire the English, and especially what they have done with their football. They created a new era with the Premier League, new stadiums and new kinds of supporters, new laws and achieved something fantastic. I always say to Italians 'Just copy the English'. "

What he does not say when he charts Napoli's progress is that he would like to copy the likes of Abramovich. "Some of these people, being very wealthy, use a club as something just to satisfy an ego. It's like buying a special car, say a 1963 Ferrari, where you will pay €25m in an auction. These kinds of people start with this sort of experience but then I don't think they are very happy, after a certain number of years, to still lose money."

That, he notes, is not progress, particularly in Uefa's eyes while European football's governing body introduces its Financial Fair Play (FFP) guidelines and threatens clubs not meeting break-even criteria by 2014 with possible expulsion from its tournaments.

"I made a calculation recently," said De Laurentiis, "that of the last 16 clubs in this Champions League, 13 didn't have the right and correct parameters for the FFP. We are within the parameters. So I think I've done quite well, for someone who doesn't understand anything about football."

The president may know Hollywood better than he knows the history of the offside rule, but in eight years in football he has got many decisions right.

Abramovich may envy some of them: De Laurentiis has employed four head coaches en route from Serie C to within a stride of the Champions League quarter-finals. Chelsea's oligarch will tonight watch a seventh different manager since the one who took his club to the semi-finals in Abramovich's first season try to somehow scrape them into the last eight.