When Diego Maradona left Naples in shame amidst a drugs scandal, Napoli finished fourth. Sixteen years later, a fresh-faced Marek Hamsik came into a side who had just gained automatic promotion back into the top flight. Two captains that embodied the Neapolitan spirit, but in their own different ways.
Maradona, fuelled by star quality, expectation and eccentricity quickly became a leader. Hamsik on the other hand idolised Pavel Nedved, but wanted to bring joy to those in the region – not realising he would go on to break a record set by arguably their most influential player of all time.
To look at, the Slovakia international is every bit your modern-day footballer. It’s the extravagance of his haircut (a mohawk you’d associate with a lead singer of a Scandinavian heavy metal band), his trousers are often studded with leather or spikes and he boasts a range of glasses most outlet stores would envy. Then there are the countless tattoos. An addiction to ink, including the coordinates of his hometown, Banska Bystrica – subtly beside an eagle and a snowflake.
List these things together and Hamsik comes across as quite the extrovert. A bit in your face. Brash. Maybe trying too hard. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Behind the specs and spikes is an understated, softly spoken character. His post-match interviews are always measured and there is a wisdom about the Slovakian beyond his years. The values this 30-year-old holds dear are old-school. Reviewing his career, it’s evident romance isn’t dead in his household.
This season is his 11th in Napoli colours. Signed from Brescia following their promotion back to the top flight in 2007, Hamsik has been ever-present, the constant of Aurelio de Laurentiis’ time at the club. Europe’s elite used to regularly come and watch him, captivated by an idea of what he might become. It was en vogue to talk about the player Napoli fans christened Marekiaro as a new Frank Lampard and why not? He often finished the season as Napoli’s top scorer. You could pretty much guarantee Hamsik entering double figures.
Over the years, other signings came to hog the limelight and steal the headlines at the San Paolo. It never put Hamsik’s nose out of joint. He was only too happy to share them if it meant Napoli were successful. Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani, Gonzalo Higuain; at some stage each of them became the face of Napoli without ever being the man. Because that’s Hamsik. Sure their stars may have burned brighter, eclipsing him briefly, but Hamsik is like the sun. When Napoli fans get up in the morning, they know he’ll be there. They don’t consider Hamsik Slovakian. They see him as one of their own like Lorenzo Insigne. Where Lavezzi, Cavani and Higuain gave into temptation, Hamsik always resisted.
Had he so desired, he could have gone to Juventus, Milan or one of England’s top clubs, earned a ridiculous salary every and given himself a better shot at winning silverware. Doing so would have ensured Hamsik a higher status and greater acclaim. Instead, he chose to dedicate himself to Napoli. Unlike the team’s other stars, you won’t find a buy-out clause in his contract. Hamsik is an exception in this regard. Always has been. Because he wanted it that way. “This shirt has become my second skin,” Hamsik told La Repubblica.
Winning a title here is worth ten of those won by the big three. He has lifted the Coppa Italia and Super Cup as captain, ending a long trophy drought. But the trophy Hamsik really covets is another. “My mission will only be complete with the Scudetto.” A mission Lavezzi, Cavani and Higuain thought impossible.
“I have everything I’ve ever needed in Naples, and in Italy” he told the Players Tribune last month.
“Football is important to me, and to be able to play for Napoli 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.”
Hamsik became Napoli’s record goalscorer – overtaking Maradona in the process – thanks to his well taken strike against Crotone, which happened to be his 117th goal for the club, in the 17th-minute, in their last match of 2017, whilst wearing the jersey number 17. An incredible achievement, firstly, but ultimately piece of history created by a player most deserving.