When SSC Napoli won the elusive Scudetto last season — their first Serie A title since 1990 — the city went crazy. The streets of Naples were filled, flares and fireworks were set off, and even the pitch was torn up by fans looking for souvenirs. This was a moment that some people had been waiting their entire lives to see.
Naples is a calcio-crazy city, and, unlike Italy’s other biggest cities, there’s no divide. In Milan, you can support AC Milan or Internazionale. In Turin, there is Torino and Juventus. Rome has Lazio and AS Roma. In Naples, you can only be a Napoli fan — and the goal of every young Napoli fan is to become a player for the club someday.
Unfortunately, Napoli’s academy hasn’t done much for the club in recent years. Naples-born Fabio Cannavaro broke into the first team in the early 1990s, but Napoli’s financial situation forced them to sell. He eventually became one of the best defenders in the world, winning the World Cup and Ballon d’Or. There’s also Lorenzo Insigne, who joined when he was 15 and stayed 16 years — unfortunately missing out on the club’s Scudetto by one season.
While Napoli has developed a reputation recently for excellent recruitment with their senior team — notably signing Victor Osimhen, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, and Kim Min-jae — their youth teams appear to have been neglected. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking they didn’t have an academy at all.
The Primavera side are the u19s, the highest level of youth soccer in Italy. This is, for many teams, a crucial resource — they can play against other highly talented players around the same age and try to compete for a spot in the first team. It’s also a good way to give recently signed young players guaranteed minutes — as Juventus did with Kenan Yıldız or Inter did for Nicolò Zaniolo (before selling him to Roma).
The Primavera league is becoming increasingly important for Italy’s biggest clubs, with AC Milan in particular loading their Primavera squads with promising talent. Napoli, however, hasn’t exactly prioritized it — since the league’s new format was created in 2017, Napoli has been relegated twice and never finished higher than 10th (out of 16 clubs).
Last season, Napoli’s Primavera side was relegated and they lost many talented players. Despite this, they didn’t sign a single player, only promoting from their u17s and u18s, which hadn’t fared much better. They are continuing to struggle in the Primavera 2, which is only going to make youth recruitment more difficult.
Local Scouting (Or Lack Thereof)
Naples is located in the Campania region of Italy — a region that has produced many talented players. Just look at Gianluigi Donnarumma, Ciro Immobile, Ignazio Abate, Sebastiano and Salvatore Esposito, Fabio Quagliarella, and, of course, Insigne and Cannavaro. However, with the exception of the previously mentioned Insigne and Cannavaro, none of those players ended up in Napoli’s academy.
Instead, they all headed north. Salvatore and Sebastiano both joined Brescia before moving to Internazionale. Abate and Donnarumma went to AC Milan, while Ciro Immobile headed to hated rivals Juventus. Quagliarella went to Torino and was later bought by Napoli for €18 million — of course, he would have been free if he had been in their academy.
The best teams in Italy sign the best players from not only their city but their region. Internazionale, for example, has long signed Lombardy’s finest at young ages, like Mario Balotelli or Andrea Pirlo. Napoli, on the other hand, has allowed an incredible amount of talent to leave the region — even signing one or two of the previously mentioned players could have completely changed the club’s fortunes.
In the next few years, Napoli has to make sure that the best talents in Campania join the club. It could save them a lot of money down the line.
If you look at the websites of Juventus or Milan, they boast about the incredible facilities that their academy players use. They show their well-kept fields, plenty of space for players to stay, clean locker rooms, and accomplished coaches. Good luck finding anything about Napoli’s academy on their website.
Most of the club’s youth teams use the Kennedy Sports Complex — which, while it’s a decent sports complex, was created in 1968 and isn’t exactly Serie A champion quality. The Primavera side has also not quite found a home, struggling to find a long-term stadium. As of right now, they currently use the Giuseppe Piccolo Arena, which the women’s team also uses.
Not only are the facilities limiting player growth, but they will also make players more likely to be tempted by other academies with significantly better facilities. In recent years, Juventus, Roma, and Lazio have all snatched up promising talents from the Napoli academy — and that isn’t likely to stop soon.
While Napoli isn’t quite in the same financial situation as other top Italian clubs, they still have enough to invest more in their facilities. With the financial windfall they will likely receive for Victor Osimhen, they definitely will have the funds to spend. It’s just a question of whether they will.
No Pathway to the First Team
Of course, Napoli has produced some promising players. The problem: even the best players just don’t get the minutes they need to develop.
Look at Alessandro Zanoli, for instance. The promising right-back was signed from Carpi in 2017, and, after two strong seasons with the Primavera, he was loaned out to Serie C side FC Legnago. Zanoli put in some impressive performances and returned to the first team, earning five starts towards the end of the season.
Last year it looked like he might earn a role behind Giovanni di Lorenzo, but he was instead loaned out to Sampdoria. Ironically, Sampdoria’s right-back Bartosz Bereszynski was loaned to Napoli in January for depth. Zanoli impressed with Sampdoria and returned to Napoli, where, despite interest from elsewhere, he stayed — and has played just 30 minutes this season.
Alessio Zerbin and Gianluca Gaetano have both had similar stories — strong performances with the Primavera squad, a couple of good seasons on loan, returning to Napoli, and sitting on the bench. As long as there’s no clear path to the first team, we likely won’t see any academy kids starring for Napoli.
While Napoli might be doing well now, it’s worth wondering if their Scudetto would have arrived sooner if they had prioritized the academy. The longer and longer the drought continued, the more the focus became short-term — breaking the bank for the likes of Konstantinos Manolas and Arkadiusz Milik, neither of whom really justified the high fees.
If Napoli wants their success to be sustainable, they need to not only keep up their strong recruitment but also invest in the academy — it will ultimately save them a lot of money and strengthen the squad.