With four months to go in the European soccer season, the title races in four of the five biggest leagues are basically decided. In Italy, though, just one point separates the top two — perennial powerhouse Juventus and afterthought Napoli. If you’re keeping an eye on a European league this spring, Italy is the place to watch.
To understand what this title race means in Italy, you have to look at the differences between the country’s north and south. Northern Italy is the country’s industrial center, up near Switzerland, always in a hurry. Southern Italy is Mediterranean, all about food and family and religion — and looked down upon by northern Italians as, effectively, hillbillies.
Juventus, the best team of the north, almost needs no introduction. Its 33 league titles, including the last six, speak volumes. Napoli, meanwhile, has a more checkered past but remains the only team from southern Italy to break the northern stranglehold on the league title.
In some ways, Napoli’s history begins and ends with Diego Maradona. In 1984, Napoli paid a then-record $10 million to lure Maradona — the world’s best player — from a troubled spell in Barcelona. In 1987 and again in 1990, he led Napoli to the title. The triumphs were met with nothing short of rapture in Naples. The celebratory taunting was mostly directed northward at Juventus, which — with 22 titles at that point — stood for everything the southerners hated about the north’s dominance.
After that second title, though, things crumbled quickly for Napoli. The club was relegated in 1998, went bankrupt in 2004 and had to be re-formed under new management. Starting from the third division, the club navigated its way back to the top flight. For the last five years, it has been among the few best teams in Italy, though never able to break through to win another title.
In some ways, the history of the two clubs mirrors the stereotypes about the two parts of the country. Juventus is the big-money team, almost German-like in its manic efficiency, which southerners would say is without soul and condescending. Napoli, meanwhile, has perhaps the most passionate fans in Italy. Northerners see the club’s financial and on-field problems as proof that the south is disorganized and incompetent.
At the moment, Napoli is in control, having led the league for most of the season. Juventus, though, lurks just one point behind. It’s a title race pitting the haves vs. the have-nots, a true David vs. Goliath meeting. For both sides, it’s about more than just soccer. At the moment, Napoli has the upper hand, making it the most interesting thing going in domestic soccer in Europe this spring.
• The Boston Breakers folded this week, the second National Women’s Soccer League club to do so this offseason. The move leaves the league with just nine teams for next season, which should make for confusing scheduling on a week-to-week basis. It’s a bad look for the NWSL and for women’s soccer in general.
• In one of the more confusing moves in women’s soccer history, England hired former standout player Phil Neville to coach its national women’s team. This despite Neville having never been a manager in women’s or men’s soccer. Nor did he apply for the job. For fans of the USA women’s national team, this is probably good news. Sometimes, it seems the USA can stay ahead of its rivals not by making great innovations, but simply by actually paying attention to its national team.
• While the Major League Soccer transfer market is dwarfed by the worldwide market, it was still notable to see Atlanta smashing the American record by paying Argentine club Independiente $15 million for attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco, 18. He was coveted by bigger clubs than Atlanta. Both player and club are hoping he develops and ends up moving on to a top league.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
La Liga: Real Madrid at Valencia, 9 a.m. Saturday, beIN. The title hopes are gone and now Real Madrid is fighting to stay in the Spanish top four. A 7-1 victory last week over Deportivo La Coruna might get the club going, but a visit to third-place Valencia, which has the best home record in the division apart from Barcelona, will be a challenge.
FA Cup: Tottenham at Newport County FC, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Tottenham is one of the best teams in England. Newport, in the fourth division, plays its home games at a rugby stadium in Wales. The beauty of the FA Cup is that Spurs have to go to Rodney Parade — what a great name for a stadium! — for the fourth round.
Ligue 1: Monaco at Marseille, 3:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN. Monaco’s all-conquering 2016-17 ended with the team selling half of its championship side. Now Monaco has fallen behind both Lyon and Marseille in the race for a spot in the Champions League. Radamel Falcao is the lone remaining light, with 16 goals in 18 games for Monaco.
Friendly: Bosnia-Herzegovina at USA, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1. This match marks the end of the USA’s January training camp, and it’ll give us a chance to see who might be in the Americans’ future plans. Minnesota United forward Christian Ramirez also could make his first appearance for the national team.