Kalidou Koulibaly ought to have been celebrating. Napoli’s brilliant centre-half had just helped his team to extend their perfect start in Serie A with a seventh consecutive win. This had been one of their most impressive, recovering to beat an upwardly-mobile Fiorentina away from home after falling behind in the first half.
As he exited the pitch, however, Koulibaly’s joy was interrupted by racist abuse from the stands. Several of Napoli’s black players were targeted with monkey noises, an incident captured by TV cameras from the broadcaster, Dazn. While Victor Osimhen and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa chose to keep walking, Koulibaly reacted after hearing an even more explicit line of attack.
“Did you call me a monkey?” he is reported to have asked, pointing out his abuser. “Come down here and say it to me, if you’re brave enough.”
It is not the first time Koulibaly has been targeted inside an Italian stadium. In 2016, Napoli’s match away to Lazio was temporarily halted by the referee, Massimiliano Irrati, after monkey noises were aimed at the defender. He wrote about that experience in an article for the Players’ Tribune, recalling his anger and still juxtaposing it with a better side of human nature, found in a child mascot who had attempted to apologise on behalf of the adults.
Inter would be forced to play behind closed doors after racist chanting toward Koulibaly in 2018, and his Neapolitan team-mates have been targeted with forms of regional discrimination during matches as well. Udinese were fined €10,000 after such chants were heard during their match against Napoli last month.
Nor are these stories unique to one team. Milan’s goalkeeper, Mike Maignan, called for a cultural shift after he was racially abused while playing at Juventus in September. “What do we do to fight racism in the football stadium?” he asked. “Do we really believe it is effective? I am in a club that strives to be a leader in fighting every type of discrimination. But we need to be more and all united in this battle against a societal issue bigger than football itself.”
It has been dismal to see such incidents arise so quickly after the reopening of stadiums in Italy. At least, on these recent occasions, there has been no attempt to sweep events under the rug. Juventus identified Maignan’s abuser and banned him from the stadium. Fiorentina’s general manager, Joe Barone, went to Napoli’s changing room on Sunday to apologise to Koulibaly, Osimhen and Anguissa in person.
Those responses are not highlighted because they merit special praise but simply as a contrast to what has gone before. It is only two years since Leonardo Bonucci responded to an instance of racist abuse against his Juventus team-mate, Moise Kean, by suggesting that blame “should be split 50-50” because the striker had celebrated in front of the opposition fans (Bonucci did later backtrack somewhat).
Koulibaly posted to Twitter on Monday, translating the words he had heard aimed at him into three different languages and calling for the people who shouted them to receive lifetime bans. Osimhen called on his followers to speak to their children and their parents, and “make them understand how disgusting it is to hate an individual because of the color of their skin.”
Both players deserved for the conversation to be a different one. We ought to be talking about how each has excelled during Napoli’s flying start to the season. Koulibaly remains the foundation stone of a defence that has conceded three times in seven game. Osimhen, with four goals in six appearances, is living up to his club-record €70m transfer fee.
It was the Nigerian who brought Napoli back into Sunday’s game after they fell behind to a goal from Lucas Martínez Quarta. Osimhen’s pace was always going to test Fiorentina’s high defensive line, but it is his spatial awareness that marks him apart: the way he deploys his gangly limbs as precision tools to shield the ball from opponents.
Unable to take possession from him cleanly, Quarta simply ran through the attacker’s hip as they raced into the Fiorentina box in the 40th minute. Bartlomiej Dragowski, in the Fiorentina goal, made a sensational double move to save Lorenzo Insigne’s penalty and then push the rebound off the same attacker’s head, but Hirving Lozano forced the ball home at the third attempt.
Napoli’s winning goal was something different, a rehearsed free-kick which saw runners move early as Insigne stood over the ball, duping the defence into thinking he was about to serve a right-footed cross. Instead, the first wave of movement stopped abruptly, and Piotr Zielinski attacked the ball from a different angle. His left-footed delivery swung toward the back post, where Amir Rrahmani arrived unmarked to head home.
The manager, Luciano Spalletti, said afterward that the ruse had been copied from Borussia Dortmund at the suggestion of Napoli’s match analyst. It was the seventh goal that the Partenopei have scored from a dead ball in this Serie A campaign. That number reflects the work being led by Spalletti since he took charge in the summer.
Anguissa, signed on loan from relegated Fulham, was the club’s biggest addition, and even the manager has confessed to not knowing who the player was before he arrived. The midfielder has made an impressive start, his ease in possession and willingness to carry the ball forward from deep positions allowing Napoli a greater range of possibilities in transition. Above all, Spalletti’s greatest success so far lies in taking care of the details: finding areas like set pieces where his team were not making the most of opportunities.
This team already boasted buckets of talent. Osimhen showed flashes of his genius during a first season interrupted by injuries and Covid. Koulibaly’s form had dipped, but we knew what kind of player he can be. Midfielders Fabián Ruiz and Piotr Zielinski are exceptional passers while Insigne, Lozano, Matteo Politano and Dries Mertens – who made his first appearance of the season off the bench on Sunday – offer an abundance of options behind the attack.
Spalletti, who brings his own pedigree as a former Russian league champion with Zenit and two-time Coppa Italia winner at Roma, has danced around questions about whether his team can compete for the Scudetto. It is easy to understand why he would not want to get ahead of himself. The season is young and significant challenges lie ahead, including an Africa Cup of Nations that is likely to deprive Napoli of Koulibaly, Osimhen and Anguissa for weeks.
Win by win, though, it is getting harder to hide. At the end of Sunday’s game, Spalletti joined the Dazn studio by satellite link-up for his post-game interview. José Mourinho was still on the line, finishing up his own conversation after Roma’s victory over Empoli.
“Great Spalletti! What are you trying to do, win every game?” demanded the Portuguese. Spalletti attempted to interrupt, admonishing him to: “Be good! You’re dangerous!” but Mourinho pressed ahead. “Congratulations! But I think you will lose your next away game.”
That match, of course, is against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico. Perhaps it will indeed prove a tougher test. But Napoli have beaten Juventus and now Fiorentina already this season. They are not top of the standings by chance.