Following in Maradona's footsteps
Having rather lost their lustre since their Diego Maradona-inspired heyday in the late 1980s, this season has seen Napoli establish themselves once more as serious contenders for the Serie A crown. The southern club's lofty position of fourth place after 12 games, just four points behind leaders Inter Milan, is thanks in no small part to Argentinian pair Ezequiel Lavezzi and German Denis, who have been rewarded for their sparkling form with national team call-ups from El Pelusa himself. FIFA.com profiles the Albiceleste duo making waves in Naples.
Off the pitch, Lavezzi cuts an unremarkable figure, shyly going about his everyday business with the air of one who does not wish to draw attention to himself. Once he crosses that white line, however, the hard-running former San Lorenzo player is a man transformed, his bursts of acceleration, mazy dribbles and clinical shooting all combining to make El Pocho a true Napoli fans' favourite.
Yet the stocky attacker's path to European recognition was by no means smooth. Born in the Argentinian town of Villa Gobernador Galvez, the player came through the youth ranks at Buenos Aires giants Boca Juniors before turning his back on the game at just 16 to train as an electrician. Rescued after nearly two years away by third-tier capital side Club Atletico Estudiantes, Lavezzi's performances there gave his career the kick-start it needed.
Signed by Italian outfit Genoa in 2004, he was immediately sent on a year's loan to San Lorenzo in his homeland, a deal that was made permanent after the Genoese club suffered enforced relegation to Serie C1. The culmination of his three-year spell back in Argentina came when he helped San Lorenzo lift the Clausura 2007 title in June of that year, upon which then coach Ramon Diaz claimed that Lavezzi was finally "ready for European football".
So it was that on 5 July 2007, 23 years to the day after Maradona's own unveiling as a Napoli player, I Partenopei added Lavezzi to their forward line after gaining promotion from Serie B. His exceptional performances quickly made him the darling of the Stadio San Paulo faithful, Lavezzi grabbing a hat-trick in a Coppa Italia win over Pisa within a month of his arrival.
Coach Eduardo Reja soon realised that placing too many tactical restrictions on a player able to turn a match in an instant would be counter-productive, and the policy reaped its rewards. The Argentinian livewire helped the newly-promoted side to a respectable eighth-placed finish and even earned plaudits from Brazilian genius Kaka, the AC Milan star hailing Lavezzi as "a fantastic player".
Not that this sudden rise to stardom has gone to the player's head. "It's hard to leave the house now [without being spotted], so I do what Diego used to do when he was here - I make reservations at one or two restaurants and go at closing time when the shutters are already down," he said.
"I don't mind doing that at all. We've got to learn to enjoy times like these, and I remind myself that when I was starting out I had to get the bus or walk to training. That part of my youth means a lot because it helped forge my character."
Team-mates for club and country
El Pocho received another boost this summer when Napoli moved to sign Independiente's prolific forward German Denis. The pair have since become firm friends and forged a good understanding on the pitch. El Tanque possesses more direct, muscular and aerially adept style which, according to Reja, "makes him a perfect partner for Lavezzi".
At his eighth club in 11 years, the 27-year-old Denis is something of a late developer. Tenacious and hard-working, the powerful striker is prone to periods of self-doubt, only flourishing when enjoying the full support of those around him.
Like Lavezzi, Denis endured a forgettable spell in Italy before reigniting his football flame on Argentinian soil. Signed by Cesena after impressing up front for Los Andes, Denis's two-year spell yielded just three league goals. Initially rescued by Arsenal of Sarandi under coach Jorge Burruchaga, Denis finally unleashed his full potential around four years and two moves later in the colours of Independiente. Then-coach Pedro Troglio kept faith in him after a difficult first season, El Tanque repaying him by firing a record 18 goals in the Apertura 2007.
Denis's form earned him a debut cap for Argentina against Venezuela in October 2007, followed by a move to Napoli ahead of the 2008/09 campaign. On 29 October 2008, around the time Maradona was offered the role of national team coach, Denis helped himself to a hat-trick against Reggina.
"I can still do better," said the man himself afterwards. "What's more, we've got plenty of room for improvement with very strong players in every position. We need to keep playing like this but without getting carried away."
A very religious man, Denis never forgets to slip a picture of his patron saint inside his shinpads before every game, a gesture that has boosted still further his popularity with the Napoli supporters. Denis has not forgotten his friend Lavezzi's help in his successful integration into the team, while the pair have eaten together at least once a week since the striker's arrival in Naples.
"Lavezzi is young but he's already a phenomenal player and will get even better," says Denis. "For all that, though, when we meet up we never talk about football."