They stop worrying about how to pronounce the name Khvicha Kvaratskhelia in Naples. When the player’s transfer to Napoli was announced in April, a concerned reporter asked Aurelio De Laurentiis for guidance. The club president replied: “I will do something.” “We’ll call it something. It can be ‘Zizzy’, it’s not bad.”
A clearer acronym was adopted elsewhere, ‘Kvara’ becoming the accepted acronym among journalists and audiences. Two Serie A appearances later, however, took a new turn. From the streets of the Spanish Quarter of Naples to the headlines of the national newspapers, Georgia was hailed as ‘Kvaradona’ on Monday morning.
One or two optimists may have embraced that soubrique before it came to him, believing scouting reports promising a daring young dribbler. Kvaratskhelia was hailed as “Georgia’s Messi” by fellow international Zuriko Davitashvili. The statistics from his time with Rubin Kazan in Russia showed that he was holding his man as regularly as Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain.
However, many were hesitant to place the newly-signed 21-year-old in the same breath as Napoli’s greatest player. They wanted to see the evidence with their own eyes. A crowd of around 1,000 of them flocked to the Stadio Bentegodi on the opening weekend of the season to watch their team win 5-2 away to Verona.
Kvaratskhelia scored Napoli’s opening goal, after they fell behind in the first half with a header. After the break, he set up Piotr Zielinski for the strike that made it 3-2, releasing his teammate with a first-time ball from inside the opposition half. It was a surprisingly confident transition from a player who already seemed like a fully integrated part of an unstoppable machine.
How can it be? Didn’t Napoli have to endure a season of transition after saying goodbye to Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens – the captain, vice-captain and all-time leading goalscorer respectively?
Throughout the summer, Ultra groups had protested what they saw as insufficient action to replace them. The manager, Luciano Spalletti, was interrupted by a man shouting “Wake up!” during a team promotion event at his training camp in Dimaro.
The relationship between De Laurentiis and the fans has been going on for a long time. He has angered various groups at different times with outlandish statements – he once suggested that Neapolitans don’t know how to make pizza – and high ticket prices, but the greatest hostility comes from those who believe he is more interested in enriching his family. winning trophies or improving club infrastructure.
From another perspective, such criticisms may seem absurd. De Laurentiis brought Napoli back from bankruptcy in 2004. Under his leadership, they returned to the top flight within three years and have since won the Coppa Italia three times, as well as finishing in the top three of Serie A in eight of the past 12 seasons.
But the picture is complicated by his family’s investment in a second Italian football club. De Laurentiis’ media company, Filmauro, completed the takeover of another fallen giant, Bari, in 2018. With his son, Luigi De Laurentiis, as president, they moved up two divisions to Serie B.
The new regulations seek to ban the simultaneous ownership of two football clubs. The chaos caused by the promotion of Salernitana, co-owned by Lazio president Claudio Lotito, to Serie A last season provided a stark illustration of the problems such arrangements can cause. However Filmauro successfully requested an exemption that would allow them to own both Napoli and Bari until 2028 – as long as they don’t stay in the same division.
As Insigne, Koulibaly and Mertens packed their bags, it was easy for Partenopei fans to believe their club had been overlooked. On social media sites, the hashtag #A16 was launched – a reference to the highway that connects Naples and Bari. De Laurentiis’ skeptics wanted to see him unload and not return.
But then the season started. Kvaratskhelia wasn’t the only player to impress in Verona’s win, Victor Osimhen grabbed a goal and an assist, and Stanislav Lobotka dominated the halves. Another new signing, Kim Min-Jae, made a convincing debut at centre-back.
Napoli followed that up with a string of other signings: 22-year-old Italy forward Giacomo Raspadori from Sassuolo, Tanguy Ndombele from Tottenham and Giovanni Simeone, who scored 17 goals and five assists last season, from Verona. Spalletti suddenly had plenty of options to replace Insigne and Mertens.
Against newly-promoted Monza on Sunday, he opted to stick with the group he had worked with throughout preseason. It meant another start for Kvaratskhelia, who marked his first appearance at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona with two more goals in an emphatic 4-0 win.
The first could almost have been a tribute to the man who placed him on the left side of Napoli’s attack. Kvaratskhelia cut off her arm, exchanged a shot – ‘and tyragir‘, in the local dialect – towards the top-right corner, goes the Insigne trademark. Even the Italian didn’t hit many with such flair, the ball leaving the woodwork on an unstoppable trajectory and into the net.
It was the first goal of the game. Osimhen added the second before Kvaratskhelia struck again. This time he showed his indecisiveness as he shot at goal with his right boot, but instead cut the ball back, throwing the defender in front of him off-balance and grabbing a hand to get past him before firing in with his left. hide
In two games, Kvaratskhelia completed a complete hat-trick – a goal with his head and one with both feet. Not bad for a player who reached €10 million.
It is a testament to the work of Napoli’s sporting director, Cristiano Giuntoli, that he moved decisively to confirm his signing from FC Dinamo Batumi in April. Kvaratskhelia joined the Georgian club just a month ago, leaving Rubin Kazan after FIFA ruled that foreign players in Russia should be free to terminate their contracts following the country’s occupation of Ukraine.
Spalletti believes that Kvaratskhelia still has a lot to show us. “He still has a lot of pressure on him,” the full-time manager said. “As long as he gets rid of that pressure, he’s going to show people what kind of player he is. There were a few other times today where he had the ball and was doubting himself in one-on-ones.”
A scary thought for opposing defenses. Napoli have scored nine times in two games, and Spalletti has suggested that Raspadori and Simeone will earn their right to play in the first team.
Now is not the time to get ahead of yourself. Neither Verona nor Monza have offered much defensive resistance and tough tests lie ahead. Napoli started last season with eight consecutive wins, before the defeat to Internazionale, and Osimhen’s injury, took the wind out of their sails.
The buzz and excitement to see more from this team, though, is real. ‘Kvaradona’ announced himself in the league and even Min-Jae got in on the action, scoring Napoli’s fourth goal on a day when his replacement, Kalidou Koulibaly, picked up a red card for Chelsea. “We are on a good path,” said Spalletti. “Now, we must continue.”