Tag: Napoli

Analysis Ajax – Napoli

Napoli gave Liverpool football lessons earlier in the CL group and Klopp said: “We’ll have to go back to basics, to re-invent ourselves!” The Napoli traveling circus also visited Amsterdam and it seems Ajax too will need to re-invent themselves.

An analysis.

The Expectations

For starters, we need to be honest about where we believe this Ajax is, in their development. They impressed a couple of seasons ago, versus Real Madrid and Juventus and more, with the likes of Ziyech, Schone, De Ligt and Frenkie de Jong. Even more recent, they also got the people excited when Ten Hag was able to “re-invent” the team, adding Lisandro Martinez, Seb Haller and Antony.

Today’s Ajax is not the same. They let Martinez go, and got Bassey back. They let Antony go and use Tadic as his replacement. They had to let Mazraoui go, and are using Rensch in his place. And 38 year old new fave goalie of the month Remko Pasveer is the current goalie. But… is this Ajax capable of beating the best in Europe? With this team? Tadic is lacking form for months now. Berghuis is hot and cold. Blind is clearly getting older. It all starts by realising that the Europa League might be Ajax’s league at this point in time.


Ajax can only play one type of game. They do have a tall Italian Plan B striker on the bench, but they basically play the Ajax game, full stop. Which is: build up from the back, pass and move, lost of nifty little passes to get to the opponent’s box and then find the free man. Well, spoiler alert. Liverpool, AZ and now Napoli have shown the world that you can only play like this if you’re good enough. Meaning, if the players at the back (including the goalie) can play the forward pass inch-perfect under pressure. Blind and Timber can do this. Apparently, Bassey and Pasveer not so much. Furthermore, you need players from midfield who can drop deep and pick up the ball for a dribble, a passing move and win a physical battle. Like Frenkie, Gravenberch or Lasse Schone. Taylor and Berghuis are less capable to do this. Taylor is more of an 8, while Berghuis lacks the physical strength. Bassey is poor in the build up and although Timber is a superior talent, he would still need a Van Dijk or Martinez next to him to organise the backline.

When Napoli (or AZ or Liverpool) press ferociously and with more intensity than Ajax can use to play under out of it, the Sons of Gods resort to long balls (Pasveer and Bassey). But these long balls lack precision while Ajax doesn’t use the players up top to do something with these long balls. Which comes down to player selection. Bergwijn, Kudus and Tadic are exactly NOT the players to use in this way. Better to use Brobbey and Luca and even Ocampos for that type of game.

Typical for Ajax, they do what they always do even if it doesn’t work. Schreuder refused to sub his preferred players and has paid the price. When the stadium speaker announced at the start of the second half, that Ajax had not made any changes, the 10,000s in the JC Arena responded with a fierce whistle and booing concert. Schreuder was deaf to it. When Tadic got his first yellow, he should have been subbed. But no, he was allowed to stay and collect his second yellow.

The Quality

As indicated above, Ajax has lost too much quality. Antony left, Ocampos came (a totally different type of player). Bergwijn came, which is good, but he played his best games with Wijndal making his overlaps, so Bergwijn can cut inside and become half a striker in the half spaces. Blind has less of the overlaps and Bergwijn played too much with his back to goal. Tadic is struggling and should have been subbed after his first yellow. Taylor is an exciting midfielder, but he lacks the quality on the ball of Gravenberch and Frenkie de Jong. They could drop down next to the central defenders and play themselves out of trouble. Taylor is less equipped for this (for now at least).

For me, the indication that Ajax was not looking forward to this match and were a bit nervous, was clear in the first 15 minutes. Some unnecessary fouls from Alvarez, Blind and Taylor could have resulted in early yellows. In the first minute, the defenders allowed a ball to bounce in the box and there was some confusion (Bassey rammed the ball forward, to no one) and Timber and Pasveer got themselves into trouble. Ajax rattled.

Football principles

Ajax stuck to its principles and truth be told, when Ajax did play from under the press, they played ok. They found space and seemed to be in the match. But the % of personal duels won was quite low, which shows another problem. The Napoli defenders had a field day and the Ajax midfield struggled to control the game or even win second balls. The right flank of Ajax was a complete embarrassment. Non existent. With Rensch clearly lacking the confidence to support the attack and Tadic playing his worst game yet.

Remko Pasveer has demonstrated something that Van Gaal will have taken notes for: he panics when he is confronted with pressure while having the ball to his feet. He showed this versus AZ and now again. Although he is decent with both feet, he just hammers the ball forward when attacked and that resulted in constant loss of possession. In the first 15 mins, Pasveer and Timber had a miscommunication moment which almost resulted in the first Napoli goal.

Schreuder is not doing himself a lot of favors. Sometimes, it’s important to show the fans you realised you made a mistake and you do what you can to correct it. If there ever was a game to play Ocampos, it was now.

Dead Ball Situations

Most of you will have noticed that Ajax concedes goals (and chances) from set pieces and corners. It happened against Benfica, it happened against Liverpool (last minute of the game) and it happened versus Napoli, several times. There are ways to deal with this, as it is all a matter of focus and organisation. But, either Ajax is too arrogant to work on this (and hire a specialist dead ball coach for instance) or they are too amateur to realise this. I believe it’s the first.

the biggest problem: build up (avoiding the pressure). Ajax did this well at times and created space.

Van Gaal was purring

It seems Van Gaal is getting some great feedback from games like this. I would not be surprised if Pasveer just dropped a couple of spots on the goal keeper list. I don’t see much of Flekken but Cillesen is more impressive I think. It would make sense for Ajax to go to a 3-4-3, like Van Gaal did. Use Blind – who is still excellent on the ball (he actually was pretty good in the first half, apart from the Napoli equaliser) – Bassey and Timber and use Wijndal as wide left full back. This will go at the expense of Tadic, of course.

The Goals

It’s easy to try and blame one player for a goal conceded. For the layman, it’s usually the last defender or goalie who gets it. \

The 1-1 equaliser of Napoli starts with a senseless long ball, easily won by a Napoli defender (duel #1). Then Napoli combines past Alvarez, Tadic and Rensch as if they don’t exist. They are constantly a second or two too late. When the left winger runs deep, Bassey and Blind are covering their opponents on the proper side. But Bassey completely leaves his man behind. Blind goes with his man, but when he crosses over to the left of the box, Bassey forces Blind away by taking over the #11 while Blind now has to cover the penetrating run of goal scorer #81 Raspadori who was on his bike, while Blind stood on his heels. 1-1, not much for Pasveer to do here.

The 1-2 was embarrassing. A short corner with two Napoli players (obviously) only marked by one Ajax player (Berghuis) who is wildly gesticulating to his team mates for support. Timber is ball watching and the Napoli skipper has an easy header. Again, Pasveer couldn’t do much.

By then, Ajax is still  in the game but in the 39th minute another huge chance , for Zielinsky this time. Pasveer stops the ball which was shot right to him. In the 44th minute, Ajax is pushing up to score the equaliser and have 5 players in front of the ball (Blind, Berghuis, Tadic, Kudus, Bergwijn). Alvarez loses the second ball duel, Timber decides to press forward on the striker but doesn’t get the ball. The bounce is played behind Timber, where there is a huge gap as Bassey and Rensch are also too high. One fast runner and a weak attempt from Pasveer and it’s 1-3, when Ajax was hoping for the 2-2.

Alvarez taking a huge gamble

Not a lot of trouble you’d say. Ajax can score two goals in 45 minutes and get back to 3-3, right?

But then in the first minutes of the first half, while the audience whistles due to no subs and the Bob Marley song “3 little birds” blasts from the speakers in the Arena, something terrible happens. Bergwijn is squeezed off the ball by two Napolitans (?). A long spell of Napoli possession ensues. Alvarez wins the ball in his own box and wants to play out with some nonchalance, engaging Pasveer in the short passing, who plays the ball to Bassey, but the pass doesn’t get there, It’s an 8 yard pass and it goes awfully wrong. The ball ends at the feet of Raspadori who gets his second. Pasveer bows his head.

Pressure on Pasveer

Now we’re 60 minutes into the game. Ndombele powers forward, 4 Italians vs 5 Ajax defenders. A little one – two combination (not unlike the Taylor – Bergwijn one for the 1-0) and Karanskhelia just passes the ball passed Pasveer 1-5. Simeone comes in as a sub and around the 80st minute, the situation becomes even worse . Ajax wants to build up from the back. It’s a sluggish so Pasveer hooves the ball forward. The aerial duel is won by Napoli (of course). Napoli finds space in between the lines, and a simple little flick plays the ball behind Bassey who doesn’t see the runner behind him 1-6.

In summary:

Pasveer simply gives possession away all the time. This was the case versus Liverpool and it is happening again versus Napoli. Playing high long balls to Tadic and Kudus really doesn’t work against Rrahmani and Min-Jae. Raspadori was clearly instructed to constantly put pressure on the 38 year old. In the past, Ajax had players like Martinez, Mazraoui and Gravenberch to avoid the press. Today, only Blind and Timber can do this. It is not enough.

Again, pressure on Pasveer

Ajax doesn’t take dead ball moments seriously. The second goal comes from a corner, where Berghuis has to wake up Tadic to come and put pressure on the ball. Pasveer is still organising when the corner is taken. Bassey and Alvarez are also not paying attention while Berghuis waits for Tadic to put pressure, instead of doing it himself as he is closest.

Too many Ajax players are betting on their mates winning the ball and moving forward when it’s actually not possible yet. Too many players think too offensive. Take this situation, as described earlier. Too many player in front of the ball and Alvarez taking a big risk going for a loose ball, exposing his defence.

Focus is also a problem. Here you can see Taylor mourning a missed pass, while the opponent is heading towards the Ajax goal.

In a match that isn’t going your way, you need to keep the focus, stick to your tasks and stick to your position.

A bad Ajax playing a top Napoli will therefore result in a massive hammering. Work to be done!

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Dutch School? Old school….

Dutch football in crisis. How often have we heard this? A lot. We’ve always been highly critical of our top players. Cruyff was not that revered when he still played. The man has achieved deity status after his career as player and coach. When he was a player, the Dutch public opinion called him a “money wolf” and as a coach Rinus Michels (!) called him a psychopath!

The generation Witschge, Rijkaard, Van Basten was called the “patat generatie” (chips generation). The group Davids-Kluivert-Seedorf-Bogarde-Reiziger was seen as controversial with their complaints about racism. And even our Silver Team in 2010 received heavy criticism for their lack of defensive skills.

We haven’t been winning regular European trophies since the 1970s so this crisis is basically the standard situation for Oranje.

Earlier, Ajax and PSV failed to qualify for the EL. Feyenoord met its match at CL level already at home vs Man City. Internationally, we do not register. And our National Team always had ups and downs. But last week, the crisis increased.


Beenhakker trying to “get” the patat frites situation….

Cup winner Vitesse was ousted from the first round of this season’s cup competition by a lowly amateur team. Ajax draws vs Ajax and loses against the same Vitesse (implying that Swift, the amateurs, would beat Ajax even worse than they did Vitesse).

NAC Breda also got kicked out of the cup by amateurs and they ( in Holland seen as Manchester City’s C-team) were able to beat Feyenoord at home (!) for the first time ever!

At the same time, the PSV that was in crisis some weeks ago, with Cocu under heavy pressure, beat contenders FC Utrecht 1-7 in their own home!

So the finalist of last year’s Europa League, Ajax, is currently in crisis. They dropped eight points in six games. Too much.

PSV was in crisis but seems to be the top dog for now.

Last season’s champions have lost three of their last four games.

Ajax’ problems aren’t to be ignored. They lost key players (Sanchez, Klaassen, Traore) and had to deal with the loss of the biggest talent and highly popular Nouri. They allowed Peter Bosz to leave (who isn’t doing too shabby at the moment) and replaced him with inexperienced Marcel Keizer.

2017-08-02 22:19:11 AMSTERDAM - Coach Marcel Keizer van Ajax. Ajax speelt 2-2 tegen OGC Nice in de derde voorronde van de Champions League en is uitgeschakeld. ANP OLAF KRAAK

The balance sheet shows a capital of 160 million euros but some of that capital should be wearing football boots. But the Technical Heart (Overmars, Bergkamp, vd Sar and the head of development) failed to replace these key players with players of a similar level. They did spend money on new players, but these have merely warmed the bench.

New coach Marcel Keizer has clear “Ajax” ideas of playing but does he have the players? The midfield of Van de Beek, De Jong and Ziyech is attractive but also inexperienced. The wingers are hold-cold and striker Dolberg is lacking form. Huntelaar has had a good spell (and will always deliver) but with the current back four (lacking pace, and leadership) it will be hard to win big games, using the “5 seconds rule”. Ajax played the EL finals and was aware that Klaassen, Sanchez, Onana, Veltman, Kluivert, Youness, Ziyech and Dolberg were on many a radar. Tete and Riedenwald were already given up by Ajax’ management. But despite the interest in half the team, Ajax didn’t act. Sanchez and Klaassen were key in the team and Ajax should consider themselves lucky that Dolberg and Ziyech are still in Amsterdam. The Technical Heart has not managed the issue too well and Marcel Keizer is now lost in different systems, doubtful about the Dolberg-Huntelaar situation and most likely unhappy with the options he has available.

seizoen 2006 / 2007 , amsterdam 12-09-2006 ajax training alfons groenendijk , frank de boer en henk ten cate

ADO Coach Alfons Groenendijk as Ajax assistant coach with Henk ten Cate and Frank de Boer

Gio van Bronckhorst seemed the winner in the summer, with Martin van Geel bringing good young prospects to the team. But while Feyenoord has to play 7 games in 23 days, they have to miss their line leader Nicolai Jorgensen. And immediately, the weakness of the squad comes to the surface. There is no decent second striker in red and white. Poor Michiel Kramer appears clowneske in this Feyenoord team and stumbles and bumbles through games. The fans applaud and cheer any successful square pass he gives. And with Nelom and Diks replacing the talented Kongolo and Karsdorp (Nelom plays for the injured Haps, while rightback Woudenberg was let go so Diks could come in), Feyenoord did not improve. Haps has the potential to become Oranje’s next left back, but Diks is clearly out of his league.

Dirk Kuyt is sorely missed as well of course and when 5 first team players are absent and the rest makes a hash of it (Jones and Kramer the two clowns vs NAC), Feyenoord looks very average.

The new kids at Feyenoord are all getting the benefit of the doubt, but when key players are missing, they come short. For now.

Elsewhere, PSV plays good games and not so good games. Not that consistent, with Marco van Ginkel still having to get used to his leadership/playmaker role and Ramselaar proving to be potentially nothing more than an average utility player. Lozano op front, the new Mexican winger, alongside Locadia might well do PSV a lot of good, but the weak defence might become PSV’s downfall. Rumor has it, that Bert van Marwijk and Mark van Bommel will take the coaching roles next season.

Pep Ten Hag

Mentor Pep with protege Erik ten Hag

FC Utrecht is still a club hitting above their weight. They have the 11th budget or so of the competition but continuously perform at sub top level. Erik ten Hag consistently overachieves and makes players better individually. Utrecht also lost a couple of key lads (Haller, Barazite, Amrabat) but the new kids gelled in nicely and despite some big defeats, they will most likely do well. Same as AZ, the first team plays attractive football and the Academy churns out some great talents. Heerenveen is one of the most attractive teams at the moment. Norwegian Martin Odegaard impresses every week and with a fit Stijn Schaars as the general in midfield, they keep on getting the points with attractive football.

Vitesse is the last of the contenders, Henk Fraser has forged an attractive team, playing free flowing football. Their cup defeat being a big blemish, I’m sure they’ll rebound and give it their all this season.

Apart from them PEC Zwolle (John van ‘t Schip) and VVV Venlo are doing surprisingly well.

But all these domestic battles full fun and games are not so impressive in the perspective of Dutch football internationally.

If we analyse the way they most dominating teams play, we come to a highly concerning conclusion. I’m talking Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Napoli, Borussia Dortmund… They do the exact opposite of what Dutch coaches (and coach’ coaches) preach about. In Holland, we say “without possession, keep the field compact, but when in possession, stretch the pitch and make the field big”. This is not what Lazio does, or what Dortmund does…

pep JC

Mentor Cruyff with protege Peo

Their coaches say: “When without possession, keep the pitch small. When in possession, keep the pitch small”.

How does this work? These teams all play in “triangles”. Every thing they do, is done in triangles, meaning that when a player has the ball, anywhere on the pitch, at least two team mates are close for the bounce. The player with the ball needs to play the ball vertically, never square, even if the team mate is marked. A precise ball can be bound back to the third – moving player. And so on. So the team moves across the pitch like an organism. In triangles. Example, the left midfielder has the ball, so the left winger, left back, the striker and the mid midfielder should all be somehow offering themselves as options. If the left winger is the target, the striker will make a move so he becomes the third player receiving the ball. In that case, again the mid midfielder and the left winger (and maybe the right winger) will make themselves available.

This involves total fitness! Lots of movement. And lots and lots of practice. A typical practice is: 11 v 11 on half a pitch and you can only have one touch before releasing the ball.

Napoli's head coach Maurizio Sarri gives instructions during the Serie A soccer match between AC Milan and Napoli at the Giuseppe Meazza stadium in Milan, Italy, 4 October 2015. ANSA/DANIEL DAL ZENNARO

This is total football New Style. And it’s not how Oranje plays. It is how Peter Bosz let Ajax play last season, but two key players (Klaassen and Sanchez) are missing from that team.

There are key advantages to play this way. 1) as you’re constantly moving around, it’s hard for the opponent to win the ball back. 2) you have several options always available to you to unleash the killer pass. 3) once you lose the ball, you don’t need to track back 20 to 40 meters to get back in position. You can immediately go for the wolf pack 5-seconds approach, get the ball back and you’re still not far from the position where you were.

These eight principles are the foundation of Napoli’s positioning game.

Coach Sarri doesn’t play ” a system” or formation. He even says: “If people talk about systems, they don’t get football”. His players will adapt their position to what is happening on the pitch. And Sarri uses specific key points to instruct players what to do and how to respond. These key points are the basis, but there is a lot of freedom for creativity as well. “What they have to do is firm, how they do it is up to them.”

  1. Most players in the centre of the pitch
    – The flanks of the pitch are only taken up by the full backs and sometimes Callejon plays a bit more wide. Most players will be found in the ax of the team. See the image on the left, above
  2. Using the passing lines to become free in space – The oppoosing midfielders will try to block the passing lines to the key midfielders of Napoli, Hamsik and Jorginho. These two will gladly “hide” behind their markers until the right moment pops up to move a litle bit wide or away and that timing is drilled into the team, so the pass will come right on time. And it takes them just two or three steps to get the ball between the lines.
  3. Anticipate, not re-act – The Napoli players are constantly moving. Whenever a player is played in, the others move around, finding space or making dummy runs. This is incredibly hard to defend.
  4. Movement in conjunction – Sarri tells his players to constantly watch each other, constantly check the movements of the others and to offer options all the time. The distances between the players will be maintained this way and there are triangles everywhere.
  5. Ignore second man, play in third – In Napoli’s positioning game, the players like to ignore the closest player but play the ball one line further up. This allows the “ignored player” to turn and move towards the goal and receive the ball as the third runner. This player is already positioned right, doesn’t need to turn and can find the next solution.
  6. High paced circulation – Napoli plays a lot of short, fast paced passes from feet to feet. The opponent is forced to think on their feet and constantly confronted with new situations. Napoli tends to be a step ahead all the time.
  7. More players around the ball  – Wherever the ball is, the players are. They create a man more situation all the time and it is harder for the opponent to keep possession. See the situation in the image, below right. It is a 4 v 2 situation. The goal is not necessarily to get the ball then and there, but to push the opponent back.
  8. Tempt the opponent – Once the opponent is organised and behind the ball, Napoli will slow down. The opponent will at some state try and find something and once one or two players “bite” and are out of position, the accelerations starts.

Final third play

Positioning play is nice, but useless if it doesn’t lead to chances. And Napoli has a clear plan. As they really are capable of that dazzling positioning play, the defenders of the opponent are dragged higher up the pitch. The midfielders try to put pressure on Napoli, so the defenders need to push up too. This will make it easer for them, but it also offers Napoli space behind the backline. And that is what Napoli wants. Napoli uses this situation in two different ways.

The first one is by running deep in behind the backline. The three forwards are masters in this. Mertens, Callejon and Insigne scored 60 goals together last season. Most of these goals came from a deep run in behind. They actually first come into the ball, and then turn to sprint in behind. They create their own space, but they also have a head start as a result of this “in the ball, turn, go deep” move.  Which means that they can run at full speed without being off side. And their team mates get a sort of red flag sign: once Mertens comes into the ball, they know he’s going to make the dart towards goal and the midfielders can loop the ball into space for him.

The second way they create chances is by suddenly using the player on the flank, who usually moves up unnoticed (the action is all in the axes of the game, remember?). So if the opponent’s backline has moved up, the space behind can be attacked. By playing in the left back, for instance, he can swing the ball into the space – mostly low if Milik doesn’t play – and the forward runners can score an easy tap in, when the ball is played between goalie and backline in no man’s land. Left back Ghoulam does this all the time and creates easy tap ins. See below.

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Ruud Krol: Royalty in Naples

Holland produced tremendous talents in the 1970s. We all know the names, and the memories. Johan Cruyff, of course. Van Hanegem, Neeskens, John Rep, Wim Jansen, Rob Rensenbrink… The right footed Ajax player morphed into a left back – and later central defender – Ruud Krol was part of that generation and grew out to be a super star, first as captain of Ajax and Holland and then through his time and impact at Napoli.

The now 67 year old cosmopolitan would turn into one of Napoli’s most popular players ever.

Elegance, duel strength, speed, heading capabilities, a phenomenal long pass and personality. This is the story in the VI Italy special.

This version of hero worship is new even to Ruud Krol. In the belly of the Stadio San Paolo, Krol is confronted with a man who’s eyes and mouth are wide open once he sees Krol. He makes a deep bow and mutters “Mama mia!”. And followed with another deep bow. With typical dry Amsterdam humour, Ruud quips: “Hey mind your back my man!” This is not just an old fan. This man happens to be current Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri. Earlier today, his team lost the match vs arch enemy AS Roma, but that all is now forgotten. “What a tremendous honour to meer you,” the coach adds. “Grande Rudy, you are a Napoli hero. You are Napoli!”


And a day earlier, Ruud Krol received a huge hug from his former right back from that team, Guiseppe Bruscolotti. They haven’t seen each other for 32 years but they always stayed in contact. And now they are reunited, two tough guys, with teary eyes, touching each other fondly, as Italians tend to do. Guiseppe puts his hand on Ruud’s belly and on his own and says “Rudy, you need to eat more! You probably missed the food here, come on, let’s get some seafood.”

Driving through Naples, Krol is in his own thoughts, taking in the roughness of the city. A city with issues, sure, but also a city which is taking care of things. Scaffolds around old buildings, fountains are being cleaned and horse and carriages are colourful and waiting for tourists to take them for a ride. “This city really grabbed me by the throat, ” Krol whispers. “And it never let me go.”

Once Krol and co enter the restaurant, a pandemonium ensues. The restaurant owner, his staff, they’re all there to meet and greet and within 5 minutes a reporter enters the space for some questions, while the maitre’d joins with a phone, explaining the local radio station wants a live interview. No one gets how this news spread. Bruscolotti: “This is Naples. Don’t try and make sense of it. Won’t work.”

krol napoli

At the border of the Gulf of Naples, with Vesuvius in the background, Krol delves into his memory. “I wanted to leave Ajax, for a while already and there was more interest from Italy. In the 1980s, that was one of the major leagues in the world of course. But there were issues with the Italian federation and the possibility for Italian clubs to sign players from other countries. I even had a pre-contract with AC Milan but that was null and void when the approval didn’t come for this. And AS Roma wanted to sign me and that bounced for the same reason. Torino wanted me too but I didn’t feel it with them. I did tip them to see Van de Korput and he ended up playing there.”

But it was time for Krol to move on. He’d won everything he could with Ajax and played two finals in the World Cup for Oranje. Ajax ruled in Europe and of that golden generation, Krol was the last to leave. In earlier seasons, Real Madrid, Paris St Germain and Arsenal made him offers but Ajax refused to let their captain go. “In hindsight, I stayed with Ajax too long. I had this ambition to repeat our successes with a new team and boy did we get close. We reached the semi finals of the Europa Cup 1 again but were beaten by Nottingham Forest. That was a blow. I was always fully motivated for these big matches, but I lost my drive in the Eredivisie. And would you believe it, just when I signed a 4 year deal with Vancouver, the Italian federation gave permission for foreign players. I thought an adventure to Canada would be cool. And I was hardly there for a week or so and suddenly a Napoli director – Juliano – was on my doorstep! This was on a Monday. He said “Rudy, you gotta play for Napoli on Wednesday. I’m here to get you, we’re flying tomorrow. He said he’d go and sort it with the Whitecaps. So I went. To the airport, waiting to board. No Juliano in sight until the last call. He came running and a deal with Whitecaps to sign me had failed. They allowed a loan deal for seven months.”

Stands Krol

Ruud returns to Naples and is hailed as a club icon

Juliano, Napoli and Vancouver Whitecaps would get in strife with another, seven months later. Vancouver wanted Krol back but Napoli didn’t wanna let Krol go back. Juliano flew back to Canada and eventually returned with a deal.

With a journey of 27 hours in his legs and jetlag, Krol made his debut on Wednesday for Napoli against West Bromwich Albion. A week later he played first competition game for Napoli vs Pistoiese and since that first game Krol-mania ensued in Naples. In the last minute, he demonstrated his speciality, with a pass over 50 meters, reaching sub Pellegrini who scored the winner for Napoli. From that day on, Ruud’s life had changed. “The next day I was strolling through the city, and entered a fashion store. I adored the Italian fashion, and within minutes I was crowded by a shop full of people. The shop owner had to call the cops to get me safely out of there. Later I strolled to the harbour and a boat full fishermen returned that moment. And what I learned then and there: Napolitans show their affection pinching your cheeks. So within minutes, I had dozens of fishermen’s hands on my cheeks and I stank all afternoon of rotten fish, hahahaha.”

ruud cover

Krol continues: “Since then, it only became worse. I became a celeb. I was doing tv-shows with Claudia Cardinale, I wasn’t able to walk through the city, I had police escorts where ever I went. This adoration was embarrassing, I had a great life, made good money while all these people gazing at me were poor as… I got presents and food and free stuff from people who’d have nothing to eat… I received for a full year of pasta and wine from a complete stranger. It made me so humble and small. I thought “what the f is happening here…”.

The language barrier was there in his first season. Bruscolotti almost chokes on a piece of squid thinking about the coaching of Krol. “Whenever I wanted the defence to push up, I would yell FIORI but the proper terms is FORI”. Fiori means “flowers” so you can imagine their bemusement whenever I wanted to press… So I went to study Italian a bit harder.”

Once Krol got the language he went to talk to his coach Marchesi. “We were conceding too many goals. We conceded 6 goals in two matches vs Ascoli and Inter and we needed to change our game plan. I suggested to use a wing back on the left with a false left winger who’s join in midfield to form a block and a more defensive role for the actual midfielder. I started to coach this on the pitch myself, like a typically vocal and headstrong Dutch guy, hahaha. But it started to work, we started to play so well that we became a title candidate. The people here didn’t know what was happening. I can remember training sessions with 30,000 people watching!”

Ruud_Krol_2 tunesia

Ruud coaching Tunesia

By then, Krol also demonstrated his typical rigid mentality to Napoli by almost committing sacrilege. The jersey numbers in those days in Italy were fixed. The full back had #2 and #3. The #4 was the defensive mid and the libero had #6 (Baresi, Scirea, Picchi) and the man marker was the #5. But Krol was superstitious. The Jersey #5 had always been his and he demanded to play with his lucky number. It took some debating, but Napoli gave in.

Krol also experienced the other side of life in Naples… In 1980 the city was hit by three earthquakes: 2,500 dead, 8,000 people injured and 250,000 people homeless… “We played away in Bologna when it happened. When we returned I couldn’t believe what we say. As if a huge bomb was dropped on the city. Despair, grieve, destruction, pain…it was terrible.”

“I followed my instincts and went into the city. It was immense, 1ooos of people on the streets, working, clearing, helping others. Everyone pulled their weight. And I will never forget our first home game, a weekend later. I figured no one would be bothered to think about us or football. But boy was I wrong, the stadium was fuller than ever, they literally broke down the fences to get in. The people needed us, the football, to process all the grieve and pain.”

This balm for the soul worked better and better as the season went on, as Napoli was competing with the Old Lady Juventus (with Zoff, Bettega, Tardelli, Gentile) and with AS Roma with Bruno Conti and Falcao. Napoli ended third that season and Ruud Krol was voted as the Best Player of the Serie A.

Bruscolotti: “It was huge that a player with his reputation would play for us. Two World Cup finals, three European Cups. And when he actually lifted our club up to the top, the whole region became under his spell. You’ll see tomorrow how important Krol is for us. Still. What Cruyff was for Barcelona and George Best for Man United, Beckenbauer for Bayern, Krol was and is this for us!”

Zola De Laurentiis Krol

Ruud Krol, Napoli chair De Laurentiis, Gianfranco Zola

The next day, off to Stadio San Paolo and Krol wonders what to expect. He hasn’t been back for 32 years. “I think the old fans and the old hands at Napoli will remember me.” How wrong he was. When Krol gets out of the car, the crowd on the square is moving in, there’s whispers, people pointing, his name is being chanted. The first fans fall in his arms and hug him. People come from all angles, no matter how big or small, or what age, they want a hug, a handshake, a touch. Even the local cops join in. People press their toddlers in his arms for a photo-op. When Krol can finally make his way into the stadium he mutters that he can use a bit of peace of quiet now, but no rest for the wicked(ly talented). Another ex-Napoli player is in the stadium, waiting to meet Krol: “This day is awesome already,” says Gianfranco Zola. “And believe it or not, I was just talking about you! Someone asked me what kind of player would be needed at Manchester City, and I literally said: the City of today would need the Krol from Napoli, hahaha. True story!” Krol smiles and responds: “Ok Gianfranco, it’s a deal, but I’ll start with 45 minutes ok? Not sure about the knee.”

The Napoli chairman has arrived and Krol is directed on, towards the presidential offices of De Laurentiis where the mayor of Napoli joined the party. Big hugs, smiles and flashes of cameras. And then the next directive: “Ruud, you are required on the pitch!”

Krol and Zola walk to the tunnel to enter the pitch. Napoli’s current star, Marek Hamsik is standing in the circle and the 1000s of fans on the stands chant his name “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy”… There is a massive sweat spot on his back and goosebumps on his arms. Hamsik offers him a current Napoli jersey, with his number 5. Krol puts the jersey up in the air, with his right hand on his heart and walks off the pitch with a big grin. On the touchline he mutters “this is just too good to be true…” But then he lands back on Earth and says to the coach “And now it’s time to give Roma a cookie!”

Krol street

Stopped in the streets for handshakes and hugs

The result of the Roma game, in any season, will determine how the weather will be in Naples. After a win, the sun shines, the world is beautiful… After a loss, it’s gloomy, misty, autumn… Grey. “We had games here that we lost. Once 1-4 vs Roma, well you had to run for your life. They’d find whatever was loose in this stadium and throw it at you… I used to drive past this laborer every day I returned from training. I’d stop if I’d saw him to give him a free ticket for the next game. He loved it. But when we had lost, he’d see me and turn away. Gesticulating me to piss off. “Come back when you play well!”.

Krol ended his career at Napoli in a painful manner. The last game of the 3rd season, Napoli was fighting relegation and got seriously injured. His knee. The next season, Krol missed for three quarters as a result and when he was finally fit to play, it took him a while to find his usual level. In the last weeks of that season the technical director wanted to talk to Krol. “He visited me at home. And he was direct and straightforward: we want to take that next step to the top. And we want to sign a marquee a player, another superstar. We want to sign Diego Maradona and as a result we don’t think we can afford you anymore. That was a blow. But in hindsight, a wonderful decision for them. I had to swallow it but they did what they had to do.”

Krol has another anecdote about that last season. “We lost away, 4-1 at Udinese. The normal Italian response is: trainings camp. But the coach had a different idea. He wanted us to see this entertainer. And he was some sort of magician. A whole thing and lots of talk and suddenly he grabs a pair of scissors and starts to take cuts of hair from several players. Including mine. And then he started to have personal conversations with us. To me, he said I was not vocal enough anymore. He said: the players need your leadership. And I actually thought about it and thought, he’s right! I stopped doing it because by now the players should know it all. But they needed it. So in the next game, this magician was there and at the start of the game he walks to both goals and flicks the hairs he collated from us in the goal! And we won that game, vs Torino. And we started to climb up and it flowed again. Crazy. But I used similar techniques myself later in my coaching days in Egypt and South Africa. This was the first time I experienced it though and I just allowed it all to happen.”

Hamsik Krol

Current star Hamsik with former star Krol

His time in Italy changed him. Enriched him. The adventurer in him was awoken. Krol lived like a nomad ever since, playing in Cannes for two years in France until his knee forced him to quit. Then a coaching career which led him to Belgium, Switzerland, Egypt, Holland (Oranje and Ajax), France, Egypt again, South Africa, Libya, Tunesia and Morocco. “Of all these adventures, the one in Naples is dearest to me, in all honesty. This is God’s city, with all the trials and tribulations and this is God’s people and the football club offers a temple in the midst of it.”

When we drink something in the hotel bar in Napels, Rudy starts to hum along with an Italian crooner. The waiter grabs his chance. With trembling hands, the youngster comes to the table. “Mr Rudy, is this really you? I am fan of yours from when I was little. My dad, he is a huge fan and stuck a poster of you on my wall in my kid’s room. I didn’t even know anything about football but I grew up having you as an icon on my wall. I never saw you play, but you were a part of my upbringing. I will tell my dad I met you and I served you a drink. He’ll never believe it!”

Krol goes back inside, re-hashing memories… He sits up: “Oh! You know who I remember now… The kit man at Napoli. What a guy. He’d wait for me in the morning and first thing he did was serve me up an espresso. He knew how much I loved it. And he’d prepare my boots. The way he treated them, his fingers on the leather. As if it was the cheek of a little baby. That image is symbolical for Naples.

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