Heroes and Villains at Napoli’s San Paolo

GON-ZA-LO. HEEG-WHY-EEN.

Six syllables, repeated nine times, and watched online by 3.5 million.

It was filmed on 18 September 2013. Immediately before the camera is turned on, an unseen Gonzalo Higuain had slipped marker Marcel Schmelzer to head Napoli in front against Borussia Dortmund in a Champions League group game.

The opening and only shot shows a suited man stalking the track that runs the perimeter of the San Paolo pitch. He twitches nervously, swapping his weight from one leather loafer to the other and checking the diode on the base of the microphone in his hand.

With the home crowd’s celebrations bubbling contentedly in the background, he decides the time is right.

Eight times, he roars the Argentine goalscorer’s first name, his whole torso rocking to propel his voice through the wire and over the tannoy.

Eight times, 55,000 Neapolitan voices boom back the surname.

For the final rendition, he relishes each syllable for an emphatic extra half beat. The crowd, drilled as tight as a military band, do the same.

The suited man, eyes a little wider, legs a little less steady, walks back to turn off the camera.

It is adoration turned up to 11. An anarchic pep rally that tingles the vertebra like a xylophone. Napoli’s owner Aurelio De Laurentiis may be the film producer, but it is Daniele ‘Decibel’ Bellini who directs its knockout viral moments.

“I cannot explain how great the emotion is when I am doing this,” Bellini told The Set Pieces.

“But it is not something that I do for me. It is bigger than that. It is something that serves the team, the whole city. It is not a job but a passion.”

He was given the San Paolo stadium announcer role seven years ago on a stand-in basis. It was only supposed to be for a couple of matches but with a microphone manner honed since his first DJ gig at the age of 13, and a boyhood love of the club forged during Diego Maradona’s heady 80s reign, Bellini made the job his own.

He takes it seriously. In the early days he had a voice coach to ensure his bellow stayed the right side of a shriek. He still limits how much he talks in the two or three days before a game, wrapping up in a scarf and popping lozenges at the first scratch of a sore throat.

Around Naples, he is something of a celebrity. People stop him in the street for selfies and signatures scribbled on napkins. Like boxing’s ring-walk ringmaster Michael “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble” Buffer, he has become part of the show rather than an anonymous narrator.

Perhaps. But such displays of synchronised, unfettered enthusiasm are a bit like a bottle of the local moonshine. Great in situ on your continental jollies, but somehow it feels wrong sitting in your own front room.

There is not really an equivalent in English football.

“I really like the Premier League,” says Bellini. “I like that the stadiums are always full and so close to the pitch. Perhaps to have something like we have at Napoli, you need more passion and energy on the part of the announcer. Perhaps you have to abandon the institutional role and become fan once again.”

Manchester City used to announce their team with a call-and-response technique similar to Bellini’s, but the sound was a fourth-generation facsimile of the passion in Naples.

In England power tends to come from poignancy. Fortune hiding from West Ham fans, storms engulfing Liverpool fans, and City fans standing alone without a dream in their heart. Those songs leave supporters less slaves to fortune as well.

Given the dressing-room churn, Bellini and his fellow Napoli fans’ veneration of one player can soon flip to evisceration. In July, Higuain, having scored a record-equalling 36 Serie A goals, left Napoli for the one club who finished higher in the table. The one club that rivalry dictated he shouldn’t: Juventus.

Sky blue shirts bearing his name were burned, his face was cut out of a poster at the club’s training camp and Bellini wrote an open letter that all but called out Higuain as a footballing prostitute.

He returned for the first time in Sunday’s 1-1 draw the San Paolo, with the fixture list delivering its dues all at once. On Wednesday, Juventus and Higuain head back to Napoli again, for the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final.

Higuain refused to celebrate when he scored the winner against his old club in a league meeting at Juventus Stadium in October, but it won’t take the sting out of his return.

“He certainly won’t have will have a good reception here,” says Bellini of his former muse.

“Going to Juventus has created an unbridgeable division with the fans. Gonzalo is history to us.”

History, and one spine-tingling 55-second video of what it means to be adored.

Heroes and Villains at Napoli’s San Paolo
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