“When they see Kvara, they see Maradona.”
Napoli have always had a craze for talismanic attacking players.
In recent years, there have been Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne. A few years ago were Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi. But none have been more famous – or loved by Napoli fans – than Diego Maradona.
The Argentine has become the symbol of Neapolitan brilliance and impetuosity during his seven seasons in southern Italy, scoring goals and winning titles.
‘El Pelusa’ The club’s legacy – during which it led Napoli to its only Scudetto titles in 1986/87 and 1989/1990, as well as the club’s only European glory with the 1988/89 UEFA Cup – was such that it renamed its stadium in his honor. his death in 2020.
Although he left the club in 1991, Maradona’s presence still looms large at the club and ‘El Pibe de Oro’ is the standard bearer for small, cunning and attacking players who come to the club.
So being compared to Maradona by Napoli fans comes with the hope that he will bring the success the Argentine brought with him. Many players have come and gone – having been anointed to succeed Maradona – but a third Serie A title has remained elusive.
Then, in July, a scruffy and unrecognized Georgia winger swung to Napoli.
Fast forward to November and despite arriving without much fanfare, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia is already being compared to Maradona. He was affectionately nicknamed “Kvaradona” after a meteoric start to life in Italy; one that has linked him with moves to huge clubs across Europe and gripped the football-mad city.
Edo Badalashvili, a Georgian football journalist, traveled to Naples in September to watch Kvaratskhelia – also known as ‘Kvara’ – play against his beloved Liverpool in the Champions League.
Although Kvaratskhelia didn’t score, he tormented the Liverpool defense in a comfortable 4-1 win for Napoli, and he remembers the outpouring of love his compatriot received from the club’s fans.
“Our Georgian immigrants who live in Naples say that as Georgians we are given pizza there because of Kvara,” Badalashvili told CNN Sport. “In the town of Maradona, everyone loves Kvara. They wear his t-shirts.
“When they found out I was from Georgia, everyone greeted me, took pictures and chanted ‘Khvicha, Khvicha.’ True, it is still difficult for them to pronounce the name correctly, I don’t know how Kvara was able to do it in such a short time.
“But, believe me, in Napoli they already like him a lot and he is the first player in this team there.
“I have a video of Napoli fans chanting players’ names before the game against Liverpool. The name they were chanting the loudest was Kvaratskhelia.
For a boy from Tbilisi, Kvaratskhelia had big boots to put on.
Two stalwarts of the Napoli squad – Napoli-born Insigne and the club’s all-time top scorer Mertens, left for new pastures this summer after long spells with the club.
And so, Napoli looked for replacements on the wing. To the surprise of many, they turned to a player previously unknown to many European football fans, signing Kvaratskhelia from Dinamo Batumi in Georgia for around 15 million euros. ($14.8 million).
Given the hole Kvaratskhelia was theoretically filling and being the club’s main attacking signing this summer, questions were asked of Napoli’s sporting directors if they had done enough.
“You kind of think, ‘Well, when I think of Mertens and Insigne, that doesn’t mean that a 21-year-old Georgian for a relatively low amount also coming directly from the Georgian League,’ Italian football said. . Total Italian Football journalist Euan Burns told CNN Sport.
“It would be more common for there to be some sort of stepping stone, say, in the Netherlands for argument’s sake, before moving on to a league like Serie A.
“And that didn’t happen. So you think: “Surely this guy can’t fill that gap in this Napoli squad.”
But wearing the No.77 shirt, Kvaratskhelia did more than that.
As part of Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti’s fast-paced new team, the 21-year-old Georgian was a vital driving force on the left side, providing goals and assists as he won Serie A and the Champions League. taken by storm and made Napoli one of the most exciting teams in Europe. His contributions have helped the club to their current 16-game unbeaten streak in Serie A.
In 16 appearances, he scored eight goals and had eight assists. His real exit party came when he terrorized the Liverpool defense during Napoli’s demolition of last season’s Champions League runners-up Napoli.
When asked to recall a player with such an immediate impact in Italy, Burns struggled to do so, comparing the variety of Kvaratskhelia’s playing style to that of Manchester City striker Erling Haaland.
“What’s interesting about Haaland is that, despite his height, he has all the elements of a striker in the sense that he can run the ball for a long time at pace,” Burns said. “Also, he can shoot from distance, he can score headed goals.
“And to me, Kvaratskhelia almost looks like a winger version of that, where he’s not ridiculously tall, but he’s already scored at least one header. He’s frighteningly quick with or without the ball.
“He has amazing feet, but he’s also very strong and I think that’s what sets him apart from a player like Insigne who is amazing with the ball at his feet and can shoot from anywhere, but this wasn’t a particularly strong player; he could be ignored off the ball by people.
“But Kvaratskhelia keeps the defenders off the ball.”
According to Badalashvili, the mutual love that Kvaratskhelia and Napoli fans have for each other is what jumps out at him the most.
“Napoli were the first team when he kissed the badge after scoring a goal,” said Badalashvili – who says he remembers seeing Kvaratskhelia playing for Dinamo Tbilisi, Rustavi, Lokomotiv Moscow and Rubin Kazan.
“After a goal he kissed the badge and, for us, that’s a lot of things. He responds a lot with that. He loves Napoli, he is grateful to Napoli and Napoli loves him.
“I can say that Kvara is [the] next legend. His surname is already “Kvaradona”. Napoli fans gave him the nickname ‘Kvaradona’. And when I spoke with the Napoli fans, they said that when they see Kvara, they see Maradona.
Since making his debut at the age of 17 for Georgia’s biggest football team, Dinamo Tbilisi, Kvaratskhelia’s future as the country’s totem player has been written. But his rise to prominence took a circuitous route, leaving Dinamo Tbilisi to join fellow Georgian Rustavi a year later in search of playing time.
Kvaratskhelia was named in the Guardian’s 2018 article highlighting the world’s 60 best young footballers, as well as being loaned out to Lokomotiv Moscow in Russia to broaden his horizons during the second half of the 2018/19 season.
And it was in Russia that Kvaratskhelia really made his mark, eventually signing permanently for Rubin Kazan.
Badalashvili recalled that then-Lokomotiv Moscow coach Yury Syomin was “really disappointed” the club couldn’t keep Kvaratskhelia as he promised.
During his two and a half seasons in Kazan, Kvaratskhelia established himself as a first-team regular, as well as a stalwart of the Georgian national team.
Although he became a star on the pitch, he was criticized from home.
In 2008, Russian forces invaded Georgia and a fifth of Georgian territory remains under Russian occupation.
However, while some have posited that Kvaratskhelia should speak more openly on the subject, he chose not to, saying that as a footballer it is not his business to talk about politics.
Upon the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and FIFA’s announcement that foreign players in Russia could suspend their contracts, Kvaratskhelia left Kazan, returning to Georgia to play for Dinamo Batumi.
In a goal-scoring spell in just a few months at the club, Kvaratskhelia earned his move to Napoli.
Between his arrival in Italy and the move of international teammate Giorgi Mamardashvili to Valencia in La Liga, Badalashvili believes they have opened doors that were previously closed to Georgian footballers.
“Our players couldn’t go to Europe,” he said. “We need a lot more talented players, not just Kvara or Mamardashvili.
“We have other players, but they can’t go to Europe. We need them. And we have to bring hope, with Kvara and Mamardashvili.
With a combination of Kvaratskhelia and the rest of Napoli’s attacking threats, the side currently sit atop the Serie A table – with a five-point lead over second-placed Atalanta – and have qualified for the knockout stage. Knockout from the Champions League with one game to spare.
The surprise with which he burst onto the scene, impressing with his unorthodox style and all-round play with the ball, hints he is destined for greater things than Napoli – Badalashvili, for his part, hopes that he will choose Liverpool.
But, despite being in his early years of football, Kvaratskhelia’s reputation in Georgia is already cemented. Back in his country of origin, he is now received as a hero.
“Everything has changed in Georgia in the last two years. Everything has changed here. Those who didn’t like football started watching football games, started watching Napoli games,” he said.
“When Napoli plays, on game days, it’s a big day in Georgia. People go to the game of the Georgian national team who didn’t like football until then. In the cities of Georgia, you will see many people wearing Kvara jerseys: either Napoli jerseys or the Georgian national team.
“The (Georgian national) team has not lost in 11 matches. People have a new hope that we can qualify for Euro 2024 or a World Cup. Today Georgia lives with football and , today we are a country of football. And when you go to town, you will see that. Kvara changed life in Georgia.