Maurizio Sarri never forgot where he came from. He was born in Bagnoli, a working-class neighbourhood of Naples, the namesake of the coach that guided Hellas Verona to one of the most romantic Scudetti in history. His father, Amerigo, worked as a crane driver at the Italsider plant, its smoke stacks turning an otherwise-picturesque part of the world on the bay of Naples into a shade of grey. "Hard work?" Sarri bristles whenever it's put to him that the football industry can wear people down. "Hard work is getting up at six in the morning to go to the factory."
The family moved to Figline Valdarno, south of Florence, when he was five. Sarri was the only one in his group of friends to support Napoli. He was a big fan of Antonio Juliano, the Neapolitan playmaker. "It wasn't just a passion I had as a kid either," Sarri told Il Mattino, "because when I was 17, I went to watch Napoli play Fiorentina at the Artemio Franchi, obviously in the away end."
At three o'clock Sunday, Sarri will come full circle. He will be in the dugout at the San Paolo as his Napoli team prepare to play Fiorentina in a game that is even more eagerly anticipated than the Derby d'Italia between Inter and Juventus later that day. Both Napoli and Fiorentina have played the best football in Serie A this season, and both have emerged as title contenders to be taken seriously indeed.
Sitting across from Sarri on the visitors' bench will be the elegant Paulo Sousa, another coach who has breathed fresh air into the game in Italy. Sarri didn't have anywhere near as illustrious a playing career as his counterpart, who, if you recall, is one of the answers to a pub-quiz question about players to have won the Champions League in back-to-back years with different clubs.
A defender, Sarri had trials with Sunday's opponents Fiorentina and Torino but never got a contract. Instead, he turned out for his local club, Figline, a team coached by one of the greatest Serie A strikers ever, the little bird, Kurt Hamrin, Fiorentina's second-all-time scorer behind Gabriel Batistuta.
Unable to earn a living as a player, Sarri got a job with Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest surviving bank in the world. Interbank finance is what put the food on the table. When he wasn't working in Europe's big financial centres -- London, Frankfurt, Luxembourg -- he was coaching the amateur teams around Tuscany. Sarri would finish work, change out of his shirt and tie into a tracksuit, take training and prepare his side for the weekend. It was like that at Stia, Faellese and Cavriglia. Sarri was working two jobs -- handling transactions for MPS and helping Antella to promotion and survival in Italy's fifth tier -- while Sousa was lifting the Champions League trophy in Rome in 1996 and Munich in 1997.
But he never gave up on his passion. He did what his father Amergio didn't. Amerigo was a promising cyclist, winning 37 races as an amateur. "Right until the end of his career," Sarri told Avvenire, "Gastone Nencini [the winner of the 1960 Tour de France] wanted him in his team at all costs." Amerigo declined the chance to go pro and regretted it all his life.
Sarri vowed never to make the same mistake. Life is too short, and at the turn of the millennium, he quit the bank and "chose the only job I would do for free." Last year, at the age of 55, he reached Serie A for the first time.
His Empoli not only survived with the smallest budget, smallest payroll and one of the lightest teams in weight and shortest in stature and experience, but they did so with four games to spare. The lineup was a mix of seven academy graduates, old stagers such as Massimo "Big Mac" Maccarone and Francesco Tavano, and players who, just like Sarri, had never set foot in the top flight before but didn't look out of place at all. Mirko Valdifiori was welcomed into the Italy fold and made his senior debut at 28.
Watching Sarri's Empoli was like listening to an orchestra. They played in perfect harmony, defending and attacking as one. They were a triumph of coaching.
A common refrain was how Sarri had gone unnoticed for so long. He eschewed TV appearances because he couldn't stand how every football show on the box soon descended into a discussion about which players teams should buy. In his opinion, they were more suited to the shopping channel rather than the sports one. Sarri's disdain for them even led to him being called "a Taliban trainer," a comparison made solely in reference to the Taliban's destruction of TV sets in Afghanistan in 1998.
Sarri shares a purism and a smoking habit with Zdenek Zeman, which hasn't discouraged the hipsters. Nor has his passion for literature and in particular the pulp fiction of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. Sarri visited Fante's father's birthplace, Torricella Peligna in Abruzzo, while Sarri was the coach of Pescara, a club that is also on Zeman's CV. The obvious difference between the two is that Sarri's teams get the balance right between attacking and defending without compromising the spectacle they put on.
He believes a defence is reinforced by coaching, not by signings in the transfer market "where everyone seeks refuge." If that sounds old school, a throwback to a bygone era, Sarri's methods are of the avant-garde. All the big clubs and big-name coaches have been rushing to keep up and follow suit with his use of a drone to film the shape and movement of his back line. Meticulously prepared, he is known as "Mister 33" for the number of set-piece routines his teams use to great effect.
Sarri can't stand it. Reducing his coaching to scoring goals from corners and free kicks is insulting. Incidentally, 15 of the 16 goals Napoli have scored this season have been from open play.
Sarri had no shortage of offers this summer. Milan saw elements of Arrigo Sacchi in his work. They entertained hiring him but ultimately elected not to, supposedly because owner Silvio Berlusconi had reservations about his left-wing politics. Fiorentina were interested. Sampdoria, too. In the meantime, Napoli pursued Sinisa Mihajlovic and Unai Emery.
Their rejections acted as blessings in disguise, although it really didn't look like they were when Napoli were winless after three league games and making their slowest start since 2000. Diego Maradona wondered how Sarri had even got the job. "Napoli are frightening me," he said. "We won't even finish in midtable playing like this." Since Maradona opened his mouth, Napoli have won five of their past six games, including those against Lazio, Juventus and Milan by an aggregate scoreline of 18-1. Asked if he wished to reply to El Diego, Sarri offered a classy response: "Diego can say what he wants. He is and will always be my idol."
There is renewed enthusiasm at Napoli. Sarri has put a smile back on Gonzalo Higuain's face and got Lorenzo Insigne playing so well that there are calls to un-retire Maradona's No. 10 shirt. Worries that he wouldn't be able to command the same authority in the Napoli dressing room as he did at Empoli and persuade A-list players to follow him and make the same sacrifices as the Z-listers he worked with in the lower divisions have been dismissed. Everyone is on board, and as such, it's as if Napoli have been playing under Sarri for years.
Players are improving, Insigne in particular. Allan is doing things he never did at Udinese, and the defence that was Napoli's Achilles heel under Rafa Benitez, leaking 54 league goals last season, has kept five clean sheets in its past six games. This, in addition to displaying the same mentality and intensity when faced with the smaller teams as with the big ones, is all that was missing from a first Napoli Scudetto in more than a quarter of a century. Has Sarri changed that? Considering the winning experience in this team -- they're the only club other than Juventus to win any silverware in Italy in the past four years -- Napoli are more than mere outsiders.
Bukowski famously compared himself "to a man who found gold in the city dump" upon discovering Fante's Ask the Dust in a library in downtown Los Angeles. Out of respect for Sarri, Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis presumably wouldn't go that far in his description of how he felt upon finding him. But Sarri probably wouldn't be offended. As a Fante enthusiast, there is probably no better compliment he could pay him. Napoli have struck rich with Sarri.