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How are you, Rafa?
'I'm good, in quarantine, but I continue coaching the training sessions via video. We're waiting on the Chinese government's decision before beginning play again and trying to be the best we can be in a tournament which is quite complicated and in which we want to do well.'
When you go to sleep this evening, here, we'll be in the midst of a final which I'm sure is of interest to you...
'You could say that there are players I know who are involved.'
On the one hand, on the Napoli team you have: Insigne, Koulibaly, Ghoulam, Callejón and Mertens. On Juventus': Cristiano Ronaldo, who you trained at Real Madrid, and the 'Pipita' Higuaín, who you took to the San Paolo in Naples.
'Yes, but it's clear that knowing my past, and understanding my feelings, that I'm with Napoli. I have a huge respect for Juventus, a club which has made history in an undisputable way, but my two years at Napoli are unforgettable. Naples is a beautiful and marvelous city, and the supporters are incredible, they cheer the team on like few others do. I hope that luck is on their side in this final.'
Because in a final, luck - or fate - is a decisive factor, right?
'For me, both teams are always pretty even in a final, although it's inevitable that one will be considered the favourite. In Doha, for example, Juventus was the favourite but we managed to take the victory. Even on this occasion it might seem that the black and white striped team has more opportunities, and the odds seem to indicate that they'll be the winners. But in one single race, in a final - which is obviously just one match - the conditions for winning can change very quickly, and even small details can tip the balance towards one side or the other.'
Napoli's last victory, in Doha...
'The second to last victory was in Rome, in the 'Coppa Italia' final versus Florence, it was a sad night, because we'd been previously informed of the ill-health of Ciro Esposito, who sadly passed away a few months later. But the welcome we received in Naples was nevertheless impressive, there was a need to be happy. Even the police were asking for selfies on the train on the way home.'
Was the Supercup in Doha 'just another title'?
'The Supercup is great and after the victory we celebrated it on an international scale. From a technical point of view, I think we played a great game against Florence in the Olympic Stadium; but in terms of the atmosphere beforehand and the media, with Christmas so close, the triumph in Qatar was more flamboyant, especially when you include the emotion of a lot of penalties. It had all the ingredients necessary to enrich a game of football. Also, I shouldn't need to remind anyone of the fact that for the Neopolitans, beating Juventus is always a little bit more exciting than a usual victory.'
How do you think this final will be?
'Sarri and Gattuso know how to prepare themselves well, each one following his own instinct with his own philosophies. We want to see a game with passion, with heart, but it'll also be important to maintain a level head in order to maintain a balance and not lose the match. Both teams want to win, that's obvious, and they have the necessary motivation, but after that it's vital to pay attention to detail.'
Ronaldo or Mertens? Dybala or Insigne?
'No match is decided by the individuals, even though it's clear that individual talent counts for something as it provides more opportunities to dominate or turn a game around. In this final, there are players of great quality and it's too difficult to pick one or the other: I could be wrong, and no-one be angry for this, but I do hope the player of the match will be 'azzurro'.'
The Napoli we see today is the 'son' of the one you built in 2013/2014...
'When I arrived at Napoli, I found a club that was already doing pretty well with Mazzarri, but which needed to further reach an international stage. I was supported by De Laurentiis, with whom I maintain a caring and respectful relation, as well as with the exceptional work of Bigon as sporting director who also helped the project a lot. We signed Mertens almost immediately, a player who Riccardo Bigon had already been watching carefully, later Callejón, Albiol, Higuaín and Reina arrived... A bit later we added Koulibaly, Ghoulam and Jorginho...'
Pick one signing amongst those many....
'Impossible. Because Callejón, for example, for whom we paid less than nine million euros, has had seven impressive years at Napoli. Just one year after we signed him, we had an offer of 25 million euros for him, to which Aurelio (De Laurentiis) said he wouldn't sell him. In financial terms, Koulibaly could be the great signing, considering the price he reached on the transfer market. But then el 'Pipita' also brought a lot to the club, not only in goals. Or Mertens, who has become the king of the goal. I'm sad that luck has not been on Ghoulam's side, there aren't many strong defenders as strong as him in professional football before he started to get injuries.'
I'd like to remember one of your legendary phrases at Napoli, which you liked to say a lot: 'Football is a lie.'
'Also 'without haste, but also without stopping'.
After the Napoli-Juventus match, with Cáceres' potential offside goal by millimetres, you used another of your famous phrases: 'ci può stare' (something which sums up the frustration with the unfavourable refereeing versus Juventus).
'It might have been. I think British style humour is a good way to help with the tension in a match.'
Will you watch the match tonight, Rafa?
It'll be in the middle of the night, but it's the least I can do. I've just finished repairing the television and I've even managed to watch the highlights of the semifinal. And afterwards, of course, I'll have to analyse it. But in this case, I'll watch it primarily because of my own emotions.'
Are you still in contact with De Laurentiis?
We've stayed in contact, and whenever we speak it is with affection and mutual respect. In the past we had our differences, as is sometimes inevitable, but we were never disrespectful to one another, or out of order. We had the chance to talk, in January, I believe, because there was a possibility of a swap between Lozano and Carrasco. Even recently, I have spoken to him on his birthday.'
Is a final more of a tactical match, or one of talent?
'A bit of both, because organisation before the clash is still vital. It's true that afterwards the decisive turn can happen due to a situation that, the day before for example, you might have thought was irrelevant. Obviously inspiration, the players' intelligence, or imagination can play a part at any given moment. It is a question of using your head, a question of psychology, it is necessary to be very good at managing your nerves in the moment, your anxieties; these two things are the most dangerous enemies.'
Your relationship with Italy is great, and has various chapters, both direct and indirect. The final with AC Milan, your experience at Inter, and the interest of various other clubs who may have contacted you...
'This is obviously true, although Naples was the place which was my home for two years. I've been all around the city of Naples and immersed myself in its culture, its history, its hidden treasures and its emotions. It's a city which, once it finds a way into your heart, stays there forever, with its people and its sights, it's amazing. But it's true, my relationship with Italy in general is long and profound and I have a huge appreciation for the whole country.
Linking to that, I have to ask: would you return to Italy one day?
'I have a contract in Dalian for another year and a half and I am happy living this experience at the moment. We have many things to focus on here. For example, it's a pity that Hamsik has just been injured, nothing serious, but for now, as we don't have any certain matches, there's no rush for him to get better immediately. We miss football, but we can do nothing but wait for the decisions the government here will take about when play can resume. That's the focus for now.'
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