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Winning hearts from Aalst to Naples – Dries Mertens

Mertens

This is the story of how the boy from Belgium became Figlio Del Vesuvio – a son of Naples. Dries Mertens.

The story of Napoli and the city of Naples is a tale of fates intertwined like few others in the landscape of Italian football.

Naples, one of the Southern giants of Italy is a region that wasn’t always as prosperous as it is now.

Italians love football and the rise and fall of Naples has been deeply influenced by the ongoings at the city’s darling club, Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli, or simply, Napoli.

Since the unification of Italy, in the late 19th century, Naples was always a region that felt marginalised from the rest of the country.

The Northern giants of Italy like Milan and Rome dominated the country’s success off the pitch and on it as well, for most part.

Some of the most successful periods of the club can always be linked to one star player who has been at the club. One star player who uplifted the club and the city. 

The Magic of Maradona

In the 80s, it was an Argentine superstar from a poor neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, who became the club’s messiah. Leading them to multiple titles during his seven-year spell at the club.

His influence on Naples extended beyond the pitch as the fans made him their god, who went by the name of Diego Maradona. 

Maradona’s success and subsequent troubles during his time at Napoli have been well-documented.

Those who have watched Asif Kapadia’s movie will know that the relationship between the player and the club, although toxic towards the end, was a truly special one. 

In ways, the people of Naples truly adore their footballing stars, the fans are some of the most ardent compared to the rest of Italy.

Attendances are always full and the San Paolo Stadium is always rocking in full chorus in support of the team.

It is perhaps this exact love and dedication to the club from the fans that saw Dries Mertens sign a new extension to his contract.

A two-year deal that will see him continue his romance with Naples after recently becoming the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, with 122 goals.

Thus surpassing previous club captain and legend, Marek Hamšík and Maradona as well.

Early struggles and rejection in Belgium

Mertens’ journey to Naples has been a long and arduous one, starting out his career at Gent, after being released from Anderlecht for being “physically incapable” of playing the game.

The coaches at Gent felt the same about the precocious youngster and decided to send him out on loan to Eendracht Aalst and subsequently, AGOVV Appeldorn, where he would eventually make his mark in professional football.

At Aalst, a club which was in the third tier of the Belgian football leagues, Mertens excelled and was voted as the player of the year during his one-year stint in the North-East of Belgium.

AGOVV was a modest club in the second division of the Dutch football leagues, and it proved to be the perfect platform for Mertens’ development. He played several games during his loan period at the club. His displays during those games were enough to convince the club to sign him on permanently in the summer of 2007.

Winning hearts in Netherlands

In his two-year spell at the club, Mertens established himself as a firm fan-favorite of the De Blauwen supporters.

Not only that, Mertens had a positive impact on the team as well. Dutch football expert, James Rowe tells First Time Finish what his manager, John Van der Brom spoke about him to Dutch broadcaster NOS in June 2018 – 

Dries made a conscious decision to come to AGOVV. He was always busy striving to improve and get even better. He would often do extra training after the session had ended taking shots at goal to improve his finishing.”, said Van der Brom

He further adds, “You would even find him in the gym on his day off.He is a great guy that can play in many different positions in attack at every level,which is a great compliment for him.

Wearing the armband at Appeldorn

Van der Brom’s faith in Mertens as a player and as a personality also resulted in him making him the club’s captain. Van der Brom said – 

I made him captain because he was our best player. We also had Nacer Chadli. They were then the two best players in my team and I tried to make Dries even more important, Dries would even ensure that other teammates would work even harder during trainers and as a manager that is great to see.”

The current FC Utrecht boss further extended his praise for Mertens and said, “Dries Mertens belongs to the top five players that I have managed who have gone on to have a great career ”.

Mertens made over a 100 appearances at the club, scoring 31 goals in the process and caught the eye of Eredivisie side Utrecht who snapped him up for 600,000€. 

In his two-year spell at the club, Mertens shone alongside another young Dutch talent, Ricky Van Wolfswinkel. Mertens’ stellar performances during the 2009-10 season saw him finish second for the award of Dutch Footballer of the Year, behind Ajax captain, Luis Suárez. 

Furthermore, the fans showed their appreciation for his performances and voted him as the winner of Di Tomasso trophy for their player of the season. 

In his following season, he improved even more, scoring 14 goals and making 24 assists across all competitions. This put him on the transfer radar of top teams in the Netherlands. 

Dazzling in Eindhoven

Eventually, he moved to PSV Eindhoven alongside teammate Kevin Strootman in a dual swap deal for Hungarian Balázs Dzsudzsák, who departed for newly cash-rich Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia.

Mertens’ spell at PSV was quite promising. The club contained a lot of exciting young talents at the time as well. The likes of Georginio Wijnaldum, Jetro Willems and of course Strootman were all part of the team.

Jürgen Locadia was another youngster breaking through the ranks behind the summer arrival from FC Groningen, Tim Matavž. 

Mertens’ time at PSV got off to a great start as he scored 11 goals in his first seven appearances at the club. However, a bad collision with Heracles FC goalkeeper Remko Pasveer saw him lose a number of teeth. A rather unfortunate blip in an otherwise excellent debut season from the Belgian. He was the second top-scorer behind Ola Toivonen, with 21 goals in all competitions.

The following season saw him keep up his good form under caretaker boss Phillip Cocu. PSV beat arch rivals Ajax 4-2 to claim the Johan Cruyff Shield and finishing second in the league as well. In a total of nearly 88 appearances, Mertens managed to score 45 goals.

Test of patience in Naples

In the summer of 2013, Mertens joined Rafa Benitez’s Napoli for what now seems like a bargain fee of just €10 million. Mertens was also close to joining Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool in January 2013, however, a move never materialised. 

After six years in Dutch football, at the age of 26, Mertens was nearing the peak of his powers. However, first-team football was not going to come so easily at Napoli, he would have to be patient. 

Mertens was one of the squad options in attack for Benitez behind the club’s talisman, Gonzalo Higuaín, Duvan Zapata, Lorenzo Insigne and José Callejón. Nonetheless, the Belgian was patient to prove his worth to the Partenopei faithful.

It wasn’t until the arrival of a former banker-turned manager, Maurizio Sarri, that Mertens’ fortunes really began to transform. The departure of Higuaín to Juventus and a serious ACL injury to Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik saw Sarri move Mertens to the tip of the attack. He became the spearhead of the front three and since then, Mertens has remained to be Napoli’s leading attacker.

Off the pitch, as Mertens’ importance in the team grew. Consequently, so did the love for him from the city of Naples. 

Not unlike their love for Maradona, the difference with Mertens is that he has embraced the city’s culture. And he has also embraced it’s lifestyle far better than the legendary Argentine. 

The emergence of Ciro

So much so that Napoli fans nicknamed him “Ciro”, meaning ‘Of The Sun’. And on the pitch, he shone very much like the Sun for Napoli.

Towards the end of 2016, Mertens was going through a run of great form, scoring hat tricks against Cagliari and in doing so, created some history of his own.

A fantastic 2016 with Napoli culminated in him being declared the Belgian footballer of the year. He won despite serious competition from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Radja Nainggolan from AS Roma.

Sarri’s transformation of Mertens into a false nine really changed the way Mertens produced and his output greatly increased in the new role. 

On the international stage, Mertens found it difficult to be a regular starter given Belgian’s riches of talents like Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, however, under the management of Roberto Martínez, he saw more game time and featured prominently in the 2018 FIFA World Cup as well.

Mertens maintained his excellent form in the 2017-18 season and finished one goal behind Edin Džeko with 28 goals as Napoli finished 2nd in the league behind serial champions, Juventus.

Much credit has to be given to Sarri who was initially expected to promote Manolo Gabbiadini to replace Higuaín. However, chose to give Mertens the responsibility and his trust was well rewarded by the Belgian.

Mertens a history maker once again

The Red Bull area was set to be the stage for Mertens’ historic night. Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli travelled to Austria in the search of a positive result to keep their unbeaten start to the UEFA Champions League campaign going. 

As expected, Jesse Marsch’s side gave Ancelotti’s team a real fight with their proactive pressing game but Napoli found the breakthrough on the night thanks to Mertens. A clever header from Callejon found Mertens with space in front of him.

The Belgian then charged towards the Salzburg goal and smashed the ball into the left top corner. Leaving the keeper Cican Stanković helpless, as the away side took the lead. This particular goal was significant because it meant that Mertens had overtaken Maradona’s tally of 115 goals for the club. 

Mertens scored another with his favored right foot, to restore Napoli’s lead after Erling Håland had given the home side the lead from the penalty spot.

Salzburg responded quickly to Mertens’ goal. However, the away side had the final laugh as Insigne scored the winning goal just a minute after the home side had scored again.

Overtaking Maradona’s status

The match finished 3-2 in Napoli’s favour. Mertens had officially overtaken a man who enjoys a god-like status in the city of Naples. 

And as if that was not enough, Mertens scored the opener against Barcelona in the Champions League in a 1-1 draw. Thus equalising Hamšík’s record of 121 goals. Another important milestone and another crucial goal for Napoli from his right foot. One that has blessed Napoli fans with so many beautiful goals over the years. 

Then, as fate would have it, the global pandemic of the Coronavirus struck. Football was put on hold for a much more important cause. One of life and death. Italy was one of the worst-affected countries when the virus went global. There was quite a lot of suffering all across the country. 

The return of football and good times for Mertens

When the football did return in the month of June, Napoli’s patience for silverware was to be rewarded soon enough.

After beating Inter away in the first-leg 1-0 thanks to a wondergoal from Fabián Ruiz, Napoli carried the away-goal advantage to the home leg.

Falling behind to a goal from a corner-kick by Christian Eriksen, Napoli battled to stay alive in the game. This was also largely thanks to a fantastic display in goal from David Ospina.

Making a string of stellar saves, Ospina also played a crucial role in the most crucial goal. Launching the ball upfield after an Inter corner and found Insigne.

The Italian covered the entire length of the opposition half before finding his onrushing team-mate Mertens in space. The Belgian finished with ease to mark another historic achievement in his Napoli career. 

That goal now meant that Mertens was the club’s all-time top scorer. Thus overtaking former captain Hamšík in the process, with 122 goals. It was a vital result for Napoli, who had suffered for much of the season.

The romance with Naples continues

In the final, Napoli faced off against Juventus and eventually battled on to win 4-2 on penalties. Gattuso claimed his first trophy at Napoli, and gave Mertens only his third trophy at the club in his seven-year spell. 

There was much speculation about the Belgian’s future. And at the age of 33, his next move was going to prove vital for the twilight of his career.

Fortunately enough, after a lot of speculation linking him a move to Chelsea, Mertens chose to stay with Napoli.

He signed a new two-year deal and announced it with a heart-felt video on social media.

It seems as though the marriage of Mertens and Naples is a match made in heaven that certainly has no end. The goals will keep coming. The assists will keep coming.

There will only be one chant standing out amongst the rest, “Ciro, Ciro, Ciro!”.

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