As the 2016/17 season approaches its end, Marek Hamšík continues to be a pivotal cog in the heart of Napoli’s midfield. He has become an icon at the San Paolo, a man they can rely on and trust, a man who has become one of the Azzurri’s greatest players in their history. His eye for goal coupled with his composure whilst on the ball and his passing range has made him one of the most underrated midfielders in Europe.
The Napoli captain started off his career at Slovan Bratislava when he was just 14 years old. He would only go on to make 7 appearances and scoring once for the first team before he was signed for Serie A outfit Brescia for €500,000.
Making the move to the Serie A at just 17 looked to be a gamble that failed to pay off, as Brescia were relegated to Serie B later that season, with Hamšík only mustering one appearance. However the relegation proved to be the catalyst for the start of Hamšík’s career, as he began the following season as a starter for Brescia at the tender age of 18. He finished that season with 24 appearances but no goals. It was the 2006-07 season where Hamšík really caught the eye of Europe’s top scouts, playing 40 times and scoring 10 goals. This was a very good return for such a young player, and despite not being enough to get his team promoted, his return to the top flight of Italian football was imminent.
Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis annouced that his newly promoted side Napoli had reached an agreement to sign Marek Hamšík for €5.5 million with a five year deal. Under the guidance of now-Watford manager Walter Mazzarri, Hamšík was often deployed as the attacking midfielder in a 3-5-2 formation, and during Mazzarri’s time at the club, the Slovakian was very much his go-to-guy. In 6 seasons, Hamšík has amassed 218 league appearances and scored 61 goals. It was within this period that he formed a formidable understanding with fellow stars Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi.
His performances didn’t go unnoticed either, and he received plaudits from the press and other figures in Italian football. Former Juventus midfielder and football legend Pavel Nedved is a big fan of Hamšík and even went as far as calling him his ‘heir’ back in 2010.
“Hamšík is my heir. He is the footballer who most resembles me in terms of his characteristics and style of play.”
The Slovak had to fill a giant void, as Lavezzi and Cavani both left Naples for Paris Saint Germain in consecutive seasons and struggled to find players to replace the void left by the two, especially the goal scoring heroics of Cavani. Many expected Hamšík to follow suit eventually with interest growing from multiple clubs, but he always reaffirmed his commitment to the club and he would soon be rewarded for his loyalty.
The sale of Cavani also saw the end of Mazzarri’s tenure at the club, as he went on to have a disastrous spell at Inter. Rafa Benitez was the next man to take charge of the Partenopei, and with him he brought several key players to improve Napoli such as Callejón, Albiól and Mertens. While the team got progressively better, Hamšík began to falter. He was often deployed in positions that he was unfamiliar such as the left winger role, and this had a telling contribution on his form as he only made 28 appearances that season. Later that season, following the sale of then-captain Paolo Cannavaro, Hamšík was named as the club captain, sparking an upturn in form which ended with him lifting the Coppa Italia trophy in May 2014.
More silverware followed next season, as Napoli defeated Juventus on penalties to claim the Supercoppa Italiana. However, this was the high point for Napoli that season, as the football that was played under Napoli did not bring the best out of their players, and no one was more affected than the captain who continued to play out of position, as Benitez preferred other defensive players in midfield positions.
Napoli finished 5th that season and Benitez left the club to join Real Madrid. Aurelio De Laurentiis took a big gamble on appointing Maurizio Sarri as the club’s new coach. A life-long Napoli fan, born in the city of Naples, Sarri was undoubtedly the catalyst behind the resurgence of the team. He assembled a team that was free-flowing, that passed the ball with fearlessness and precision, that utilized runners off the ball to create space and goalscoring chances.
Hamšík was the one who profited most from Sarri’s new system. He was returned to the centre of midfield and placed on the left side of a midfield trio that consisted of new signing Allan and a vastly improved Jorginho. He was given a floating role, almost like a roaming player that was tasked with getting into final third and helping out the attack. The captain has since excelled under the tutelage of the former Empoli boss and now looks as good as he has ever been in his career. He is so good with the ball at his feet because of his versatility. He has a key eye for a pass, he also has the potential to cause problems when he shoots, no matter which foot he uses. Sarri’s system had Napoli flying after a slow start, and after a run that included a new record-setting feat of 8 consecutive league victories, they were named “Campioni d’Inverno,” or winter champions, for the first time in over 25 years. They unfortunately could not sustain their incredible form until the end of the season and were pipped to the title by Juventus, but with Hamšík at the heart of this system, this Napoli team has the potential to challenge and possibly win the Scudetto in the near future.
Hamšík continued to shine, forming a particularly impressive tandem on the pitch with Lorenzo Insigne. Watching Insigne and Hamšík’s almost telepathetic connection is poetic: the darting forward runs that Hamšík makes are so selfless that he will either receive the ball from Insigne or draw defenders away, thus creating space for Insigne to come inside and shoot from distance. It is a strategy that is very subtle but is so effective. With the likes of Callejon, Mertens, Insigne and Milik in front of him, it is easy for Hamšík to link up with any one of them with ease.
Although the Slovakian international is still representing the Partenopei, he has been subject to interest to from clubs from Spain, England and most notably Italy. Both Milan and Juventus were interested in Hamšík, as revealed in an interview of 2016.
“5 years ago Milan wanted me, last year Juve too but nothing happened because I felt the confidence of Napoli who wanted me to stay. I think it is clear that in Italy there will only ever be Napoli for me, and I also believe that there is a chance that I will finish my career here. It’s a serious possibility.”
Hamšík is undoubtedly an Napoli legend and will go down as one of the best players to ever don the famous blue of the Partenopei. He is currently 5th in their all time goalscoring list, with 110 goals in just over 400 appearances, and is also 3rd in the all time top goalscorers list for his country Slovakia, with 19 goals. He is beloved by his home nation and it is easy to see why. In the build up to the Euro 2016 opening fixture against Wales, the national media dubbed their captain as the ‘Slovakian Bale’ and the reason for this was because Hamšík, like Bale, is able to win games all on his own, as he demonstrated when he scored an absolute screamer to cap off a terrific and largely shocking 3-1 victory over reigning world champions Germany. Furthermore, he finished Euro qualifying with 5 goals. When someone is needed to step up, Marek Hamšík will deliver.
His spell at the club has coincidentally also been the best period that Napoli have had since the 80’s, when a certain Argentine known as Diego Maradona graced Calcio. During his time at Napoli, Hamšík’s achievements to date include finishing with the most assists in Serie A in both 2012-13 and 2014-15, making the Serie A team of the year in 2010-11, winning the Suppercoppa Italiana in 2014 and winning the Coppa Italia twice in 2011-12 and 2013-14. Marek Hamšík will finish his career as one of the most underappreciated midfielders of his generation and quite possibly the top scorer of both his club and his country.
Photo Credit: IFA