Words: Miguel Mosquera
Images: Offside Sports Photography
Maurizio Sarri is not having an easy debut season in English football. Before he was chewing tabs and wearing brand new training gear like it’s your dad’s painting clothes, he arrived to London with a reputation: this was a man who’d made it all the way from Italian non-league to Napoli, and once at San Paolo he crafted a side that challenged Juventus while playing attractive, offensive football.
You know what happened. His Chelsea team had a good start, but any hopes of joining the title race soon faded away. Tough defeats away against Bournemouth (4–0) and Manchester City (6–0) intensified an already existing tension from the fans. Impatient over Sarri’s tactics and his lack of flexibility, always using the same players and making the same substitutions, they chanted ‘Fuck Sarriball’ from the stands during their FA Cup loss to Manchester United. Since then Sarri has been more pragmatic, perhaps buying himself some time to implement his football idea.
Who knows if this will be a turning point: if Sarri will be able to reconquer Stamford Bridge. With Chelsea now banned from making any new transfers, it will not be easy for him. But regardless of what happens, Sarri’s most fervent supporters will always back him. They are known as sarristas, faithful defenders of sarrismo, a term that was included in the well-regarded Italian Treccani Encyclopedia last September under the following definition:
“The football idea advocated by the manager Maurizio Sarri, based on speed and offensive propensity; by extension, the interpretation of Sarri’s personality as an expression of the soul of the city of Naples and its football fans.”
Sarristas have formed a community around their devotion to Sarri. They are mainly Italian football fans who fell for him: both for his style and his personality. Type ‘Sarrismo’ on Facebook and you will find a page named ‘Sarrismo—Gioia e Rivoluzione’, which can be translated as ‘Sarrismo—Joy and Revolution’. It started in November 2015, and it now has 90,000 likes. Three sarristas manage the Facebook page, as well as a Twitter account, @sarrismofficial. They post images, press conference videos, reflections, open letters, and they have even organised events for sarristas to meet up to discuss the man they refer to as Il Comandante.
Gianmarco Volpe, Fabio Piscopo, and Claudio Starita—all in their 30s—are the three admins of Sarrismo. They explain to us that when they started the page three and a half years ago, “Sarri was already criticised for not using his whole squad. In a press conference in Denmark, he said: ‘With 18 men you can conduct a coup d'état and take the power’. We decided to be those 18. He was, and he is, a revolutionary character; extraordinarily, unconventional and definitely out of fashion. We wanted to support him, to explore the philosophy behind his football, and we decided to use a Soviet-style rhetoric that perfectly fits to his personality.
“At the very beginning, people had lot of fun with our socialist puns and our desecrating use of Photoshop. Then something changed. Sarri’s Napoli developed. Especially during its second season, despite the sale of its best player, Gonzalo Higuaín, to its bitter enemy, Juventus. Its football moved closer to perfection, an incredible mix of harmony and strength. We swear we had never seen anything like this in the Serie A. Napoli directly challenged Juventus for the title. It was a fight between two worlds apart: beauty against power, aesthetic performances against ‘victory at any cost’. Napoli supporters chose us to narrate this extraordinarily thrilling competition, and that was a great honour.”
Sarrismo became a cult page for Napoli fans as they enjoyed exciting football under Sarri’s management. The peak days of the sarrismo movement took place last May. They ended up losing in the title race, but all sarristas—in fact, all Napoli fans—will fondly remember their team’s efforts.
“Napoli had won the match against Juventus at Turin, a result beyond any expectation. But then Juve won a match against Inter and Napoli lost against Fiorentina the following day,” they recall. “The Scudetto dream was over.”
Still, fans turned up in numbers for their last home game against Crotone. “San Paolo was completely full. We met up with other sarristas before going to the stadium. It was a beautiful day: all supporters stood by the squad and the manager, thankful for the dream they gave to people.”
The community of sarristas had grown to the point that the man himself knew about them. The first nod was an indirect acknowledgement. Sarrismo had popularised the hashtag #FinoAlPalazzo (which can be translated as ‘to the palace’, another reference to their extended revolutionary metaphor) and in one pregame interview, Sarri even used that expression himself.
This season, speaking to Chelsea TV, he directly addressed these diehard supporters, suggesting they might have got the idea behind his approach even better than himself. And a few weeks ago, a small group of sarristas met him at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham. This is how, in a message to their followers, they described their brief encounter:
“Today Il Comandante has welcomed at Cobham a small delegation of our Central Committee [Ed note: this is how they describe themselves, the admins of the page]. He received us saying ‘what the fuck are you doing here?’ Our chat lasted for a few minutes. We learnt about his life in Britain: the kilos he’s lost, his nostalgia for the food, the smoking room built precisely for him, in a training complex where there are more ‘NO SMOKING’ signs than Chelsea badges. We spoke about Naples, Napoli, what could have been and what was. And it was wonderful.”
And they attached a video of Sarri sending his regards to all the sarristas out there:
Il Comandante ha un messaggio per voi pic.twitter.com/hSwAQEqRPW— Sarrismo (@sarrismofficial) February 7, 2019
“Sarrismo is a way to interpret football and life, inspired by Maurizio Sarri,” they say. “He never made compromises, never abandoned his ideas, and this took him from the Italian lower leagues to Chelsea’s bench. Sarri wants to win but also pursues beauty: the path is more important than the destination. This is entirely applicable to our own lives.”