Expectation does not come much greater than being nicknamed after your club’s most iconic ever player, especially when that player is Diego Maradona and the adoring fans are those in the Italian city of Naples.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s arrival may not have sparked the same feverish hype as El Diego’s transfer from Barcelona 38 years ago, but a blistering start to life in Serie A has stirred excitement and even seen the winger dubbed ‘Kvaradona’.
Kvaratskhelia spoke about the responsibility of being mentioned alongside Maradona and what the Argentine meant to the club when he signed, albeit admitting he liked the nickname.
“I can’t come close to Maradona but I will give my all to be a big player for this club,” he added.
The 21-year-old already looks a snip of a signing at £9m, arriving following a short spell with Georgian side Dinamo Batumi where he scored eight goals in 11 games after his contract with Russian side Rubin Kazan was suspended because of the invasion of Ukraine.
On Wednesday, he is likely to make his Champions League debut when Napoli host Liverpool at Diego Armando Maradona Stadium.
“His Italian career started off the way probably no one really expected,” Georgian football writer Luka Lagvilava tells BBC Sport.
“Even during the pre-season he looked well accustomed to the system, which for a player signed just weeks before the friendlies seemed quite surprising.
“Obviously the opening couple of games in the Serie A were a joy, especially considering his output in the final third which definitely brings loads of hope and promise.”
- Champions League group stage: Quick reunions, nightmare groups and an all-British drama
Kvaratskhelia, like Maradona, made his Serie A debut against Verona – though unlike the Argentine, he played a key role in a 5-2 win with a goal and an assist.
Things got even better for the Georgian when he scored twice on his home debut against Monza a week later, one a superb curling, right-footed strike from distance.
“It was an amazing revelation, we did not expect it – it was a great surprise to us and that is the best kind of surprise,” says Kirsten Schlewitz, author of More than Maradona and part of the Far From Vesuvius podcast.
With club legends Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens all leaving, Kvaratskhelia is part of a Napoli rebuild that has also seen centre-back Kim Min-jae, midfielders Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Tanguy Ndombele, and forwards Giovanni Simeone and Giacomo Raspadori join Luciano Spalletti’s squad.
“It was more about mourning the players we lost rather than being excited, because to us it was young no-name players and we were losing really established well-known players who have been with us since the Maurizio Sarri days,” explains Schlewitz.
“I was sceptical when Spalletti came on board because I thought he was very old school, but this idea of putting together this new, young, fun squad where the players will be given the chance to all grow together is really important.”
Kvaratskhelia is perhaps the most intriguing of Napoli’s arrivals because of his distinct ball-carrying approach and ability to change games – predominantly operating off the left, he has attempted 6.58 dribbles per 90 minutes so far in the Italian top flight and made a goal contribution every 60 minutes.
In Saturday’s 2-1 victory at Lazio, he almost scored his best goal yet, rifling a strike against the post from range after gliding past his marker with a delightful ‘Maradona’ turn, only to then grab the winner with a thumping strike in the second half.
“I invited him up to my house for a cup of tea on the afternoon he signed the contract,” said Spalletti, after Kvaratskhelia’s match-winning performance.
“He is able to control any ball and make it clean, he has this very shy way of doing things, he never wants to be the centre of attention, but when he plays football, he is so confident.”
- Ricardo Quaresma: Portugal’s flamboyant former star and his stand for Roma rights
Spalletti suggested earlier this season his winger was “still getting loosened up” but the precocious talent seems to be fully unshackled now, having been crowned August’s Serie A player of the month.
“He loves to dribble, loves to dribble with his head down… which can be a little unnerving,” adds Schlewitz. “But you can definitely see an excitement about him, a joy in what he is doing.
“At the same time he is definitely focused. For me, it is all about intelligence in a footballer and I don’t mean speaking in front of a press conference, but reading the game.
“While he may not have everything in order yet, he is so young. He has time to grow and Spalletti has a definite system he wants to keep in place – Kvara will fit in and continue to learn and further refine his intelligence and abilities in that way.”
The Georgian Lionel Messi?
Kvaratskhelia’s father, Badri, played internationally for Azerbaijan and Khvicha was part of a talented group of players to come through the Dinamo Tbilisi academy, several of whom are now in the national team.
Lagvilava says it was fellow winger Zuriko Davitashvili – another player to join Dinamo Batumi in March – who was deemed the bigger prospect, though Davitashvili now refers to his international team-mate as the ‘Georgian Messi’, sparking comparisons to a second Argentine great.
“Khvicha definitely stepped it up after his move to Rubin in 2019,” says Lagvilava.
“For people who follow youth football, he was a well-known name but nobody probably expected such big progress in the amount of time he needed to.”
- Lionel Messi: The inside story of Paris St-Germain forward’s first months in France
Kvaratskhelia has also impressed on the international stage for Georgia, scoring eight times in 19 games since making his debut in June 2019, including goals against Spain and Greece and two in a World Cup qualifying win over Sweden.
“For the locals here, he’s been the main talking-point regarding the future of our team the past two and a half years,” adds Lagvilava.
“When it comes to his so called ‘legacy’ he has all the tools and the environment to become the greatest Georgian player to ever play the game.
“His numbers for the national team also have a great goal to game ratio and if he keeps it up, he’s likely to top that chart.
“It all comes down if he’ll be able to win some trophies abroad and, obviously, him staying healthy enough.”
- How is the iconic red double-decker bus made?: Gregg Wallace goes Inside the Factory to find out
- ‘You cannot just walk away, they’ll kill you’: Police investigate an extremely violent gang in Devon’s drug economy