NAPLES, Italy — European soccer’s breakout star looks briefly uneasy. It is not the setting. That is just about perfect: He is leaning on a wrought-iron railing on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Parker’s, all cut-glass, belle epoque elegance, the city of Naples spilling out to the sea beneath him. At his back lurks Mount Vesuvius, wreathed in clouds.
No, it is the pose that has perplexed Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. He cannot decide what to do with his arms. If he pulls them too close, he looks stiff, tense. If he allows them to slide too far away, he is drawn into a slouch. He cannot find a compromise that makes him happy. For a moment, he is flummoxed. And in that moment, he is just a little outside his comfort zone.
In a way, that is quite reassuring. For the better part of the last nine months, after all, it has not been immediately clear that there exists anything at all that can throw Kvaratskhelia off balance. Everything has gone so blissfully, so impossibly smoothly for him that even he has been taken aback at times.
“Ever since I arrived,” he said, “it has felt like being in a dream.”
Often, it has felt like watching one, too. Trajectories like Kvaratskhelia’s do not happen anymore. There are no overnight sensations in modern soccer. The game’s next big things, its greats-in-waiting, are picked up and pored over before they are in their teens.
They have agents at 10, shoe deals at 12 and millions of YouTube views before they hit 14. They are summoned by the sport’s great clubs long before they turn 16, legends paraded in front of them by teams squabbling desperately over their affection and signature. The sort of talent that can illuminate one of Europe’s major leagues is identified and cultivated while it is still germinating.
It is not — repeat: not — found showing quiet promise at age 21 while playing for Rubin Kazan, a middling Russian team in what traditionally ranks as one of Europe’s second-tier competitions. Those are not circumstances in which it is possible to procure a player who will immediately turn out to be among the most devastating attacking forces in the world.
Except that is precisely what happened.
Kvaratskhelia’s first season at Napoli could end with the club’s first Italian title in more than three decades. Credit…Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters
Kvaratskhelia arrived at Napoli for a little more than $10 million last summer (from Dinamo Batumi, in his homeland, Georgia, after having canceled his contract in Kazan). The Italian side had, by all accounts, been tracking him for two years.
Within a couple of months, his new club’s fans had taken to calling him either Kvaradona or, more erudite, Kvaravaggio. One company in Georgia began arranging charter flights to Naples to coincide with Napoli’s home games, ensuring that every time he takes the field at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, one small corner of the stadium is marked by Georgian flags and contains a couple hundred countrymen there specifically to see him.
By Christmas, his agent was having to dampen talk on a reasonably regular basis that Manchester City was busy riffling through its bottomless wallet to find the $100 million or so that might persuade Napoli to cash in on its budding phenom.
None of it appears to have fazed him in the slightest. “The start was so smooth that it did feel like a dream,” he said. “But at some point, early on, I had to collect myself, remind myself that it was not a dream, that it was reality, and I had to find the strength in myself to live through it.”
Nine months later, Kvaratskhelia still does not possess the glossy veneer of the ascendant superstar. His hair is tousled: not artfully or deliberately, but absent-mindedly. His beard is thick but patchy enough that another nickname, Che Kvara, has caught on, too. He looks like a tortured love poet or an eager politics student.
He speaks perfectly passable English — good enough to expound, in reasonable detail, on the health-giving qualities of Georgian wine — but preferred his first major interview since moving to Italy to run through an interpreter back in Tbilisi. A friend of his girlfriend’s mother works in the country’s parliament, he explained. “She normally works with important people,” he said, without a hint of irony.
Napoli’s coach sold Kvaratskhelia not with an offer of freedom, but a demand to fit in with his team.Credit…Roberto Salomone for The New York Times
It is typical of how lightly he has worn his new status, of how easily he has carried the weight of expectation that has rapidly coalesced around him. “I tend to default to gratitude,” he said. “I am grateful for every piece of love and affection people show me. I know it is praise, but it is also motivation and inspiration. It is a huge responsibility. I have to prove every game that I can do as I have promised.”
At no point has it looked as if that might be a problem. In 21 games in his debut season in Serie A, Kvaratskhelia has scored 10 goals and created 11 more. The last of them came on Saturday, a storybook goal that involved slaloming between three defenders and then cannoning a fierce, rising shot past three more, as well as the goalkeeper.
It set his team on a course to a victory that extended its lead over second-place Inter Milan at the top of Serie A to 18 points. Napoli is on its way to its first Italian title in 33 years, and common consensus has identified Kvaratskhelia as the reason.
The Champions League has proved no more daunting. His first contribution in that competition was to instill an identity crisis — as yet unresolved — in Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Liverpool and England right back. His most recent was a moderately unrealistic back-heeled assist in Napoli’s win against Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of its last 16 tie.
That virtuosic streak — the sense that his greatest asset is an untamed imagination — has become Kvaratskhelia’s calling card. “That freedom is my signature,” he said. “It is something I recognize in myself. It is because I love what I do. When I am playing, it kind of carries me away.”
A Georgian company arranges flights for every Napoli home game so fans can watch their favorite son. Credit…Ciro De Luca/Reuters
It is not, though, what he would attribute as the root of his sudden success. Before he joined Napoli, he had a long phone call with Luciano Spalletti, the club’s wily, experienced coach. Spalletti, as is normal in these situations, was simultaneously trying to sell him on the club and warn him as to the nature of his duties.
“It was a good talk,” Kvaratskhelia said. The coach did not promise him carte blanche to express himself. “He told me what I would be expected to do for the team. We talked a lot about focusing on defensive work, about being part of team play and the importance of team spirit. That is what is really important to him: the spirit.”
That is not necessarily, of course, what a player of Kvaratskhelia’s gifts — spontaneous, off-the-cuff, proudly improvisational — might be expected to want to hear, that he was being introduced not as a soloist but as part of an ensemble. And yet it made perfect sense to him. Partly, he recognized that Spalletti’s approach might round out his skill set. “Italian coaches are famous,” he said. “They know how to make players perform.”
Mainly, though, it fit with the way he saw his talent. “You play with your heart, with passion, but you also play with your conscious brain,” he said. “It is more a conscious thing than anything else, based on what you have learned in training, on the mistakes you have made previously, on the options that are there.”
What looks like the work of impromptu genius is, to Kvaratskhelia, actually nothing more than a constructed pattern of lived experience. “The way I play is both heart and conscious thought,” he said, chewing it over a little more. “But if you don’t use your brain, you would never improve.”
“Freedom is my signature,” he said. “It is something I recognize in myself. It is because I love what I do.”Credit…Ciro Fusco/EPA, via Shutterstock
He knows that is his next challenge.
He has, he acknowledged, detected that teams — particularly in Italy — have started to defend him a little differently. He may not act like a star, and he may not feel like a star, but he is starting to be treated like one. “I feel like my factor has been built in to the way teams set up against us,” he said.
He is not troubled by that. If anything, he sees it as a compliment. Nine months since his arrival, every team that faces Napoli knows that if it is to stand any chance at all, it has to succeed where so many others have failed. It has to find a way of taking Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the overnight sensation with Naples, the star with Italy and Europe in the palm of his hands, out of his comfort zone.