Each morning Tommaso Starace wakes at 6 am to begin the 85km journey from his home to Napoli’s Castel Volturno training ground. As long commutes go, it’s not a bad one. He makes his way from Vico Equense on the southern shores of the Gulf of Naples, with a panorama of crystal blue waters on one side and the looming majesty of Mount Vesuvius on the other.
He’s always first-in to the training ground and, invariably, the last out too.
Starace first walked through Napoli’s doors in 1977, beginning life in the kitchens of their city centre headquarters, before moving to the kit room in 1986. He’s remained there ever since, though nobody is quite sure what his exact role is. Depending on who you ask, you might be told he’s the kit man, the barista, a friend, the heartbeat of the club. The truth is, he is all of those things.
In the past 45 years, Napoli can count 9 different presidents, 43 changes of coach and seen scores of players come and go. They have scaled the heights of domestic and European glory in the 1980s, suffered the ignominy of bankruptcy in 2004 and witnessed a resurgence in recent years. The one constant through that undulating period is ‘Tommy’ Starace.
Tommy’s official role at the training ground is to prepare the kit before the players arrive, but by the time the luxury cars begin to pull into the car park he is already primed with a typically Neapolitan welcome. Through social media, the public has become familiar with his customary pose; a silver coffee pot in hand and a wide grin on his face.
The depth of the bond between Tommy and the players is evident; he isn’t a starstruck employee, but an integral part of the Napoli family. He shares warm embraces and inside jokes with the players, which tell the story of a respected and much-loved member of the team. In fact, Tommy has developed a celebrity of his own in recent years; a Twitter account with some 50,000 followers that offers glimpses into the life and workings of Napoli’s football club.
Tommy turns 67 this weekend but shows no signs of slowing down. In 2019, he described to La Gazzetta dello Sport how his relationship with the players has evolved over the decades, “In Diego’s time I was a brother to the players, while now they are all my children”.
The timing of Starace’s move to the Napoli kit room coincided with Maradona reaching the peak of his powers; Tommy was the man responsible for El Diego’s boots as he elevated Napoli to their maiden scudetto. Such was the bond between the pair, Tommy was brought into the Argentina camp as a kit man for Italia ‘90. He stayed with the team for two months at Trigoria, even reprising his role in the kitchens one evening when the chef was taken ill.
Dedicated, effervescent and genial, Tommy is an affirming presence in the Napoli camp. He’s someone that people fondly remember long after they have left the club. Marek Hamsik sent him birthday wishes from China, Edinson Cavani reserved a warm welcome for his favourite barista when he returned to Naples with PSG and Tommy still takes calls from the former Napoli coach, Gigi Simoni.
Of the current crop of players, Starace has formed a special relationship with Napoli’s all-time leading goalscorer, Dries Mertens. It is a friendship that has blossomed over the course of nine years shared together in Campania. Mertens’ trademark goalscoring celebration, a merry jig with his tongue cheekily sticking out, is an homage to the rhythmic moves of his great friend.
“Tommaso Starace? It’s crazy, he’s not only doing coffee, he’s doing everything. He’s the story of Naples, he was there when they won the Scudetto, he’s a really good guy. He comes into the room and he makes you happy; that’s what I like about him” – Dries Mertens
As a result of his presence through Napoli’s highs and lows and his personal connection to the great protagonists, Starace appears to embody something akin to the soul of the football club. He was there, on the pitch in 1986 for that historic scudetto, he sat on the bench throughout the intervening years. If the current Napoli team can emulate those former glories, few will have contributed so much or will take as much pleasure as Tommy Starace.
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