Georgian superstar Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has lit up the 2022-23 Serie A season, so much so he has been compared to Diego Maradona. His Napoli team play Rangers in a Champions League Group A match on Wednesday.
The 17-cap Georgian international moved to Napoli over the summer, with Aurelio De Laurentiis signing him for the paltry sum of €12 million (£10.4 million). He has since played seven games for I Partenopei, scoring four goals. He operates as a wide forward, and has predominantly played the wide left position in Napoli coach Luciano Spalletti’s 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations.
His brilliant start has seen him earn the nicknames ‘Kvaradona’ and ‘Kvaravaggio’, and Eurosport Italy’s Luca Montanari says his impact has been rarely seen before.
‘UNPRECEDENTED IN THE HISTORY OF ITALIAN FOOTBALL’
“‘Kvaradona’ and ‘Kvaravaggio’ – a reference to the name of the famous Italian Renaissance painter – are just some of the nicknames given to him already,” says Montanari.
“These are heavy comparisons – probably unprecedented in the history of Italian football – but this is due to the impact he made on Napoli in the first few weeks of the season: four goals and an assist in six Serie A matches.
“He has a great personality on the pitch, an insane eye for goal and is unstoppable with the ball at his feet. So far, it is virtually impossible to find any weaknesses. The only risk is that in the future he will not be able to handle such high pressure.”
‘NOBODY KNEW KVARATSKHELIA’
The 21-year-old has been capped 17 times by his country and scored eight goals. His father, Badri Kvaratskhelia, was a professional footballer, and played for Azerbaijan.
Kvaratskhelia began his senior career at 18-time league winners Dinamo Tbilisi in 2017 – making his professional debut at 16 – before a move to Rustavi in 2018. It was at Rustavi that he began to garner international attention and was named in The Guardian’s ‘Next Generation 2018: 60 of the best young talents in world football’ alongside Rodrygo, Takefusa Kubo and Curtis Jones.
A loan move to Lokomotiv Moscow in 2019 increased his profile further, scoring one goal in seven appearances, but did not end up in a permanent switch – much to the frustration of then manager Yuri Semin, who said “losing that extremely talented boy made me cry”.
Kvaratskhelia would eventually move to Rubin Kazan for a fee thought to be in the region of £500,000. There, he excelled, emerging as the league’s standout player, and in February 2021 he was named by L’Equipe as the 34th best player born after 2001. He was the only player from the Russian Premier League on the list.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, FIFA ruled that foreign players could suspend their contracts with Russian clubs until June 30, 2022. Kvaratskhelia joined Dinamo Batumi on loan until the end of the season, whom he helped win the Erovnuli Liga.
Numerous clubs had signalled their interest in the player, with Arsenal, Tottenham and AC Milan all thought to be readying bids. However, Napoli – in the midst of a period of transition after losing Lorenzo Insigne, Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens – completed a cut-price deal for the player.
Kvaratskhelia came to Italy as a relative unknown, adds Montanari.
“Nobody knew him when he arrived in Italy,” says Montanari.
“He was very well spoken of but no one was sure if he would be up to Serie A – as he had only previously played in the Russian and Georgian leagues. For this reason he was considered a gamble when he moved to Napoli in May. There were rumours that Juventus, AC Milan and Roma were interested, but only the Neapolitans and their sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli really believed in him.
“Giuntoli has said he tracked him as early as March 2020 but the asking price was 30 million euros. Napoli ended up closing the deal for a third of the amount.”
During his first press conference at the club, Kvaratskhelia said he had not signed to be “an Insigne replacement; I’m here to be myself”, but such has been his impact the moniker ‘Kvaradona’ has gained traction. In 18 matches for Napoli and Georgia this year he has scored 11 goals and provided four assists.
It has been an impressive start to his career in Italy but manager Spalletti has said that there is more to come from Kvaratskhelia.
“He is a player with real quality, a fine professional and a good lad,” Spalletti has said of Kvaratskhelia after he starred in a 4-0 win at Monza.
“He has this way of taking opponents on and knows where the goal is, can shoot with his right foot or his left. But he’s still getting loosened up.”
‘WATCHING HIM IS A DELIGHT’
Kvaratskhelia has played down the comparisons to Maradona, saying: “I can’t come close to Maradona but I will give my all to be a big player for this club.”
But Montanari says that he is already considered a top player after just six rounds of Serie A – his team sit top of the Serie A table on 14 points after six games.
“Watching him is a delight, he needs just one dribble of his own to thrill the crowd,” adds Montanari.
“After his first games in Italy, he’s already considered a top player. The Champions League match against Liverpool was a crucial test for him, and he passed it with flying colours.
“Now everyone wonders if he will be able to maintain this level of play throughout the season.”
Kvaratskhelia also hit the ground running in his Champions League debut for the club against Liverpool, giving the backline of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson a torrid evening, and finished the game with an assist, setting up Giovanni Simeone for a Champions League debut goal in a 4-1 win against Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Kvaratskhelia will aim to burnish his already growing reputation when his Napoli side take on Rangers in a Group A Champions League match on Wednesday – and Eurosport will have live minute-by-minute coverage of the match.