Kalidou Koulibaly Napoli GFXGetty/GOAL

Koulibaly: Chelsea's new £34 million centre-back is a true captain, leader and legend

Kalidou Koulibaly has long been a firm believer in the old adage that 'Anyone who comes to Naples cries twice: first, when they arrive; then again when they leave.'

There will be tears, then, now that he has confirmed his departure. And not just from the player, but also everyone connected with the club.

Indeed, the fans are trying desperately to look on the bright side right now: Koulibaly may have left – but at least it wasn't for Juventus. That would have been unbearable, even worse than losing Gonzalo Higuain to their hated rivals in 2016.

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Back then, some Partenopei supporters burned their No.9 jerseys; others flushed them down the toilet. A local restaurant promised its patrons Margherita pizzas for just €1 when their former idol suffered his first injury in Turin, while the morality of the move was even discussed in a homily by one Neapolitan priest, who viewed Higuain's transfer as evidence of human weakness.

Even today, if you take a stroll down the city's famous Via Gregorio Armeno, in between the effigies and busts of Diego Maradona and Pino Daniele, you'll see figurines of Higuain labelled 'The Traitor'.

In Naples, they've neither forgiven nor forgotten Higuain's perceived betrayal. So, supporters breathed a sigh of relief when Koulibaly's £34 million ($41m) move to Chelsea was agreed, as the very real alternative – a transfer to Juve, who are looking for a Giorgio Chiellini replacement – would have devastated them.

After all, in Naples, the Senegalese was even more beloved than Higuain. The Argentine attacker may have spent three prolific seasons with Napoli, breaking Serie A's single-season goalscoring record in the process, but Koulibaly has served the club with distinction for eight years.

Indeed, the plan was to promote him to club captain this season, having previously served as No.2 to Lorenzo Insigne, who has just left for Toronto.

It was an admirable but desperate attempt to convince 'K2' to extend a contract which would have expired next summer. Sadly for Napoli, Koulibaly has unsurprisingly decided, at the age of 31, to avail of what was probably his last chance to test himself at one of Europe's elite clubs.

As he wrote in his goodbye letter, it was "time for a new adventure", and the only surprise is that he stayed so long. Far richer clubs have repeatedly tried to prise him away from Napoli. Club president Aurelio De Laurentiis has even claimed to have once turned down an offer of €120m (£107m/$136m), believed to have come from Manchester a couple of years ago...

The great pity, of course, is that Koulibaly only lifted one major trophy with Napoli, the Coppa Italia in 2020, during one of the stronger periods in the club's history.

It's impossible not to shake the feeling that they wasted a glorious opportunity to win at least one Scudetto during that time, not least in 2017-18, when Koulibaly himself scored a towering headed winner in Turin to draw Napoli to within one point of league leaders Juventus with just four rounds remaining.

When the team returned to Naples that night, there were 20,000 fans waiting for them. Some pundits accused them of making the mistake of celebrating like they'd already won the title. Perhaps the critics were right.

The very next week, Koulibaly was harshly sent off for a clumsy foul on Giovanni Simeone just eight minutes into a game against Fiorentina at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, and the 3-0 defeat which followed effectively ended Napoli's title hopes, even though the still managed to finish the season with a club-record 91 points.

Even last season, they were locked in a three-way fight for the Scudetto with defending champions Inter and eventual winners AC Milan, and went top of the table with 11 rounds remaining.

However, they were undone by a run of just three wins from seven matches between March 6 and April 24 which was sparked by a costly home defeat to Milan.

By that point, talk of a transfer was intensifying again, particularly after a colossal display from Koulibaly in a Europa League clash with Barcelona at Camp Nou reignited rumours of a move to Catalunya.

Napoli boss Luciano Spalletti had called the defender's performance that night "scary".

Kalidou Koulibaly Napoli Barcelona 2021-22 GFXGetty/GOAL

“I admire Kalidou," the Italian told reporters. "The thing that amazes me is his calmness and the level of authority he brings to the role. Koulibaly is always ready and he has this extraordinary ability to control games."

The stats certainly support Spalletti's appraisal. Since Koulibaly's arrival in Italy in 2014 from Genk for just €8m (£6.5m/$8.1m), no player has completed more passes (14,528), won more tackles (344) or made as many recoveries (1716) in Serie A.

People can disparage the Italian game all they want but there has arguably been no more consistent centre-back in world football since he recovered from a difficult first season in Naples to take his game to a whole other level under Maurizio Sarri.

And it's not like he hasn't delivered at international level either. After missing the first couple of group games at this year's Africa Cup of Nations with Covid-19, he slotted seamlessly back into Senegal's starting line-up and proceeded to play every minute – immaculately – as he led his country to a first tournament triumph.

He was particularly impressive in the final. As well as helping to keep Mohamed Salah quiet, he won possession more times (15) than any other player on the pitch, while also having the most touches (105), and making the most successful passes (81).

Fair to say, then, that goalkeeper Edouard Mendy will be relishing the prospect of having his national team captain lining up in front of him at club level next season.

Indeed, while Koulibaly's age (31) may be a concern for some Chelsea fans, manager Thomas Tuchel couldn't have found a man better equipped to eventually replace Thiago Silva as the conductor of the Blues' backline.

Koulibaly is what a true captain, leader and legend looks like – which is precisely why Napoli will find him impossible to replace.

Spalletti is well aware of that. He had known he was a great centre-back before taking over summer. He hadn't understood just how great, though.

Less two months after his arrival, Spalletti confessed that he had never worked with anyone better, adding "and not just as a player, but as a man".

To support his argument, the former Roma and Inter coach revealed that during the season's first international break, last September, Koulibaly had gone out of his way to ensure he returned to Italy in time for a vital league game against Juve.

"Kalidou changed flights twice to speed things up," Spalletti revealed in a press conference. "Then got to the airport and went directly to the training ground without even stopping off home first. That's just remarkable!

"In terms of presenting practical examples that others can follow, he is excellent. If we all had a bit of what Kalidou has, life would be easier."

Given Koulibaly continued to demonstrate such commitment to the cause, Spalletti is not in the least bit annoyed with the Senegalese for deciding to leave. Indeed, he thought Koulibaly was going last summer, even threatening to chain himself to the player at one point, so desperate was he to keep him at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona for just one more season.

Spalletti is, therefore, simply grateful that Koulibaly stuck around, and while hailing him for helping the club secure Champions League football for 2022-23, he tellingly added: "We will never stop thanking him either for everything he taught us. Woe betide anyone who says something to him [for leaving]."

There will, then, be no Higuain-like backlash in store for Koulibaly.

He had always been enormously thankful to the fans for making him and his family feel so at home in Naples, and even supporting Senegal while he was on international duty.

Indeed, he was inundated with messages of support throughout this year's Africa Cup of Nations campaign.

He repeatedly spoke of his pride that his two children were born in Naples, pointing out that it meant, no matter where he ended up, he had established a lasting bond with the city and its people.

The fans, then, will be sad that the Koulibaly era is over, but glad that it happened. And that he didn't join Juventus, of course.

He promised last winter he wouldn't leave Naples for Turin and he has, unsurprisingly, proven a man of his word.