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Napoli's forward Victor Osimhen eyes the ball during the Italian Serie A football match between Empoli FC and SSC Napoli at the Carlo Castellani stadium in Empoli on Feb. 25.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

When Maradona propelled SSC Napoli, an enduring mediocrity of Serie A football since it was formed in 1926, to the top of the Italian league in 1987, Naples erupted in street parties that went around the clock for days. Neapolitans were so thrilled by their first-ever scudetto that they took to teasing the dead. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” they scrawled on the walls of cemeteries.

After winning its second scudetto in 1990, Napoli, in its post-Maradona years, went into gradual decline followed by humiliating collapse. It was relegated to Serie B, then to third-tier Serie C. The debt-soaked team was declared bankrupt in 2004, an extraordinary fall from grace for one of Europe’s most famous football clubs in one of the continent’s most passionate football cities.

Today, Napoli is not just the hottest team in Italy, it is one of the hottest in the world. It is well on its way to winning its third scudetto – only an act of God would allow second-place Inter Milan to come out on top – and is a contender to win the UEFA Champions League. Napoli has already trounced a few of the best teams in Europe; it utterly destroyed Ajax 6-1 in October, leaving Dutch fans stunned. As of this week, only mighty Bayern Munich had more points.

How to explain the apparently miraculous turnaround?

Napoli’s renaissance is as much a business story as a coaching story. In short, the team learned how to do more with less – because it had virtually nothing to play with. It actually reduced its payroll recently, bucking the trend of paying the GDP of small countries to buy superstars. Napoli is a superstar-free zone, though a couple of its young hotshot players, most bought on the cheap, have the potential to achieve that status.

An unlikely football fanatic, movie mogul Aurelio De Laurentiis, formed a new company to lift Napoli out of bankruptcy 19 years ago. He promised financial stability, after which a rebuilding campaign could start.

At first, Neapolitans, a notoriously cynical though outgoing crowd, were non-believers. What did a film guy know about football? (I refuse to call the game “soccer” since football is actually played with the feet.) Mr. De Laurentiis is the nephew of legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and an accomplished producer in his own right (Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet).

As owner and chairman, he surprised everyone. Napoli’s renaissance was gradual but compelling, bolstered by a few acquisitions at bargain prices. The early standout buy was Uruguayan Edinson Cavani, who was picked up for a mere €17-million. Between 2011 and 2013, he scored an amazing 52 goals for Napoli, establishing himself as the league’s premier striker. The team returned to Serie A. It won the Coppa Italia, the annual knockout competition, in 2012. Napoli was back from the dead and rising in the ranks, but the scudetto – Italian football’s ultimate prize – still proved elusive.

In a bold effort to come out on top and appease the ghost of Maradona, who died in 2020, Mr. De Laurentiis tore up the rule book.

It said you had to pay big money for big stars, even if there was a risk they were past their prime. Some of the prices teams pay are eye-popping. Paris Saint-Germain paid €222-million for Neymar in 2017; a year later, the team bought Kylian Mbappé for €180-million, and Barcelona bought Philippe Countinho for €145-million.

Mr. De Laurentiis did precisely the opposite, but he needed help to launch his risky strategy. Two years ago, he recruited a new manager, Luciano Spalletti, who had successful, if sometimes spotty, careers at several Italian clubs, including Roma and Inter Milan, but had never won a scudetto. By the time he landed at Napoli, he was in his early 60s and apparently decided it was now or never.

Together, they sold most of their prominent, older players, including Lorenzo Insigne, a hometown boy who last year went to Toronto FC, and Dries Mertens, who had been Napoli’s all-time top scorer. They cut more than €10-million from their already low wage bill, and Napoli fans were aghast. Mr. Spalletti’s beloved little Fiat Panda was stolen. Maniacal fans (known as Ultras) put up a banner saying the car would be returned if he quit the team.

At that point, Napoli’s bosses apparently borrowed a lesson from the book and film of the same name Moneyball (starring Brad Pitt) and used data analytics and adventurous scouting to find undervalued players in overlooked parts of the planet. In came South Korean Kim Min-jae, Macedonian Eljif Elmas, Mexico’s Hirving (Chucky) Lozano and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia from Georgia (two years earlier, they bought Victor Osimhen of Nigeria, one of the best strikers in the world).

The fresh, young lineup, combined with Mr. Spalletti’s penchant for un-Italian, free-flowing, attacking football proved sensational. Mr. Kvaratskhelia, who is only 22 and was bought for a reported €10-million – cab fare by Premier League or La Liga standards – from Georgian club Dinamo Batumi, has Napoli fans in awe. “Kvaradona,” as he is already known, is one of Serie A’s top scorers.

With Serie A all but locked up, and Napoli’s gun sights aimed at the Champions League target, the team has captured the imagination of Europeans, who see an underdog team battling its way to the top. Maradona would be proud. For the money men and women of any professional sport, there is a lesson in Napoli. You don’t necessarily need buckets of money to succeed. Sometimes imagination and the courage to break the rules can do the trick.