One day after he sustained an injury that forced him off the pitch in tears last month, Lorenzo Insigne got on the phone to his brother Roberto. “I’m going to make my comeback against you,” he announced. On the other end of the line, he heard laughter. “Must you?!” came the reply.
It cannot always be easy living in your brother’s shadow. We are talking figuratively, here. Roberto Insigne stands an inch or two taller than Lorenzo, but where the latter has made more than 270 Serie A appearances for Napoli, the former is only this season getting his first real opportunity to make a mark in the Italian top flight.
They each came up through the Napoli youth system. Lorenzo made his senior debut in 2009 and has been a first-team regular for the past eight seasons at their hometown club. Roberto, three years younger, got his break in January 2013, coming on as a substitute during a 3-0 win over Palermo. He and Lorenzo shared the pitch for six minutes.
At full-time, a dewy-eyed Roberto said he was in “seventh heaven”. “I had two dreams as a kid: to play at the San Paolo, stadium of my city, and to play alongside my brother,” he would tell Corriere dello Sport. “On Sunday I realised them both.”
Yet there would be no encore. Roberto went out on loan the following season to Perugia, in Italian football’s third tier. Next came Reggina, Avellino, Latina and Parma. Finally, in 2018, he went to Benevento. It was yet another loan move, to begin, but this time things played out differently. The Witches liked what they saw, and made his signing permanent at the end of the campaign.
Filippo Inzaghi took over as manager. Roberto became a fixture of a side that trampled the competition in Serie B, finishing 18 points clear of second-placed Crotone. Finally, this September, he got the chance to make his second Serie A appearance – seven-and-a-half years after the first.
It was the chance to share a pitch with his brother again, though, that Roberto looked forward to most. For all his teasing response to Lorenzo’s injury, Sunday’s game between Napoli and Benevento was an appointment that neither of them wanted to miss.
Even after playing apart for so many years, they remain as close as ever. Interviewed by Gazzetta dello Sport during the early part of Italy’s covid-19 lockdown this March, Roberto was asked how often they spoke. “Oh, not that much,” came the deadpan reply. “Every hour, on average.”
Theirs is a close-knit family, with two further brothers as well. The oldest, Antonio, plays non-league football, and teased his brothers through the pages of the newspaper Il Mattino last week – saying that he must be the best, since they learned by copying him.
It is Lorenzo, though, that Roberto has described as “the best player in Serie A”. Asked during the aforementioned interview with Gazzetta whether that made him jealous, he dismissed the idea out of hand. “Absolutely not. Lorenzo is an idol for me,” he said. “How can I feel envy?”
Still, that did not stop him from wanting to beat his brother on Sunday. This is Benevento’s second-ever run at the top-flight, and they had made an eye-catching start, with two wins from their first three games. Although their last game, against Roma, ended in a 5-2 defeat, the scores had been level as late as the 69th minute.
Both brothers made the starting lineups on Sunday, Lorenzo having made his return from injury as a substitute in the Europa League on Thursday night. Benevento were heavy underdogs against a Napoli side with three wins from their first four league games. Although Inzaghi’s team had picked up some good results, they had also conceded 12 times in four games.
There would be no such deluge this time. Benevento sat deep, looking for chances on the counter. In the 30th minute, they found one – a pair of quick passes releasing Gianluca Lapadula down the left channel. His first attempt at a centre was intercepted by a sliding Kostas Manolas, but the second found Roberto Insigne ready to drill the ball home on the near corner of the six-yard box.
Now it was the younger brother’s turn to cry. All those years after making his Serie A debut alongside Lorenzo, Roberto had scored a first-ever top-flight goal while playing against his sibling.
The conflict of emotions was overwhelming. “It’s an immense joy to score against Napoli,” he would say later, acknowledging a sense of vindication at puncturing a team that gave up on him. Still, this was the club he had grown up supporting, and “I was sorry to score against my brother.”
Lorenzo would not let himself be easily outshone. In the 41st minute, he came in from the left and sent a trademark swerving strike towards the far corner from 20 yards out, demanding a full-stretch save from Lorenzo Montipò. At the start of the second half, he had a goal disallowed for offside.
He drew another fine stop from the Benevento goalkeeper just before the hour mark, after finding space at a corner. For Benevento, it was only a stay of execution. The ball came straight back to Insigne in an almost identical position. This time he opened up his body to shoot with his notionally weaker left foot. From outside the D, he placed the ball off the underside of the crossbar and in.
A chance to win the game arrived moments later, Tiémoué Bakayoko lifting a pass over the home defence and on to Lorenzo Insigne’s head, but he could not direct in on target. Instead, Andrea Petagna put Napoli in front, taking a pass from Matteo Politano and forcing the ball home from the middle of the box.
There was time yet for a nervy ending. Gennaro Gattuso might have been experiencing flashbacks when he saw Montipò run forward for a Benevento free-kick in the 98th minute. His debut as Milan manager three years ago had been against these same opponents, who claimed their first-ever Serie A point with an injury-time goal scored by their keeper Alberto Brignoli.
This time, though, Alex Meret tipped the ball over the bar to deny any such drama. This day belonged to Roberto and Lorenzo Insigne – only the second pair of brothers ever to score in the same Serie A game, after Istvan and Ferenc Nyers, playing for Inter and Lazio in 1949.
“Lorenzo scored a beautiful goal, a tricky one with him being right-footed,” said Roberto during a post-game interview with the broadcaster Dazn, in which he also confessed to making a crude on-pitch joke at their mother’s expense. “I am happy we both scored, even if I’m disappointed about the result.”
What, though, of Antonio, and his claim to being beter than either of them? “Let’s let him believe that,” said a laughing Roberto. “He’s a pretty good footballer too.”