Prolific Uruguayan striker is embracing his Christian faith and the 'beautiful things' about Naples, where it may well turn ugly for Chelsea in the Champions League
Having struggled to contain Birmingham City's lone striker Adam Rooney at the weekend, it must be slightly disconcerting for Chelsea's defence to head for Napoli, where Serie A's most in-form striker Edinson Cavani not only has God on his side, but also Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik.
The 25-year-old Uruguayan – a blur of speed, skill and shaggy hair – is exactly the kind of striker André Villas-Boas would want to avoid at Stadio San Paolo on Tuesday night. He is confident, he is unpredictable and he has scored seven goals in the past nine games. He could wreak the same kind of havoc Zlatan Ibrahimovic did for Milan against Arsenal last week.
And if he does, he will do it in the name of God. There is a famous quote in Italy, from the Archbishop of Naples, Crescenzio Sepe, who said: "God serves himself by having Cavani score goals", and the striker would probably agree. When asked in an interview with the Spanish paper El País if he is an athlete of Christ, he replied: "No, no, no. I am an athlete for Christ.
"That's why I play for Him, to give Him glory, to thank Him for giving me the ability to play football and be able to compete in a league like the Italian one, for giving me that divine gift that I am trying to manage more and more. We belong to the Evangelical church. I don't like the term athlete of Christ."
Cavani was born in Salto, the same city where Luis Suárez was born a month earlier, and was spotted by one of Montevideo's biggest clubs, Danubio, at the age of 12. His family, he says, were not rich enough that they "could drink Coca-Cola or anything like that" but they had food on the table and clothes to wear. In 2006, as a gangly 18-year-old nicknamed "The Boy", he made his debut for Danubio's first team and went on to score seven goals in 15 games.
His international breakthrough came two years later, at the 2007 South American Youth Championship in Paraguay, where he finished as top scorer despite competition from players such as Alexandre Pato, who subsequently joined Milan. When Cavani made his Uruguay debut, he scored after three minutes.
Asked years later why Uruguay produces so many world-class footballers, he said: "I will explain to you: we eat football, we breathe football, we drink football. I was born a footballer. Before I could walk I was chasing balls. In Uruguay there is a football pitch every hundred metres, whether it is made by grass, small stones or sand. This has been my football education."
In 2007 Real Madrid and Juventus were only two of the clubs interested in signing Cavani but instead he joined Palermo, partly because his grandfather had worked in Sicily for several years and partly because the club seemed the right size for him. Before he signed a deal, he had read about Palermo on the internet and was concerned by how often the word "mafia" appeared. In fact Cavani, while at Palermo, was held at gunpoint in 2010 but escaped unhurt and he will not hear a bad word said against the Sicilian city, or Naples for that matter.
"You can do what you want with a city," he said after his move to Napoli that year. "I decided to embrace the beautiful things in Palermo, of which there are many. It is the same here in Naples: there are positives and negatives. Although, having said that, when the news starts on TV, I turn it off …"
His interest in religion increased further after the move to Italy and he told Corriere della Sera: "I read the Bible every day, study it, and share with my wife the blessings of faith. I understand that there is a time for everything: for the sacrifice, the rewards and goals."
Asked whether it had been difficult to refrain from some of the temptations on offer for a modern-day footballer, he answered: "Football puts everything at your fingertips. And I was raised in a way that focused everything on looking after your family. Faith really helped me realise that the temptations that you have on hand will give you joy, enjoyment, whatever, but only for a short while. And after that it is all gloom."
And gloom there has been very little of for Cavani at Napoli. At first, the idea that the manager, Walter Mazzarri, had brought in Cavani in 2010, initially on a season-long loan with a clause to buy him the next summer for €12m, to replace the homegrown goal-machine Fabio Quagliarella seemed odd. After all, Cavani had only scored 21 goals in 129 games for Palermo.
At Napoli, however, he scored twice on his debut and ended the season with 26 league goals. The difference? At Napoli he is the focal point, flanked by the fluidity of Hamsik and Lavezzi, whereas at Palermo he had been stuck out on the right for three years.
Cavani has continued his rich vein of form this season and has 15 league goals already. Two of them came against Fiorentina on Friday and after the 3-0 win he urged his team-mates to work with the same "dedication and attitude" in the game against Chelsea.
It is easy to be impressed by Cavani and it is easy to like Napoli. The club president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, a former film producer, is a proud man who rails against the powers of modern-day Italy. He is the underdog, fighting the suppressive northerners. He is also, evidently, very funny.
Once, when confronted again by rumours that English clubs wanted to buy Hamsik and Lavezzi, he said that he would warn the players about what awaits them in England. "If they want to go to England then in the end they're going to go," he said, "but they need to understand this: the English live badly, eat badly and their women do not wash their genitalia. To them, a bidet is a mystery."
The midfielder Gökhan Inler, who interested Arsenal for a long time but was in the end snapped up by Napoli, recently told the story about when he was waiting nervously to be introduced to the media as a Napoli player. "We were standing around after I had completed my medical and he was wondering out loud what kind of presentation we should have," Inler said. "De Laurentiis turned around and saw a lion's mask in the changing rooms. His face lit up and he said: 'That's our presentation. That is our surprise for the fans.'
"To begin with I didn't want to do it at all. I am quite a reserved person and don't want to make a big deal of it. But he is very infectious and in the end I went ahead with it. The fans loved it."
De Laurentiis, however, is rarely joking when he is talking about the jewel in his crown: Cavani. "Edinson is a serious person and he loves Naples," he said recently. "This is the place where he is raising his son. Everyone wants to buy him but until now no one has even asked, perhaps because they know that the answer will be no."
Cavani is not likely to move in the near future, mainly because, as De Laurentiis says, he loves the place. The citizens of Naples, meanwhile, no longer call him "The Boy". They call him "The Matador". And on Tuesday night, his target almost seems too easy: the confused men of Chelsea.