On Friday, there was a very rare sight in Italy -- Napoli played without Jose Callejon. The Spain international, suspended for the first straight red card he has collected in his entire career, only missed his second Serie A game for Napoli since joining the club in the summer of 2013. The previous occasion, in March 2014, was also due to a suspension. All in all, 113 games and 1,090 days separated the events.
In short, Callejon is indispensable to Napoli.
"Jose is the most important signing since 2013 from the tactical point of view. He is fundamental," Claudio Russo, who covers the club for Calcionapoli24.it, told ESPN FC. Even more crucial, it appears, than Gonzalo Higuain, who arrived alongside Callejon from Real Madrid but is now considered a traitor following his controversial transfer to Juventus.
It is very difficult to find a player who works harder for the team than Callejon, and his energy is seemingly boundless. He is never injured, never tired and never off form. The 30-year-old gives his utmost in every single minute of every game. It is easy to understand why fans adore him.
Callejon has always had that attitude, ever since he started playing in the streets of his Andalusian hometown of Motril, alongside his twin brother Juanmi. The son of a local fruit shop owner, he understood that total dedication is the only way to achieve his dreams. And there was only one big aspiration for him: to play for his beloved Real Madrid. In 2002, Callejon's father -- a die-hard Real fan himself -- took both sons to the capital to join the famous Castilla academy. They got lost on the way, but eventually arrived and spent six long years battling for a chance in the first team.
At the age of 21, the twins were forced to leave Madrid in order not to waste their careers. Juanmi went to Mallorca, but he failed, and eventually travelled around the world, playing in Greece, Bolivia and most recently Saudi Arabia. Jose, though, gradually proved himself at Espanyol under Mauricio Pochettino and caught Jose Mourinho's attention with his tireless performances on the wing. Mourinho personally demanded that the winger was brought back to Santiago Bernabeu in 2011, and Callejon was thrilled to finally join the first-team squad. His dream had come true.
Mourinho rated his protege very highly, and used him in various positions -- on the right, on the left, sometimes in a defensive role, and once even as a riding horse to celebrate a goal at Valencia. Callejon was proud to win the La Liga title in 2012, and contributed quite a few important goals, but he fully understood that he could never become a starter for Los Blancos. He was no more than an option on the bench in a star-studded squad, and when the Portuguese coach departed for Chelsea in 2013, it was clear that Callejon had to leave his club for the second time, so that he could play on constant basis.
Enter Rafa Benitez. Upon arriving at Napoli, the former Liverpool coach demanded a right winger for his 4-2-3-1 formation, and the club had to decide between Callejon and Alessio Cerci, who was flourishing at Torino at the time. Marco Zunino, a scout who dedicated his PhD to devising a system that helps clubs to choose between players, pointed out that Callejon was a much more complete player than Cerci, thanks to his phenomenal work rate and better contribution in defence. Benitez, who had admired his fellow Spaniard for a long time, personally made a call in order to convince him to come.
"Benitez promised me I would be part of an important project," Callejon explained. At the time, Napoli fans were mostly excited with the Gonzalo Higuain transfer. When Benitez announced that Callejon could score 20 goals in a season, his words were met with huge skepticism. After all, the duo shared the same agent.
And yet that is exactly what the winger did. He found the net exactly 20 times in all competitions in 2013-14, and provided six assists in Serie A as well. It was soon very difficult to imagine Napoli without him.
When Benitez left the club in 2015, replaced by Maurizio Sarri, Callejon wasn't sure whether he fit into the long-term plans of the new coach. Sarri used the 4-3-1-2 formation at Empoli, and there is no place for wingers of his type in that setup. However, such doubts were quickly settled. The boss made it crystal clear that Callejon remained a key player for him, and changed the system in order to make the most of his talents. Napoli switched to 4-3-3, and it turned out that he is perfectly suited to it. With less defensive responsibility on his shoulders, Callejon provided even better service to Higuain, who broke Serie A's long-standing goal-scoring record.
This season, with Higuain gone, Callejon's importance has grown even further. He is leading Serie A with nine assists to his name, and has scored eight goals himself.
"Jose is among the best in the world," Sarri said in September, with some justification. It is hardly surprising that the club improved his salary when Callejon signed a contract extension until 2020. However, he remains criminally underrated in his homeland.
Given his outstanding form in the 2013-14 season, it would have been natural for Vicente del Bosque to include him in the Spain squad for the World Cup in Brazil, but the Napoli star was ignored. It was only after playing in Italy for over a year that Callejon finally made his debut for Spain, and became the first ever international born in Motril. He was limited to one short substitute appearance in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, though, and didn't make it to the tournament itself. Del Bosque preferred Pedro, desperately out of sorts at Chelsea at the time. Lucas Vazquez, a rotation player at Real Madrid like Callejon himself had been, was also chosen ahead of him.
That is a major injustice, and the Napoli idol definitely deserves his chance to shine on the biggest international stage at least once in 2018. It is somewhat symbolic that his first game after celebrating his 30th birthday on Saturday will take place at Santiago Bernabeu, as Napoli make their visit for first leg of the Champions League round-of-16 clash. Callejon admitted that he would have preferred to face Real later in the competition, and his love for his former club is strong as ever, but he loves Napoli even more now.
This is his opportunity to prove beyond doubt to all the Spanish critics that he is a big star in his own right, and the modest, ever-smiling winger is determined to take it with both hands. The Real fans who remember Callejon fondly as one of their own could even give him a standing ovation if he excels on his return.