On the Brink: Problems Mount at Palermo

Suffering through a staggering eight managerial changes and fully embroiled in a fight to retain their Serie A status, it is no surprise that the Palermo Ultras have begun to lose patience. During a 3-0 loss to Lazio earlier this month, a section of the Sicilian club’s supporters caused the game to be suspended twice after they threw fireworks onto the pitch.

Whilst their actions cannot be condoned, this protest is emblematic of what has become a turbulent season for the Rosanero. In an attempt to downplay these demonstrations, president Maurizio Zamparini told Radio 24:

“The clashes in the city centre that afternoon were down to around 200 people who come from a very politicised section of the Ultras”. The motive was political and had nothing to do with football,” the owner continued, “those Palermo supporters are left-wing and the Lazio ones right-wing.”

With quotes such as these – along with the madness of his constant managerial switches – Zamparini has often been mocked by the Italian press this season. For fans of the club however, the situation is no laughing matter.

At the end of January, a 4-1 win over Udinese and 0-0 draw with fellow relegation strugglers Carpi saw Palermo rise to 14th place. But since then, the club have appointed a staggering five different coaches and have registered just three points. In these eleven matches, the Sicilians have conceded 26 goals and are now second from bottom in the league, their hopes of avoiding the drop looking increasingly unlikely.

“We already have one foot in Serie B, we don’t have the mentality to survive,” Zamparini told Radio 24. “We are not accustomed to battling it out like Carpi and Frosinone. Going into Serie B isn’t the end of the world, I got relegated before with Paulo Dybala and Josip Ilicic in the squad”. For a 74-year-old president – one who has become weary from the strain of a running a club in such chaotic fashion – this may be the case, but the fans see a long road ahead for Palermo, even if they do achieve survival this term.

“I’ve got two more months in Italian football and then I’m leaving,” said Zamparini, who has overseen 35 managerial changes since his arrival at the beginning of the 2002-03 season.
“Football has worn me out,” he added. “I’ll be happy if the new owners are from Palermo.”

It is a wonder that Palermo fans haven’t protested sooner. In Rome, Lazio and Roma Ultras have boycotted most of their home games this season as part of a long-running feud with the owners over barriers put up in the Curve. Such an issue seems trivial in comparison to the serious level of incompetence at the Rosanero, and barring the match against Lazio, the Palermo faithful’s reaction has been positively reserved.

Perhaps the explanation for this is that many still feel grateful to Zamparini for what he has achieved in the past. Having spent 30-years out of the top flight, the Friuilian owner guided Palermo to promotion back to Serie A in his first season at the helm. Current Swansea boss. Francesco Guidolin, steered them to their first ever UEFA cup qualification during the subsequent campaign and Palermo finished no lower than 11th in Serie A throughout the next six years.

Turnover was never far away however, as those six years saw 16 managerial changes, with Guidolin himself having been employed on four separate occasions by Zamparini. Ten years after his arrival, Palermo finished 18th and finally succumbed to relegation, dropping back to Serie B after “just” five managerial changes that year.

Former AC Milan midfielder, Gennaro Gattuso, was then appointed as head coach as the club sought an immediate return to the top flight. After just six games however, he was replaced by Beppe Iachini – himself a former Palermo player – and a period of relative stability ensued. With management experience at several of Italy’s smaller clubs, Iachini took the Rosanero back to Serie A during the following season and remained in the post until he was sacked in November 2015.

The Coach returned to the club in February of this year after five other changes made by Zamparini, and was seemingly full of enthusiasm to take up the reins once again. “I want to thank the President for the kind words he has said to me and my staff,” Iachini wrote in an open letter to supporters, “I’ll be back in Palermo with great enthusiasm for the good of the club, the team and the fans.”

This optimism was to be short lived. Having seen his team outscored by eight goals to one in a period of three games, Iachini was jettisoned, replaced by former Torino Coach, Walter Novellino. Iachini’s return to Palermo had been nothing new, as three of the Rosanero coaches have had more than one spell at the club this season. This is explained by the tendency of Italian clubs to relieve coaches of their duties by placing them on ‘gardening leave’ rather than releasing them from their contracts.

It is surprising that there has been any kind of success at the Sicilian club throughout such a tumultuous period. The good times at the club have been, in part, down to the production and development of star players who have eventually been sold at a profit.

Franco Vazquez, currently playing as an attacking midfielder for Palermo, is the latest to be linked with a move away from a club that has previously sold Paulo Dybala to Juventus and Javier Pastore to Paris Saint-Germain.

After competing in the UEFA Cup during 2005-06, Palermo supplied Italy’s World Cup winning team of that summer with four players. Andrea Barzagli, Fabio Grosso, Cristian Zaccardo and Simone Barone all travelled to the tournament in Germany, all were sold within two seasons after returning triumphant.

Now however, it finally seems that the instability Zamparini has created is beginning to take its toll. Whatever happens at the end of the season, the club face a difficult rebuilding process, and there are no guarantees of an immediate return to Serie A should they fail to survive.

When talking about the prospect of a new owner, one Palermo fan explained that “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side”, a cautious but sensible approach considering problems faced by other Italian clubs who have been bought by new owners.

Sicily’s premier club is now at a crossroads, and Palermo will need to avoid slipping into obscurity, a fate that has befallen so many other great Italian clubs.

Words by Chloe Beresford: @ChloeJBeresford

With thanks to Palermo fan Lorenzo Vicini: @ViciniLo