Stadium: Stadio Renzo Barbera, capacity 36,349
Built during the height of fascism in Italy, Palermo’s stadium was finished in 1932. It endured gradual renovations and three name changes before settling into the grand structure it is today. The most recent of these was when Palermo was chosen as the only city in Sicily to host World Cup matches in 1990.
The stadium was given a complete facelift, which lowered its capacity and made it an all-seater. The structure was known as the Stadio La Favorita until 2002, before being renamed after a former club president, Renzo Barbera. Sicilian fans are passionate and Palermo’s stadium always boasts a large crowd.
One of the most colourful grounds to visit in the league (and not just because of the pink kit), the Stadio Renzo Barbera is always awash with flags, flares and banners. The ultras are always out in support, although they have been prone to violence on some occasions, most notably when they play rivals Catania. Sicily is a beautiful island and Palermo’s stadium encapsulates the beauty, passion and sometimes dark side of the local culture.
In April 2014, a young Palermo fan called Jose sat in the Stadio Renzo Barbera’s Curva Nord Inferiore for the first time. While many young Italians dream of hearing their name chanted in the stadium, Jose’s ambition was to be part of the comradery formed on the terraces. The ultras embraced him as one of their own, sitting him next to the lancicori, the leader of the chants, and giving him the responsibility of beating the drum.
This is no small task. Incessantly hammering a drum, waving a huge flag or screaming over a microphone for 90 minutes leaves little time to enjoy the aesthetics on the field. However, these roles are central to the spectacle created by these groups. That this young Palermo fan has Down’s Syndrome serves to illustrate some inherent contradictions in the Italian ultras. Throughout this series, altruism is not a word that has come to be associated with the fangroups. All too often, incidents of violence, coercion and discrimination have cast a dark shadow over the more positive aspects of these fanatical supporters. Yet, although their world and attitudes can bewilder, it is not all chants, flares, fireworks and violence.
The city of Palermo offers myriad styles and flavours, from exotic Arabic cupolas and exuberant baroque facades to archaic crumbling palazzi. The architecture speaks for the cultural diversity of Sicily’s regional capital. This is in large part due to Palermo’s quilted history, and its strategic position at the heart of the Mediterranean has brought wave upon wave of invaders, including the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Saracen Arabs, French and Spanish.
As such, there is no homogenous style in Palermo; there never has been and there never will be. However, in this urban melting pot, there is one outlet that provides a source of collective identity: U.S. Città di Palermo. Support for the Rosanero often comes hand in hand with a sense of belonging to Sicily, hence the regular appearance of Sicilian flags in the stands.
Palermo’s pioneering ultra group were formed in 1977 and adopted the name Commandos Aquile after drawing inspiration from Roma’s Commando Ultra Curva Sud. As usual in Italian ultra culture, Commandos Aquile did not separate football from politics. Throughout their existence they maintained a strong affiliation to the left. With the formation of new groups, however, this political ideology would shift drastically.
1980 saw the birth of Brigate Rosanero and Warriors Ultras Palermo, two groups that became the vanguard of the club’s organised support. Brigate were founded by a group of youngsters from the Olivella zone in Palermo and they immediately concerned themselves with creating a more vibrant support. Warriors became notorious for their far-right political sympathies, which would eventually cause Commandos Aquile to disband.
Palermo have struggled to cement a place among the elite clubs in Italian football, oscillating between the country’s top three leagues. The journey of their ultras has mirrored the team’s; as results have improved, the numbers on the Curva have burgeoned. That said, even when the club were expelled to Serie C2 in 1987 due to financial irregularities, the ultras never abandoned their boys in pink.
Since the early 2000s, under the tenure of their capricious owner Maurizio Zamparini, also known as Mangia allenatori (manager eater), the supporters have tasted ample success. This has included European football, a fifth-place finish in Serie A and a run to the Coppa Italia final. Throughout this more prosperous period, both the Brigate and Warriors became renowned for their substantial presence during away games, despite the often gruelling journeys they were forced to travel across the mainland.
Such was the Warriors’ popularity that new sections of the group were created by Palermitani in other regions of Italy, including Lombardy, Emiglia Romagna and Lazio. Historically, Palermo’s Curva Nord has been the flag bearer of the ultras movement, but in recent years a small group of supporters have taken up residence in the Curva Sud, renowned as the “silent” section of the ground. This season, riding the wave of success following the club’s return to Serie A, the Stadio Renzo Barbera has seen a re-styling of support. In an attempt to provide a more cohesive and united front, groups from both the upper and lower sections of the Curva Nord fused to create Ultras Palermo 1900.
Curiously, Palermo ultras are said to have a close friendship with Padova fans. For those educated in Italy’s political landscape this might come as a surprise. Especially given that the Veneto region in which Padova is located has a reputation for being a hotbed of anti-southern sentiment (the regionalist party Lega Nord gained 60.2% of the local vote in 2010). Indeed the motto of the fans’ twinning acknowledges this North-South schism: “Nessuna secessione potrà fermare la nostra unione!” (“No secession can break our union”).
It is said this friendship was born in the early 1980s after a group of Padovani who were on holiday in Sicily found themselves in gregarious conversation with Palermo ultras. Friendly exchanges were continued during the teams’ next meeting in 1983 and this nascent alliance was reinforced further by their shared right-wing ideology. Despite the distance that separates them, the ultras have maintained their twinning to this day and they have been known to attend each other’s games.
Palermo’s biggest rivals are their Sicilian counterparts, Catania. The animosity that surrounds the Derby di Sicilia is vehement and poisonous. Graffiti reading “Forza Etna” can often be seen sprawled across walls in Palermo, a grotesque plea to the volcano to eviscerate Catania, which lies mercilessly in its shadows. John Foot, author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football has described the rivalry between Sicily’s two biggest clubs as a “political battle” in which the two cities are left “fighting for resources in one of Italy’s poorest and most corrupt of regions.”
This antipathy was brutally exhibited back in February 2007 after violent clashes between opposition fans culminated in the death of police officer Fillippo Raciti. However, both sets of fans have more in common than their pride would allow them to admit. They both have an ardent sense of pride for their island and a large proportion feel more Sicilian than Italian. Sicilian flags are visible at both clubs’ fixtures.
Upon taking a photo of his son immersed in the heart of the Curva Nord Inferiore, Jose’s father remarked: “When my son is with you all he is overjoyed.” One of the Palermo ultras described the day as a “beautiful moment for the Rosanero support, one of those moments which fills you with pride.” Being a part of these groups gives thousands of Italians a sense of belonging and identity.
It’s not easy to square the circle between an altruistic gesture and the more egregious examples of mindless thuggery, but this young boy’s story illustrates that, while it is easy to fixate on the negatives, positives do exist. In a city that has been fractured by poverty, countless invasions and discrimination, Palermo offers a nexus around which the people can rally. The ultras see themselves as defenders of this tradition.
Classic Player: Fabrizio Miccoli
Serie A is home to many ageing players who still perform at the highest level. Antonio di Natale, Franceso Totti and Luca Toni are just some of the division’s evergreen Peter Pans. These players play an integral part in their club’s success and are sadly missed when they eventually retire. However, less was made of Fabrizio Miccoli’s sudden departure from Palermo to Lecce in the summer of 2013. Miccoli was no less significant to his club than Luca Toni or Di Natale, but he did not leave to great fanfare.
The pocket-sized striker shot to fame in 2002, when he sealed a lucrative move to Juventus after impressing at Ternana. His time is Turin was not as successful as he would have liked and, despite loan spells at Perugia, Fiorentina and Benfica, he never seemed to settle. That was until 2007, when he moved to Sicily. He did not know it yet but it was to be the start of a love affair in which he would become one of the most iconic players to wear the pink shirt of Palermo.
He started slowly in his first season (scoring only eight goals), but his overall work ethic and willingness to sacrifice for the team made him popular with fans. He soon became vice-captain, and then eventually captain in 2009. His goalscoring also gathered pace and in the following the three campaigns he scored 42 times and provided 22 assists. He had found his spiritual home.
Under the tyrannical reign of Maurizio Zamparini, who seemed to sack as many managers as Miccoli scored goals, he was a constant in the team. The little magician gave 100% for every coach and remains the lasting memory of the era when so many players passed through on their way elsewhere.
Miccoli became Palermo’s all-time top goalscorer in 2012, when he scored a hat-trick against Internazionale in a 4-4 draw at the San Siro, but his goals could not keep the club in the top flight and they were relegated at the end of the 2012-13 season. Even with Miccoli’s strong ties to the Sicilian club, it would have been no surprise if he had left to join a Serie A club.
Despite interest from Melbourne Victory, Miccoli wanted to stay with Palermo. He was only 34 and had a lot to offer. But he seemed to just fall off the radar and disappear into the night. He was released by the club but there was no grand fanfare. Where were the all tributes that were festooned on Alessandro del Piero when he left Juventus?
Miccoli left the club quietly because of his connection to the the local Mafia. He was accused of buying telephone SIM cards for Mauro Lauricella, son of alleged Mafia boss Antonino Lauricella, and was interrogated by the police. Miccoli apologised to the people of Palermo, saying: “In the last few years, I wanted not just to be the captain of Palermo, but to be available to everyone. I hung around with people who I thought would be real friends, but I was wrong.”
“What happened to Miccoli is the proof it’s best he leaves Palermo,” said Zamparini. “Now he needs a change of air. I don’t know the situation well, but unfortunately he couldn’t have known that his friend was the son of a Mafioso.”
With Miccoli now without a club, it seemed that Italian football was ready to turn its back on him, but Lecce, who play in the third tier of Italian football, signed the striker last July. This being Italy, the romance had not died quite yet and here was Miccoli now returning home to his boyhood club.
Small in stature, huge in personality and a giant on the pitch, Miccoli has played with some of the greats of the game. He is still scoring goals for Lecce. They may not be his best finishes or his most important goals, and they may not be in his beloved pink of Palermo, but he is home and can look back fondly over the legacy he left in Sicily.