Maurizio Zamparini: The successes and controversies of Palermo’s infamous manager-eater

 Italian football’s lengthy association with infamous club presidents who regularly court controversy with outspoken remarks and erratic behaviour is well known. Even Silvio Berlusconi is mild-mannered and relatively dull in comparison to a selection of his counterparts.
Take Luciano Gaucci, for example. A 13-year spell at Perugia saw him attempt to buy a female player, sign Colonel Gaddafi’s son and regularly feud with the authorities, with the pièce de résistance being discussed in the European parliament after he attempted to release South Korean striker Ahn Jung-hwan, whose goal knocked Italy out of the 2002 World Cup, as he had “no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.”

However, nobody quite compares to Maurizio Zamparini – current president of Palermo – who fires managers as regularly as Italians eat pizza, so much so he is ominously referred to in football circles as the mangia-allenatori (manager-eater).

So frequently has he hired and fired managers there is no longer a clear consensus on exactly how many have come and gone. The most accurate measure seems to suggest that since he assumed the presidency in 2002, the management position has changed hands 40 times. The notoriously unstable nature of the job has regularly been appreciated by Zamparini himself; he even proclaimed his New Year’s resolution was a “2016 without firing anyone.”

But, in the 12-month period following on from November 2015, the 70-year-old changed manager 11 times with Eugenio Corini – appointed in November 2016 – the eighth different coach to assume the role in this spell.

This intense period of chopping and changing has been extreme even by Zamparini’s standards, coinciding with his attempts to sell the club with investors from both America and from Asia interested. It’s tough to keep up.

Giuseppe Iachini, who had led the Aquile to promotion the previous year, was in place but was swapped for Davide Ballardini in November 2015. However two months later he too had gone with the club announcing the appointment of Guillermo Barros Schelotto. It quickly came to light that the Argentine did not hold the relevant UEFA licence and so former midfielder Fabio Vivian – who had worked in the club’s analytics department – was ushered in as caretaker but lasted only one game, a 4-0 loss at Genoa.

Then in came Giovanni Bosi who, despite overseeing a victory over Udinese, was not given another match as he was succeeded by Giovanni Tedecso, who three weeks later was relegated to assistant as Bosi returned. By February Iachini was recalled (after a three-month absence) as it transpired that Barros Schelotto had been appointed at Boca Juniors, who did not fall under the jurisdiction of UEFA’s bureaucratic regulations.

In the midst of a 12-game winless run in Serie A, Iachini resigned with the club turning to Walter Novellino. But with no immediate improvement in results and with relegation looming, he was dismissed with a return for Ballardini.

The former Cesena player’s third stint at the club saw him maintain their top flight status with 11 points won in their last five matches, but disagreements regarding Palermo’s summer transfer dealing led to his exit in September with Roberto De Zerbi coming in for a two-month stint before passing on the reins to Eugenio Corini.

It is a scarcely believable timeline of events which ensured Palermo changed manager more frequently than the rest of Serie A combined for the 2015-16 campaign. In terms of public perception, the consistency of managerial casualties at the club far eclipses the major achievements and progress they have made since Zamparini joined in 2002.

To understand why the Udine-born businessman is so trigger-happy and blasé with his coaches, it is important to contextualise his history since entering the sport three decades ago.

In 1987, Venezia were struggling financially in the fourth tier of Italian football and facing bankruptcy.  Venice’s continued diminishing economic status was mirrored by their football team and, alongside the changing dynamics of Italian football, their very existence was under peril.

Enter Zamparini, the businessman paraded as a knight in shining armour, buying the club to save it from the abyss. Shortly after he purchased tiny Associazione Calcio Mestre, the team named after Venice’s central mainland district, and merged the two clubs.

Initial scepticism from Venezia fans quickly transformed into fury. Zamparini considered Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, the club’s stadium famed for being primarily accessible by boat, outdated and believed Mestre’s centrally-located Stadio Francesco Baracca more suitable for ambitions of progress.

‘The Penzo’ carries plenty of sentimental attachment. Opened in 1913, it is Italy’s second-oldest stadium with a traditional church bell tower overlooking it while the stands’ vantage points offer picturesque views of the city’s beauty. Minor upgrades and relentless fan pressure saw the club return to their traditional home four years later, but the path of modernisation had been set upon.

The Venezia-Mestre merger led to a revamped kit, adding orange (Mestre’s predominant colour) to the existing green and black. Hence the nickname Arancioneroverdi (orange/green/black) and the creation of an iconic kit. Predictably, Emmezetta, the department chain owned by the president, provided the sponsorship throughout the Zamparini years.

Showing little regard for traditions and the wishes of the club’s fans was to set the tone for a ruling career built on ruthless, decisive moves. Never shying away from controversy, ripping up the rulebook and not wilting under outside pressure were cornerstones of Zamparini’s approach to club ownership. Far from being a purist, he identified the importance of short-term results in not only justifying his actions but also of moulding a club in his image.

His methods have always been questionable, but his results haven’t – under him Venezia enjoyed three promotions, re-entered the top flight of Italian football for the first time in three decades and enjoyed three seasons there.

Immediately after suffering relegation in 2002, Zamparini walked out of the club he had moulded into his own over 15 years citing a lack of progress on planning applications for a new stadium. Frustrations with the local government hampered his personal ambitions of building a Venetian powerhouse in Italian football, so he packed his bags and acquired Sicilian side Palermo for €15 million.

Zamparini’s pitch to the fans of the Serie B club was a simple one: he had already ended one financially unstable club’s three-decade hiatus from the top flight and he would repeat this feat in Sicily. As in Venice, he started his reign with a headline-grabbing, controversial move.

In one final vindictive move again the council, he immediately signed 13 of the squad left behind at Venezia including stars such as Filippo Maniero, Daniel Andersson, Joachim Bjorklund, Kewullay Conteh, Stefano Morrone, Mario Santana and Arturo Di Napoli.

Success at Palermo was not instant; the new president’s promise of immediate promotion did not come to fruition, leading him to blame the club’s players in bizarre fashion. “I will cut off their testicles,” he declared, “and eat them in my salad.”

The following season the Rosanero moved onto their seventh coach in 18 months since Zamparini’s arrival with the appointment of Francesco Guidolin. Patience was wearing thin amongst the club’s fan-base but the experienced coach guided them to a Serie B title and their first spell in the top flight in 31 years.

This was a rare period of calm under the club’s management; 2004-05 was the first campaign under Zamparini where a manager kept his job throughout. It was also a period when Luca Toni, Fabio Grosso, Cristian Zaccardo, Simone Barone and Andrea Barzagli (who all went on to win the World Cup in 2006) provided the foundations of a team who remarkably qualified for Europe in their first season back at the top level.

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Barzagli in action for Palermo.
​This kick-started an era of success not enjoyed by Palermo since the 1950s, with a debut sixth-place finish followed by two consecutive fifth-place standings, narrowly missing out on qualification for the Champions League. In the process a series of players developed in Sicily became stars, Edinson Cavani, Fabrizio Miccoli, Salvatore Sirigu, Simon Kjær, Javier Pastore and Paulo Dybala among them.

Crucially, this success was maintained despite a constantly changing first-team coach—Guidolin (in his first of four spells in the dugout) was replaced in the summer of 2005 by Luigi Delneri in the first of six managerial changes across the three history-making seasons.

When analysing Zamparini’s policy of firing managers at will, the significance of a high turnover in the coaching setup cannot be understated. While it had no adverse effect on either performances or results, which were maintained through a core group of quality players, it signalled the president’s lack of belief in value of the modern-day manager, who he viewed as dispensable pawns with an overstated importance.

This has not always been conveyed by Zamparini in his public utterings, which frequently contradict each other, as can be seen with his comments on Delio Rossi, a hugely popular figure with Palermo’s fans who managed the club for 18 months over two spells.

“Rossi has a one per cent chance of staying on the bench, you can bet on that,” fumed the president after a 7-0 loss at Udinese that led to Rossi’s dismissal shortly after. “The team has been completely destroyed. He has ruined my Palermo… I should’ve kicked him out at Christmas.”

“Changing coaches was a mistake on my part for which I ask Palermo’s fans to forgive me,” remarked Zamparini, five weeks later. “I rediscovered my belief in Rossi because he is an excellent coach.”

The businessman’s relationship with Rossi was particularly turbulent. “Rossi is like my wife, I want him all to myself,” he once joked. The following month he blasted the manager, however. “Palermo have a coach with no balls,” he remarked following a draw against Bari, before sacking the coach for the second and final time at the end of the season.

Perhaps his media persona is just a sideshow, shifting the spotlight upon himself rather than his team, although often they do both—following a draw with Torino in 2008 he likened his side “to a team of girls, not of men.” His opinionated, off-the-cuff comments certainly cause a stir, describing English clubs as “pirates” for pillaging the ranks of Italian clubs who had developed their own players.

Three years later and after a friendly loss to Fenerbahce, Zamparini described it as his “last night of president of this club” as Palermo fans booed their own team. His promise was never fulfilled.

Many of the clubs fans now wish he had followed through, questioning if his endless meddling and constant negative headline-grabbing is worth all the bother. “Better to be in Serie C (without you) than to stay in Serie A like this,” protested one who confronted him in the city streets early in 2016.

The 70-year-old is now briefing his intentions to sell the club and, considering the context of his career, this is not a surprise. The summer of 2017 would bring Zamparini’s 15-year anniversary in Sicily, the precise period of time he reigned at Venezia before storming out following relegation from the top flight. After a narrow escape in 2016, the reality of demotion is in danger of becoming an inevitability for the club.

Between 2004 and 2011 an unprecedented run of success saw Palermo drop out of the top 10 in Serie A only once as they became a serious force in Italian football for the first time in half a century. But they have not returned to the league’s top half since and the fear is that, unlike in 2013, relegation may lead to a prolonged decline unless serious money is injected into the club.

Always a divisive figure, many fans recognise that the club’s relative success over a decade-and-a-half has been due to Zamparini’s investment. They may not approve of the methods, but the results have been close to unquestionable.

“The most frequent question I’ve been asked since I came here is always: ‘How long will you last,’” lamented two-time Palermo coach Giuseppe Sannino in 2013.

A rather brutal answer to this came from journalist Gabriele Romagnoli. “You have gone to dinner with Hannibal Lecter, you have married the clone of Elizabeth Taylor,” he wrote in La Repubblica. “You have signed a contract with Maurizio Zamparini.”

Reinvigorating and reinventing two clubs in his own image, in his own style and with his own rules, Zamparini will leave a void in Italian football which may not be possible to replace, certainly not as readily as a coach of Palermo.

Words by Colin Millar @Millar_Colin

Colin is a European football writer, focusing on the game in Spain and Italy. He has a passion for Andalusian football and runs the @FutbolAlAndalus Twitter account. He also owns and runs @NIFootballDaily, the one and only website to comprehensively cover the game in his native Northern Ireland.