The great absentee at last month’s Serie A fixture unveiling did not go unnoticed. In a packed football association headquarters in Milan, no representatives of Sicilian football teams were to be seen.
For the first time in the last 13-years, the map of Italy’s major football division ends within the peninsula. Yet teams from southern Italy, although in small numbers, will be represented in Serie A this year by title contenders Napoli, minnows Crotone – who miraculously escaped relegation last season – and first-timers Benevento.
Palermo said farewell to Serie A following a tumultuous campaign. The rosanero had four different managers but managed only six victories all season, two of which came when the team’s destiny was already sealed.
And so, despite a victory in the last game of the season that relegated Empoli and thus helped Crotone’s salvation, the curtain went down on Sicily’s most successful team, raising doubts about the future of the island’s most popular sport.
As recently as 11-years ago football in Sicily was at its peak. In the 2005-2006 season, Palermo achieved its best result ever, finishing in fifth position and missing out on a Champions League spot by just two points. Messina’s relegation was overturned due to the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, which saw Juventus descending to Serie B in place of the peloritani. And, at the end of May in the same year, Catania, missing from the top division since 1984, earned promotion to complete a historic hat-trick of Sicilian teams playing in Serie A in 2006-2007. Contradictory by its nature, extreme and often unlike the rest of Italy, Sicily lived its football golden age when the whole calcio movement suffered its worse period, tormented by corruption scandals and illegal betting frauds.
Those were the days of the six local Sicilian derbies in Serie A, Palermo’s trio of Cristian Zaccardo, Andrea Barzagli and Fabio Grosso winning the 2006 World Cup and Messina inaugurating a new modern stadium. It did not last long. Bad investments, lack of fortune and a sort of perverse auto destructive will of its owners have since brought Sicilian teams back to anonymity.
One of Europe’s best scouting teams, Palermo, learnt how to live dangerously after it was bought by Venetian entrepreneur Maurizio Zamparini. His volcanic character and ability to sack managers elevated him to the role of a living myth in Italy and beyond.
Nonetheless since 2002, the-76 year-old Zamparini, with a past as a non-professional footballer as well as aspiring politician, contributed to establishing Palermo as a real force, bringing some of the world’s finest footballers to La Favorita stadium.
From current PSG stars Edison Cavani and Javier Pastore, to Paulo Dybala, Matteo Darmian and Luca Toni, Palermo discovered, and subsequently sold dozens of talents profitably. With time, supporters became accustomed to Palermo being able to upset the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter, but also realised quickly the club could not hold on to its best players for long.
“Discover them early, sell them high”, was the formula that guaranteed Palermo its status for over a decade. Last season, however, the gamble did not pay off, as losing Franco Vazquez to Sevilla alongside the expertise of Gilardino, Sorrrentino and Maresca proved to be too much.
Bad results generated a sense of apathy, even from the most loyal supporters who sensed the end of an era. Maurizio Zamparini decided to sell the club to a British-American fundrepresented by TV anchorman Paul Baccaglini.
In March last year, Baccaglini came to Palermo announcing a new and promising project but in less than a few weeks the bluff was revealed. Zamparini deemed “ludicrous” the economic offer made by the fund and decided that the best course of action was to maintain ownership, although unwillingly.
When the rosanero kick off their season at home against Spezia on Saturday 26 August they will aim to make a rapid return to Serie A. However, they risk playing in front of a scarcely filled stadium. In fact, the club has recorded its lowest ever demand for season tickets so far: just one thousand sold compared to the over six thousand in the same period last year.
Meanwhile, Palermo’s fierce Island rivals, Catania, have even been forced out of their own ground this summer. The rossoazzurri, languishing in Serie C (or Lega Pro), had to face neighbouring rival Sicula Leonzio, from Lentini, just a few kilometres south east of mount Etna, in Coppa Italia on Sunday 6 August.
However, the club had already booked their stadium Angelo Massimino for an AC Milan friendly against Betis Seville three days later.
Wary that two games in less than 72 hours would damage the already poor quality grass pitch, Catania decided the cup game had to be postponed by a week. Ubi maior, minor cessat: where there is the major, the minor is neglected.
Catania’s decision to avoid upsetting its prestigious guests did not go down well with the local ultras, who a few seasons ago would have packed the stadium to see their team taking on, and sometimes even beating, football’s aristocracy.
Once nicknamed the small albiceleste due to the huge presence of Argentinean players, the club which was once the first European stop in Diego Simeone’s winning career, has been stuck in a no-man’s-land for two years.
Following back-to-back relegations into the third division, Catania was also punished with point deductions for two consecutive seasons due to its president, Antonino Pulvirenti, engaging in match fixing, administrative fraud and delayed payments to players.
Gradually the status of the club, who, back in the day managed to beat Jose Mourinho’s Champions League winners Inter 3-1, declined and nowadays the rossazzurri can’t find a better opposition for their pre-season tests than amateur local teams from inner Sicily.
Other Sicilian teams, who have regularly featured in Serie C in the last decade, have proven hard opposition for Catania, who only a few years ago they would have beaten comfortably. The man charged with bringing the etnei back to Serie B is Cristiano Lucarelli, the former Livorno striker, who has never made a secret of his extreme left wing sympathies.
Certainly, he is not the most natural match for Catania’s hardcore right wing supporters who, so far, have given the former Messina manager the benefit of the doubt. Time and results will tell, they say.
Messina, on the other hand, are indeed running out of time to fill their subscription for the next season. The club’s owner, Franco Proto, who in the 1990s was in charge of Catania’s second team Atletico, has recently and not for the first time been declared insolvent, bringing the club down with him.
Messina’s recent history is full of judiciary appeals, paperwork and legal deadlines, so much so that is almost impossible to remember the sporting successes. The club has been reformed and renamed four times in the last 20 years following financial failures and bad investments.
Despite even having had a relegation overturned by a tribunal in 2006, the peloritani have plummeted quickly, leaving Sicily’s most densely populated province without a proper team to support.
The San Filippo stadium, inaugurated in 2004, now lies empty on the city’s outskirts. Too big to fill and too expensive to finance, the stadium will probably not be used this year when the team will play in Serie D (Italy’s fourth and highest non-professional division). Instead, the giallorossiwill go back to the decrepit Celeste ground, their ancient home, surrounded by housing estates, that saw them climbing the divisions in the early 2000s.
Celeste was often considered dangerous for supporters. During a Serie C play-off final in 2001 between Messina and Catania, a home supporter was killed by a homemade bomb thrown from the away stands. A crime whose perpetrators have never been brought to justice.
This year most of Sicily’s derbies will be played in Serie C, where Trapani, relegated last year but still awaiting a judge’s decision regarding its fate, might join Siracusa, Akragas, Sicula Leonzio and indeed Catania.
It will feel like the ’90s, when Sicilian football was merely a regional affair and hardly featured in national papers such as La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same” are the concluding words of Tommasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard (Il Gattopardo). When it comes to Sicily, they never go out of fashion.
Words by Daniele Fisichella: @dfisi
Italian journalist who has lived in the UK since 2009. Has worked for various media outlets including ‘Gazzetta dello Sport’, talkSPORT and currently as correspondent for MondoFutbol and Radio Popolare. Probably one of the few sicilians you can find playing Sunday League football.