Palermo & Zamparini Walk Hand In Hand

Much like the city they call home, Palermo is a club for which solidity and constancy will continue. That's down to sackaholic owner Maurizio Zamparini, as Daniel Storey explains...

Last Updated: 15/04/13 at 16:18 Post Comment

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Initially, there seems something wonderfully illogical about US Citta di Palermo playing in pink shirts. This is a tough city on a tough island, where testosterone seems to be one of the principle currencies, where masculinity and bravado seem to be staples of male life.

However, one only needs to spend a short while in Sicily's bustling capital to realise that such thoughts aren't really worth entertaining because Palermo, like its team's choice of shirt colour, is a mad tumbling testament to illogicality, almost an urban tribute to Jackson Pollock. It has both golden beaches and lush green hills, beautiful buildings but areas of deep squalor and deprivation, old men idly relaxing in piazzas in the sun whilst young men fly past on scooters. Such a tribute to contradiction is played out in front of traffic surely unsurpassed anywhere else in Europe, described beautifully by the New York Times as 'freneticism frozen in place'.

One of the sheer delights of Italian football is the almost innate tendency that football clubs have of mirroring the towns in which they reside. Perhaps it reflects the stereotypical view of the people as being demonstrative and emotional, but Italy's cities have much more of an obvious character than our own, and the football teams are simply an extension of this - they share the same breath.

Nowhere in Serie A is this more evident than at Palermo's Stadio Renzo Barbero, two kilometres to the north of the city and home to a football club that's fortunes have exactly matched that of its locality. Perhaps it simply had no choice.

During the 1990s, Sicily (and Palermo in particular) suffered for the Mafioso culture that had bled into the very ethos of the city. After the confirmed convictions of leading members of the Cosa Nostra in 1992 and a further crackdown in 1993, the Mafia took revenge. A campaign of terrorism was instigated through a series of bombings on the mainland, and high-profile judges and politicians were killed as violence escalated across the region.

At the same time, Citta di Palermo were also facing one of the lowest points in their history. In 1997/8, the season after being relegated to Serie C1, the club finished third bottom of the third tier and were forced into a relegation playoff against Battipagliese (based in a town with just 50,000 inhabitants), which they lost 1-0 on aggregate. Palermo were only saved from the fourth tier by the collapse of Ischia Isolaverde. They were given another chance in Serie C1, but the club was on its knees.

Thereafter, the city of Palermo fought back against the Coda Nostra wave under the stewardship of Mayor Leoluca Orlando. Ambitious renovation projects were instigated through sizeable European Union grants, and the stunning opera house was finally restored after more than 20 years of false promises and missed deadlines. Similarly - of course - the football club also entered a new era. Bought by then Roma chairman Franco Sensini, Palermo finally won promotion to Serie B in 2002, winning the title on the last day. That summer, they were sold to businessman (and former Venezia owner) Maurizio Zamparini for €15million.

Despite his reputation, there was no doubting Zamparini's ambition, and after missing out on promotion in his first season in charge, Palermo won the Serie B title in his second, with significant investment on the playing squad the catalyst for success. During their promotion season, Luca Toni scored thirty goals while Fabio Grosso, Simone Pepe and Andrea Gasbarroni all played their part (all would be future Italian internationals).

After promotion, Palermo's rise (and Zamparini's ambition) did not stop there. Between joining Serie A in 2004 and the beginning of last season, the club had never finished below 11th in the league and only once finished outside the top eight, a remarkable achievement given their lowly position just seven years previously. They missed out the Coppa Italia in 2011, losing out to Inter in the final.

Zamparini's ownership style has gained him both great notoriety and an appropriate nickname - he is il mangiallenatori, or the manager-eater. The impatience of the owner knows no boundaries, backed up by some alarming statistics: 18 sackings at Palermo between his takeover and beginning of 2011/12. Given that Zamparini sacked Ezio Glerean after the first league match of his tenure, nothing should surprise. But whilst foreign onlookers could raise an eyebrow and tut, with the club remaining in the top half of Serie A few Palermo fans offered any criticism of their owner. After all, these were nothing more than crazy methods in a crazy town.

Unfortunately, once again city has matched club. In July 2012 Italian media outlets named Palermo as a city struggling to maintain its own finances, and Prime Minister Mario Monti revealed that Sicily's regeneration had been achieved through unsustainable financial borrowing and that the autonomous area could default on its debt.

At the same time at the North of the city, Zamparini's reign was beginning to unravel, and his impatience reached an almost unacceptable (and certainly unprecedented level). Palermo finished 16th in Serie A last season, but the headline news was the sacking of three different managers, including Delio Rossi being re-appointed and then sacked again within 90 days.

This season, it has been more ridiculous still. Giuseppe Sannino started the campaign in the fiery-hot seat, but was sacked in August to be replaced by Gian Piero Gasperini. Gasperini was turfed out in February for Alberto Malesani, but returned to his job an amazing 19 days later. This time he had just 15 days to get settled, when Zamparini sacked him and brought in Sannino. A season has come full circle, and understandably the team has suffered. They sit second from bottom of the table, two points from safety. With each of their last six games against teams currently in the top half, things look rather bleak. Don't rule out another sacking, of course.

Even when Zamparini's passion and ambition is considered his methods have become laughable. Sannino has commented that tenants in the city are averse to letting out properties on year-long contracts to new appointments, and when you consider that the owner has sacked 51 managers in 24 years as a club owner things get beyond comical.

Unfortunately, things are becoming completely untenable. Zamparini blames refereeing errors, individual player mistakes and tactical decisions from coaches for his side's difficulties, but refuses to even acknowledge that the uncertainty his mindset creates. He has invested a huge amount in the club in taking them to Serie A, but is threatening to undermine all this progress.

Sometimes, no matter how much you do to try and shake a reputation, certain things just stick. And while many clubs crave for stability, at Palermo you simply get the feeling that the inevitability of uncertainty is part of the sheer fabric at the club, because it is synoymous also with the city they call home. Whilst Maurizio Zamparini remains at the helm, one thing is for sure - this is a club for which solidity and constancy will continue to be a far-fetched reality.

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