In 2002, a Friulian businessman named Maurizio Zamparini acquired US Palermo in Serie B. The Sicilian club was stuck in mid-table mediocrity of Italy’s second division but Zamparini’s ambition was to see them compete with the best in Italy. To push for promotion a 26-year-old and 6’5’’ tall striker named Luca Toni arrived in the club in the summer of 2003. A few months later an experienced coach, Francesco Guidolin was hired and a left-back named Fabio Grosso joined from Perugia as Palermo aimed for Serie A. Aided by former Juventus and Napoli midfielder Eugenio Corini, Toni would hit heights rarely seen in the quagmire of Serie B football. He scored a massive 30 goals in 45 matches, Corini following with 12 goals of his own.
Palermo had failed in 2002/03 season to gain promotion on the last day after a 3-0 loss to Lecce but their impressive form in 2003/04 season ensured there were no last-minute heart-breaks. Gianfranco Zola inspired Cagliari finished level on points with Palermo on top of the Serie B table but it was the team in pink who were crowned Cadetti champions.
I am truly sorry for the people of Palermo, as they must find the strength to begin again with all we’ve experienced in 10 years. We will build a stronger Palermo. When you win, you’re treated like a hero, while a defeat turns you into a loser – Maurizio Zamparini
How ironic was it that two men who helped Palermo to one of their greatest seasons almost a decade back, would drive the final two nails in their Serie A coffin? Guidolin’s Udinese inflicted a 1-0 home defeat in last round while on Sunday, Luca Toni scored the only goal as Palermo was mathematically relegated. In truth, the decay has been slowly spreading. However, Palermo had their good time before it became depressing.
Toni and Palermo didn’t slow down one bit in the club’s first season in top flight in three decades. It took the sixth round to inflict the first defeat on the Rosanero as they held Inter, Fiorentina and Juventus to draws in three consecutive rounds. They would eventually finish in an impressive 6th spot and get an entry into UEFA Cup at first asking. Toni followed up his 30 goals in Serie B with 20 in the top division. Serie A teams had already gotten a taste of their raucous home support as Renzo Barbera turned into a fortress. Palermo lost just thrice at home that season and their strength at home would become a permanent feature for rest of noughties. Fabio Capello’s Juventus lost just two matches on the road that season – one of them was a 1-0 defeat at the Barbera thanks to a 12th minute strike from fan-favorite Francesco Brienza.
They finished eighth in regular Serie A season the next year but Palermo found glory in another stage. Four players – Fabio Grosso, Andrea Barzagli, Simone Barone and Cristian Zaccardo were part of Marcelo Lippi’s squad that won Italy’s 4th World Cup with Grosso playing an especially crucial role. For a club like Palermo’s stature, this was a glorious record and proof of the shrewd transfer policy. They would have plenty to cheer in following seasons with generally good league positions – 6th (2006/07), 11th (2007/08), 8th (2008/09), 5th (2009/10) as they almost made it to Champions League and 8th (2010/11). There was also a silver medal in Coppa Italia and a league title for their Primavera squeezed in between. Last season, they finished 16th, the worst finish since promotion. It was becoming increasingly clear that the incessant chaos due to their president’s whim was finally catching up.
In the crazy world of Serie A filled with oddball presidents, Zamparini is an institution on his own. In 24 years of owning football clubs, “mad Zampa” has fired more than 50 coaches. Since Delio Rossi was sacked in 2011 Palermo had an incredible 10 managerial changes in 2 years. But even the usual chaos was paled by the occurrences of this season. Palermo started the season with Giuseppe Sannino before replacing him with Giampiero Gasperini in September. Gasperini was replaced by Albero Malesani who lasted for a month before being replaced by, his predecessor, Gasperini. And of course, to complete the cycle of la-la Land, Gasperini was sacked, for the second time in one season, by the same club to be replaced by Sanino, the man who started the season with Palermo. Heady. Unsurprisingly, at one point, Palermo had more managerial changes than wins on the table.
Palermo took 4 months to return to winning ways but they did launch a late and desperate battle to stave off relegation. Josip Ilicic was once again looking like the player he was tipped to be as Palermo won three out of five matches between end of March and April, losing none. This run included wins over Inter and Roma and a draw against Catania in the high-pressure Sicilian derby. However, a loss at Juventus stadium, which sealed the Old Lady’s title, was followed by a 2-3 reversal against Udinese and the 1-0 loss to Fiorentina on Sunday sealed their fate.
It will be intriguing to see how Palermo adjust to life in Serie B after such a long time. They still have a reasonably big squad and some players like Ilicic are bound to leave to ease financial pressure. Zamparini’s plans of Palermo building a new stadium are also likely to be shelved till they get promoted again. It is vital for the club that Zamparini doesn’t lose interest in a rebuilding project like the Garrone family did with Sampdoria, who quickly descended from Champions League to mid-table in Serie B. One thing is for sure, Serie A fans are bound to miss Palermo. Be it the Barbera atmosphere or their giant-killing ability or the regular madness of Zamparini.
Along with Palermo, Siena joined Pescara to complete the trio of teams to get relegated from Serie A. Winter loanee Innocent Emeghara almost proved to be inspirational enough to drag Siena out of relegation zone but in the end the points penalty from Calcioscomesse proved to be a mountain too high to be scaled. Siena have been very much a yo-yo club in past one decade and they will return to Serie B once again.
Palermo’s local rivals Catania leap-frogged Inter to move to eighth spot after a 1-0 win over Pescara. Pescara’s president played the role of Captain Obvious saying that their transfer strategy let them down. Young goal-keeper Mattia Perin put out a stellar performance but it may be one of the last games he plays for the Delfini with clubs circling for his signature.
Juventus stadium bore witness to jubilant scenes as Antonio Conte led the team to their second consecutive Scudetto medal ceremony. Juve’s bid of breaking a club record of points tally however suffered a decisive blow as they could only manage a 1-1 draw against a combative Cagliari side. This draw also ended their incredible nine-match winning streak which took the title race beyond contention at a crucial juncture. There are talks that Conte wants significant reinforcements in some of the departments of his team to do well in Europe and he is supposed to sit with the management with his demands in coming days.
Udinese’s splendid run of form in past two months may well have sealed European football for them next season. Evergreen Toto di Natale struck twice as the Bianconeri turned around a 0-1 score against Atalanta, picking up a club record of 7th consecutive victory. It was a good weekend for the Pozzo family as Watford moved to the final of promotion play-offs in England with a dramatic injury time winner. If Watford get promoted and Granada stave off relegation once again then the Pozzos will have the unique feat of having a club in three of the top four leagues in Europe. Udinese’s Europa League place can only be threatened by Lazio on current form. The Biancocelesti completed a hat-trick of victories by curving out a 2-0 win over Sampdoria.
The most awaited fixture of this round proved to be a damp affair with the number of red cards exceeding the number of goals as AC Milan traveled to Rome to take on Roma. Francesco Totti and Sulley Muntari were sent off as another match saw racist chants towards Mario Balotelli. The stalemate coupled with Fiorentina’s win means that the battle for third place goes to the last day with both the teams playing already relegated teams in away games. The initiative is with AC Milan and it may require a mini-miracle for Montella’s men to play in Champions League next season.