WORDS: LORENZO VICINI
With their shirts of pink and black, representing the sweet and the bitter sides of life, US Citta di Palermo are a club with a unique identity. While they represent the biggest city in Sicily and the fifth-largest in Italy, the Rosanero are still viewed as underdogs, but they just love upsetting the odds…
For many, the road to Rosanero fandom is one that has historical, familial roots. No matter where in the world you are located, being Sicilian has always been a badge of honor to those who are fortunate enough to have such a link.
Given the constant emigration from Sicily over the last century due to economic and social hardships, many displaced Sicilians have always yearned for ways to connect back with the motherland. Perhaps no better representation for these emigrants was the beloved football club that in many ways sums up the enigma of a Sicilian. Palermo’s triumphant return to Serie A provided a focal point for Sicilians all over the globe to connect back to their roots.
For others, the road to Rosanero has been a more recent development due to the club’s achievements over the last near-decade in Serie A. When businessman Maurizio Zamparini purchased the club back in 2002, the Rosanero were in Serie B. The lower tiers of calcio were a familiar place for Palermo, constantly jumping back and forth between Serie B and Serie C since the early 70s. Zamparini’s goal was to bring Palermo back to top flight football and to be recognized globally as a successful team befitting of Italy’s fifth largest city. The club’s promotion to Serie A after a first place finish in the Serie B 2003-04 season not only brought unbridled celebration in the streets of Palermo but also a larger audience and fan base over the coming years. Yet, this is a story that begins much earlier than the glorious promotion year.
There is something innate and ingrained about the team’s colors of pink and black. When the club decided to change its colors from red and blue, it came about after a suggestion from one of the club’s founding members, Giuseppe Airoldi, that pink and black would be more appropriate. After all, according to Airoldi, the pink and black colors were the perfect metaphor “of the sweet and the bitter” results that swung back and forth “like a Swiss clock”. That switch, made all the way back in 1907, proved to be the perfect representation of Palermo and its supporters. Over the years, Palermo has seen a multitude of bitter and sweet – and sometimes even bittersweet – moments. From relegations and restructuring to promotions and cup finals, the Rosanero fan has practically lived the entire gamut of emotions and experiences.
But what does it mean to support Palermo? What does it feel like to be a part of this close-knit family? Well, for starters, backing this club will not earn you any labels like “glory hunter” or “bandwagon jumper”. Throughout its 112-year history, Palermo does not have much in the form of a trophy cabinet. Sure, there are some trophies and silverware, such as honors for winning Serie B, several for Serie C & C1/C2 titles, and a handful of first place titles in the pre-modern era from the early 20th century; but the big titles and trophies are nowhere to be found. The Rosanero have agonizingly finished as runners-up in the Coppa Italia on three separate occasions (most recently in the 2010/11 season). The club’s highest placed finish in Serie A was only fifth and even when they achieved such a feat, it was a tremendously bittersweet honor because they were one point away from fourth place and an historic spot in the Champions League. There were even occasions when Palermo was at the top of the Serie A table, but in typical fashion, it would not last.
And yet for all the struggles and the agony and the missed opportunities, there is something idyllic about having such a great love for this Palermo. It’s about living for a team that isn’t a perennial powerhouse and doesn’t have endless coffers with which to spend on whomever the team desires. What Rosanero fans have been able to witness is Palermo reach the Promised Land that is Serie A after long-suffering years of purgatory in the lower levels of calcio. They have seen players arise out of the ashes, young kids who emerge into the spotlight and veterans who others thought were cast-offs and has-beens silence all their doubters.
Luca Toni was one of those cast-offs. At 26 years old in 2003, he made his way to Palermo, even dropping down to Serie B to join the team in hopes of revitalizing his up-and-down career. It was at Palermo where Toni would explode. In his first year, Toni was unstoppable – a vital member of the team that won promotion. He could not stop scoring, finding the back of the net 30 times in 45 matches that year. He became an idol of the Rosanero faithful and followed up his tremendous season by scoring 20 goals in 35 matches in Palermo’s debut season in Serie A. His prowess aided Palermo to a sixth place finish and led to a place on the Italian national team. Because of Palermo, Luca Toni became a star. He went on to continue scoring goals for Fiorentina, Italy and Bayern Munich. Many outside of Palermo would not even realize where Toni made his mark, but the Rosanero fans will never forget.
In Sicily, the people are fickle. The difference between lamentation and exultation may be only a matter of minutes. In the winter of 2007, Zamparini announced the signing of an unknown 19 year old by the name of Edinson Cavani. Palermo fans, spoiled by the successes of the past few years, scoffed at the arrival of this no-name. Only two months later, Cavani would make his debut in front of the home fans at the Renzo Barbera against Fiorentina. The Viola were up 1-0 when Cavani was subbed on for Brienza ten minutes into the second half. Just over 15 minutes later, Cavani would change the public’s opinion on his purchase with a phenomenal volley from the right-hand corner of the box. It signaled the beginning of a beautiful relationship that would last for four seasons. Cavani embodied the Sicilian spirit. He was a tireless worker, always running and selflessly giving his all for the team. He had his frustrating moments. His young age and inexperience led to some not-so-prolific chances in front of goal but it served as a time of growth and maturity for Cavani. Today, he is a superstar, one of the best strikers in the world. Today’s fan knows Edinson Cavani as Napoli’s shining star with his exploits occurring on a much bigger stage and witnessed by more than just the humble population in Palermo. For these fans, he is linked to Napoli; yet, for those in Sicily, he will always be remembered for his coming-of-age at Palermo.
The list could go on with similar stories of players who forged their careers and made their name while at Palermo. From Fabrizio Miccoli to Eugenio Corini, from Daniele Di Donato to Roberto Biffi, from Javier Pastore to Salvatore Sirigu – these are but a few of the men who wore with pride the Palermo crest and became a part of the fabric that creates the pink and the black.
While others are drawn to a particular team because of trophy cabinets, high-profile names or even popularity, that’s not what draws us to Palermo. The love for the Rosanero is almost intrinsic. To pinpoint the “it” that makes one love this club from Sicily is impossible. It goes beyond numbers, statistics and simply “history”. It makes it even sweeter when others, who mock such a club for not having a history paved in gold and glory, suddenly see this small, provincial side take down their team of superstars. Over the years, Palermo has produced some unforgettable moments that make it all worthwhile. From Ciccio Brienza’s volleyed goal to beat Juventus in the club’s first year back in Serie A, to Cassani’s last gasp screamer from 35 yards out against a fully outstretched Buffon to Miccoli’s recurring magic against Milan or Pastore’s heroics versus bitter rivals Catania. And who could forget the incredible sea of pink and black 40,000 strong in Rome for the Coppa Italia final in 2011?
Much like Sicily, Palermo has been rebuilt time and again. The club is currently undergoing yet another rebuilding period. There are very few holdovers left from the high-flying, entertaining side only a couple seasons ago and with a half-season remaining, Palermo is in danger of relegation. It’s a situation that may be unfamiliar to recent supporters of the pink and black, but those native to the land and who have long supported the team know that it’s just another hurdle to overcome. After all, the love for Palermo isn’t tied to its titles or lack thereof. It isn’t tied to its results or even the players who have come and gone. No, Palermo is loved because its colors of rosa and nero seem to run through our veins and anything short of following them through thick and thin would be a disservice. The club’s coffers may be poor in numbers but the team and its fans are rich in passion. Beloved ex-coach Delio Rossi summed it up best for those who love the Rosanero when he said, “Coaches come and go, players come and go, presidents come and go, but Palermo remains.”