As Italy’s fifth-largest city, it would be easy to assume that the Sicilian capital of Palermo is home to an iconic football club with a rich history on a par with similarly sized cities like Turin or Naples. In actuality, however, the Rosanero spent most of the first century since their founding languishing in the second and third tiers of the Italian football pyramid – unable to achieve any level of sustained success in the top-flight.
To all intents and purposes, they looked destined to continue along this trajectory, at least that was until a businessman from Undine, Maurizio Zamparini, acquired the club in 2002. The €15m deal that he struck with previous owner Franco Sensi would turn out to be one of the key moments in the history of the Sicilian football.
Sensi was a much-loved figure at the club: he saved from bankruptcy after taking over the reins in 2000. However, despite his departure being seen as a sad moment in some corners, it also set into motion a series of events that would finally bring the Sicilians back to the top table of Italian football for the first time in 30 years.
Unbeknownst to fans at the time, the early success Zamparini achieved would represent the catalyst for the greatest decade in the club’s history and, ultimately, the precursor for their spectacular fall from grace. Whilst no-one wanted the story to end how it did, it’s impossible to argue that his eccentric approach didn’t bring about the excitement that the Stadio Renzo Barbera was craving.
As soon as Zamparini took control, he was quick to lay down his plans for the future of the club – to establish themselves as a regular fixture in Serie A and compete in European competitions for the first time in the club’s history. Although this seems like an ambitious plan, much of the groundwork for the early success of the Zamparini era was actually laid by his predecessor whose stewardship led the club into Serie B and made a push for the top-flight viable.
Zamparini’s first act as president, ahead of the 2002-03 season, was an unorthodox one and is now known as the infamous “Pergine theft”. Before his purchase of Palermo, he was the owner of Venice-based AC Venezia who he had saved from bankruptcy in 1987. Despite his achievements in leading the club to Serie A, he sold the club in acrimonious circumstances due to his public spat with the city council following their refusal to approve his requests for permission to build a new stadium.
Upon his takeover at Palermo, Zamparini used a bus to transport 12 of Venezia’s players and their coach from their summer retreat at Pergine Valsugana to Longarone where Palermo’s pre-season training camp was already underway. These players were then signed by the club and thus marked the start of Zamparini’s reign.
The first season under their new management was marred by inconsistency on the pitch and the tumultuous relationship between Zamparini and the coaches that he appointed. When he first took charge, he chose to remove the coach who remained from the previous regime, Roberto Pruzzo, who was replaced by the poached Venezia coach, Ezio Glerean.
This decision proved to be unwise as Glerean, whose stock was high off the back of leading AS Cittadella to Serie B for the first time in their history, left the club after just one league game – a 4-2 loss to fellow promotion hopefuls Ancona Calcio – due to disagreements with the club’s hierarchy over their transfer strategy.
After Glerean’s departure, the club chose to appoint Daniele Arrigoni as their new coach in order to steady the ship and push them on towards their goal of promotion. Arrigoni’s tenure was certainly a mixed bag with the club unable to string together any meaningful run of victories.
This lack of form ultimately led to him being relieved of his duties in January 2003 with the club stuck outside of the play-off places. Speaking of his sacking in a 2016 interview, Arrigoni praised Zamparini’s understanding of football but cited his impulsive character as detrimental to his ability to run the club effectively.
With the club now on the hunt for their third manager of the season, they moved quickly to secure the signature of veteran coach, Nedo Sonetti, who already had five Serie A promotions under his belt. After assuming the hot seat at the Stadio Renzo Barbera, Sonetti was quickly able to do what his predecessor could not and, following a defeat in his first game in charge, took the team on an impressive 14 game unbeaten run during which they closed in on a promotion spot.
In the last round of fixtures, Palermo faced a tricky away tie with another team in the race for the top four, Lecce. The game was a winner takes all scenario – if Palermo won then they’d be promoted at the expense of their hosts. Unfortunately for the travelling fans, Palermo were unable to get over the line with the game finishing 3-0 to the home side.
After the final whistle, the stadium erupted into pandemonium with the Lecce fans invading the pitch to celebrate them achieving promotion at the first time of asking, leaving the dejected Palermo players in no doubt as to the magnitude of their failure.
Looking back on their unsuccessful promotion push from the previous season, it was easy to see that one of the main problems with their current squad was the lack of a talismanic figure who could score the goals needed to compete with the league’s top teams.
Their joint top goalscorers in the 02-03 season were Arturo Di Napoli and Filippo Maniero, both of whom joined the club as part of the “Pergine theft”. Their haul of eight goals apiece put them at 12th in the league’s top scorers list which, when compared to the strikers from the teams that finished above them, was a relatively poor return.
In order to fix this shortcoming with the squad, the summer of 2003 was a time of great change at the Sicilian club with the 13 players joining the club, before being balanced out by 10 departures. Also, despite getting the club within a hair’s breadth of achieving the target that Zamparini set for him, Sonetti was unceremoniously dumped as the club’s coach in favour of Empoli’s Silvio Baldini.
The separation between Palermo and their former manager was less than civil with Sonetti claiming, in a 2018 interview, that Zamparini had sacked him over the phone despite giving him assurances ahead of the match against Lecce that his job was safe irrespective of the result. It’s safe to assume there is no love lost between the pair with Sonetti saying that, even 15 years later, he hasn’t forgiven the Palermo owner for the “cowardly” way he handled the situation.
Of all the summer acquisitions the club made, the most significant was the 26-year-old striker Luca Toni who joined from Brescia for the relatively modest sum of €6m. Although Brescia’s club-record signing appeared to be a good fit for their ambitious project, to rest their promotion hopes on Toni’s shoulders for the coming season wasn’t entirely without risk.
He was joining the club off the back of a season where he was hampered by persistent injury which meant he scored just 2 goals in 16 Serie A games – considering his record of 13 in 28 during the previous season this decision may well have raised some eyebrows in the Sicilian capital.
Palermo started their campaign in a relatively inauspicious way with an underwhelming draw away to US Salernitana who had finished the previous season in 20th place, only to be saved from relegation due to the “Catania Case” that saw the league expanded to 24 teams. This result was then followed by a scoreless draw with newly-promoted US Avellino which heaped further pressure on the team given the lofty expectations of their fans.
Fortunately, a narrow 1-0 win at home to Cagliari in the third round of fixtures finally kickstarted a run of consistent results that saw the club climb to the third position in the league. This rich vein of form continued until the mid-point of December 2004 when the club found themselves in the second position, with Toni and fellow summer signing Eugenio Corini contributing many crucial goals.
They say that the path to success is never easy and this was certainly true for this Palermo team. Following a 2-1 win at home to UC AlbinoLeffe, the club’s momentum stalled and caused them to embark on a disastrous run where they took just 6 points from 6 games over the festive period. This situation came to head after the club’s 2-0 loss to US Salernitana when Baldini launched a scathing attack on Zamparini, telling journalists that the outspoken owner would do well to “shut up” instead of saying “stupid things”.
This public criticism was met with fury by Zamparini who immediately sacked him and appointed Francesco Guidolin who had recently resigned from Bologna after four successful seasons in Emilia-Romagna.
Initially, this managerial change did little to reverse their fortunes as the new boss was only able to get three points from his first four games, leaving the club in the fourth position and outside of the automatic promotion places. However, after this baptism of fire, Guidolin’s team soon hit their stride and went on a six-game winning run that saw the club regain the lost ground in the promotion race and cemented their position at the top of the table.
His successful run was compounded by a historic 5-0 victory at home to arch-rivals Catania which represented the greatest margin of victory ever recorded in the history of the derby di Sicilia.
This resurgence in the second half of the season almost exactly mirrored the job that Sonetti had done in the previous season. However, unlike the previous year, the race for promotion was settled before the final day with Palermo being mathematically assured of top-flight football for the next season with two games remaining. They finished as Serie B champions with 83 points, edging out Cagliari on goal difference – primarily thanks to Palermo’s impressive defensive record.
The star of the season was unquestionably Toni whose haul of 30 goals in 45 appearances immortalised him in the record books as he became the highest scorer in a single season that the club has ever seen. It was also the season during which, whilst having dinner with friends in a local restaurant, he developed his signature goal celebration of rotating his hand by his ear that he continued to do throughout the rest of his career.
So, after falling at the final hurdle in the previous season, Palermo had exorcised their demons and finally made Zamprini’s dream a reality by bringing the Rosanero to the top table of Italian football for the first time since 1973.
Whilst this was a monumental achievement for the club themselves, Palermo’s promotion also represented a historic moment for the region of Sicily as they would be joining ACR Messina in the top division – marking one of the few times that two Sicilian clubs have been in Serie A concurrently.
Despite the ultimately unfortunate end of Zamparini’s reign, the way he made the city dream in his first two seasons will forever be looked upon as one of the highlights of the club’s storied history. Even when the storm finally came, fans could always look back and smile about the unforgettable day when their team stepped off the pitch in the glorious summer sunshine as conquerors of everything that stood before them, all pretty in pink.