This time three years ago, Palermo had just finished fifth in Serie A, sealing their place in the Europa League. Boasting one of the most talented young sides in Italy, the rosanero played with elegance and flair, and a fluidity which saw them establish themselves as one of the most attractive sides in all of Europe. They were standing on the brink of greatness.
Three years later, the Palermo dream lies in tatters. Instead of setting off on their summer break having guaranteed European football, the Palermo squad is preparing for a season in the second tier; relegated from the top division after nine years. One of the few players remaining from 2010 -- captain and Palermo legend Fabrizio Miccoli -- is preparing to wave a final farewell after six years at the Renzo Barbera, signalling the end of an era.
Sadly, it will go down as an era of unfulfilled promise. A side that could have gone on to become one of Italy's top teams has plummeted into Serie B, with the dreams of Champions League football never materializing. The ironic thing is the man responsible for Palermo's downfall is the same man they have to thank for giving them a chance at realizing those dreams in the first place. President Maurizio Zamparini gave Palermo everything, only to let it all slip away.
Zamparini bought the rosanero in 2004, when they were floundering in Serie B. It only took a couple of seasons before they won promotion to Serie A for the first time in 31 years, and their initial achievements in the top division were remarkable. They qualified for Europe in their very first season back, before repeating the feat twice over. But, evidence of Zamparini's notorious impatience -- which would eventually come back to haunt Palermo -- was already there.
By the time Delio Rossi first pitched up at the Renzo Barbera in Nov. 2009, there had already been 15 coaching changes from when Zamparini had taken charge. Coaches were flying in and out of Sicily at an incredible rate, with Walter Zenga replaced by Rossi after only achieving 12th place 13 rounds into the 2009-10 season. Few expected Rossi to be anything but just another victim of Zamparini's trigger-happy temperament. It seemed barely worth him unpacking his bags.
But, amazingly, Rossi lasted. A rapid upturn in results saw Palermo suddenly in the hunt for Champions League qualification, with AC Milan, Fiorentina and Juventus all defeated in an incredible run of form. A top-four finish proved a bridge too far, though fifth place meant they once again qualified for Europe, and had done so with a sparkling young team.
They were spearheaded by the ever-exciting Miccoli, as well as a young, inconsistent, but unquestionably talented striker by the name of Edinson Cavani, and Javier Pastore -- a lanky inexperienced playmaker fresh from Argentina. Sadly Cavani would leave on loan to Napoli at the end of the season, though filling the void in Palermo's attacking trident would be Josip Iličić -- a young Slovenian midfielder who too would quickly make a name for himself.
Rossi inverted his 4-3-1-2 to a 4-3-2-1 to compensate for Cavani's departure, as Palermo geared up for what was expected to be another run at the Champions League. Bolstered by further signings, they got off to a good start to the season, with Juventus and Roma both felled early on. The attacking trio tore through their opposition at will, joyously buzzing and swooping around baffled defenders. However, consistency was lacking, and in February a three-game losing streak culminated in nine-man Palermo being torn apart 7-0 at home by Udinese.
Clearly, Palermo wasn't seven goals worse than Udinese. It was simply a terrible day at the office. But, obviously, Zamparini wouldn't stand for it. "The team has been completely destroyed. He ruined my Palermo. Rossi has destroyed this squad," he fumed, conveniently forgetting that before he had taken charge they were nothing more than mid-table fodder. But no one does overreaction quite like Zamparini. In an interview immediately after the game, he gave Rossi a one percent chance of keeping his position. It quickly faded to nil.
Serse Cosmi replaced Rossi, whose tenure ended after 15 months. Unsurprisingly, results didn't improve. A couple of months later Cosmi was sacked and Rossi hauled back in, but the damage had already been done; the glorious relationship between Rossi and Palermo irreparable. Rossi guided the rosanero to seventh place and a Coppa Italia final, but announced at the end of the season he wouldn't be returning. Zamparini had gone one step too far -- and not for the first time. It proved to be a fatal error.
The one coach Zamparini had been able to cooperate with, and one who had been able to blend and nurture his young players into an outstanding attacking unit (whilst managing to resist physically assaulting them, too) was gone. In April, the jewel of the team, Pastore, announced that he'd stay as long as Rossi did, but with the coach departing, El Flaco left, and the squad started to crumble. It was the start of the end.
Pastore left for Paris Saint-Germain, with the young Italian international goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in tow. Industrious midfielder Antonio Nocerino -- who had been a key part of the midfield under Rossi -- was snapped up by AC Milan. As if the inadequate transfer replacements weren't enough to destabilize the squad, the rosanero were plunged into chaos by Zamparini again after he announced that new coach Stefano Pioli had been fired before ever taking charge of a Serie A match.
Youth coach Devis Mangia lasted just over three months before being given the sack, shortly after sporting director Sean Sogliano decided he couldn't stand the Zamparini madness any longer and resigned. Journeyman coach Bortolo Mutti was put in charge for the rest of the season, eventually steering the team to an unconvincing 16th place. The aim ahead of the 2012-13 season was no longer a European finish, but merely surviving relegation.
Once again, they were hampered by players departing. Italian international full-back pairing Mattia Cassani and Federico Balzaretti left, alongside the gladiatorial defensive midfielder Giulio Migliaccio and center-back Matías Silvestre -- all of whom had been regular first team players. Zamparini hired Giorgio Perinetti as sporting director to deal with the funds raised, while ex-Siena boss Giuseppe Sannino was placed in charge. "If I get rid of [Sannino] early, then I deserve the sack instead," said the president.
Of course, he did. One point from the opening three games saw Sannino fired, and replaced by Gian Piero Gasperini. Even more ridiculous was the arrival of former Catania sporting director Pietro Lo Monaco, effectively replacing Perinetti, who resigned a few days later. It was total chaos. But, even accounting for Zamparini's ludicrous decision-making, there was still time to turn things around.
They continued to struggle for results, though performances seemed to be gradually improving. By the start of January, the rosanero were a point inside the relegation zone, with Lo Monaco setting to work enacting a transfer strategy, one which was supposed to help Gasperini keep Palermo in Serie A. Whether he remained a Catania fan from his days at the Massimino or otherwise, his signings turned out to look rather more like sabotage. Salvatore Aronica, Alejandro Faurlín and Mauro Boselli are just three of the unhelpful -- or plain harmful -- arrivals.
After results failed to improve, Gasperini was sacked and replaced in February by Alberto Malesani, only to be reinstated 15 days and three matches later, while Lo Monaco was replaced by the returning Perinetti. It was in an incredible game of Palermo musical chairs in the dugout and boardroom, only inflicting yet more damage on an already unstable team. When things still didn't get any better a couple of weeks later -- with Palermo five points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table -- Zamparini gave the coaching wheel one final spin.
Giuseppe Sannino -- who hadn't been seen since round three -- was brought back to do the impossible. He couldn't. A 1-0 defeat to Fiorentina on the penultimate game of the season meant they were relegated. The ever more desperate actions of a man clinging to the faint hope of survival had only served to push them further from safety, backfiring just as the vast majority of Zamparini sackings had in the past. He could get away with constant change on the bench when Palermo had strong squads, though when star players started to leave, his decisions were exposed.
There's no doubt the president wants the best for Palermo, but his simple impatience and impulsiveness have ensured a man who should now be being celebrated as a Palermo hero is derided as a villain; the architect of their great fall from Europe to Serie B. In spite of himself and his constant firings, Zamparini remains eternally optimistic, recently announcing that the equally hotheaded Rino Gattuso would be coaching the club in Serie B next season.
Perhaps Palermo and Zamparini need someone like Gattuso to give them a shake-up, though there's all too great a chance of things going horribly wrong. "When will I sack [Gattuso]? He's going to bring me a fish tomorrow and cook it for me. He's got a shop in Gallarate near my office and of course I'll sign the papers for his dismissal before I employ him," Zamparini joked. Only he probably wasn't joking.