An American in B: “3-5-2,” cried Pythagoras! (Palermo Soccer at Midseason)

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA   DATELINE: CROTONE, in CALABRIA, For those wondering why I would spend words on Crotone, in Calabria, for Times of Sicily, I remind you a) I’m reporting on our Palermo squad’s Serie B game there and, b) Crotone was part of Magna Grecia (Greater Greece), that fascinating historical period when there were reportedly more Greeks living in Sicily than in Greece. And Magna Grecia included southern Italy as well. Included Crotone. Check out the photo I took at dawn at Capo Colonna in Crotone of the last Doric column left standing of the Temple dedicated to that sacred and opulent goddess Hera Licinia. And get this: in its day, it was one of 48 columns (that’s a huge temple) before it was destroyed first by an earthquake, then by a bishop who needed material for a new palace.  And sports fans, Crotone was a major medal taker in Olympic Games in the late 500s BC. Ever hear of Milo the Olympic Wrestling Champion? And not just Milo. Crotone had the most Olympic winners of all Greek cities. That why they say, “the last of the Crotoniates is the first of the Greeks!”

It was also here, in Crotone, then Krotone, where Pythagoras opened his famous school to teach mathematics and maybe even vegetarianism. Some credit him with being the first western vegetarian, as he stated the earth provides enough to eat without the need for bloodshed. That was 700 B.C. folks. He should see what we do with animals today.  But more than anything was the Pythagoras pre-Socrates claim that one can learn everything about life by simply crunching the numbers. Do the math, he basically said in the 500s B.C.

Which makes me think he’d love the never-ending soccer discussions about what formation to use. For our Palermo team and Coach Iachini, it’s a game-by-game discussion. 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 4-4-2, 3-4-1-2, 3-4-2-1. Are you following?  To me a lot of this discussion is just so much modern theoretics. A formation is largely based on what players you have and which are available. By and large, Palermo has been using a 3-5-2 that often during play becomes a 5-3-2 because the midfield wings are often actual defensemen. I’m reminded of a Palermo coach from days gone by, maybe in Serie C days, who instructed his players to use this formation: “Make sure any player near you doesn’t score.”

In any event, I had marked my calendar the day the schedule was released and had written in this column that I would definitely go see Palermo play at Crotone. But who knew then it would be such a big match. Palermo arrived a struggling first-place team (if that’s possible) and Crotone, for their part, was challenging for one of the top spots to get promoted to Serie A.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Crotone daily newspaper, that only comes out three times a week, called it the most-anticipated game of the season for both players and fans. And the fans turned out. A full house at Stadio Ezio Scida, a fantastic 10,000-seat stadium in the style of old English stadiums. For me, it was very special: the first game I would attend as a literal card-carrying Palermo fan, my first time ever sitting in the standard Italian soccer caged-in, police-ringed visitor’s section.  (See photos). At least 80 other Palermo fans made it to the game to cheer on the visitors, including area transplanted Palermitani and also including a bus full from Palermo that left at 6am, crossing half of Sicily and all of Calabria, arriving not long before kickoff.

What’s amazing about the visitor’s section, completely cordoned off and separated the from hometown fans, is the undeterred effort the fans make to get in the face of each other. One such Palermo fan went to the trouble to not only buy, but to find, a huge inflatable banana so he could make obscene gestures clearly visible across the stadium! Other than that, they go to the trouble of yelling at each other the whole game, no matter the distance. Any American who says soccer is boring is missing the big picture. Americans make this judgment based on watching the games. But how could any sport be boring that includes constant verbal exchanges between fans inside the stands and often physical attacks outside the stadium—in parking lots, bars, trains and rest stops. There’s also the orchestrated racist chanting. And don’t forget there’s rampant match-fixing, championships overruled and trophies recalled, and even politicians buying teams just to improve their vote count. Believe me, the actual game is a minor part of what is soccer!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo be fair, little of this applies to Palermo fans, the best fans in the world. Maybe it doesn’t apply to Crotone fans either, but there was a recent incident of Crotone fans chasing rival Reggina fans 100 miles on the autostrada. So I was on my best behavior.

I don’t think there were any noteworthy cases of fan-violence for this game. But I did leave town a day before the next day the daily paper would be printed, so I could have missed something. I should note that after the game, visiting fans are sequestered inside the stadium until the entire city zone of the stadium is cleared of hometown fans. That’s the law: let the hometown fans get home before releasing the visiting fans. We waited inside the stadium for about 45 minutes after the game, inside locked exit gates protected by shield-holding policemen. Most fans passed the time calmly chatting about everyday things. Funny, though, once the gates had been opened and the fans were permitted to leave, the fans instantly started shouting obscenities at Crotone fans—even though not one of them was in sight!

The war of loudly-yelled and colorful words exchanged by Crotone and Palermo fans was probably both due to just doing what one does at a soccer game combined with a natural southern-Italy rivalry between Sicilians and Calabrians that still exists today despite of, or because of, young Vito Corleone’s declaration that Sicilians and Calabrians  “are practically paisan.” Of course, Vito’s statement also applied to Palermo’s game in Reggio di Calabria back in mid-November when I last wrote—after the Derby of Derbys game versus Trapani.

And now here are the game-by-game comments on games since my last report on the Derby. (Click on View All Posts for prior reports).

REGGINA—Palermo won its 3rd game in a row in the rain on a Saturday night in Reggio di Calabria, three miles off the coast of Sicily across the Strait of Messina. If you ever get a chance to take the train from Italy to Sicily that actually boards a boat to carry it across the strait, don’t miss out. The views of my lovely Sicily are breathtaking. But do it soon—Silvio Berlusconi has been promising for a couple of decades to build a bridge over the strait, so consider yourselves warned.

Game-wise, Barreto scored very early and Milanovic very late for a 2-0 win against Reggina. a team barely out of last place. Palermo struggled and seemed aimless, but it should be mentioned that attackers Belotti and Hernandez were off playing for national teams and attacker Dybala was still injured from the Trapani game. As reported succinctly in the Giornale di Sicilia, “It’s not easy playing soccer without attackers.”

LATINA—Back home on an early rainy Sunday afternoon, Palermo hosted Latina, a team that hasn’t been around that long. In fact, the actual town was only invented in 1932! But that newness was reflected in innovation on the pitch where they did what I am calling a reverse-offsides trap. They scored on two quasi-trick plays that left the Palermo defense flat-footed, a defense that hadn’t given up a goal in over four games—400 minutes to be exact. Hernandez, back from his obligations to his national team, leveraged the defense and scored on a nice header to open the game after missing an easier chance a few minutes earlier. But Latina’s response of two goals was enough to give the visitors a 2-1 win and hand Palermo its first loss in the Iachini Era.

NOVARA—Do you believe in miracles? On Sant’Andrea’s feast day, Andrea Belotti feasted! The young kid we, and everyone else, have been talking about, started his own path to sainthood in Palermo on a rainy Saturday afternoon. He scored both goals in the home team’s 2-1 win—-two dramatic goals. The first one came in extra time of a 0-0 first half: a cannon shot off his right foot that crashed against the rear netting in a flash and was a shot in the arm for a Palermo team that seemed to be slipping since its Derby win 3 weeks prior. 1-0, Palermo. Novara though didn’t let it get to them and tied the game up only 7 minutes into the second half. For some 40 minutes after that it seemed as Palermo’s two consecutive games at home that we hoped would pick up 6 points in the standings might end up picking up only one. That all changed in extra time of the second half when Belotti sent home a header to win the game at the buzzer, 2-1. An electric moment in Stadio Barbera, a instant life-time memory for me, and a new Sant’Andrea was celebrated by the few but roaring hometown fans. Plus, the win got Palermo into second place all alone, up to this point their highest placing this season, and just in time to challenge the then-leader.

VIRTUS LANCIANO—What goes around comes around. Last week’s last-minute joy turned into this week’s last-minute heartbreak, In this highly-anticipated match-up in the Abruzzo region, Lanciano, the surprise darling of Serie B who remained atop the standings almost from day one, hosted a Palermo ripe to show them who was the real boss. Again, Belotti. Another header. At 4 minutes of the second-half his goal had Palermo in real-time first place. And for 43 minutes they held on to that 1-0 lead while Lanciano attacked and attacked. Then, just as Palermo shocked Novara at the buzzer the week before, now Palermo received the shock. Three minutes into extra time of the second half, Lanciano rocked the sold-out crowd when their attacker and captain Manuel Turchi, who’s also husband of easy-on-the-eyes club president Valentina Maio, found the net in the game’s last breath, setting off one of the greatest post-goal-walk-off-celebrations in the modern era. (To be clear, the game ended in a 1-1 tie, but this tie was a win for Lanciano and a loss for Palermo, who would have to wait another week for a shot to reach the top spot. I’d call Lanciano’s finish the Miracle of Lanciano, but I see that’s already taken:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle_of_Lanciano

CITTADELLA—Sunshine in Palermo! On a December day that reminded people why they like Sicilian weather, Palermo hosted Cittadella, a team representing the walled-in town of the same name from the Province of Padua. Palermo dominated in this game. Maybe their best game of the year. Weird one, though: within a 3 minute period of the first half a Palermo defenseman had scored two goals for the rosaneri. Yes, Ezequiel Munoz, the rock of the Palermo defense, headed in two goals, both off free kick plays from the left side, and Palermo was again, in real time, in first place. Cittadella got some hope handed to them when Palermo netted an auto-goal at the end of the first half, making the game interesting at 2-1, but Palermo’s defense dug in and Abel Hernandez came off the bench to score the clincher with a pretty move at the 38th minute of the second half. And, thus, for the first time this season, after 18 games, pre-season heavy-favorite Palermo was now alone in first place. That it happened in front of at most 8,000 fans, a now normal crowd for these Serie B tilts in Palermo, is for another discussion.

Don’t get me wrong, most Serie B fans would die for 8,000 fans. In fact at this midway point of the season the average Serie B crowd is 5,233. And Palermo in fact is virtually tied for first in attendance with an average of 10, 246. It’s just in a Serie A and World Cup approved stadium capable of holding 40,000 fans……

CARPI—Now in first, Palermo was ready to get separation from other teams to solidify their position and assure their promotion to Serie A.  The setting? A road game in Carpi—aka  “pearl of the Renaissance”—located in Emilia-Romagna, against a team that last year played in Serie C. Sure seemed the right recipe for Palermo’s continued success. It didn’t work out that way. I must admit I did not see the first half of this game due to my obligatory presence at the Times of Sicily annual Christmas luncheon, this year in the historic Capo section of Palermo. (Great calamari, both fried and roasted). Apparently, I didn’t miss much as Palermo threw in a clunker and went into the dressing room tied 0-0, just as I found a betting parlor by Piazza Marina to watch the 2nd half. (There are now more betting parlors than churches in Sicily. There may even be more betting parlors in Palermo than kiosks selling spleen sandwiches). Palermo didn’t play much better in the 2nd half, but it was worth watching as the entire team melted down in-game and owner Zamparini went ballistic post-game. Here’s what happened: little Carpi took the lead 1-0 at the 26th minute of the second-half on a Penalty Kick. The Penalty Kick was granted to Carpi based on referee Candussio’s laser-like eyes seeing the ball touch the hand of Palermo defensemen Drapela. I’m not arguing that the handball should not have been called, but Drapela certainly argued and was kicked out of the game. Then Coach Iachini went on to the field to get clarification on both the penalty and the expulsion and got kicked out of the game himself. Then team manager Francoforte lost his head seeing his Coach kicked out and he got himself kicked out as well.  Later Milanovic, Baretto and Munoz got admonishments, meaning Palermo had little talent remaining to tie up this game in the last 15 minutes, and would be without a host of players for the next week’s home game against Ternana. Suddenly, the hope of getting separation at the top of the standings slipped into hopes of just finding a way to win a game with a diminished roster. So Palermo lost to Carpi, and now were back in 2nd place.

Zamparini was livid. He wondered aloud, well, no, he forcefully asserted aloud that referee Candussio should never have been allowed to referee a Palermo game because Candussio’s father had once worked, and then had been laid-off, by one of Zamparini’s Italian companies. Certainly, said Zamparini, the ref had it in for Zamparini and Palermo! I’m not making this stuff up, folks; this is the state of Italian soccer!!!!

TERNANA—After a sun-drenched Christmas Day in Sicily, the day after came up rainy. The day after being San Stefano day, which more by being virtue of the day after Christmas is an equal national holiday in Italy. Serie B only last year took to playing games on this day, as per the English Premier League’s Boxing Day tradition. Last year it indeed spiked attendance in Serie B stadiums, but the rain here certainly kept attendance down. Palermo, minus the players mentioned above as well as the still-injured Dybala, played just well enough to garner a goal and make it stand. Morganella scored at the 12th minute, his first goal in a Palermo uniform, and first goal at a level of soccer in which players get paychecks. And yes, three of Palermo’s last four goals were scored by defensemen. And Samir Ujkani, whose been filling in as goalie for Sorrentino, played his best game of the year. Not that he’s really played a bad game, but it’s the first game he’s been tested and he came through big time. And, this coupled with Empoli settling for a tie with Cittadella re-put Palermo back in first place, nicely setting up the big match in…

CROTONE—A more sun-splashed stadium you could not find. So sun-splashed in fact, I can hardly bear witness to the Palermo goal electrifying the 80 of us in the cordoned-off visitors section barely 4 minutes into the game—the goal scored at the far end of the field, with the sun directly in my eyes. It was Able Hernandez who headed in a deflection of a corner kick—meaning the Greek gods in Magna Grecia may have been aligned in Palermo’s favor today. I had a much better view of Lafferty’s goal, who, showing great lane integrity, did what he does best in the 2nd half with a rifle shot from the right, just outside the box that rippled the back of the net—right in front of the visitor’s section, where the jubilation was raucous, even if half of it was directed more across the way at Crotone fans that in homage to the players who made the play

Palermo had taken control of their destiny—a sporting phrase that may not make any sense since destiny is by definition “the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future.” The Ancient Greeks called it moirai or “The Fates.” So if destiny is pre-destined, one can’t control it. But I better stop there because one can’t talk about destiny without bringing up free will and I think my editor might find free will outside the scope of this column. My personal favorite pre-socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, said “Character is Destiny,” and maybe that’s more fitting for a discourse on this Palermo team. After holding on in Crotone for a 2-1 win, Palermo, despite their ups and downs have thus finished the first-half of this Serie B season in first place.  King of the hill, the top of the heap, A#1.

No matter the slow start to the season, the coaching change, the injuries, the often seemingly uninspired and mediocre play, not to mention the worldwide refereeing conspiracy against them, Palermo finds themselves in the top spot. Meaning: with an assumption that this team, who should be playing better, will play better in the second half of the season, it’s hard to see how they won’t be promoted to Serie A by season’s end, if not well before. But, as we soccer fans say, “the ball is round.”

My mid-year nominees for the best at each position are probably no different than any other Palermo observer:

Goalie—Sorrentino

Defense—Munoz

Midfield—Bolzoni

Attacker—Belotti

Head Coach—Iachini

(Yes, for Palermo we also have to vote for the best Palermo head coach of the year!)

Overall, defense is the reason Palermo has rallied themselves into first place, especially since “The Wall” defense was organized by Coach Iachini. Palermo is the second best defense in B, allowing 16 goals in its 21 games.

The second half of the season kicks off the week-end of January 25 with Palermo hosting Modena, followed the next weekend with Palermo going to Empoli, which at this moment would be a game between first and second-place teams.

Happy 2014 everyone!

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Gary Drake
Gary Drake is American freelance writer who lives year-round in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. Gary has lived in several big American cites and spent time in Milan before settling in Sicily. He is the author of "Silent Bell" "Digital Lives" "Daily News of Sicily" and "Conversation With A Settler". Gary's pastimes include, among many things, Palermo soccer, baseball, Dylan, Sicilian history, philosophy, and discussing the meaning of life with the wise sages that gather at the coffee shops of Castellammare del golfo.

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