An American in B: The Sunny Side of Soccer

by Gary Drake | Feb 16, 2014

On Bob Dylan’s 1997 Grammy-Award winning album Time Out of Mind, one of the characters in a song is “looking for the sunny side of love.” Ha! Classic Dylan! Who’d think one would have to search for the upside of being in love! This lyric comes to mind as I tell a tale today of something positive in Italian soccer. Yes! I’m like the guy in the Dylan song, looking for the sunny side of Italian soccer! I keep looking, looking……

I got a glimpse of this on the third week of the second half of Palermo’s Serie B soccer season, which had gotten off to a lukewarm start. The first game back was a predictable clunker. Not only was it the first game after Serie B’s month-long winter break, but Palermo took (yet another) rainy field without half its starting team, due to players lost to injury or disqualifications. The result? I got to witness another 0-0 tie. As written before, there are exciting and boring 0-0 games. This one tops the list of boring ones! How boring? It was so boring that not only did the referee not add any time to the first-half, I swear he blew the whistle to finish the first half at the 43rd minute. Two minutes early! He, like me, was in immediate need of a double-espresso!

Things livened up the next week, a Monday night match among giants between our first place boys and second-place Empoli, of Tuscany fame. This was a much livelier match and from my biased point-of-view Palermo had the better of it, including hitting the crossbar on two occasions. But Palermo didn’t take the lead until the 21st minute of the second-half when Lafferty headed one in. And Lafferty’s goal might have stood if not for an unfortunate error in front of our net when Terzi whiffed on a clearance pass and Empoli had an easy goal. Final score 1-1, but this tie was much better than kissing your sister. It kept Palermo up two points on Empoli with Empoli having no more chances to play Palermo. Palermo was staking a claim to the top spot.

gary1That brings us to Palermo-Padova. First, let me digress. I’ve been a “follower” of Padova soccer for sometime now. It’s a result of my time spent in northern Italy, and my appreciation of what is Padova: the stomping grounds of Saint Anthony, a fantastic university, the Scrovegni Chapel, the $7.00 English Breakfast tea at Caffe Pedrocchi, Aperol spritzes and my acquaintance with a Padova native and hometown fan, Franco. He, his father and I, have been known to take in Serie B and Serie C games at the Stadio Euganeo (with mixed results). And, moreover, before Palermo’s recent fall to Serie B, I would pass my Saturday afternoons streaming Padova games. By the way, Padova also has an American connection. 1994 USA World Cup star and guitar player Alexi Lalas played for Padova when Padova jumped to Serie A!  So…I have a long connection to the team, and given that, once I planted my feet and my life on Sicilian soil and swore allegiance to pink jerseys, you can imagine my joy to discover that Palermo and Padova fans had a long-time quasi-official bond between them.

It’s true. On the Friday night before the Saturday afternoon game in Palermo instead of the usual segregationist policies in force, Palermo and Padova fans were peacefully mixing with each other in center city refreshment locations. The only violence was perhaps the crumbling walls of Piazza Garraffelo. Many of these fans did a scarf exchange, akin to how players exchange jerseys after a game. It was around this time that I reached out to a trusted source among Palermo fans to ask for a bit of history of just how this friendship came about. Here’s what I learned:

It shouldn’t be any surprise that when northerners vacation in Sicily, summer lovin’ can be a blast and can happen fast.  (Not just northerners, but Americans, too, of course, and in that vein I recommend the film “My Name is Tanino”, the Sicilian portion of which was filmed in my corner of the island). Not so different our sunny soccer story. The relationship grew out of a summer vacation here in the early 80s. Some fans of Padova (i biancoscudati) were on Sicilian holiday and by chance found themselves in a conversation with some members of the Palermo ultras, specifically the group called Commandos Aquile, and from that a friendship was born. Not too much later, November 20,1983, at the old stadium in Padova, the Appiani, Palermo and Padova played each other. It was a 0-0 game and with little action on the field there was time for the friendship between the opposing fans to renourish and solidify.

To be honest, there wasn’t much that could have torn the new friendship apart during its embryonic stage, since they didn’t play each other for the rest of the decade. After the ’83 campaign, our Palermo squad fell on hard times, dropping even to Serie C, and then going out of business! The team returned in Serie C2, about as low a level as a team can play and still be referred to as a professional team. What all this meant is that Palermo and Padova did not meet again until the 1991-’92 season. By then there was a new generation of ultras for both squads, but these new groups started where their ancestors left off: with a friendly relationship born of that early 80s summer encounter.

I’m told I must include that at the time a part of this rapport was also political in that in the early 90s both teams’ ultras were solidly aligned with the political right. This is a separate story—the alignment of fans and teams with political ideologies and movements. I can’t think of any parallel in American sports. Sure the old New York Yankees were called the Wall Street Yankees, both because of their highly-paid players, their business–like efficiency in winning, and their pinstripe on-field suits, but that’s as close as it came.

(pause)

That Yankees domination was mostly pre-60s. 75% of Yankee championships were won before 1965! In 1965 Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” was released and it changed everything: music, radio, politics, culture—everything. It turned the western world upside down. And, yes, even the half-century reign of the Yankees ended, the team and organization falling completely apart after that song was released.

(end pause)

But the political aspect at soccer stadiums has largely diminished, although has not been completely eradicated. But the phenomenon of ultras is as strong as ever. It’s not like the Bleacher Bums concept in America, these ultras have actual official relations with the team. They can demand meetings to hold the ownership accountable for the play of the team on the field, and in the stands can wreak havoc from racist chants, to abusing the privilege of being able to bring smoke bombs inside the stadium, to the rather predictable fan violence. Official statistics show 40 serious violent incidents this year in Italian stadiums,  compared to 43 for all of last season. This despite tons of security measures that make stadium-going hardly worth the trouble for most fans.

The latest stats on ultras, according to the Giornale di Sicila, show there are 41,000 fans that are ultras, spread out over 388 ultra organizations. Around 70 of these groups are “politicized,” composed of about 8500 members. 45 of these politicized groups are aligned with the political right, around 15 on the left, and a scattering of other minor parties. At press time I am the lone member of the Dylanists for Palermo Ultras, but am open to accepting new members. And, by the way, nothing I report on bad behavior applies to Palermo. We have the best fans and the safest stadium. And this isn’t me just being biased. Palermo team owner Zamparini backs me up, saying, “The Palermo fans and stadium are an example for all of Italy to follow.”

In any event, the “twinning” of Palermo and Padova, official or unofficial, continued no matter the prevailing political or even soccer winds. In 2002, for example when Palermo played a huge game up north in Vicenza, near Padova, Padova ultras showed up to support Palermo (while at the same time enjoying cheering against Vicenza). And Palermo fans showed up at a June, 2009 playoff game that promoted Padova back to Serie B.

gary2But the most cosmic meeting was May 29th, 1994. It was to be the last game ever at the Stadio Appiani in Padova, because Padova was Serie A-bound and would build a new stadium in something crazy like 90 days. (I call it The Stadium Alexi Lalas Built.) And, yes, in that final game at the Appiani, Padova played Palermo. A very nice touch. (See photo from padovacalcio.it of ticket for that game and also photo of commemorative scarf of this year’s games. Go visit the site, maybe you can still order one! And for an Italian-language summary of the fans friendship, check out:  http://www.padovagoal.it/2013/09/06/padova-e-palermo-fratelli-in-eterno-storia-di-un-gemellaggio/).

I think that ’94 tilt was the last time our two teams met until last September in Padova, Gary3where Palermo won 3-0. Which brings us to the recent game in Palermo. There was a bright sun in the sky and a smile on my face as the two most beautiful jerseys in Italian soccer took the field together, and fans of both teams wore scarves of both teams. Talk about putting the beautiful back into “The Beautiful Game”! (See photos of me before donning both jerseys and both scarves) Each team needed a win, but for vastly different reasons: Palermo to secure promotion; Padova to escape demotion. The game opened up energetically enough with Hernandez and Pisano missing seemingly easy chances. Palermo kept the pressure on,  but the first half ended 0-0. Despite chances for both teams in the second half, this game also might have also ended 0-0, but in the final fifteen minutes Palermo had its attack in overdrive and earned a Penalty Kick via an obvious handball with six minutes remaining. Hernandez coverted the PK easily to give Palermo a 1-0 victory. At the same time, nearby Trapani was tying Empoli, which left Palermo solidly in first place and solidly positioned to jump back to Serie A next year. Or was we say in American sports: First place is now Palermo’s to lose.

And the Iachini plan is definately to defend the territory of first place, rather than conquer new worlds. By that I mean, adopting a philosophy that defending is mightier than than the sword. Something like that. The week after Padova, Palermo went to play at Cesena, one of a pack of teams Palermo has to distance itself from in the standings to avoid getting into a playoff for promotion to Serie A. That’s something they can’t afford since the playoffs will be in June and some top Palermo players will be playing for their countries in the World Cup and, thus, of no use to Palermo. So defending the postition, first place, has validity and in some cases it’s all one can do anyway. At Cesena, our new Moraccan player Lazzaro took two yellow cards and was ejected from the game, meaning Palermo had to play a man short for an hour of the game. Iachini’s response was to go into lockdown, which is what Palermo did superbly. Sure, another 0-0 tie, but, hey, a week later and the team is still safely in first.

As for Padova, well,  in Palermo style, they now have their third coach of the year and will have to find a way to string some points together to remain in Serie B. Their fans, especially my friend Franco and his father, should know that with no more games against Palermo, I’ll have Padova’s back every weekend for the rest of the season. Or as Bob Dylan sings, “All I really wanna do is, baby, be friends with you.”

padovapalermo

 

 

 

 

 

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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