I had to be honest with Igor Budan. So when I interviewed the former Palermo player and now Palermo Team Manager, I came clean right away. “I’m going to miss Palermo playing in Serie B. It’s been fun watching them win every week.”
Budan laughed—a little—because there was truth in what I said: Palermo not only has clinched promotion to Serie A with five games remaining, it clinched outright the Serie B championship, and has a chance to finish as the greatest team in Serie B history. But despite the weekly rugged, cunning, competitive battles, there’s neither glory nor money in Serie B. And so it was in the joyous afterglow of Palermo’s clinching promotion to Serie A that I sat down with Budan at Bar Alba in Piazza di Valdesi in Mondello.
Budan is what I’d call in Italian a bravo ragazzo. To me he represents what is and can be good about Italian soccer, and I was as happy as he was when, after injuries forced a premature retirement from the field, he and Zamparini found a unique position for him with the club. As Team Manager he’s an intermediary between the executive office and the clubhouse. And judging from my time with him, he seems to have the perfect temperament for such an assignment. From day one of hearing about this job seemingly created for Budan, or invented by Budan, the assignment had me intrigued. A go-between seemed an especially important role on team owned by such a fiery personality as Zamparini (the George Steinbrenner of Italian soccer).
“I was fortunate that the President gave me this job,” he told me. “There are not that many jobs in soccer for ex-players—when you think about how many ex-players there are. And I’m proud of what I’ve done this year.” And proud he should be since I learned that not only did he run interference between the execs and players, Budan was also on point to deal with the Ultras. Now there’s a challenge. These fans, as I’ve written before, are not like anything Americans have seen. These fans are a part of the organization and consider themselves indispensible to a team’s success. Case in point: While getting the team home from Latina, near Rome, two weeks ago, after having quasi-clinched a tie for promotion, Budan had to deal with Ultra leaders’ insistence on knowing the team’s plans for returning to Palermo that night so they could organize their groups to be on hand, front and center, as a rousing welcoming committee.
That just seems like an additional headache in a long day’s work, but Budan also shared with me the interesting example of a Lafferty goal gone wrong. Lafferty, our Northern Ireland striking star, had befriended one way or another some of those belonging to the Ultras of the Curva Nord (north) inferiore, meaning the Ultras that sit on the lower-level deck at the northern end of the stadium, not to be confused with the Ultras of the Curva Nord superiore, meaning those who sit in the upper deck at the northern end. After a goal, Lafferty made a bulls-eye run to celebrate with the Curva Nord inferiore, which set off a flurry of calls to Budan from the Curva Nord superiore demanding an explanation on just why Lafferty ignored them! This just was not acceptable to the upper-deckers and they demanded a commitment that it would not happen again. The goal was obviously at the northern-end of the stadium so I guess the much-maligned Curva Sud (south) at the southern end had no say in this argument. Ah, soccer ultras! A reality show waiting to happen!! To be fair, the Ultras stand with their teams through thick and thin, no matter the level the team plays in. It was the Ultras who showed up every week this year during Palermo’s year in B, and it was the Ultras that provided the energy and verbal support at the home games in a stadium generally 75% empty.
That particular Lafferty goal was another thing I had to be honest with Budan about. I told him I had written a scathing column about Lafferty’s removal of his jersey after that goal. Quick review: it’s illegal to take your shirt off after scoring and doing so comes with an automatic yellow card. Players don’t seem to care and fans neither. But this goal came with Lafferty already possessing a yellow card, and this with the addition of this new yellow, he had had now eliminated himself from playing in the following week’s game, a game with other Palermo strikers on the injured list. (Two yellow ((warning)) cards equal one red card which equals expulsion.)
“He was fined, “ Budan assured me. Well, that was my question and I was glad to hear the players get fined for this. Budan then said something interesting. I expected him for some reason to be forgiving of goal-scorers volunteering for yellow cards, but he said he felt the rule was strangely-written. “If you want to stop players from removing their jerseys (likely revealing private sponsors), then make it a straight red card.” Bravo, ragazzo, thought I. He had good reason to say this, acknowledging that even goal-scorers don’t score a lot of goals, so getting a yellow-card every third game, for example, really isn’t a penalty because there’s no real consequence. I might add my own bit of self-promotion: I have not seen one Palermo player remove their shirt since my scathing article. Whether that’s because of what I wrote or a reading of the riot act in the Palermo clubhouse, I leave up to the reader.
Of course, Lafferty is only one player, but as a foreigner he represents the real challenge of Budan’s job, dealing with a team full of foreigners. Belotti may have no trouble acclimating to Palermo, but what about a Hernandez or a Lazaar? These players meet daily off-the-field living and communication challenges with the team and Budan is their go-to guy. And a good choice because he gets it. Budan is from Rijeka in Croatia. He crossed the border in 1999, having signed with Venice—then owned by Zamparini and captained by Iachini—and therefore knows what it’s like for foreigners to play in Italy, and this experience is a great help to Palermo players. He’s thus also well-trained in the idiosyncrasies of President Zamparini. “Now everything is ok because we’ve been winning. He doesn’t call much when we’re winning.” Zamp has been largely quiet since the autumn coaching change, and by the way, so has the anti-Zamp segment of fans. Winning seems to have a calming influence on over-passionate owners and impatient fans. But enjoy it now, I told Budan, because—obviously—losing games will return to the equation in Serie A.
I did ask Budan how he thought Palermo would have finished if Gattuso stayed at the helm, and while that’s something we’ll never know, he feared the worst might have happened. Budan didn’t say anything directly about Gattuso, but more about the reality of the situation that seemed spiraling out-of-control last September. “If a team should lose confidence in its coach,” he told me, “it can become impossible.” And now as I look back, the youngest roster in Serie B could have easily lost confidence in a coach with no prior coaching experience. One thing for sure, Franco Vasquez—who scored the goal heard ‘round the rosanero world Saturday in Novara that sent our boys to the Big Show (Serie A)—was ignored by Gattuso, and then rediscovered by Iachini. But that’s water under the bridge. Iachini did what he’s been known to do: take teams from B to A. And while we also can’t predict how Iachini will fare in Serie A, he has certainly merited the chance to coach Palermo at the highest level. Zamp says Iachini is the man for next year, and certainly Budan’s in that camp. “I hope he’s our coach in A,” he said without reservation.
For next year in Serie A, Budan told me they need to get reinforcements everywhere: for defense, midfield and in the attack, while at the same time saying it’s an imperative “not to lose the atmosphere we now have.” True that. This is a team that has done nothing but pick up points since Iachini took over the head coaching duties late last September. And they just got better and better, and seemed more invigorated and motivated with each new game. Even when it got to a point when a loss here and there wouldn’t have really hurt their chances, they dug in and won some more. I know their post-game on the field celebration in Novara Saturday will be forever sketched in my mind. So, yes, please, keep the will-to-win atmosphere together.
And for Budan in Serie A? He has a couple of years left on his contract as Team Manager and wants to make the most of it so that one day he can parlay it into a front-office career. I asked him if he had any desire to coach, and he said, “Not really. I don’t have the passion for that. I really prefer the organizational end.” I for one hope he realizes his goal and realizes it in Palermo. He’s good for the team and for the city.
As our conversation progressed, while some of the locals stopped by our table to greet “Signor Budan”, I asked what he thought about fans from Palermo and environs who say they cheer for Palermo…but…then make sure we know they are first and foremost loyal to Juventus, Inter or A.C. Milan. “I don’t understand that. I grew up in Rijeka and never cheered for any other team.” Which lead naturally to the question, “How do you like Croatia in the World Cup?” Budan: “It’s tough, but we have five or six very good players so maybe we can do something. We open with Brazil. Maybe it’s good to get them for the first game. We’ll see.”
I explained to Budan that now having met him and also having recently been to Sarajevo I might be cheering for a World Cup final between Croatia and Bosnia. He smiled broadly and had the perfect response, “And after the game we all celebrate together!” A great answer, given without a nanosecond of hesitation. Does Budan know that Palermo fans would never celebrate anything together with Catania fans? Ha! I’m not even sure Palermo fans of Curva Nord superiore would celebrate with Palermo fans of Curva Nord inferiore! But Budan, without a thought, called for Croatians and Bosnians to party together. That’s why it’s an absolute must that we keep Igor Budan in Italian soccer—and preferably in Palermo. The Beautiful Game in Italy, frequently far from beautiful, needs more people like this bravo ragazzo.
On behalf of myself and the management of Times of Sicily, I thank Budan for his time and the espresso, and congratulate him and his organization on returning to Serie A. My records show that this itself is a record-setting achievement. It’s the ninth-time Palermo has been promoted from B to A, maybe a dubious achievement but an achievement nonetheless.
In any event, as Carlo Brandaleone wrote in the Giornale di Sicilia, it’s time “to put this Serie B season in the archives.” True, and it automatically follows that it’s time to relegate this column, this 9-month adventure called “An American in B”, into the archives. A season that began with a Verona fan attacking me at 5am on Via Roma and ending with a coffee with Igor Budan in Mondello. To all of those readers who followed me on this long and winding road, all I can say in closing is this: don’t think it hasn’t been fun.