What should have been one of the brightest nights in my glorious history as a sports fan turned out to be the darkest. Empoli 2, Palermo 1, does not tell the story. That’s my job and here goes.
I arrived for the Serie B home opener at Stadio Barbera very excited about being an official season-ticket holder in Curva Nord, dead in the middle of where the Palermo Ultras sit. Not somewhere watching the Ultras, not sitting in a section next to the Ultras, but with the Ultras, experiencing the Ultras. So excited was I that after a quick pane con le panelle sandwich outside the stadium, I took my seat a good two hours before kick-off. There was nothing happening on the field, but I got to stare at Mount Pellegrino, watch the Ultras put up their banners, and listen to the speakers blaring Springsteen singing about baseball.
Once the game started I was in the thick of the Ultras standing and shouting for all they were worth. All around me they stayed on their feet the whole game doing their cheers and their songs, urging the team on. It was all what I had hoped it would be, although to be honest I felt a little like what Clive Davis felt like at the Monterey Pop Festival. I didn’t know the words to the songs and cheers, or the very specific arm and hand motions. I think all this is my responsibility to learn and I need to ask various Ultra groups if the lyrics are printed anywhere. That way I could practice at home. (I think I’m kidding about that last part.)
Even so, I’m not sure I am talented enough to sing songs and concentrate on a sporting event at the same time. I guess the ability to do both is what earns one the title of Ultra. However, me standing in the middle of all this energy did keep me focused on every play on the field, and even if my aging legs did weary a bit, I was totally involved in the game. Fortunately, the Ultras do sit down during half-time to update their Facebook pages.
Again, it was all what I hoped it would be—except for the game itself. After last week’s disappointment at Modena, the fans were ready to forgive all if the team turned it on at home for a win. In commenting on the lackluster beginning in Modena, I pointed out the rosa and the nero. Remember, Palermo’s colors, pink and black, reflect both the joys (pink) and the sadness (black) of both the team and the city it represents. On Saturday night, soccer-wise, there was no pink. It was all black.
I’m betting it was one of the worse days in Palermo soccer history. Of course, I really am not in a position to say that since my records show that Palermo is the second oldest team in Italian soccer, second only to Genoa, Palermo having been formed in 1898 as the Anglo Panormitan Football Club. So I’m sure there’s been some bad performances along the way, but Saturday night’s lowlights on the field in combination with the dissipated hope of the team’s fans created an unbearable situation. The weirdest thing of all to watch is how Palermo is malfunctioning in exactly the same manner as last year—but with completely different players! They give up terrible goals late in the game and barely generate genuine shots on offense. New players, same bad taste!
There are many explanations for the dismal outing. Again, the team is almost entirely brand new, including the coach, so it does take time to learn to play together, and injuries have added to this issue by reducing the talent on the field and by having players play out of position. Rooke coach Gattuso, (maybe ex-coach by the time you read this) after using one formation in practice all week, came out with a different formation at game time. Generally not a good sign. And, one of the players, named Struna, was so new to the team that not even the Ultras knew who he was. In fact, not only was it Struna’s first night in a Palermo uniform, but probably his first night ever in Sicily! Oh, did I mention Palermo played a man down for over an hour? Yes, a new player named Ngoyi was called for two fouls—and got carded for both and thus thrown out of the game. And to add insult to insult, even the one pink moment was clouded in black: Palermo’s lone goal was scored by Abel Hernandez—who is on record as not wanting to play for Palermo. A complete disaster. Tutto nero!
The Ultras all know this and probably would be more forgiving had it not been coming at a time when Palermo was continuing a downward freefall. In May, 2010 the team came within a game of playing in the prestigious European Champions League, but it’s been downhill ever since and the fans no longer want hope, they want wins.
Saturday night, they not only did not get a win, they got an embarrassing showing, the game ending with the fans booing the team off the field. Literally. I’m not talking about booing as they were playing. I mean literally booing the team off the field. I’m using the word literally literally. There’s a soccer tradition where the home team at the end of the game, win or lose, approaches the Ultras and applauds them in thanks for their vocal support during the game. Last night, the players approached but didn’t applaud. They weren’t given the chance. They were booed off the field. I say booing but please note booing in Italy is represented by a shrill whistling sound, and the message in the whistling—the booing—was clear: get off the field, we don’t want to see you anymore! The fans’ understandable frustration combined with the players’ look of exhaustion and maybe even unhappiness at being booed only added to my own feelings of despair.
I didn’t boo or whistle and I’m not sure the players deserved to be booed. I, myself, reserve booing only for lack of effort. Like when a baseball player hits a fly ball and decides to jog, not run, to first. Booo! It’s just that there’s so much wrong with this team that I’m not sure I would even be able to discern through the mess I’m watching if the players were trying or not. So booing them seemed to miss the mark. And it seemed to me the team, when looking at the fans booing them, were taking it to heart—and they did stand there and take it. Now don’t get me wrong, I rarely am sympathetic with the feelings of athletes: they are well-compensated for what they do and I’m pretty sure none of these players spent their post-game Saturday night in Palermo worrying about my feelings.
And I was feeling bad. There are few, but all notable, occasions in my sports fan life that I have left a stadium feeling so empty. I have said for decades that only when your team loses do you truly know if you are fan. It’s easy to be happy when your team wins, easy to have a good time, but when you feel sad and/or empty if your team loses, if you can’t have a good time because your team lost, only then you do you know for sure you are a fan and attached to the team. Saturday night I left the stadium a broken sports fan, but a true Palermo soccer fan. I tried to get over my post-game-blues by walking the length of Via della Liberta’ to the port area where I once again took a ringside seat for the all-night people-watching show on the open patio at Bar Bristol, where my otherwise pleasant glass of amaro—Florio Amaro to be exact—only served to enhance the bitter taste of the game that remained with me.
As for the ownership debate I no longer have any solutions. I say to those who cry for Zamperini to leave, fine, maybe like in any business, he has done all the good he can do. He brought the squad from Serie B to Serie A and kept them there for nine years, longer than any other owner has. Now it’s true, sometimes even business giants who do great things for a business reach a point where it’s time to move on, but before you send Zamp packing I still would like to know who you are nominating to be the new owner??? Someone who cares as much as Zamp?, who said he did not sleep a wink Saturday night worrying about what he saw on the field? (By the way, Zamp, next time you can’t get to sleep, come hang with me at Bar Bristol.)
The main thing now in this dark moment is that neither the team nor the fans can afford to let this frustration last. The season just started. 40 games remain. Of course in soccer, even the greatest teams in history with a healthy first-place standing refer to every loss as a “crisis,” therefore, by logical extension, the Palermo situation is worse than a crisis and someone needs to figure out how to right this ship. One thing’s for sure, the automatic re-promotion to Serie A Palermo fans hoped for clearly is not going to be automatic. It’s going to be a long haul. And I’m ready for it. Keep in mind, Palermo is the Italian soccer leader in number of times it has been promoted from Serie B to Serie A—eight times—and I know we—yes, we!—can break our own record and get promoted to A again!