There is really only one word to describe US Citta di Palermo's season, and that word is chaos. The soccer team is in 17th place in Italiy's Serie A, a loss and a slot above relegation. They have a minus-23 goal differential, third-worst in the league, and are averaging less than a goal per game. These are troubling numbers on their own, but there is one statistic that is far more troubling—the Rosanero, as they're called, have changed managers eight different times this season.
Hard as it is to believe now, things began well enough for the Sicilian club. With Giuseppe Iachini, their manager since 2013, at the helm, Palermo took seven points in their first three games. Then the Rosanero lost six of their next eight and club president Maurizio Zamparini decided that he had seen enough. He gave Iachini one chance, a home match against a mediocre Chievo team, to save his job. Palermo delivered, winning 1-0 on a 71st minute header; the manager's position seemed secure for another week.
Ballardini, who had managed Palermo to a relatively successful season in 2008-2009 but was dismissed by Zamparini, began his tenure with a 1-1 draw against an out-of-form Lazio team. Palermo then lost three of their next four. The club's only success came in a 4-1 victory against fellow relegation-battlers Frosinone, which gave Ballardini enough cache with Zamparini to last through the holiday season. But only just.
After a January 10 victory against Verona, Palermo's captain, goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino, announced to the press that Ballardini was no longer speaking with his players and that he, as captain, had given the pregame, halftime and postgame team talks. The next day Zamparini announced that Guillermo Barros Schelotto would take over and things went, as you could guess, poorly.
While Schelotto, who played three seasons for the Columbus Crew of MLS, had coached in his native Argentina, he had yet to acquire the proper European coaching license; in order to coach at every level in Europe, coaches must have passed a test and acquire a "coaching badge" from UEFA. So Palermo named Fabio Vivani, one of Iachini assistants, as interim head coach while Schelotto sorted out his paperwork.
Vivani only lasted one game in the position, a 4-0 loss to Genoa, before he was replaced as interim manager by Palermo's academy coach, Giovanni Bosi, who momentarily turned things around to beat Udinese 4-1. Bosi's success was left unrewarded, though, and he was replaced by Giovanni Tedesco, a Palermo native and former player who said the appointment was "like scoring a goal in the derby."
Then, less than a month after he was hired, Schelotto was denied his coaching license by UEFA, and resigned his position with Palermo. With this, and because things weren't complicated enough already, Zamparini decided to name Bosi, whom he had already discarded as interim coach, as the team's head coach, while retaining Tedesco as an assistant. This arrangement lasted a total of one game.
On Valentine's Day, the Rosanero lost 3-1 to Torino and the next day Bosi was again removed and replaced by, I shit you not, Giuseppe Iachini.
Iachini's return was, unsurprisingly, less than ideal. Palermo lost 5-0 to title-challengers Roma before drawing 0-0 draw with Bologna. On March 6, they lost 3-1 to Inter Milan. On March 8, Zamparini said the team had a "defeatist and loser attitude" and that Iachini "should change tactics." The same day, the two met; afterwards, the coach expressed his desire to resign after a rumor surfaced that he would soon be fired. The man rumored to replace him was familiar. It was the same man who did last time: Davide Ballardini.
Later that evening, Zamparini went on a radio show and called his coach "an idiot who has gone mad." The next day, Iachini did not show up for practice and resigned shortly thereafter. Within hours, Walter Novellino, formerly manager of Napoli, Sampdoria, and a dozen others went on the radio expressed his interest in the job. He was hired immediately. As you read this, he is still on the job.
If you were keeping score, that is eight coaching changes. Given that there are still two months to go in the Serie A season, we could be looking at double digits by the time this is all over.
According to Mark Doidge, a sociologist at the University at Brighton and author of a book on Italian soccer culture, managerial instability is not uncommon in Italy. Palermo and Zamparini are just an extreme example. "This is a failure of the Italian ownership model," Doidge said, in which clubs are owned and controlled by a wealthy, politically-connected patron. "So you have one man, and it's always a man, who has complete control of the club."
One such man is Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister and bunga-bunga enthusiast, who has owned AC Milan as part of his media company since 1986. Despite his controversial track record—which is a nice way of saying underage prostitutes and bribery—Berlusconi has kept AC Milan relatively stable during his tenure. At a level below il patron, there is always a "director of football" who is responsible for the business and player recruitment; it's something akin to the American general manager position. And below the GM is the head coach, who is rarely given a say in the players on the roster. The coach's relative powerlessness makes coaches easy to dismiss and scapegoat.
This model, especially in ownership, goes back decades. To wit: Juventus has been owned by the same family that owns FIAT, the Agnelli family, a.k.a. The Kennedys of Italy, since 1923.
Fans have little to no say in how the club is run, said Doidge, who compared the Italian model to the one found in Britain, where supporters have a history of lobbying and challenging owners groups (albeit with varying degrees of success), and Germany, where fans must own "50-plus-one" percent of the club and every supporter has a say.
Like any absolute monarchy, for all the failures seen at clubs like Palermo—Doidge also cited Livorno, a lower league club where he did his PhD fieldwork, as another example of poor ownership—there are also success stories. Udinese, for instance, is run by the Pozzo family, who also control Watford FC in the English Premier League and Granada CF in the Spanish La Liga.
Since Gino Pozzo, the son of owner Giampaolo Pozzo, took over scouting and recruitment in the mid-1990's the club has out-performed expectations in a city of 31,000—the smallest in Serie A. The Pozzos have been successful in exporting their international scouting system to their other clubs and, after being promoted from the Championship last year, Watford have out-performed expectations in the Premier League.
But the absence of any democratic participation for fans in Italy has contributed to the growth of the Ultra movement, which is prone to confrontational tactics and worse. "Their only form of expression is banners, strikes, chants and violence," Doidge says. "In wider society, only those with fewer resources protest or riot; those with access to power do not."
In Novellino's first match in charge of Palmero, a 1-0 loss to title-challengers Napoli, the Stadio Renzo Barbero was empty save for pockets of flag-waving, flare-lighting fans.
Martina Lo Cascio, a Palermo fan and PhD student in the city, said this is the worst season her club has experienced in the top division. For a long time, Lo Cascio said, fans have had faith in Zamparini because he has given the club the possibility of playing in Serie A. It's safe to say that faith has wavered, though.
Lo Casico said that during the match against Napoli, groups of Ultras chanted "No dignity! No dignity!" toward Zamparini and that, while some Ultra groups are less inclined to criticize their club's president, there were protests against him at the stadium. "Everybody knows Zamparini is a mercenary," Lo Cascio said. He just also happens to be in charge.