The Virgin Mary, it seems, did not feel this to be a situation worthy of her intervention. “Delio Rossi will stay [as manager] only if the Madonna appears before me,” declared the Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini after his team’s 7-0 humiliation at the hands of Udinese. When she failed to do so he swiftly carried through with his threat, relieving the coach of his duties and replacing him with Serse Cosmi.
As Cosmi will discover soon enough, Zamparini’s most unreasonable demands are not reserved exclusively for figures from the New Testament. A self-proclaimed “mangiallenatori” (manager-eater), Zamparini is already onto his 14th boss in less than nine years in charge of Palermo and he sacked no less than 17 over an almost identical period at his previous club, Venezia. Twice he has dumped managers just one game into a new season. One of those – Giampiero Ventura in 1994-95 – came after his team had opened the new campaign with a win.
Few, then, can have been surprised to see Rossi depart after Palermo’s greatest-ever home defeat. The Rosanero had never before conceded seven goals on their own turf and the 11 goals they have given up in two home games (their previous fixture at Stadio Renzo Barbera ended in a 4-2 defeat to Fiorentina) add up to another unwanted record.
The tension between manager and owner had been building for some time in any case. As the team faltered in recent weeks Zamparini had repeatedly criticised his team’s defending, while accusing Rossi of becoming “presumptuous” and allowing praise from the media to go to his head. Rossi, in turn, did himself no favours in that department by claiming that “anyone” could teach a team to defend, and that it required far greater coaching nous to forge as impressive an attacking unit as he had.
But if that might sound arrogant then Rossi could also cite plenty of more positive records to back his claims. Palermo’s 65 points, 18 wins and 59 goals scored last season all represented all-time highs for the club in Serie A, and they finished just two points shy of a Champions League berth. This season he had kept the team at a similar level – until the last few weeks at least – despite the departures of the team’s best centre-back, Simon Kjaer, and the forward Edinson Cavani.
Those were offset in part by the arrival of new players such as Josip Ilicic, but a lack of continuity in itself can be a challenge and especially when you factor in the remaining players’ limited experience: Palermo have the youngest squad in Serie A. Josip Ilicic and Javier Pastore might be bright talents but at 23- and 21-years-old respectively, eventual dips in form were probably always inevitable – especially with so much expectation placed upon them.
Rossi’s achievements were recognised by the fans following the defeat to Udinese – with many staying to applaud their coach as he lingered after the final whistle – and by the local press at Rossi’s parting press conference, where he was greeted with a standing ovation. His words there – thanking everyone from the fans to the groundstaff and refusing to be drawn into criticism of Zamparini – only earned him further admiration. “It is not right to say everything now,” he insisted. “Perhaps at the end of the season.”
Zamparini, as you might expect of a man who once threatened to kill his players, then “cut off their testicles and eat them in my salad” if they didn’t stop “being shit”, was rather less discreet. “I know I’m not an easy president,” he acknowledged. “But I know something about football and, after watching the game again, I took stock of the errors by the manager, who did not listen to me and did not have the team under control any more.”
He is within his rights, of course, to make such a statement, having taken over Palermo when in Serie B and helped them become a fixture in Serie A and even to make more than one foray into Europe. Under Zamparini the team have also been able to sustain such competitiveness without unbalancing their books – their effective scouting allowing them to bring in young players cheaply who can then be sold on for profit.
And yet if Zamparini has done his part in ensuring Palermo reach this point then it may also be true that he is now holding them back. Constant change may be a viable tactic up to a point – keeping players and staff on their toes – but the owner’s stated goal is to see his team in the Champions League. Experience tells us that to reach that stage usually requires either significant investment or the sort of patience and continuity that can allow a team to develop. Zamparini offers his team neither.
“The departure of [the sporting director Walter] Sabatini was the beginning of the end,” reflected Rossi at his press conference, and while he was referring to his own tenure the words might also be applicable to Palermo’s present cycle. Sabatini, responsible for bringing in players such as Javier Pastore, Josip Ilicic and Abel Hernandéz, was by all accounts both excellent at his job and well-liked – even Zamparini said this week he regretted having accepted his resignation – but cited “ideological” differences with the owner as he quit.
Unfortunately for Palermo, the “ideology” he refers to at the club only still seems to be formed of nothing more than the personal whims of a man with unrealistic expectations and a very short fuse.