Englishman Joseph Whitaker: an important figure in Palermo's birth.
Football in Palermo, as in Genoa, has English roots, even if the Aquile’s founding fathers’ legacy isn’t as storied. Palermo’s early days are hazy and there’s a lot of debate on the particulars of their foundation, but the football club’s first stages are thought to have appeared in 1898. English sailors docked into the city’s harbour first brought football to Palermo, and the Aquile’s original registration papers are addressed to an Englishman, Joseph Whitaker.
Despite this, the club’s foundation date is usually accepted as November 1st, 1990. Ignazio Majo Pagano, a colleague of Whitaker, founded the Anglo Palermoritan Athletic and Football Club with a squad of three Englishman and nine Palermo natives. They played their first match on December 30th of that year, losing 5-0 to an unknown English amateur team.
Whitaker remained prominent throughout the club’s formative years. The team trained on his own football pitch, and they competed in the “Whitaker Challenge Cup” from 1905, winning the competition once. The club’s name changed to the more memorable Palermo Foot Ball Club in 1907, and they competed in the Lipton Challenge Cup from 1909 to 1914.
Set-up by famous tea mogul Sir Thomas Lipton, the original competition only comprised of two times, Palermo and Naples FBC, but was later expanded to include Internazionale Napoli and Messina. Palermo won the competition in 1910, 1912 and 1913, memorably thrashing Naples FBC 6-0 in 1912.
Palermoritan football was suspended after the last Lipton Challenge Cup for the First World War, but resumed again in 1918. A committee of university students refounded the Palermo club in 1919 as Unione Sportiva Palermo, and the club started competing in the national football league’s southern division. They were forced to withdraw for financial reasons in 1927, but merged with Vigor Palermo to become Palermo Football Club in 1928.
The new side were readmitted into the Italian league system that year, and competed in the Prima Divisione (the equivalent to today’s Lega Pro Prima Divisione/Serie C1). Palermo were promoted to Serie B by 1930, and it only took them a further two seasons to reach Serie A. Striker Carlo Radice was a key man in Serie B, and scored 27 of Palermo’s 50 goals during their promotion season.
Palermo adapted well to life in the top tier, notching an impressive 5-1 over Atalanta in their first game and finishing as high as seventh in 1934-35. It wasn’t to last, however, and the Aquile’s four-year stint in Serie A ended with relegation the following season.
Joining fellow Sicilian sides Messina and Catania in the second tier, Palermo established themselves as a decent midtable team and notched three consecutive seventh-place finishes. The Sicily Derby between Palermo and Catania was born with the teams’ first clash in 1936, with the first game ending in a 1-1 draw.
The financial problems of old resurfaced in 1940, and the Aquile were again suspended from the football league. This brought about yet another merger, this time with Unione Sportiva Juventina Palermo, with the new team competing as Unione Sportiva Palermo-Juventina. Palermo-Juventina were admitted into Serie C in 1941 and returned to Serie B in 1942 but World War II forced their withdrawal the following year.
Another year, another refoundation. Palermo came back to life in 1946 and returned to Serie A in 1948. Czechoslovakian winger Cestmir Vycpalek and ex-Catania man Carmelo Di Bella were key players on Palermo’s flanks, and the Aquile were able to stay in Serie A for six seasons despite never finishing higher than 10th. 1954 was a particularly grim year for Palermo: not only were they relegated, but club president Raimondo Lanza di Trabia committed suicide on New Year’s Day.
A new board was formed and the club rallied. Players like Enzo Benedetti and Argentine hitman Santiago Vernazza (the club’s second top goalscorer) turned out for the Aquile along with the likes of future Juventus legend Giuseppe Furino. An imperious defensive midfielder, Furino made 27 appearances in his single season in Sicily before a 15-year Bianconeri spell garnered a record eight Serie A titles.
A yo-yo spell saw Palermo promoted and relegated between Serie A and Serie B six times in eight years. Consistency returned in the mid-‘60’s, though not in the league Palermo would’ve wanted, as Palermo stayed in Serie B for five consecutive seasons from 1963.
Renzo Barbera, after whom Palermo’s stadium is named, took over in 1970 to start one of the more successful periods of the club’s history. Palermo never escaped Serie B during Barbera’s 10-year tenure but relegation was rarely a threat and their Coppa Italia performances were astonishing. They’ve never won the competition but took Bologna to penalties in 1974 and only fell to Juventus in extra-time in 1979. Unsuccessful on the surface, but remarkable considering Palermo were a middling Serie B side at the time.
Barbera’s era came to an end in 1980 when contractor Gaspare Gambino took the reigns. Shortly afterwards, Palermo were deducted 5 points for a match-fixing scandal involving midfielder Guido Magherini, who was handed a three-year ban. First Inter, then Atalanta, now Palermo. I’m doing this on purpose, honest…
The next few years were unremarkable. Palermo were still in Serie B in 1986 but expelled from the league for financial troubles for the third time. A whole year went by without professional football in Palermo, but the team was again resurrected in 1987. They won Serie C2 at the first time of asking, but it took another three years to achieve promotion back to Serie B.
Relegation in 1991-92 preceded a championship-winning Serie C1 season, and the club were <I>again</I> rebranded in 1993. Palermo adopted the moniker Unione Sportiva Citta di Palermo, which they still use today. If history is anything to go by, however, I’d say they’re probably due a name change in the next year or two.
A four-year spell in the doldrums started in 1997 and ended with promotion to Serie B in 2001. These were some of Palermo’s darkest days. The club almost fell into Serie C2 in 1998 after losing a relegation play-off with Battipagliese. Who knows what would’ve become of the Sicilians if Ischia Isolaverde’s Serie C1 expulsion hadn’t saved them from relegation.
Maurizio Zamparini, not known for his patience.
Back in Serie B, Palermo finished 10th in 2001-02. Incumbent president Maurizio Zamparini, who’d previously taken Venezia to Serie A, bought the club and immediately pledged a Serie A return. Several ex-Venezia players (including Arturo Di Napoli and Stefano Morrone) were brought-in as Palermo finished fifth, with a Luca Toni-inspired side capturing the Serie B title in 2004.
Palermo returned to Serie A for the first time since 1973 for the 2004-05 season and achieved an exceptional sixth-place finish. Toni continued his excellent form, scoring 20 goals in 35 appearances to earn him a summer move to Fiorentina.
Another excellent season followed despite Toni’s transfer. Palermo’s first ever UEFA Cup run would’ve seen them reach the final if it weren’t for a 2-2 away-goals loss to Roma in the semis. Things weren’t looking so bright domestically but a January managerial change soon turned that around. Palermo originally finished eighth in Serie A, but Calciopoli’s point deductions saw them bumped to fifth and another season of UEFA Cup football.
An excellent start in 2006-07 saw Palermo win nine of their first 11 Serie A fixtures, but they drew a tough UEFA Cup group (Frankfurt, Newcastle, Fenerbahce and Celta Vigo) and failed to progress. The Aquile did well in Serie A without the distraction of Europe, this time earning their fifth-place finish on merit with captain Eugenio Corini scoring 10 goals from midfield.
The standards started to slip in 2007-08. Future favourite Fabrizio Miccoli joined in summer but Palermo were knocked-out of the UEFA cup by Czech minnows Mlada Boleslav. A series of managerial changes saw Palermo struggle for consistency, and they finished in an extremely disappointing 11th in Serie A.
A finish of eighth in 2008-09 wasn’t enough to secure a European return but 2009-10’s fifth certainly was. Palermo have struggled to maintain the high standards set during their first two continental campaigns. Last season they were knocked-out in the Europa League’s group stage, and this season they didn’t even make it past the first the qualifying round.
Palermo have transformed themselves from also-rans to upper-midtable European contenders over the past decade. Zamparini has clearly had a big influence on this, and I’ll definitely be taking a look at his colourful reign later in the week. I’ve shied away from the present-day Palermo side too, as I intend on covering their recent fortunes in my Serie A Weekly column this Wednesday.
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