You’ll never understand the world of Maurizio Zamparini. It all started with the sacking of Zamparini’s longest contiguously tenured coach after 776 days on the bench. Beppe Iachini, after emerging victorious from a win-or-go-home match, was sent packing anyway much to the consternation of numerous players and large swathes of the fan base. Several players voiced support for the departed coach and quickly found themselves on the outskirts of the squad on Zamparini’s command. Luca Rigoni was sold for cheap to rivals Genoa, Fabio Daprelà had his contract terminated and Enzo Maresca was left to train on his own.
Zamparini turned to an old, familiar face in Francesco Guidolin, but the four-time Palermo coach politely declined a fifth term on the Rosanero bench. Instead, the Palermo patron handed the reins over to another former coach in Davide Ballardini. The Ravenna man held the distinction of being the only coach under Zamparini who was never officially sacked. Rather, Ballardini parted ways with the Sicilian side after the 2008-09 season by mutual consent to take the managerial job at Lazio.
Like he did before, Ballardini was tasked with taking over a struggling side with the season already in progress. After a decent draw in his first match in charge away to Lazio, things fell apart quickly. Palermo would lose the next three matches with little to show in terms of promise or performance. After a 3-0 loss to a resurgent Juventus, the Rosanero dramatically crashed out of the Coppa Italia at home to Lega Pro side Alessandria, 3-2. Another 3-0 loss to Atalanta put Ballardini on the hot seat. His position was saved thanks to a 4-1 drubbing of minnows Frosinone – but it was only temporary relief. Two more losses to Sampdoria and Fiorentina put the club on the brink of a breakdown.
In the aftermath of the Fiorentina loss, Zamparini made up his mind. He sacked Ballardini via a text message and reached out to Iachini to return. Beppe agreed initially and the paperwork was in place to make it all official. It was all settled. And then, a few hours later, Zamparini and Iachini spoke on the phone and, incredibly, everything fell apart. Disagreements over the transfer market strategy, technical decisions and the re-integration of Maresca to the team all led to a shocking reversal of Zamparini’s decision. Iachini would no longer return and Ballardini would miraculously be confirmed as coach.
While the team was in ritiro, Ballardini sheepishly returned to his position as coach. Regardless, his status at the club was still in jeopardy. Tensions were high ahead of another must-win match against basement dwellers Verona.
The day before the delicate match, a row broke out between Ballardini and Palermo’s captain Stefano Sorrentino. The veteran goalkeeper went face-to-face with the coach over words regarding the dedication (or perceived lack thereof) the players had on the pitch. The argument between tactician and player led to Ballardini’s decision to drop the vital player and another veteran in Alberto Gilardino ahead of Sunday’s match. Upon hearing the news of Ballardini’s decision, Zamparini intervened through his director Manuel Gerolin. An ultimatum was delivered to Gerolin: tell Ballardini to start both players against Verona or Ballardini and Gerolin himself would be out of a job by Sunday night. The message was received and implemented.
What transpired on Sunday was surreal. During the match, the coach stood silent and emotionless on the sideline as the players battled through a must-win match against a winless side. While Ballardini was detached, Sorrentino was impassioned, making save after incredible save as though his honour was on the line with each attempt on goal. Franco Vazquez broke the deadlock and put Palermo up, but as the whole team celebrated his goal, Ballardini could be seen in the background staring across the pitch almost unaware of what occurred. At the end of the victorious match, the celebration continued once more, but Ballardini again was not a participant.
Despite the victory, things continued to escalate in dramatic fashion. Ballardini did not show up for the post-match press conference. In his stead, Gerolin spoke of the situation, citing the stress of the previous week and giving the coach a break from media attention. His position at the helm was still unknown, however.
What was uncertain at boardroom level, was unquestionably clear at the player level. In a separate interview with Sky, Stefano Sorrentino spoke about the match and the past couple days and did not hold anything back. The Palermo captain unleashed an indictment of Ballardini for all of Italy to hear, claiming the coach had not spoken to the players before, during or after the match. The team had won a pivotal match on its own, without a Coach. He clarified the dust-up the day before as one in which Sorrentino defended his teammates in lieu of Ballardini’s accusations. Finally, Sorrentino offered full support behind Ballardini’s successor. In essence, Sorrentino did Zamparini’s work for him by firing the coach via an interview.
Palermo did not immediately make a decision regarding Ballardini, but the writing was on the wall. There was no way the Ravenna tactician could return to the club at this point. He had lost the support of the players and control of the team. Ironically, in the midst of his loss of control, the players came together even closer than before. Nevertheless, the search was on for Ballardini’s replacement.
Short on options, Zamparini considered Iachini once more. If Iachini declined, the job would go to his former assistant coach, still on staff, Fabio Viviani. It would be a low-cost, internal move and a man that the players already knew. While Zamparini tabbed Viviani, he still had another trick up his sleeve. While most media outlets assumed the vacant Palermo job would go to Viviani, Zamparini caught everyone off-guard. In a press conference broadcasted from his living room, the Palermo owner announced the new coach would be Guillermo Barros Schelotto from Argentina. It was a first even for Zamparini as the legendary Boca Juniors player would become the first foreign coach in the Zamparini Era at Palermo. While Viviani will be in charge ahead of the weekend match against Genoa, Schelotto will takeover afterward and the former will return to his role as Schelotto’s valuable assistant.
Zamparini announced Schelotto, who coached Lanus to the 2013 Copa Sudamericana, turned down a job as coach of the Paraguayan National Team to join the Sicilians. Furthermore, Schelotto’s opportunity with Palermo would help him land a coaching job at an even bigger club in the future, according to the patron. Given Zamparini’s penchant for sackings, Schelotto may be looking for that next coaching gig sooner rather than later.
The dust has finally started to settle at Palermo but the road ahead is unclear. The risk is great for a new coach with no experience coaching in Europe - much less Italy – taking over in the middle of a season at a club on the outskirts of a relegation battle. A new tactical system and the integration of the new coach as well as new players arriving in January will take time. Unfortunately, the reality of Palermo’s current state does not provide much room for error. Zamparini’s gamble is largely for the future but what Palermo needs is consistency and stability in the present.