“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
While the quote may fall short in some respects to the importance of winning - especially with a promotion final on the line, there is plenty to be said about the way Frosinone chose to play the second leg of the play-off final at home against Palermo. Needing a win to earn promotion to Serie A, what transpired on the pitch and off it was an embarrassment to the game of football and another blemish to the sport in Italy.
The match was certainly chippy from the beginning with both sides frequently resorting to cheap fouls to stop any build-up in play. Frosinone set the tone early with Luka Krajnc picking up a yellow inside of four minutes, after there had been some pushing and shoving in the opening 90 seconds. Not to be outdone, Danilo Soddimo foreshadowed the lack of fair play that would continue throughout the match when he resorted to an awful dive in the Palermo box. Referee Federico La Penna saw through the theatrics and gave the striker a yellow.
The officials had to rely on their wits because there was no VAR and this would prove desperately important after Raffaele Maiello’s long-range strike had given Frosinone the lead.
In the 60th minute, Palermo had a chance as Igor Coronado dribbled between two defenders on his way into the Frosinone box when he was tripped up. La Penna blew the whistle and signalled for a free kick, but then pointed to the penalty spot. Frosinone players were furious and surrounded the referee demanding he change his mind. During the madness, both sides started to get into confrontations and Palermo’s Ilija Nestorovski was on the receiving end of a headbutt right in front of La Penna - but it went unpunished.
Even more bizarre, La Penna changed his mind again, waved off the penalty and called a free kick. Intimidation and bullying from the Frosinone players appeared to have influenced La Penna to change his mind. It was an incredible sight, but the worst was yet to come.
With stoppage time approaching, Palermo’s attacks in the Ciocari’s final third were disrupted - not by the players on the pitch, but by balls being lobbed on to the field from behind the goal. Fans and ball-boys were stopping Palermo attacks with extra balls thrown at strategic moments, forcing the referee to halt play.
Then, balls started to arrive from the sideline and cameras caught several Frosinone players rolling balls on to the pitch from the bench! The anti-sporting behavior was unlike anything witnessed in recent memory and a truly cowardly and pathetic move from the club. Referee La Penna didn’t do much to get the game under control - the players on the bench weren’t even sent off for their shameful actions. In stoppage time, a missed foul outside the Frosinone box turned into a counter-attack that resulted in Ciano’s goal to make it 2-0 with two minutes left before the final whistle. Yet, the final whistle never occurred as fans flooded the pitch and La Penna did nothing to try to officially end the match.
The audacity of Frosinone after the match was perhaps even worse than the behavior of the club’s players. First, Coach Moreno Longo brushed off any complaints by claiming Palermo was a club that didn’t have its finances in order. Then, Frosinone’s owner released an official statement saying his club and its players have always abided and respected the law of fair play without even addressing the stunning malfeasance that occurred in the match.
Palermo appealed the result, citing the numerous examples of anti-sporting behavior. But of course, this is Italy and the appeal was denied. Punishments were awarded, but they were laughable and do nothing to discourage this type of behavior in the future. A couple of fines for the club and a few players, two matches behind closed doors and no suspensions for those who rolled balls on to the pitch. Better yet, some of the Palermo players received even stiffer punishment, as three players were given suspensions and the sporting director was put on probation until August.
The decisions and indecisions will have long-lasting ramifications for Palermo. Missing out on promotion back to Serie A will force the club to make serious cuts to their wage bill and sell many marquee players. Potential buyers of the club may be turned off to a squad that will spend at least another year in Serie B. And President Maurizio Zamparini himself is no longer as engaged or invested in the club as he used to be.
And while all of those things are disappointing to Palermo fans, the real travesty is how Frosinone got away with the terrible behaviour they displayed. There will be no points deduction or strong rebuke from the sport’s governing body. Frosinone the club won’t even punish or speak out against the actions of those players, ball-boys and fans who intentionally stopped play. And ultimately, what we learned was that the Machiavellian approach to football in Italy is all that really matters.