Words: Livio Caferoglu
Stefano Pioli is surely the most under-appreciated coach working in Serie A. His longest tenure came at Bologna between 2011 and 2014, keeping the Rossoblu up in his two seasons. Since then, he led Lazio to the Champions League playoffs in 2015, stabilised Inter after the Frank de Boer debacle and saw Fiorentina through the death of their captain. He is having a similar effect on Milan, despite his position being publicly undermined. Palermo, however, didn’t even give him three games.
When the Rosanero appointed the 54-year-old in June 2011, his stock was high. He had rebuilt his career in Serie B with Grosseto, Piacenza and Sassuolo after a failed spell managing Parma during the 2006-07 campaign, and had just taken Chievo to 11th in Serie A. Palermo, for their part, finished Coppa Italia runners-up just days earlier and had Europa League qualifiers to look forward to. He had been linked with Roma, but President Maurizio Zamparini saw something he rather liked.
“We met and hit it off straight away. Of course, I’d read his CV and seen other coaches, but he convinced me the most because we talked for 10 minutes and he’s a person who thinks first and then talks,” declared Zamparini when asked why he chose Pioli. “When a great team like the Rosanero knock on your door, you can’t listen to other offers,” added the tactician. “You have to say ‘yes’ to a club like this and to a President like Zamparini.”
How he’d live to regret saying ‘yes’. Pioli was immediately thrown in at the deep end, forced to implement his philosophy on a group of players who didn’t know whether they were coming or going. Zampa’s scattergun approach to the transfer market was then compounded by the double blow of goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu and midfielder Javier Pastore – Palermo’s two best performers – leaving to join Paris Saint-Germain. Devoid of his two talismans, the tactician’s hand had been severely weakened.
That coincidentally played into the hands of Thun, their opponents in the Europa League third qualifying round. Fabrizio Miccoli’s last-gasp free kick spared Palermo a humiliating home defeat in the first leg, but a 1-1 draw in Switzerland saw the Sicilians crash out on away goals. On August 31, before the month was out and before Palermo’s first Serie A fixture of 2011-12 against Inter, Pioli became one of Zamparini’s 51 coaching casualties at the Renzo Barbera.
“We understood each other straight away and I appreciated Pioli first as a man and then as a coach,” the patron later lamented to the Gazzetta dello Sport in January 2017. “I was wrong to sack him, but at that moment I thought we no longer had the conditions to continue together. I received bad advice from my director of sport. I was eating my second testicle due to the stress. I’d already eaten the first.”
There have been shorter reigns than Pioli’s 90 days at Palermo in Italian football, Marcelo Bielsa’s 48 hours at Lazio being one, but the Milan boss will go down as the only coach of the Zamparini era to have never managed a league match. As far as distinctions go, they don’t come much more unique than that.