Words: Martin Mork
Beppe Iachini entered the 2015-16 campaign as only the second coach to last an entire season at Palermo under Maurizio Zamparini. The other was Francesco Guidolin, who had overseen four different spells as Rosanero coach, resigning in two of them. “I take one day at a time,” said Iachini when appointed in October 2014 and he kept the job after steering the newly-promoted side to a respectable 11th place.
President Zamparini had invested for another go in the elite of Italian football, desperate to get back into Europe. In 2004, he had brought the club back to the top flight after 31 years of absence and the Rosanero’s golden period saw big names like Andrea Barzagli, Edinson Cavani, Luca Toni and Fabio Grosso. In fact, Italy’s World Cup winning side in 2006 had four Palermo members, as the Sicilians had convincingly marched into the UEFA Cup after only one season back in Serie A.
But the President had already been through 25 different coaches since he took over the club in 2002 and during his 25 years in football, he had been dealing with 44 different tacticians, including a sacking spree at Venezia.
The talent was ripped from their team every year, as the best players left for bigger and better things elsewhere, leaving Palermo as some sort of a feeder club for the giants. The 2015-16 season started with the departure of Paulo Dybala for Juventus, whilst Andrea Belotti followed him to Turin, signing with rivals Torino. The talent left at the Renzo Barbera mostly consisted of experienced veterans.
Despite this, Iachini managed to start the season with two 1-0 wins against Genoa and Udinese, before a 2-2 draw against Carpi began the rot. A winless run of five games, with four defeats on the bounce between September 19 and October 4, followed and Iachini’s ageing stars struggled to keep up with the pace at the top.
It was time for Zamparini to raise some questions. Having picked up four points in the eight and ninth round of fixtures, a 2-0 defeat to Napoli followed and after the match, the patron criticised the team’s performance. But above all, he would point his finger directly at the man in charge.
Having been unable to stop Gonzalo Higuain from scoring in his fourth consecutive game, Zamparini felt Iachini should have done a better job defending against the Argentine and suggested, in hindsight, to mark the Azzurri striker with two men.
Two days later, the first tall wave hit Iachini on deck, when Zamparini confirmed in an interview with Radio 24 that the coach shouldn’t feel safe in the dugout: “All I can say for certain, is that Iachini mustn’t feel sure he’s confirmed in the job. I told him that if we play like this again on our next away game, I may as well save the money for the journey and automatically lose 3-0. It’s basically the same thing.”
Despite having been the first manager to last an entire season onboard the Palermo ship, the cracks were getting wider and water flooded in. Empoli picked up three points in Sicily to hand Iachini back-to-back defeats.
His job was done, and the coach later confessed that the relationship with the President had soured when he sold Belotti “without telling me anything.” Iachini was sacked in November, even if he won his last match in charge 1-0 at home to Chievo Verona.
The rash decision to part with a coach who had been in charge since early doors in 2014 caused turmoil. The players protested and supported the relieved coach, despite President Zamparini claiming the contrary.
Midfielder Enzo Maresca voiced his support of Iachini, claimed the sacked coach had been treated poorly after having made €60m for Zamparini during his time at the club. “Together since January 2014, we dominated Serie B by breaking every possible record, collected almost 50 points in the first Serie A season and would have picked up another 50 this year…” wrote Maresca on social media.
But the patron hit out at the players who broke the silence and claimed Maresca was ‘talking bull’. “The whole squad is with me, apart from one and a half players: one is Maresca and the half is [Franco] Vazquez.”
He tamed the players by force and said they had to ‘ask for permission’ from the club before writing or talk about the situation. “Maresca is ignorant, he needs to gather some information before he talks.”
Zamparini moved on and hired Davide Ballardini, but made no secret of the fact he was second choice. “I asked Guidolin to come back, but it wasn’t possible. I chose Ballardini because he knows the environment around the club, having already worked here."
But he soon panicked. The chaos that had erupted behind the scenes translated onto the pitch and Ballardini was criticising his players for working against him. Zamparini feared a swift return to Serie B and contacted Iachini to draw a line over what had happened and hopefully bring him back in charge only weeks after having sacked him.
A phone call between the former coach and the President stalled the process. They had allegedly started arguing about players and tactics, quashing the operation. Ballardini kept his job – for now.
Sacked on live TV
After a 1-0 win against Hellas Verona in Week 19, Palermo sat 16th in the League, seven games into Ballardini’s second reign at the club. Captain Stefano Sorrentino announced live on Sky Sport Italia that the coach had lost the dressing room and effectively triggered Zamparini to act.
“The last days have been chaotic. Ballardini did not speak to the team before the match, at half-time or after. The team has played and won on their own,” said the goalkeeper in his post-match interview.
Ballardini and Sorrentino had clashed, as the tactician continued to question his professionalism after a poor spell of inconsistent performances. The chosen leader of the crop was dropped and reacted badly to the comments, claiming the Palermo players had ‘given their all’ under both Iachini and Ballardini.
“I prefer that he tells me I’m a poor player, rather than claiming I have a poor attitude. I want to thank the staff and the Palermo fans for being close to me, but above all, I want to thank my teammates because they came out and made it clear they were on my side.”
Zamparini had to stop the madness from developing further, as Palermo were dangerously close to the relegation zone and decided to part ways with the coach after only seven games in charge.
Maresca, who had been left out of the squad by Ballardini since the riot against Iachini’s sacking, was brought back into contention when Guillermo Barros Schelotto was announced as the new coach of Palermo.
Schelotto was hired on January 11, taking on his first coaching job abroad after having led Argentine side Lanus, and became Zamparini’s first ever foreign coach. There was only a slight problem with the employment.
Barros Schelotto didn’t have the required UEFA license to coach in Serie A and had to wait for his first game in charge. Fabio Viviani, his assistant at the Renzo Barbera, was at the helm in a 4-0 defeat to Genoa and was swiftly replaced by Giovanni Bosi, also lasting only one game before Giovanni Tedesco was appointed as a caretaker.
Tedesco started off well and claimed a 4-1 win against Udinese, climbing two places in the table and kept hold of the position with a 1-1 draw against Carpi. But the points shared with the Modena-club started a run of four games without a win and before Week 25, and a match against Torino, the club confirmed Barros Schelotto’s paperwork had been rejected by UEFA.
“It’s with deep regret that Palermo must take note of the decision of Guillermo Barros Schelotto and his staff to leave the technical guidance of the team, having not got the UEFA-recognised license to coach,” the club wrote in a statement.
“Barros Schelotto greeted the team this morning, who started training without his staff under the guidance of Giovanni Tedesco. The technical leadership of the company are meeting to overcome the current emergency phase.”
Palermo lost the match against Torino 3-1 and Zamparini returned to the man he should have never sacked in the first place – Iachini.
Iachini in and out again
Iachini was back in charge, re-hired in February three months after having been sacked in November. He didn’t need to be fired in his third stint at the club, because he was to resign after three games.
By March, the chaos dragged on for Zamparini and the two heads clashed again, as Iachini returned to a 5-0 defeat at Roma, 0-0 with Bologna and 3-1 loss away to Inter.
The coach decided to encourage his players by praising their efforts at San Siro, as Palermo sat just above the relegation zone and needed some confidence to start pulling through the results.
On the contrary, Zamparini was raging against the performance and the ‘overly’ positive Iachini, leading to a fiery meeting.
“I don’t want to see Palermo end up in Serie B,” Zamparini told Il Giornale. “The club doesn’t deserve it and – above all – the fans don’t deserve it.”
But the fans had started turning on their President and wanted the change to happen at the top rather than in the dugout. Zamparini laughed off the reports, claimed the city of Palermo loved him and said Iachini was ‘an idiot who has gone mad’ when the coach tended his resignation.
“We don’t share the same vision of the project,” Iachini told Mediaset Premium. “I have dignity as a man and as a professional.
“Zamparini has known me for two and a half years, it’s weird that he doesn’t have an idea about my style of play. This is why I left. It affected me badly, and then to constantly discuss and argue with a 75-year-old, that’s why I decided to stop the dialogue. I hope that Palermo don’t get relegated.”
True to form, Zamparini’s attempts to calm the situation only made things worse with his trademark diplomacy. “Now, he wants to leave, the players and I are trying to stop him. This is one of those years. Iachini is an idiot. He’s making the team play badly and over 13 games the average is 0.7 points per game, and he won’t even accept us telling him that.”
In mid-March, 62-year-old Walter Novellino was called in. Just one month after having been appointed, four games and no wins, the coach was told by Zamparini that he wouldn’t be ‘needed’ for the final six rounds.
After a 3-0 home defeat to Lazio was interrupted by flares, fireworks and flags set ablaze in the stands, and with Palermo in 18th place, Novellino got the call from Zamparini. “I can confirm that I’ve been relieved of my duties. I can only say that I’m very sad and disappointed. I’d like to thank the lads, the fans and the management.”
Zamparini brought back Ballardini for the six remaining games and started with a thumping 4-0 defeat to Juventus and fell further behind Carpi on goal difference.
“We don’t have the mentality to survive,” Zamparini predicted with five rounds still to play.
The incredible ending
“Party at the Barbera, the Rosanero are safe,” read the headline of La Repubblica after an intense battle against Hellas Verona, ending the season on home turf, as Ballardini had come back to see out the season with three wins and two draws in the last five games.
The coach, in his third stint with the Aquile, had shown a change of character ahead of the Atalanta match and faced the press somewhat confident as the home fans were banned from the stadium due to crowd trouble during the defeat to Lazio in Week 32. “Not having fans isn’t good, but neither is having a crowd which jeers and whistles from the start.”
Something had changed after the incident with captain Sorrentino earlier in the season and it had a remarkable effect on the players, who helped him steer the ship to the dock and renew their contract in Serie A.
Ballardini had pushed the players to fight for their lives and it all culminated in the last match of the season, when three points against Verona helped them stay afloat after an incredible storm on open waters. Against all odds, Palermo had survived despite nine changes of management and five different coaches.
Zamparini apologised for the mess the spectators had witnessed during the course of the 2015-16 season, but wouldn’t shoulder the blame completely.
“People say I have gone crazy, but that’s not true. The coaches lost their heads and then lied about it. I only sacked Iachini once, something that led me having to change coach five times. I’m the victim here.”
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