Once upon a time, U.S. Città di Palermo seemed well on course to become a huge club in Italian football and competing for major honours.
The most successful period in the club’s recent history occurred just over a decade ago, when in the summer of 2002, Maurizio Zamparini acquired the club for €15 million and set his sights on bringing back to Serie A and establishing themselves as one of the top teams in the division, aiming to regularly challenge for major honours and in continental competition.
Palermo failed in its first attempt to reach the Serie A in 2002–03 on the final week of the season, but later managed to achieve it in 2003-04 when Palermo became Serie B champions and promoted to Serie A after 31 years. During this season, there was a managerial change with Francesco Guidolin (famous/ infamous to some Swansea fans out there), who was hired in January 2004 as replacement for Silvio Baldini.
Straight after achieving promotion to Serie A, Palermo secured three consecutive top-six finishes in the top flight, which subsequently brought continental football to the Stadio Renzo Barbera for the first time in their history, where they reached the last 16 of the then UEFA Cup in the 2005-06 season..
Now, technically speaking at least, the club does not exist anymore. U.S Citta di Palermo were declared insolvent in October 2019 after being kicked out of Serie B on 12 July, 2019, thanks to financial irregularities. In its place, though, rose a phoenix club – SSD Palermo – Which formed in their wake and now competes in Serie D, taking all their history and honours along with them, and reinventing itself with a new badge in the process.
While the Rosanero certainly overachieved during their heyday, their team had quality in abundance. Luca Toni led the line expertly, netting 20 goals in 2004/05 (their first season back in Serie A) before his subsequent move to Fiorentina, while four of their players – Cristian Zaccardo, Fabio Grosso, Andrea Barzagli and Simone Barone – all lifted the World Cup in 2006 with Italy.
Given their success, Palermo became a feeder club to bigger teams across Europe. Once the talent became established, they had to start the process again in identifying and nurturing talent. As Palermo grew in stature both domestically and on the continent, so too did their scouting network, with South America becoming a region increasingly targeted by the club for top young talent.
For example, in 2007, they secured the services of Edinson Cavani from the Uruguayan side Danubio. In 2009, they made their move by acquiring Javier Pastore, who had impressed while playing for small Argentine clubs Talleres and Huracan. An extremely gifted playmaker with vision, Pastore slotted straight into life in Italian football, becoming the star of the Palermo team. Palermo also completed similar under-the-radar deals across South America during this period with the signings of Franco Vasquez and Paulo Dybala, the latter of which they had bought in 2012, spending a then club-record £10m to sign him from Argentine second division club Instituto. With Vasquez and Dybala it took the clubs relegation to Serie B for them to find their feet, with both thriving in the second tier before continuing their form in Serie A
From 2007-2012 Palermo’s business model largely succeeded in replacing their top stars by signing young, unproven players from relatively untapped talent pools around the world who flourished in Serie A. There was a dip during this period when they were relegated to Serie B at the end of the 2012-13 season, regaining their top flight status in 2014-15.
In 2017, with the clubs decline already beginning to set in, the club was set for an ownership wrangle when Zamparini stepped down as chairman of Palermo after 15 years in charge, announcing he had agreed in principle (the key words being ‘in principle’) to sell his controlling stake to an unspecified Anglo-American fund.
Palermo ended the 2016-17 season in 19th place, being relegated to Serie B. The takeover, which had scheduled to complete by in April 2017 before being delayed to June 2017 subsequently collapsed after Zamparini rejected the final offer. On 4 July 2017, the prospective owner Paul Baccaglini (who had previously been installed as chairman) resigned as Palermo chairman, with the ownership and responsibilities falling back into the hands of Zamparini.
Palermo aimed for an immediate return to the top flight when they dropped down to Serie B in the 2017-18 season, but the club was ultimately unable to win promotion, qualifying for the playoffs with a fourth place finish and eventually losing the playoff finals to Frosinone.
For the 2018–19 Serie B season, Palermo found themselves having to sell a number of players to stay afloat which included Igor Coronado and Antonia La Gumina to Sharjah and Empoli respectively.
On 22 November 2018, the club formally confirmed a takeover agreement between Zamparini and the London based Sport Capital Group Investments Ltd, with English businessman Clive Richardson, head of the new group, being named as new club chairman.
Following a January 2019 transfer window with no signings at all and apparent tensions within the club, Richardson and John Treacy (director) both resigned from the club with immediate effect on 4 February 2019. They stated that they were unaware of true nature of the clubs financial position as it had not been fully disclosed to them at the time of their purchase.
Days later, the club was acquired for a nominal fee by Daniela De Angeli (former managing director from the Zamparini days) and Rino Foschi (appointed as chairman), only for them them to sell it again to hotel and tourism company Arkus Network S.r.l. in May. Still keeping up?!
At the end of the 2018–19 season, Palermo finished in third place but was relegated from Serie B by the Italian Football Federation due to their serious financial irregularities. The club appealed to the Italian Football Federation and won on appeal, with relegation being reversed. Instead the club was merely docked 20 points instead, which gave them a mid-table finish.
However, on 24 June 2019, Palermo incorrectly submitted to the Italian Football Federation their application to enter Serie B, by failing to provide a valid insurance policy for the new year. As a result, the club was formally excluded from Serie B, and all professional Italian leagues, on 12 July 2019.
Palermo have reformed as SSD Palermo, but the fan base remains loyal. They set a Serie D attendance record as the club’s rebuilding from bankruptcy continues in the country’s top amateur division. Palermo’s first home game in Serie D brought 17,000 fans to Stadio Renzo Barbera, which is no mean feat. At the time of writing (10 January 2020) the club are currently topping Group I of Serie D with 44 points from 18 games.
It will be a long way back for Palermo, but as we have seen with Parma and Rangers, who have climbed from the bottom divison of their domestic league to the top tier in recent years, anything is possible.