Maurizio Zamparini has got through at least 35 managers since 2002 but even after publicly claiming to have sold the club, disarray reigns
A year ago this month, Maurizio Zamparini was accosted by an angry stranger. Nothing unusual here: he had grown used to such interactions during his decade-and-a-half as owner of Palermo. But this interaction was caught on camera, and finished up making national headlines. It was a perfectly-timed snapshot of supporters’ frustrations at his erratic leadership of their club.
Palermo’s manager, Beppe Iachini, had just resigned following a public spat in which Zamparini accused him of “not giving a shit about anything”. This was the Sicilians’ eighth coaching change of the season, and at least their 35th (the exact count is hard to pin down, since it includes both caretakers and coaches who were dismissed and then reinstated in a matter of days) since 2002.
Zamparini has done much good for Palermo, his investments propelling them into the top-flight and on multiple forays into Europe. Under his stewardship, the club has nurtured such talents as Edinson Cavani, Paulo Dybala and Andrea Belotti. But his mood swings and outbursts - he once threatened to slice off his players’ testicles and eat them in his salad - have also made the club a laughing stock.
So that fan spoke for many others, last March, when he told Zamparini he would prefer to see Palermo plummet all the way to the third tier under a new owner, “than to stay in Serie A like this.”
One year later, his wish might be coming to fruition. Following a 4-1 defeat at Udinese this weekend, Palermo are certainly on course for relegation - seven points adrift of safety with nine games left to play. They also have a new president. On 6 March, Palermo put out a press release to announce Zamparini was selling the club.
Any hopes that the future might look a little more calm and predictable, however, were dashed in the very first sentence. Palermo’s prospective buyer was not some billionaire or business consortium, but a former TV comedian. Stranger still, he was to be installed as club president immediately - even though the same statement suggested that his takeover would not be completed until late April.
What on earth was happening? Even as Paul Baccaglini sat before reporters at a chaotic press conference the following day, it was hard to escape the feeling that this must be some kind of prank. American-born and heavily tattooed, he is best known in Italy for his past work on Le Iene, an irreverent show on Italia1 which is well-known for deploying its hosts to dupe public figures for comic effect.
Among Baccaglini’s more famous skits were those in which he sought to launch his own political movement - the Lemon Party. That name was a riff on the Italian word ‘limonare’, which translates literally as ‘to lemon’, but which is the colloquial equivalent to ‘necking on’. He posed naked under a pile of the fruit for good measure.
None of which precludes him from running a football team. In interviews over the past two weeks, Baccaglini has insisted that he only ever viewed show business as a short-term career. He says that he put aside money and studied financial trading, before getting involved with an asset-management fund, Integritas Capital.
All of which might be true, but remains tricky to verify. Multiple funds exist by that same name, and Baccaglini has declined to offer any further details, or to discuss the extent of his own wealth. He has stated often that he will own 100% of shares in Palermo after the takeover, and yet at other times his comments have seemed to imply ongoing participation from Zamparini.
“Maurizio wanted to completely reorganise his assets, which included Palermo,” Baccaglini told Gazzetta dello Sport. “This is a collaboration between him and me. I am now the president. You cannot say I have paid a particular sum for Palermo, because the investments will be made when there is a need.” Such ambiguity has given rise to conspiracy theories. In the same interview, Baccaglini forcefully denied the suggestion that he was simply being used as a distraction by Zamparini - a temporary lightning rod for all the criticisms that will accompany the club’s likely relegation.
But who can supporters trust in this scenario? Baccaglini’s girlfriend, Thais Wiggers, was likely thinking in a different context when she told the gossip magazine Oggi that his biggest weakness is “telling too many lies”. Even so, his biggest promises for Palermo’s future - a new stadium and training ground, plus a side project in which the club helps to launch local business start-ups - would be easier to believe if they came with evidence of funding.
If nothing else, Baccaglini does now have skin in the game - in the most literal sense. In the small hours of the morning before his introductory press conference, his old friends at Le Iene came knocking on his hotel door. They had booked a tattoo artist into a room nearby and challenged him to add a Palermo badge to the more than 60 pieces that adorn his body. He agreed, having it placed close to his heart.
Since then, Palermo have played twice and lost twice, shipping seven goals. This weekend’s defeat was all the more galling for the fact that they took a first-half lead, Roland Sallai sliding the ball home after an enterprising run by Haitam Aleesami. Against an Udinese team gliding towards a comfy midtable finish, this ought to have been cause to hope. But the Rosanero lack too much in too many areas, a painful truth for fans who have seen the likes of Dybala, Belotti and Franco Vázquez depart over these past couple of years.
They failed to press their advantage on Sunday, and Udinese adjusted - switching from an initial 4-3-3 into a 4-4-2 and equalising through Cyril Théréau just before half-time. Duván Zapata, Rodrigo de Paul and Jakub Jankto then completed the turnaround, whilst Palermo had Alessandro Diamanti sent off. Baccaglini has stressed his belief that the Rosanero can still save themselves - pointing to a crucial run of fixtures against bottom-half sides in May. But it is hard to have much hope for a team that has shipped 60 goals in 29 games. Not since 1952-53 have they conceded more at an equivalent point of the season.
Already on Monday, Baccaglini has been forced to deny suggestions that he intends to fire the manager, Diego López. Initial reports claimed that the decision had in fact been taken by Zamparini - an assertion which the outgoing owner denied, reaffirming that his role with the club was now strictly an advisory one. Many fans would be happy to see him relinquish even those duties as soon as possible. But none can pretend to really know what is coming next.
• One week after I write a column about how the race for Champions League berths is alive and well, both Lazio and Inter drop points, allowing Roma and Napoli to tighten their grips on second and third respectively. Yeah, sorry about that, folks! But let’s not forget that Napoli’s next two games are at home to Juventus and then away to Lazio…
• Napoli did almost contrive to blow a three-goal lead away to Empoli on Sunday, but this was, improbably, the first time they have ever won away to the Tuscan side in the league. They had previously visited 10 times, losing six and drawing four.
• Not a great weekend for Joe Hart, who was at fault on both of Inter’s goals - first allowing Geoffrey Kondogbia’s shot to squirm through his grasp, and then making a poor decision to come for a cross that sailed over him to Antonio Candreva at the back post. He did make a couple of good saves, too, but it must be acknowledged that, for all he has done well in Turin, the glaring error remains a frustratingly regular feature of his game.
• Sampdoria had won five and drawn two of their past seven games, and had only lost at home twice all season, but inevitably they too came unstuck against this relentless Juventus. The Bianconeri scored early through Juan Cuadrado and rarely sparkled thereafter (indeed, they failed to register a single shot on target in the second half - the first time this has happened in three years) but rarely did they look likely to let their lead slip either.
• Atalanta’s 55 points are a new club record in the era of three points for a win. And they still have nine games left to go.
Results: Torino 2-2 Inter, Milan 1-0 Genoa, Empoli 2-3 Napoli, Atalanta 3-0 Pescara, Sampdoria 0-1 Juventus, Cagliari 0-0 Lazio, Bologna 4-1 Chievo, Crotone 0-1 Fiorentina, Udinese 4-1 Palermo, Roma 3-1 Sassuolo.