With eight wins in ten games and a four-point cushion over third-placed Roma, Palermo have taken Italian football by storm. A refreshingly uncalculating team, they just get on with playing, enjoy their football and give everything. So far this season, the Sicilian side have been relying on an old yet timeless maxim: strength through unity. Indeed, the main ingredients of Palermo's success are a good attitude and the togetherness of a squad in which bonhomie and professionalism are paramount.
But since this is Sicily, honour naturally has its part to play. The captain, Eugenio Corini, wearing the distinctive pink shirt for a fourth successive season, sets great store by the "pride of playing for a team supported by an entire city and its chairman".
Founded in 1898 under the name of "Anglo Palermitan Athletic and Football Club", the club was rechristened Palermo FBC in 1907, the date on which it adopted its famous pink and black strip. In 1987, the club underwent another name change to the definitive Unione Sportiva Citta di Palermo. Four times champions of Serie B, the Sicilians have never managed to reproduce such superiority in the top flight and had never occupied top spot in Serie A until this season. Moreover, in what has been a year full of firsts, they won at the San Siro against AC Milan (2-0) for the first time in their history.
Furthermore, it is with a mainly Italian squad that the club are achieving these feats. Their squad of 23 players contains just four foreigners (two Brazilians, one Argentine and an Australian) and no established stars. A further curiosity within their ranks is the twenty-year age gap separating the club's two goalkeepers, young Salvatore Sirigu and Alberto Jimmy Fontana, who will turn 40 next January. This age difference sees Sirigu regularly ribbed by team-mates, who joke about him being lucky to get to train every day with his 'father'." Such gentle humour illustrates the excellent atmosphere prevalent at Palermo.
Results plus entertainment
Surprise teams tend to be based on solid defending and, in a league renowned for tactical prowess, a side led by Francesco Guidolin, a coach previously accused of sacrificing entertainment for results, might be expected to follow suit. Yet Palermo currently have the third most-breached defence in the whole of Serie A (15 goals conceded), although they can also boast its most prolific attack, with 23 goals scored by nine different players.
As a consequence, the Sicilians are satisfying their loyal fans on two counts: not only are they getting results, but they are taking plenty of risks and providing great all-round entertainment. This was particularly evident in their local derby with Messina, when two key players, captain Corini and the Brazilian Amauri Carvalho, the club's top scorer, started the match on the bench due to Guidolin's rotation policy.
The club's footballing renaissance can be traced back to the arrival of 65-year-old club chairman Maurizio Zamparini after 16 years in charge of Venezia. Zamparini proceeded to pump money into the club at a time when they were languishing in Serie C, the Italian third division. "I'm happy here, as the people are straightforward," states Zamparini, who opted to watch the historic win over Milan with the baker of Vergiate, a small Lombardian village, rather than put in an appearance in the stands of the San Siro.
"This year, I'd be more than happy if we could finish in third place and qualify for the Champions League. Finishing second would be like winning the Scudetto," declares the club's great driving force. "In fact, I'm aiming for the title in two years so we can celebrate it in our new stadium, where we'll be moving in time for the 2008/09 season. Meanwhile, we've set out a serious project which we're implementing through the work of enthusiastic professionals like Guidolin, who has got the team playing really well."
Palermo's success amounts to personal vindication for the Sicilian coach. Released by Monaco at the end of least season, Francesco Guidolin was delighted to be restored to the helm of a side he brought up Serie A in the 2003/04 season. "We're experiencing a magical time and we deserve it. We can't really start talking about the title as there are more complete teams than us, and I don't think we have the resources to accumulate 80 points by the end of the season. But post-World Cup seasons have a habit of throwing up big surprises and the same thing could happen this time, especially with Juventus not in the picture and several sides having points deducted," assesses the ever-lucid Guidolin who, with Sunday's 2-0 triumph over Sampdoria, chalked up his 200th win in 541 matches as a coach (179 draws and 162 defeats).
Loyal to the principles which have underpinned his past successes, Guidolin generally favours a highly flexible 4-5-1 formation, with a razor-sharp attacking spearhead formed by the 26-year-old Brazilian Amauri, who has accomplished the noteworthy feat of filling the scoring boots of Luca Toni, the chief architect of their promotion to Serie A. But Amauri can scarcely be dubbed a revelation, having played in Calcio since August 2000 (Napoli, Piacenza and three seasons with Verona) without ever really making the headlines. However, this season, he already has five goals to his name (the second best tally in the league) and fits particularly fluidly into the mould advocated by Guidolin. The Brazilian's success has got him dreaming of the Champions League. "We're desperate to win and surprise people. But rather than the title, we're targeting a place in the Champions League."
The players and directors are unified in their modesty, but amid the hothouse atmosphere of the Renzo Barbera stadium, there is no such reluctance to express dreams of a first-ever coronation among the fans. Given the performances being put in each week by their team, their belief that this could be the year seems entirely reasonable.