One Bag Travel | First Taste Of Italian Football

One of my main ambitions while travelling – OK, probably the biggest aim – is to try and watch football in the new countries I visit. I’ve already been to matches in Chile, Colombia and Mexico, as well as watching Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabéu just before going travelling, and I loved the passion of these fans.

But Italian football has a certain romance to it. It’s often seen as “boring” or “negative” by many, but I have fond memories of watching Italian football on Channel 4 when I was growing up and “Calcio” has always retained a place in my heart. However, I’d never been to see a match in Italy, despite doing a stadium tour of San Siro when I was in Milan years ago – which, by the way, is well worth doing if you’re ever in Milan.

So I decided to put that right given there were a couple of opportunities to go and watch Palermo while I was in the city. The first was on the day I was moving to my Airbnb, which wasn’t really feasible, but the second was on Saturday (15 October) as Pisa visited Sicily.

First though, I think it’s important to discuss the wild ride that Palermo has been on over the last few years – which goes some way to explaining the passion I saw from the fans.

Palermo FC’s bonkers recent history

Palermo is a very recognisable club owing to its predominantly pink kits. The club was officially founded in November 1900 under the name Anglo Palermitan Athletic and Football Club, supposedly by Ignazio Majo Pagano, a young student colleague who discovered football at college in London.

Its early years were turbulent, with the club dissolved and reformed under different names on several occasions and even expelled by the Italian FA in 1940. While in 1936, the fascist regime forced Palermo to wear the yellow and red colours of Sicily, but it reverted to pink and black when Sicily became a “war zone” during World War II, when its name became US Palermo.

Palermo’s best years were probably the early 2000s, when they were playing in Serie A, Italy’s top tier. They had the legendary Javier Pastore on their books and four members of Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning team in Simone Barone, Andrea Barzagli, Fabio Grosso and Cristian Zaccardo. The club was relegated in 2013 after nine years in Serie A and bounced back 12 months later, but the loss of star player Paulo Dybala saw them relegated again in 2017.

This time there was no return, which led to financial troubles and, eventually, irregularities that led to Palermo being demoted to Serie C – which the club successfully appealed and was replaced with a 20-point deduction. But things got worse as, when Palermo submitted its application to Serie B, it failed to provide evidence of a valid insurance policy. The potentially harsh punishment was exclusion from not only Serie B but all professional leagues!

That ushered in a new era at Palermo, as it essentially reformed as a phoenix club in Serie D, the fourth tier of Italian football. They won Serie D in 2019/20, before COVID shut football down – and during that period, the club changed its name to Palermo Football Club. When football resumed in 2021/22, Palermo finished third in Serie C Group C, then gained promotion through the playoffs – which saw it swiftly return to Serie B.

A few weeks later, an intriguing development saw Palermo acquired by City Football Group, which owns Manchester City and a global empire of teams that also includes Spanish side Girona, Australian team Melbourne City, Uruguayan club Montevideo City Torque, Indian team Mumbai City, American club New York City FC, French club Troyes and Japanese team Yokohama F Marinos.

So with that in mind, the future looks a little brighter for Palermo. However, they’ve not started this season particularly well, finding themselves towards the bottom of Serie B after eight matches.

En route to Palermo v Pisa

I headed out around 10.30am and walked from my apartment on the edge of the Historical City Center out to the other side of the city. Stadio Comunale Renzo Barbera – aka La Favorita – is a 36,356-capacity stadium located about three miles outside the city centre, but easily walkable down several roads out of the city.

And the streets offered some suggestion of what was awaiting me, as I spotted signs of Italy’s infamous “Ultras” culture. I stopped off on the way to grab myself a Palermo shirt, largely as I wanted to get one of their iconic pink shirts and because I wanted to try and feel part of the event alongside the locals.

The stadium hosted two games in the World Cup in 1990, Netherlands v Egypt and Republic of Ireland v Netherlands in Group F. And it’s impressive to look at, not least the imposing giant rock structures that form the backdrop for the stadium. I arrived around 12pm for the 2pm kick-off and was advised the police wouldn’t allow fans to approach the ground for at least half an hour.

So I tried to find a place to grab a drink and eventually found a little section of stalls selling food and beer. I sat at a table sipping on a Birra Moretti and watched the supporters pile in. And the first thing I noticed about the Palermo fans was they all had these little scarves tied around their wrists. I began to hear drums and loudspeakers piping up as the atmosphere grew then, about an hour before kick-off, I walked down towards the stadium.

Getting into the stadium was pretty easy, I just had to find the right gate to access the Curva Nord, then another internal gate and a set of steps up to the top tier. My seat was two rows back from the front of the top tier, so I had a great view behind the goal that Palermo warmed up in front of. The stadium itself is pretty impressive, formed of three wide-open sections and one stand with a big roof over the top.

The stand was relatively empty when I got in but gradually filled up with pink-clad Palermo fans drinking beer – which you could buy from guys walking around the stand with buckets of beer, water and crisps – and, in some cases, smoking “naughty cigarettes.”

As the teams emerged for the warm-up, I realised a few hardy Pisa fans had made the 780-mile trip to Palermo and were tucked away at the top of the Curva Sud (top left of the image on the right above). The Palermo fans – who I quickly realised were the Ultras section – also noticed and weren’t happy as a chorus of whistles and boos rang out. And they enjoyed the announcement of the Pisa starting 11 even less!

Palermo v Pisa first half

I can only assume Pisa won the pre-match coin toss as Palermo kicked towards the Curva Nord and their fanatical Ultra supporters in the first half. The visitors started the match on top, including forcing a miraculous-looking goal-line clearance by a Palermo defender, which was called back for offside anyway.

Palermo crept into the game and had a counter-attack cut short by lively winger Francesco Di Mariano being clearly taken out – but the referee ignored it. But soon enough the home side scored the first goal as Di Mariano was sent through one-on-one with the goalkeeper and scored what looked like a scuffed finish, but having seen the video since it looked a lot cleaner. The crowd went crazy, all jumping and singing in delight, which made the stand bounce and shake… Which was slightly concerning!

The goal gave Palermo confidence and they seemed to be taking control. However, out of nowhere, Pisa responded by scoring an absolute beauty. The ball came out to right winger Idrissa Touré, who ambitiously hit an unstoppable first-time shot that flew into the far top corner.

Pisa finished the first half the better, which prompted the Palermo fans to whistle a prolonged period of possession. But suddenly Palermo broke away and a nice sliding finish by right wing-back Salvatore Elia put them ahead in injury time – cue more frantic celebrations from the home fans.

Speaking of which, the fans were brilliant throughout led by the enthusiastic Ultras and, in particular, two guys standing at the front of the stand and cheerleading on megaphones. And that made for a fantastic atmosphere with the fans incessantly singing, clapping and chanting.

I got the sense that this set of Ultras weren’t as scary as the traditional tales of wild Italian fans – and the signs of much scarier-sounding Ultras I saw when I was in Milan years ago. But their relentless passion, singing and flag-waving throughout the match was pretty impressive!

Palermo v Pisa first half

A few of the fans I chatted to outside the ground told me that Palermo’s best player was striker Marco Brunori. And the number nine missed a great chance to double Palermo’s lead early in the second half, as he took down a long pass from the right and poked it just over the bar.

The referee had been giving dodgy decisions Pisa’s way all afternoon, and that was no different as he gave a dubious free kick on the edge of Palermo box, but they fired over the bar. That sparked the crowd into life, however, and the home side responded as they went on the attack led by Di Mariano, only for him to be cynically scythed down again.

But Palermo began to get on top and a lovely chipped pass from impressive holding midfielder Claudio Gomes – who came through the ranks at Paris Saint-Germain before signing for Manchester City – was controlled twice on the chest by fellow midfielder Jérémie Broh and his shot deflected just wide.

The home side soon made their dominance count as a half-clearance came to Elia, who smashed a beautiful, unstoppable strike into the far corner. But the move started with Di Marino winning the ball back and breaking down the left, which he’d done brilliantly all match. 3-1 down approaching the hour-mark, Pisa were suddenly all over the place. Two minutes later, they gifted the ball to Gomes, who sent Brunori through and should have shot but cut back and his shot was deflected wide again.

But soon enough, yet again out of nowhere, Pisa were back in the game! They broke down the right, a low cross was hit goalwards and well-saved by goalkeeper Mirko Pigliacelli, but it rebounded straight to striker Ettore Gliozzi to tap home.

That put Pisa back on top, as Palermo seemed to shift to a more defensive approach, and the visitors went close to an equaliser as a decent effort saw Gliozzi head just wide. On 70 minutes, Palermo manager Eugenio Corini inexplicably decided to take off Di Mariano, who’d been excellent in nicking the ball back to launch counter-attacks – although he may have been injured after being kicked yet again. It should have been 4-2 immediately, as a corner was flicked to the back post and hit an attacker in the chest but he couldn’t control it with the goal gaping.

And Pisa made them pay with another beauty on 78 minutes. From the corner, they went down the other end and substitute Matteo Trémoni curled home a delicious finish from 25 yards. Suddenly Palermo’s defence was all over the place and the fans were laying into Corini. But both sides pushed for a winner late on, with Pisa largely looking to hit on the counter, including one dangerous-looking attack that was cut short by defender Ionuț Nedelcearu making the most cynical foul you’re ever likely to see.

Palermo came really close to a late winner as a great cross from the left was met by a lovely glancing header that looked destined for the far corner, only for it to bounce back off the post. Pisa went down the other end and nearly nicked it themselves as Gliozzi escaped his marker and chipped the keeper, only for it to land on top of the net. But the ref apparently called a foul that looked very dubious, and could well have been overturned by VAR (which is apparently a thing in Serie B).

Full-time: Palermo 3-3 Pisa

This match was a great advert for Serie B football – which saw 34 goals in 10 fixtures over this gameweek. The result leaves both sides struggling at the bottom of the table with Palermo 17th on eight points and Pisa 18th on seven points.

But the main takeaway for me was the supporters, who’ve clearly been through a lot with the ups and downs Palermo FC have experienced in the last few years. Their passion was impressive and I loved my few hours on the edges of these fanatical Calcio supporters – and I’d love to come back and watch more Italian football in the future.

You can watch all the goals from this six-goal thriller here. And you can watch my video footage of attending the match here:

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