It's been 20 years since the island had a team in Serie A, but as Matt Barker writes, it looks as if Palermo and Messina will both be in the top flight next season

 W ith Milan’s 17th Scudetto done and dusted, Italian attention has passed in recent weeks to the promotion chase, or rather marathon, down in Serie B. From next season Italy’s top division will expand to 20, a consequence of last year’s shenanigans that followed threats of legal action when Siena fielded an ineligible player. The Italian football federation re­instated the teams relegated from the second division (and took Fiorentina up from Serie C2 with them). Five sides will now go up from an expanded B, with a sixth playing off against Perugia.

The division finally draws to a close on June 12 – the same day Euro 2004 kicks off. But it’s not just the season’s epic duration that marks it out from previous years. The leading pack has a strong Southern accent. Sardinia’s Cagliari and Palermo have secured promotion and Messina are close behind; by the time you read this Palermo may even have wrapped up the championship to add to reaching Serie A for the first time since 1972 (and, with Messina, becoming the first Sicilian club in the top division since Catania, back in 1984).

The past 30 years have seen some dark days for the team in pink and black: declared bankrupt in 1986 (for the second time in their history), the city spent a year without a team, before the reborn US Città di Palermo surfaced in the murky depths of Serie D.

Resurgent lately after another stint in C as recently as 2001, it still took the arrival of coach Francesco Guidolin in January for the team to catch fire properly. Guidolin made Luca Toni a lone striker and fashioned a blend of experienced heads and still-smarting big-club cast-offs with a point to prove (not least Toni himself, written off after a knee injury at Brescia). Guidolin likes his wine, waxes lyrical about the local cheese and spends his spare time mugging up on the island’s history. The Palermitani have been quick to accept the affable northerner.

What they think of club president Maurizio Zamparini is less clear. Since arriving from Venezia two years ago Zamparini hasn’t hidden his desire to build a little calcio empire for himself (most recently eyeing up Napoli). Eyebrows were raised when he brought a fair chunk of the Venezia team with him to Sicily and there’s a fear he may repeat the trick.

That’s not to dismiss the president as mere mercenary. He’s certainly ambitious, but his energy and judgment are just what the rosaneri have been looking for: he’s talked them up to a position of respected contenders. Robinho, Alberto Gilardino and Alvaro Recoba have all been linked with the club in recent months. This is no mean trick: the biggest team in Sicily, as in the rest of the South, is Juventus (closely followed by Inter). Palermo, despite fan clubs in New York and Sydney, are a small, provincial side.

Home attendances average out at around the 18,000 mark (30,000 saw the Coppa Italia defeat against Roma), which compares favourably to some provinciali up in Serie A. Regional goodwill follows the club around (Neapolitans recently applauded them off the pitch) and the ultras, the Warriors, seem pretty matey with everybody, the only flare-ups coming against the ever-reviled Catania.

Certainly the love-in with Messina continues unabated, despite being promotion rivals. The two clubs trace their origins back to a pair of Sicilian students who discovered the game at Eton in the late 1800s and brought it back with them, setting up teams in their respective cities. The first derby was played in 1901 and both clubs still love to let their Anglo roots show. They also have a habit of sharing their ups and downs: both enjoyed post-war golden ages in the top division, both suffered in the 1980s, both were promoted back to B together in 2001.

These are heady times on the island: the tourist economy is buoyant, EU funding has been approved for a bridge across the Messina Straits linking up with the mainland, crime rates are the lowest for years. A successful Palermo side are being held up as a model of the new Sicily: a unified force with a bright future.

A local dignitary promised two tons of pasta to the player who scored the promotion-clinching goal. It’s just the sort of image of the South the rest of Italy loves: homespun and slightly daft. Patronising it may be, but then it wasn’t too long ago that Sicilian Toto Schillaci’s selection for the Italia 90 Azzurri was claimed in some quarters to be the work of the Mafia. Mindful of the club’s turbulent history, most of the country has been happy to get behind Palermo’s promotion push. But the North-dominated Serie A could be in for quite a shock next season. It’s not too fanciful to envisage Guidolin’s men, boosted by a couple of high-profile arrivals, jostling their way to a UEFA Cup spot. Cagliari and Messina too have the look of resolute, hardened campaigners. The South is rising again.

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month