The Downfall of Sicilian Football from Palermo to Catania

2021 was an eventful year for Italian football as Italy ended their 55-year trophy drought at the Euros and Inter ended Juventus’ 9-year scudetto streak. It seemed as if Italian Football was beginning to receive the attention it once had during the earlier 2000s. 

The future may look bright for many of Italy’s top clubs such as Napoli, Atalanta, and Milan, but one prevalent issue continues to threaten the bulk of smaller clubs across the country. 

Financial problems have become a global concern for many football clubs across Europe since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic but this problem has troubled Italian teams for years on end. No region in Italy has had more conflicts regarding finances and football than Sicily.

The island has seen over 30 professional and semi-professional teams over the years, however, the 2021-2022 season marked the second year in a row that no Sicilian clubs played in Italy’s top two flights. 

The map of Serie A ended within the peninsula for yet another year. Southern Italy is represented by top-four contender Napoli and newcomers Salernitana, who returned to Serie A for the first time in 23 years. The trend continues in Italy’s second flight where only four out of the twenty teams are from the South, being the likes of Reggina, Crotone, Lecce, and Benevento.

Although Northern Italy has always had more representatives historically, Siciliy has never fallen short of providing entertainment across the Italian football pyramid. 

It was only 16 years ago that Sicilian football was at its peak. In the 2005-06 season, Palermo finished in fifth, the best result in club history, and fell short of Champions League qualification by a mere two-point margin. Messina were supposed to be relegated but Juventus ended up being demoted to Serie B in place of the Peloritani as an outcome of their involvement in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Catania would join the two Sicilian clubs in the following season after earning a promotion to Serie A for the first time since 1984.

Through Palermo, Messina, and Catania, the island boasted three teams in the Italian top-flight during the 2006-07 season for the first time. Ironically, Sicilian football was at its finest when the entirety of Italian football was at its worst. 

The pinnacle of Sicilian football has always been the province’s capital city, Palermo. If you go back a decade, Palermo had threatened to become a major force in Italian football. 

The Rosanero secured three consecutive top-six finishes between 2004 and 2007 and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in club history during the 2009-10 season as they finished two points behind Sampdoria. The club’s supporters had become accustomed to their side defeating the likes of Milan, Juventus, and Inter.

Palermo’s philosophy was to scout cheap players who could be sold for a high profit. From Edinson Cavani and Paulo Dybala to Luca Toni and Javier Pastore, the Sicilian outfit scouted and subsequently sold dozens of players. However, this means of operation became unsustainable.

The club was declared insolvent in October 2019 and would eventually have to reform as Palermo FC and start in Serie D. While Palermo may have achieved promotion to Serie C last season, they have failed to create a sustainable model of football that could take them once again to Serie A and have recently fired coach Giacomo Filippi after a recent decline in form.

For a province that has a plethora of talented footballers and passionate fans, why has Sicilian football experienced such a fall from grace?

Look no further than the owners of these Sicilian clubs. From the top Sicilian teams such as Palermo, Catania, Trapani, and Messina to the smaller sides such as Sicula Leonzio, it is astonishing how many of the province’s clubs continue to go bankrupt or become financially unsustainable.

In the past years, we have seen teams like Catania and Trapani play decent football but their success on the pitch has been overshadowed by the uncertainty and disorganization of their management.

Trapani, a team located in Western part of the region, were the last Sicilian club to feature in Serie B back in the 2018-19 season. They finished third-last and were supposed to be relegated to Italy’s third tier but the club’s growing debt and inability to pay their players’ wages forced the club to reform as Trapani FC and start in Serie D, the same situation that Palermo faced a few years back.

ACR Messina, who currently reside in Serie D, are in an even worse scenario. The club has been reformed four times in the last 20 years after a multitude of bad investments from the side’s owners. There may always be passionate fans in the Messina area, however, long gone are the days of the club’s on-field success.

Another page in the history of Sicilian football was turned more recently. Calcio Catania, who were founded back in 1946, were the only Sicilian club that had never gone bankrupt, until recently. The Rossoazzurri were playing some exciting attacking football this season, however, the eastern Sicilian side had accumulated around €60 million of debt and has been found to be insolvent according to Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport

While the future for Sicily’s four biggest sides looks grim, the recent decline of the province’s top teams has paved the way for the rise of a few smaller clubs, such as Acireale and Licata. Both of these sides have adapted well to modern football and are hoping to make the leap to Serie C next season. 

While the bulk of top-flight Italian sides are from the North, there is no denying the love affair between football and Southern Italy. Sicily has produced some of the most entertaining and iconic calcio storylines in the early 2000s.

Although the thought of having Palermo, Trapani, and Catania in the same division may sound intriguing to fans, a region with the population size of Sicily, which is nearly five million, deserves a team that should be fighting for European football.

It’s a reminder of how far behind Sicily is compared to other Italian regions. Will this decade see Sicilian football lose the colorful history it once had? If the province’s clubs continue to fail at adapting to modern football and creating stability amongst its management and finances, then it certainly will.