AN ISLAND DIVIDED – Catania, Palermo and the mother of all derbies
The Sicilian Derby (or Derby di Sicilia) is a nasty, brutish derby played between Palermo and Catania on the Italian island of Sicily and is a typical example of a local derby played between two teams who come from an area of mutual historic hatred, economic depravation and in are the dominant urban conurbations in the region.
Sicily is located in the Mediterranean Sea off the South West of Italy and its strategic and economic location has made it a centre of both war and occupation throughout history. Catania and Palermo’s growth to be the dominant cities in a small space of land has ensured that they were inevitably going to become major rivals within football. Writer John Foot describes the cities “political battle” on and off the pitch as “fighting for resources in one of Italy’s poorest and most corrupt of regions”.
Foot states that violence between rival fans transcends the traditional British football hooligan model, believing it to be more “organised Sicilian violence”. The editor of La Sicilia newspaper Antonio Fiasconaro describes the fixture as “the mother of all derbies” and that the two cities have always clashed over resources and culture with both sets of fans seeing matches as “a chance to get one up on the others”
Surprisingly for a fixture as intense as this, the two sides have not met as often as other local rivals due to them playing in different tiers of the Italian league system. This though may be a catalyst for the violence which regularly occurs at matches as tensions between the two sets of fans rarely gets chance to be vented and so when the two sides do meet its with extreme ferocity.
Within Serie A the teams have only met fourteen times since their first top flight match in the 1961/62 season. Historically though the teams had met many times previously in lower league matches as well as regional tournaments. Palermo currently hold bragging rights as they lead the head to head matches by 24 to Catania’s 19, with 37 draws too.
The hostility is not limited to fans goading and fighting each other, the clubs and players themselves feel it too. There is a banner at the Palermo training ground reminding players that to win a match against Catania is as important as winning a Scudetto. Fabrizio Miccoli who spent six years at Palermo states that the players are well aware of how important the fixture is to fans and the responsibility that the players have to win the match; “We know just how much the derby means to them, and it’s clear that we need to do all we can to win it for them.”
On pitch incidents between players prove that Miccoli is not just paying lip service to the fans. In September 1959 Palermo were winning the derby 1-0 as the match approached the final minute. The Catania players decided it was too dark to continue playing and walked off the pitch, forfeiting the match but not having the indignity of losing within the 90 minutes. In 2001, Palermo players found their kit stolen from the dressing room at Catania’s Stadio Angelo Massimino stadium.
The extent of the loathing between the two sets of fans can be seen by the phrase “Forza Etna” which is often scrawled on walls across Palermo by their fans encouraging the volcano which dominates the Catania skyline to do its worst. There can’t be many supporters across the world that are able to appeal for a natural disaster to wreak havoc upon their rivals and would also wish it too. Violence is commonplace between fans on derby day. In 1999 a fan was shot and three years later Palermo fans were targeted as the coach they were travelling in was stoned by Catania ultras.
Notoriety hit the fixture in February 2007 when 38 year old policeman Filippo Raciti was killed during clashes which forced the temporary abandonment of the match. Italian news agency ANSA reported that with some Palermo fans unable to gain access to Catania’s stadium until the second half, fighting began outside the ground and spread inside as Palermo fans tried to make their way past Catania Ultras to their section. Both teams sought safety in their respective dressing rooms whilst the fighting continued and around a hundred people were injured as fans pelted police with bricks and other missiles. Raciti was knocked off his feet when a homemade bomb exploded close to him causing him liver injuries, he was then said to have been hit with a blunt object whilst lying stricken on the ground.
Alfio Ferrara, A colleague who was close to Raciti when the ambulance arrived to take him away described that as the situation deteriorated, fans turned their intentions towards the police “By that stage the fans were not fighting against each other, they wanted us”. A 23 year old Catania fan was convicted of Raciti’s death and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The fallout from the match was enormous. Most immediately was that the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) suspended all Serie A matches until the situation had calmed down somewhat, Commissioner Luca Pancalli said: “What we’re witnessing has nothing to do with soccer, so Italian soccer is stopping.” The violence which took place at the derby was one of several incidents that weekend in Serie A and Pancalli warned that any future violence would not only bring about a temporary suspension of the league but “without drastic measures, we cannot play again…It’s not possible to carry on like this.”
The derby had been scheduled for an early kick off time to avoid any violence. More direct measures against Palermo and Catania were that Palermo fans were banned from traveling to Catania’s ground for the next derby match. Italian prime Minister Romano Prodi even became involved wishing for football to be an occasion for families and what was needed was “a strong and clear signal to avoid the degeneration of this sport which we are seeing more dramatically and more often.”
A remote region with two dominant cities who have vied for dominance of the area historically was always going to breed a footballing rivalry which would be high in passion, pride and sadly all too often violence. It’s an intense fixture with no love lost between either team, but would definitely be amongst one to actually take the time to go and watch