Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Seeing the World's Game at a Local Stadium - Palermo Football

I was born in the United States in the 1960’s, so a love of soccer didn’t come naturally to me. In fact, when I was growing up, there were only three places to it. There were games from the Mexican Football League, on Spanish on Telemundo, there was a weekly game from Italy broadcast on channel 25, and there was a condensed, 60-minute tape of a game from England’s Championship on WPIX on Sunday mornings.

In 1968 a new soccer league started in the United States – The North American Soccer League. But it struggled, with very little exposure until 1975, when the New York Cosmos signed two of the best players in the world – Pelé, from Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer, from Germany. All of a sudden New York was home to some world class talent, and I was bitten by the football bug. I remember going to the old Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island along with over 20,000 other to see Pelé’s debut. And I never looked back.

Pelé playing for Brazil in 1960 - By AFP/SCANPIX (Nationalencyklopedin) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But, by the early 1980’s it was gone. The NASL folded in 1984 and it was back to watching Italian and Spanish language games on tv. This was especially true during the World Cup, which was only available in Spanish in 1986 and 1990. But in 1994 the United States hosted the World Cup, and in 1996 Major League Soccer started operations. Soccer became the largest youth sport in the country and cable channels started carrying European and South American Football. The world’s game surpassed all other sports in my heart.

The one thing that I could not do was see a live match of world class teams. Every year several European teams would tour the United States, playing “friendlies” with local teams as part of their pre-season warm-ups. But these exhibition games were usually one-sided affairs, with the MLS teams no match for the European super powers, even when the visitors took out their best players at half time. The main issue for me was timing. I was a teacher. My vacations were in the summer, and that is when the European leagues are on break.

Then, about 5 years ago, I had the chance to travel to Barcelona in February. I was lucky enough to see Barça (my favorite team) take on the team from Bilbao. Barcelona plays in one of the cathedrals of European Football – Camp Nou. This stadium sits almost 100,000 fans and the atmosphere was electric. It was a magical evening.

Image may contain: 1 person, stadium
Me at Camp Nou in Barcelona

This year I visited Sicily. But now I am retired, and our trip was in September! Football season in full swing. I had the opportunity to attend an Italian football match. The team in Palermo had been relegated from Serie A (the top Italian league) to Serie B, due to finishing in the bottom three places last year. They played against Empoli, another team that has bounced between the top two leagues over the years. Both teams are trying to get back into Serie A, and they were tied for 4th place coming into the game. So, this had the makings of an exciting match.

Traveling to Stadio Renzo Barbera, in Palermo different that traveling to a football game at the Meadowlands. The Stadium is in the city, in park that includes a track and field stadium, a horse track and the city’s public swimming pool. There were no large parking lots. Tailgating meant buying food from the several food trucks that were outside the stadium. I stopped here for a panini before heading in. With a bottle of water, it was a whopping €4! And I discovered another huge difference with going to U.S. events – prices were reasonable. 

Stadio Renzo Barbera - www.footballtripper.com
Selling Souvenirs outside the Stadium

Security at the stadium was different also. When I purchased my ticket, I was asked to show I.D., and my name was printed on my ticket. Now I had to present my ticket along with my I.D. to get past the first line of security. Actually, this is a great way to stop the scalping of tickets. After going through another check point at the gate, I was finally able to enter the stadium.

Walking up to Stadio Renzo Barbera

I had given a lot of thought about where to sit. There are really four choices when attending a football match. You can sit at either end of the stadium. These areas are usually filled with ultras, the hardcore fans spend the entire match on their feet, singing and chanting. Not really my speed. There are the expensive seats on the shaded side of the field, and the less expensive seats in the sun. I chose the sunny seats, because this is where the average joe fans would be. The one who come every week. The serious fans, who sit through sun and rain to cheer on their team. This was where I wanted to be.

Well, the game was a great experience. It was a hot Saturday, and a lot of fans decided to show their displeasure with Palermo’s relegation by finding better things to do. About 6000 fans showed up in an arena that sits over 35,000. But those of us attended made the most of our voices heard. The Pink and Black of Palermo led the charge at the start of the game, scoring two goals in the first 12 minutes. But Slowly Empoli began to exert itself. They scored in the 35th minute, but Palermo held on to a 2-1 lead at the half. Empoli led the attack in the 2nd half and evened the score in the 54th minute. Then the home side came back to life, taking a 3-2 lead with 15 minutes to play. Both sides had chances, but it looked like a win for Palermo, when the referee gave a penalty kick to Empoli in the 93rd minute! The crowd shouted it disapproval! Unfortunately, the pk was successful and the match ended in a 3-3 tie.

The best part for me was sitting among the fans. Even though I don’t speak Italian, I knew exactly how they felt about every play, good and bad. I knew when they thought a player had done well, and I knew every mistake that Palermo made that cost them a game that everyone thought they should have won. Comparing my experiences in Palermo and Barcelona is like seeing an AA minor league game versus seeing The Mets during a pennant drive. You learn a lot about the game and its fans by being there in person, but you can feel the difference between “the big time” and a local team trying to do its best to reach the next level.

Getting There:
Tickets for U.S. Cittá de Palermo range from €9-95, and can be purchased on line or at many places throughout the city.
The Stadio Renzo Barbara is easiest to get to by taking the 101 bus, which runs from the Stazione Centrale to the Stadio along Via Roma and Via della Liberta. Bus tickets are €1.40 and must be purchased in advance at a Tabacchi shop.

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