x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sicily braces for derby

Catania-Palermo has for the last three years been designated as one of Serie A's highest-security matches.

An Italian police officer stands beside flowers left outside the Stadio Angelo Massimino laid in memory of Filippo Raciti, the policeman who died during rioting in 2007.
An Italian police officer stands beside flowers left outside the Stadio Angelo Massimino laid in memory of Filippo Raciti, the policeman who died during rioting in 2007.

John Toshack, the globetrotting Wales manager who once coached Real Madrid, tells a story of his time in Sicily. It was Toshack's only experience of Italy in a management career that took him to most of the furnaces of football - Portugal, Spain, Turkey, France - in southern Europe, but he remembers his departure from Catania, then of Serie B, especially vividly.

Asleep in his hotel, he was woken by the sound of male voices below his window. Toshack woke up and, down in the foyer, was confronted by an agitated crowd of Catania fans, at their head a maverick Sicilian businessman. These supporters, Toshack was told, wanted him to stay at the club; he had resigned the day before. Toshack thanked them for their pleas, but explained his severance papers had been completed and dispatched to Italian league headquarters.

Oh no they hadn't, smiled the fans, who promptly produced the said documents, refusing to explain how they had obtained, or intercepted, or hijacked the papers between Catania and Rome. Tales of lawlessness, or of tricks that bypass the authorities, are often told about Sicily, and football is not immune to outsiders making connections between the way the game is run on the island and the associations that island carries with organised crime, coercion and even violence.

What can be reported with certainty is that the sport's big local confrontation, the Derby di Sicilia, is anticipated with concern by most law and order officials. Catania-Palermo has for the last three years been designated as one of Serie A's highest-security matches. Alas, that's for good reasons. In January 2007, a police officer, Filippo Raciti, on duty for this particular fixture, lost his life in rioting before the kick-off. The young man, 17 at the time, found responsible for the death was sentenced six weeks ago.

That was the Sicily derby at its most disfigured, Italian football at its worst. The Catania-Palermo rivalry is also capable of a better sort of fireworks. Since the two clubs were rejoined in the top division after a gap of 30 years in which one, or both, of them were marooned on the lower rungs of the league structure, their seven Serie A meetings have produced 24 goals. Seldom has quite as much been at stake as today, either.

Palermo have seven matches left to maintain the fourth spot in the table that would guide them into the Champions League for the first time in their history. Catania, despite recent form - eight points from their last five games - that mirrors that of Palermo, are still not quite safe from possible relegation. Catania like tough-guy managers, such as Toshack, or the former Italian internationals, Pietro Vierchowod and Walter Zenga, to name three who have taken charge this side of the turn of the millennium.

Into that tradition last December stepped Sinisa Mihajlovic, the Serbian former Lazio, Inter, Roma and Sampdoria defender. Mihajlovic was not the most popular footballer of his era, prone as he was to verbal confrontations on the field, but he was talented, intelligent in his distribution of the ball, and a leader. Management seemed a logical step, as first Roberto Mancini made him his assistant at Inter Milan and then Bologna, last season, made Mihajlovic their No 1 coach.

That turned out to be a brief adventure. At Catania, whom he joined when they were one place off the foot of Serie A, he has been a success so far. They have the fifth best record in the division in the 16 matches since Mihajlovic took charge, and a leaky defence has been plugged with startling effectiveness. Catania now concede on average half as many goals under the stern Serb as they did before.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the derby is how resolute that defence stays against Palermo's Fabrizio Miccoli, whose hat-trick against Bologna last weekend took his total goals for the league season to 13. Mihajlovic himself will watch from the stands, because of a one-match touchline ban. He need not fear too much ribbing, though, from the seats around him. Visiting fans are banned, due to the tension that surrounds this rivalry.

sports@thenational.ae Bari v Roma, 5pm, Aljazeera Sport +5 Inter v Bologna, 5pm, Aljazeera Sport +1 Catania v Palermo, 9pm, Aljazeera Sport +7