Palermo: The South American football finishing school

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 04/12/11)

Aside from having one of the finest kits in football, the side from Siciliy is rapidly becoming one of the finest finishing schools of South American talent in Europe.  In recent years, The Rosanero has developed the uncanny knack of plucking diamonds out of the rough and giving them a chance to hone their skills on the European stage.  This forward thinking has also helped mid-sized Palermo punch above its weight of late.

Two of the club’s biggest success stories have been Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani and Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore, with both players subsequently having gone on to make big money moves for massive profits.

Cavani joined from Danubio in 2007 for a sum of around €4.4million and scored 34 goals in his 109 games, a decent haul for a youngster in Italy.  A tall, graceful forward capable of scoring from anywhere in and around the box, El Matador is now a regular fixture in the national side along the formidable strikeforce of Forlan and Suarez.  His stock has risen even further with an impressive 33 goals in 46 appearances for new club Napoli after a €15million move last year.

Pastore joined for a similarly nominal fee from Huracan in 2009 and in just two years the phenomenally talented midfielder developed into one of the most coveted jewels in football.  An elegant playmaker with a great range of passing off both feet and a dazzling array of skills, El Flaco quickly became a fans favourite and was signed for a staggering €40million by Paris Saint Germain this summer.

Both Pastore and Cavani are now regarded as some of the most exciting and highly sought after young players in the world.  Following their departures, Palermo have continued their policy of buying cheap starlets and look to have two ready-made replacements to follow their illustrious predecessors.  

Firstly, the man being to replace Cavani is fellow Uruguayan Abel Hernández.  The 21 year old has already been at Palermo for a couple of years and, with the big clubs already circling, is starting to make a name for himself.  Extremely quick, strong and lethal inside the penalty box, Hernandez has all the makings of a modern day striker.  He was integral part of a very impressive U20 Uruguay side containing the likes of Coates, Lodeiro, and Gaston Ramirez.  Despite not being hugely prolific just yet, he has bags of potential and has notched 3 goals in 8 appearances for the national side.  If Hernández continues his development he could be set to make Cavani seem a distant memory and add Uruguay’s wealth of attacking riches in the future.

In what pretty much seems a like-for-like replacement for Pastore, Palermo have moved quickly ahead of the January transfer window to snap up Belgrano de Cordoba’s enganche Franco Vazquez for around €3million.  The comparisons between the two argentines are obvious.  Vazquez is also a tall languid midfielder with a good set of feet.  I saw him play an influential role in Belgrano’s play-off win that relegated River and was impressed with his range of passing, movement and vision.  I asked the boys at the marvellous Hand of Pod how they viewed his protracted move to Palermo and the general consensus was that, although no Pastore, he certainly could become a decent player.  Furthermore, the emergence of Josip Ilicic, another youngster enjoying a great start to the season, could see his chances somewhat limited.  Palermo fans though will certainly hope ‘El Mudo’ gives them something to shout about.

Palermo are not the only club to have clocked on to this strategy.  Udinese brought Chilean duo Mauricio Isla and Alexis Sanchez to Italy and both have flourished, the later earning a dream move to Barcelona this summer.  They have also profited on River’s relegation by snapping up Roberto Pereyra.  El Tucumano, still only 20, was one of the few players who stuck out for me during River’s nightmare season.  The other shining light from that squad, the extremely gifted Erik Lamela, is also now in Italy, on the books of Roma, and looks set to be a big hit (something Osvaldo will probably testify to!

The move to Italy from South America is also nothing new and has also been occurring for decades.  Argentina and Uruguay especially have a strong link to Italy due to the mass migration in the inter-war period.  Around a third of Argentina’s population has some Italian blood in them and the dual nationality facilitates the move to Italy, where in some cases they may even have some family or speak the language.  Certain similarities in culture, climate and cuisine no doubt ease the transition and help young players settle in quickly.  Furthermore, Serie A is obviously a popular destination for the prestige and quality of football.  Although arguably not as strong as it once was, there is an endless list of Argentine heroes who made their name in Italy; Maradona at Napoli, Batistuta at Fiorentina, and Zanetti at Inter to name but a few.  Therefore, a romantic lure of moving to Italy still probably plays a factor too as youngsters look to emulate their idols.

Regardless of this general trend, Palermo are currently proving to be a cut above the rest of the best in successfully nurturing South American talent and are fostering a growing reputation as a perfect stepping stone into European football.  Their model provides a perfect example of how smaller clubs, through astute young signings, can remain competitive in a top league.  Long may it continue!