Even by the standards of a World Cup, the selection of venues for Italia ’90 had an unusually political dimension. As a consequence of Italy’s divided past, local and regional rivalries burn bright whilst persistent economic disparities serve to entrench those historic fault lines. Diplomacy had to prevail. The result was mainland venues stretching from Udine in the north to Bari in the south, whilst the inclusion of the islands of Sardinia and Sicily extended the frontiers further still.
The 1990 World Cup is commonly regarded within Europe as the high point of pre-commercial tournament football. Despite the action on the pitch yielding the fewest goals of any World Cup tournament before or since, the historic cities, ease of travel and availability of tickets all contributed to fabled tournament status.
Italia ’90 produced a set of venues that reinforced this feeling. The new stadia in Turin and Bari were aesthetically pleasing even if found wanting from a practical perspective. Effective rebuilds in Rome and Genoa delivered impressive results, whilst the futuristic skyward extension of Milan’s San Siro created a modern icon. Other stadia were updated and incrementally extended, including La Favorita in Palermo. This was the smallest of the eleven arenas prepared for the tournament and was the scene of an incomprehensible tragedy played out in the months before the tournament.
The imposing, rugged climbs of Monte Pellegrino rise up on the northern side of Palermo, overlooking Sicily’s capital city. Nestled at the foot of the mountain lies the home of Palermo Calcio, known locally as La Favorita. The stadium, along with the adjacent athletics track and horse racing circuit, lies on the site of an ancient royal hunting ground used by the Bourbon dynasty, from which the name is taken.
Inaugurated in 1932, the stadium is an artefact of perhaps the only redeeming feature of Italy’s Fascist era. The original stadium was designed by Giovan Battista Santangelo, a student of the revered architect Pier Luigi Nervi in Bologna. It initially comprised just two sides, remaining open at either end. Unsurprisingly, the concrete roof of the main tribuna shared some characteristics with Nervi’s masterpiece in Florence that had been unveiled just a year earlier.
Curve were constructed to enclose the ends of the stadium in 1952, whilst a second tier was added in 1984, coinciding with an upturn in the fortunes of the team on the pitch. The second tier utilised a construction technique not uncommon in Italy; a steel exoskeleton was built around the perimeter of the existing stadium, providing structural support for the new accommodation, taking the capacity to 45,000.
In selecting Sicily to host matches, the organising committee had a dilemma. On one hand, La Favorita was the largest venue on the island and therefore the natural candidate for renovation. Yet it was a tired venue with only rudimentary facilities. The main tribuna had to be almost entirely rebuilt. The bare concrete terraces were to be furnished with individual plastic seats. However, this took the capacity below FIFA’s minimum, requiring the second tier to be extended further. Modern press facilities and a scoreboard were added and the area immediately around the ground landscaped. During the course of carrying out the works it was discovered that the southern curva, almost unbelievably, had no foundations requiring that to be rebuilt from scratch.
As construction work took hold, Palermo were forced to play their matches at Trapani, 100km to the west. “Home” attendances plummeted to the low thousands and the municipality who owned the stadium were forced to compensate the club for lost revenue during their two-year exile. The cost of the project would eventually rise to 40 billion lire (around £40 million in today’s prices).
Renovation work had been progressing well when a FIFA delegation visited Palermo on 28th August 1989 to inspect the site. The majority of the work on the tribuna had been completed and the pylons of the roof support were due to be set in place imminently. The delegation left satisfied that the project would be completed to time and standard for the following summer.
However, just two days later on the 30th August, the early morning hum of construction work was interrupted by the thunderous sound of 8 tonnes of steel wrenching, twisting and crashing onto the tribuna thirty metres below. Two of the recently installed pylons sheared away. The reverberations were felt in neighbouring buildings.
“A fearful crash, a roar…a tragedy in a few moments, then a chilling silence to La Favorita” – La Repubblica
Three construction workers had been working on the pylons at the time of the accident. For safety reasons they were tethered to the pylons, but those safety harnesses ultimately dragged the men, Serafino Tusa (age 28), Giovanni Carollo (31) and Gaetano Palmeri (28) to their premature deaths. Two further workers who had been supervising activities from the ground also perished in the incident; Domenico Rosone (31) immediately and Antonino Cusimano (23) a week later in the hospital, having failed to recover from his injuries. An unfathomable loss of five young, local men.
“Among the rubble, the bodies of five workers met a horrible end; crushed and disfigured” – La Repubblica
The matter of hosting the World Cup was now a secondary concern for the people of Palermo. The city was in a state of shock. But as they prepared to bury their dead, the unthinkable happened. The following day a further seven pylons collapsed to the ground. Fortunately the site had been sealed off by the local magistrate and there were no further casualties. The local press accusingly referred to Palermo’s “papier-mache castle”.
Speculation about the cause of the tragedy swept through Palermo. A range of hypotheses were posited, including faults in the plans, defects in the materials and poor construction techniques. Fingers were initially pointed at the crane operator too. A chilling theory about Mafia-related sabotage also emerged.
In the aftermath of the tragedy construction workers and their trades union took to the streets of Sicily to call for better protections. The formal investigation, concluded some weeks after the accident, identified a baffling technical error whereby the pylons had not been properly anchored into place, leaving the edifice prone to high winds.
Regardless of the cause, the World Cup organising committee had understandably lost confidence in the project. In any case, it seemed inconceivable that the stadium would be ready to host. But they were also acutely aware that if the opportunity to host the World Cup were taken away in that moment, it would have been an affront to the city and everything they had suffered.
FIFA allowed some grace, waiving their requirement for the tribuna to have a roof. Efforts were redoubled and work resumed on 11th September, less than a fortnight after the accident. Remarkably, the project was completed in time for Gullit, van Basten and Rijkaard to grace the turf as the Netherlands faced Egypt on 12th June. La Favorita hosted two further group matches, with the same two teams pitted against the Republic of Ireland.
Almost 30 years on, La Favorita remains largely untouched barring some minor modifications and a new name, adopted in 2002 as a tribute to the former Palermo president Renzo Barbera. Palermo’s fortunes on the pitch have fluctuated in that time; the high point being a period in the mid-2000s when top six finishes in Serie A delivered UEFA Cup football for three consecutive seasons. During that period, World Cup winners Fabio Grosso, Luca Toni, Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo starred for I Rosanero, alongside international talents such as Edinson Cavani and Amauri. Whilst the stadium is rarely at capacity, it is much-loved by the Rosanero tifosi. The passionate support makes it a hostile place for opponents to visit.
There have been long-held plans for Palermo to move to a new stadium. For many years, flamboyant former president Maurizio Zamperini sought planning consent for a new stadium complex with a sports centre and hotel. Ultimately he was frustrated; a familiar story across the peninsula where the municipality has little incentive to approve plans that would render their own assets obsolete.
Today, under the watchful eye of Monte Pellegrino there is scarcely any reminder of the tragedy that unfolded here. A simple plaque is placed at the stadium, in remembrance of the five victims; Serafino Tusa, Giovanni Carollo, Gaetano Palmeri, Domenico Rosone and Antonino Cusimano.
Thanks for reading. If you got this far, you might also enjoy my article on Pier Luigi Nervi’s lost masterpiece.
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News footage of the aftermath of the first collapse can be found here