“It’s all subtle and submarine”: Miccoli’s Sea-Song
by Clerical Staff
Walking through the endlessly convoluted streets of Palermo last week, I began to notice a particular pitch of silence over the car horns and swallowed Sicilian vowels. Football was not making its voice heard. No shirts drying on rusting balconies, no posters in cafés; one square did yield a dusty five-a-side game, where a boy in a Buffon kit performed endless elasticos, but the old-wordly, provincial, Southern passion that I had naïvely expected was swamped by sultry indifference. It might as well have been London.
Another indifference materialised, too. Palermo is a port city, one of the oldest and most storied in the Mediterranean, whose entire fetid and unreconstructed heritage is a product of the water, and yet, as per the local expression, as a town it turns its back on the sea. The longue durée of post-war redevelopment has preferred to concentrate on backstreets minutiae and painstaking church jobs rather than marina bars and apartments, let alone maritime industry. This elusiveness, even self-denial, made me wonder about the symbiosis between ports and football, the manner in which different seas weather teams in their own azure image.
Some effort is required to think in properly maritime terms. We are inclined to misunderstand the sea, or else not to see it at all; our eyes glance off the surface of that mythological non-place, the end of life: here be monsters. The sea is ahistorical, without topography. These projections may be reassuring for those seeking to sink their feet ever more firmly into the sand, but they are hardly convincing. The sea is a thing, with its own seascapes and seamarks, which can be charted and inhabited. Indeed, given how trade has contributed to today’s landlife, it can reasonably be stated (in Derek Walcott’s words) that ‘The sea is History.’ Of course, these marine topographies vary. The Atlantic is cold and violent, traversed only hardily; it is a seamass often figured parallel to the landmass on the other shore (the MLS then is some strange, unmapped new country, imagined only in satirical terms from the comforts of the Brittany beaches). Conversely, the Mediterranean, as David Abulafia constantly affirms, is warm, inviting, manageable. It is made to the measure of man, and as such can be thought of on its own terms.
These terms are ripe with connotations, and they have spawned a raft of intriguing, infuriating, and ineffably Mediterranean clubs. What is the character of the ports they spring from? Free of the continental concerns of agriculture, ancestry, possession, and frontiers, the fishbowl of the Mediterranean has magicked up communities without territory but endowed with great wealth, sophistication, and influence (on pasta, pigments, porticos, and on and on). The guarantees of this cultural weight were always in a manner distant, locked up in some other seaside province, reached by ploughing the febrile, labile space of the convenient sea itself. Perhaps, in as much as the Mediterranean is a positive historical site, its principle historical attribute has been its traversability, its negative capability.
Yet cultural weight is not political force, and rarely have these ports overwhelmed the stolid industry of the capital. What is left from this tug-of-war between land and sea are a long string of coastal teams that fascinate the epicurist but never dominate for long periods. The potential of the sea is expressed in the archival significance, one-off triumphs, cup runs, or brief dazzlings of Napoli, Valencia, Cagliari, Hajduk Split, Trieste, even Marseille. Barcelona stand out as the exceptions, but, as every schoolboy now knows, Barcelona exist only in as much as Madrid do (and vice versa); they are a coastal club craning their necks back towards the dusty centre. Like the sea, these achievements are made to the measure of man; the Mediterranean has enriched men, as the landmass has empowered peoples. In this individualistic sense, perhaps, clubs like Valencia and Cagliari are living proof of the validity of the dangerous liberal notion linking trade and democracy: the labile sea provides each sailor and his shoreline the chance to partake on an equal footing in the process of building a cosmopolitan cultural burden. As Jacques Rancière has it, ‘the almuron, the tang of brine, is always too close… The sea smells of sailors, it smells of democracy.’
Which brings me back to the petulant backstreets of Palermo. Unione Sportiva Città di Palermo is impoverished even by coastal standards, with its three losses in Coppa Italia finals and a handful of underwhelming UEFA Cup appearances. My host, Giovanni, told me that generations had grown accustomed to supporting Juventus. Maybe the Palermitans turn their back on the sea in affront at its paucity, a symptom of the old Sicilian tradition of common goods vanishing, whether siphoned-off or plundered. Maybe the moguldom of Maurizio Zamparini can rekindle some of that old Mediterranean entrepreneurial spirit and enliven the five-a-sides again. Yet one thing about Palermo is for me still wonderfully redolent of the sea: its affair with il bomber tascabile, Fabrizio Miccoli.
Giovanni did not take kindly to being told he resembled the Palermo figurehead. Eventually we settled upon a likeness to Di Natale, and went about the evening unscathed. Miccoli, he said, had too dark a complexion, too unshaven: a Salentine specimen. Yet it is this alien nature, alongside Miccoli’s seemingly illogical devotion to the club of Palermo that makes him, in our reading, so utterly Palermitan and Mediterranean. It is common knowledge that Miccoli is an avid Lecce fan, who has only been able to form one other emotional bond in his career, with his Sicilian adopters. The way in which this unreformed ultra can embody the humours of another team is surely made possible by the sea. Miccoli is homesick, to be sure, but his is the nostalgia of the sailor, always on the move, never settled enough for the melancholy to become despondent. Miccoli has already failed to woo Juventus enough to make a break in Turin. In a country split between earthy metropoles and dashing coastline, clearly he suits the saltier side of calcio. If the Mediterranean is a negative channel, then every marine breeze carries the scent of a hundred homes from which to be estranged. Palermo is just one club of many that might offer this respite; why not fall in love with such an indolent, indifferent town?
 Two recent books that reinforce this point are John Mack’s The Sea: a cultural history (London: Reaktion, 2011), and David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: a human history of the Mediterranean (London: Penguin, 2011). In their own way, each is an ancestor of Braudel’s creaking La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéan à l’époque de Philippe II (1949), one of the first great histories to ascribe causal priority to the environment.
 The Istanbul teams are also slightly trickier to fit into this salty model, partly because Istanbul is a port-capital, and partly because they exhibit gross domestic dominance and European flimsy. This piece for Run of Play would suggest that the three great clubs have elected to act out a pantomine of the history of the cultural baggage dumped on the metropolis like driftwood.
 Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics (London: Verso, 2007), p. 2.