Love for the team, grit, passion and leadership – those qualities would be the perfect identikit for the captain of any team. Here in Palermo all of those aforementioned qualities were concentrated in one man – a man who played 11 years with the Rosanero jersey, a man who stayed here despite playing in Serie C1, collecting 321 caps with our team and whose biggest regret is to have only desired that dream called Serie A. His name is Roberto Biffi and for 11 years he guided the Rosanero defense through the darkest days of Palermo Calcio.
For 11 years, Rosanero fans complained about him because he had a monopoly on every free kick (most of which ended up outside the pitch), and shot his classical “bomb” (‘a bumma), with no good results. That Rosanero shirt became a second skin to him, despite being rumored to leave Palermo every summer, whether it was due to the numerous disagreements with his trainers or with the presidents. Nevertheless, he left only when it seemed he would end his career in Sicily. He collected a lot of red cards during the course of the 11 years, but long bans and a few injuries never brought his record into question. He could have played more than “just” 321 matches in Palermo – it’s true – but without those red cards, he would have never been the same Biffi.
Roberto arrived in Palermo in the summer of 1988. He was just 23 and had just acquired some Serie C1 experience in Modena and Foggia in addition to four appearances in Serie B with Milan when he was just 20.
“I can’t believe I’m in Palermo, it’s a great chance for me. Please, give me some photos of me with the Rosanero jersey, I have to give them to my family!”
That Palermo team was reborn out of the ashes just two years before and young guys like Biffi gave enthusiasm to a hungry town. However, despite a few ambitious declarations, the team conquered promotion to Serie B only in 1991. Biffi started his adventure in Palermo by arguing with coach Giorgio Rumignani (who would eventually be sacked after missing out on promotion to Serie B), but despite these problems, he was untouchable. Biffi was the leader of the team and all of his coaches knew that; thus, nobody wanted to keep him on the bench.
Palermo gained Serie B in 1991 but upon achieving that promotion, they couldn’t succeed in obtaining salvation and were relegated. During that summer, Biffi’s adventure in Palermo appeared to be over, but he decided to stay in Sicily to conquer Serie B once again. His choice proved to be a wise one and the team was awarded not only with promotion but also with the Serie C Coppa Italia title – the first (and only) trophy in club history. From there on out, Biffi became an idol for Rosanero fans. Even when rumors circulated around him joining some bigger team, he never thought to leave Palermo.
In 1994, Biffi faced his past, playing in the Coppa Italia against Milan – the club where he played when he was just a young Primavera player. Palermo lost that match only after a penalty shootout, and Biffi was uniquely remembered because of a terrible foul on Dejan Savićević, injuring the Yugoslavian star who would end up missing 10 months to recuperate. In his first appearance on the national stage, Biffi failed to show his best skills, yet his only regret was losing that match. After two easy salvations in Serie B, it was time for Biffi and for Palermo to show off their best.
In 1995, the Rosanero shocked Italy with ”Il Palermo dei Picciotti” in which Biffi captained the team. In the Coppa Italia, Biffi destroyed the Bulgarian starlet Hristo Stoičkov. Meanwhile, in Serie B, he guided the team along with Vasari towards a dream called Serie A. Unfortunately, the dream never happened, and in the following season Palermo dropped down to Serie C1.
Unlike the other picciotti, Biffi decided to stay in Palermo. He was 32, his career was on a downward trend and he still was the leader of the team. He thought he could help the Rosanero get back to Serie B, but his prediction would be completely wrong. Palermo ended up falling to Serie C2, after losing the play-out game against Battipagliese – it would be the lowest point of Biffi’s career. However, before the new season began, Palermo found out they’d be staying in Serie C1 thanks to the bankruptcy and subsequent dismantling of Ischia Isolaverde. As a result, Palermo was ready for a difficult season in Serie C1 with a team built for Serie C2. The club’s only goal was to gain an easy salvation.
Biffi wasn’t happy about the situation and he displayed all his anger in a Serie C Coppa Italia match against Catania. Palermo lost the derby 2-0 and as the final whistle blew, Biffi got ejected. While leaving the pitch, he pulled down his pants while making obscene gestures to Catania fans. As a result, Biffi was hit with a lengthy ban and denounced.
When he finally returned to the pitch, he once again guided his team to a memorable ride towards Serie B. Sadly, Palermo wasn’t good enough to reach that goal. Fermana ended up winning the championship, and Palermo fought for Serie B in the playoffs against 5th seeded Savoia. Palermo surprisingly lost both the home and away fixtures. Biffi was ejected in his record 321st match with the Rosanero. Meanwhile, Savoia ended up reaching Serie B at the end of the playoffs by beating Juve Stabia.
After two more years, Palermo would reach Serie B. Yet, the club achieved that feat without their record man, but with a new president, a new team and a new captain. Roberto Biffi would end his career close to his hometown, never forgetting, though, what he got from and what he gave to a town who loved him for 11 years.
“Un capitano, c’è solo un capitano!”