In Sicily, where it’s still pretty much midsummer, these are confusing times. As citizens of Palermo rouse themselves with the world’s strongest shots of espresso, they see around them what appear to be hallucinations. Everywhere are men wearing pink shirts. The post-machismo colours of the local football team had always been a rare sight on the island, like correctly parked cars, because Sicilian football was usually terrible. But Palermo start this weekend joint top of the Italian league. Stranger still, two other Sicilian teams – Messina and Catania – are in Italy’s top 11. The island’s football has never been so strong. It would be nice to say that this symbolises a new Sicily but it doesn’t. Instead Sicily’s rise symbolises the malaise in Italy, land of the world champions.

On the map, Sicily famously looks like the ball being kicked by the Italian boot. In football as in most other things, the beautiful island generally takes a kicking. Palermo went bust as early as 1939, long before bankruptcy became fashionable in Italian football. In the 1990s both Catania and Messina briefly dropped out of professional football. Only three years ago politicians in Catania were suggesting that the club join the Maltese league.

In bribery too, Sicilian clubs pointed the way forward decades before this year’s Italian scandal. Catania were relegated in 1955 for bribing a referee and his cousin. Palermo in 1980 saw their injured captain arrested and handcuffed in the stands.

In the good years, when Sicilian clubs weren’t going bust, they tended to scrabble about in Italy’s lower leagues. When northern fans deigned to notice Sicily, it was mostly to mock it: Verona supporters took a banner to Catania that read “Forza Etna”, a cheer urging on the town’s volcano. Sicily’s most illustrious footballer, “Totò” Schillaci, soon migrated north to Juventus and Inter Milan, where he suffered racist abuse.

Sicilians wisely tended to ignore their own teams. The most popular club on the island was always Juventus, even if it played hundreds of miles away in Turin. Most Sicilians had relatives there, migrants who had gone north to work for Fiat. AC Milan, too, had almost as many official fan clubs in Sicily as in their hometown.

But, to quote the Sicilian novelist Elio Vittorini, “There’s no cheese like our own cheese.” In 2004 Sicilians rediscovered their own football. That summer Palermo and Messina were promoted to Serie A, Italy’s highest division, after respectively 30 and 40 years outside it. Several hundred thousand Palermans celebrated in the streets with fireworks, slightly raising the city’s usual noise level. The club’s owner, Maurizio Zamparini, a supermarket magnate from the Friuli region of northern Italy, said, “We have realised the dream of millions of Sicilians around the world.”

This summer Catania joined its neighbours in Serie A. That means frequent Sicilian derbies at the highest level. This is not altogether happy news because, as the criminologist Nigel Walker says, “The conventions of the vendetta are . . . followed not only by Sicilian peasants but also by football teams, colleges, politicians, book reviewers and media personalities.” Thus in 2001 Catania’s hooligans cheered when they landed a bomb in a stand of Messina supporters. It killed a 24-year-old. Last month Sicilian derbies generated two nights of fighting in a week. “It was like in Lebanon,” commented Catania’s police chief.

Sicilians get touchy when outsiders mention their tradition of violence. West Ham fans discovered this last month when they showed up on the island in T-shirts that said, “Hammers v. Mafia”. The same joke had miraculously occurred to Slavia Prague, who before playing Palermo in last season’s UEFA Cup put a photograph on their website of two of their players dressed in sunglasses and hats, alongside the phrase “Kosa Nostra”.

But this column will not mention horses’ heads or Al Pacino. We refuse to slur Sicily with outdated stereotypes and, in any case, it’s silly to irritate people who might make you offers you can’t refuse.

Sicily’s footballing glory coincides with the recent capture in an isolated farmhouse of Bernardo Provenzano, boss of all bosses of the Sicilian mafia. It’s tempting to say these events point to some broader local renaissance. In fact, they don’t. The island remains desperate. Each year the Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper ranks Italian provinces by quality of life. Poor Messina spent 2003 and 2004 in 103rd and last place. Last year it bounced off the bottom but both Catania and Palermo made the last five. And Silvio Berlusconi’s plan to blow €4.4bn on a bridge linking Sicily with the mainland was binned this month.

Rather than Sicily rising, northern football has collapsed. Of all the leagues in the world, probably only Argentina’s has gone to pot as spectacularly. The demise transcends this summer’s demotion of Juventus and the punishment of other clubs for bribing referees. Italian football has been shedding spectators for 20 years. Back in 1985 the Serie A averaged crowds of nearly 40,000 a game. This season it’s below 20,000 – lower than France (something that was once unthinkable) and the worst figure since 1970. Given all the violence, bribery, bankruptcies and exodus of stars abroad, it’s a wonder any Italians still watch at all. Palermo’s stadium is on average 80 per cent full, the highest rate in the Serie A. For comparison: most stadiums in England’s Premiership are at least 95 per cent full.

The clubs on Italy’s mainland are mostly out of cash and Zamparini points to another change: after the bribery scandal, referees stopped cheating for the big clubs. When Sicily can compete, you know the Italian system has broken down.

Alessandro del Piero, Juventus’s great fantasista, when asked who he was supporting in the Serie A this season, deadpanned in a Sicilian accent: “Palemmo.” So say many Italian fans, who dream of Palemmo becoming the smallest champions of Italy since Cagliari of Sardinia in 1970.

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