On via Notarbartolo in Palermo, a tree leans in front of a house. Pinned to its bark like fallen leafs are pieces of paper. They convey the thoughts of the local community and are a form of civil resistance. Against what, you say? For the most part, against the mafia. It's a place of great symbolic importance, a shrine even. Why? Because Giovanni Falcone, the prosecuting magistrate, used to live there.
Throughout the 1980s, Falcone, together with his colleague and great friend Paolo Borsellino pursued the mafia like no one had ever done before. They followed the money. They brought an international vision to their investigations, collaborating with authorities in the United States and Switzerland. They managed a group of pentiti, men of honour who had turned state's witness in order to build a case against the mafia as a criminal organisation.
Of the 474 mafiosi originally charged in the maxi-trial that Falcone oversaw, 360 were convicted of serious crimes including 119 in absentia. It was the biggest defeat the mafia had ever suffered. The myth of its impunity had been broken. The long history of acquittals ended. Nothing brought that home more than when Italy's supreme court upheld the maxi-trial's verdict in January 1992.
Four months later, Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards were killed by a bomb placed in a pipe that ran underneath the road near the turn off for Capaci on the motorway between Punta Raisi airport and Palermo. The explosion was so huge it showed up on local earthquake monitors. Less than two months after losing his friend, Borsellino was also murdered along with his security brief as a car bomb was detonated in via D'Amelio.
Italy mourned and still mourns them both.
Last year was the 20th anniversary of the massacres. A charity football match, la partita del cuore, was one of the events held in their memory. Professional footballers took to the field alongside magistrates and judges. One of them was the Palermo striker Fabrizio Miccoli. Over his time at the club, he has become their all-time top scorer. He has dedicated some of his goals to Falcone and Borsellino.
So you can perhaps imagine the shock and disbelief felt on reading a report in La Repubblica last weekend that claimed to have seen transcripts of recordings by Palermo's anti-mafia directorate [the DIA] in which, it's alleged, Miccoli insulted the memory of Falcone. How could this possibly be?
Well, a couple of years ago, the DIA was pursuing the arrest of the boss of the Kalsa clan. He had gone into hiding and so, as part of their investigation, they put a wiretap on his son’s phone. The hope was that by eavesdropping on him they might discover his father’s whereabouts.
Apparently nothing they heard led the authorities directly to his arrest. Other lines of inquiry would reveal his location and after six years on the run he was finally captured while shopping for groceries in Palermo's Ballarò market in the fall of 2011.
The wire on his son’s phone supposedly wasn’t a futile exercise though. Other things of interest would emerge from it. Like, for instance, his friendship with a well-known footballer, who turned out to be Miccoli. Their alleged exchanges would raise eyebrows.
La Repubblica’s story made reference to a couple in particular. One was supposedly of a meeting they were arranging with a friend near the tree outside Falcone’s old house. The other was intercepted while they drove through the streets of Palermo in an SUV. Damningly in both, it’s alleged that Falcone was insulted.
There was outrage. Politicians, anti-mafia campaigners, fellow sportsmen and women all rounded on Miccoli. Falcone’s sister Maria said: “There are no words to describe Miccoli. It’s not even worth wasting a single word on him.” As the FIGC launched its own investigation, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Luigi Garlando wrote that, considering Miccoli is at the end of his contract with Palermo, perhaps now would be an opportune time for him to close his career.
The allegations that Miccoli insulted the memory of Falcone emerged as Palermo’s Public Prosecutor’s Office formally informed him that he is under investigation for extortion. It’s alleged he asked his friend to recover some money owed to him by the owners of a nightclub on the Isola della Femmine. It’s also alleged that Miccoli convinced the manager of a mobile phone shop to provide him with four SIM cards registered in the name of clients who had no idea of their existence. According to La Repubblica one of these was apparently given to the son of the boss of the Kalsa clan while his father was a fugitive.
Though understanding of the indignation, Miccoli’s representative Francesco Caliandro cautioned against rushing to judgement. Lest anyone forget, it is an on-going investigation and shouldn’t be jeopardised. “I cannot say anything, as the wiretaps do not appear in the evidence we have seen,” he said. “I can guarantee that everything will be clarified in front of the magistrates and we are at the authorities’ full disposal. We had already agreed on a hearing with the magistrates to clear everything up.”
That hearing was last Wednesday. Questioned for more than four and a half hours. Miccoli and his legal team then faced the public for the first time in a press conference the following day. His claim that he hadn’t been able to sleep for three days was believable from his bloodshot eyes. They soon welled up. Tears ran down his face. His voice trembled as he spoke.
“I’m a footballer, and not a mafioso,” Miccoli insisted. “I am against all the beliefs of the mafia. In the six years that I’ve been here I have tried to be open and friendly with everyone even without thinking about who or what I was actually coming face to face with.” An emotional apology followed. “I ask for the forgiveness of the whole city of Palermo. I ask for the forgiveness of my family who brought me up in the context of proper values and respect.” He then added: “One day I hope to be a spokesperson for the association created by Maria Falcone.”
The focus now is on clearing his name and restoring his reputation. It’s a depressing tale, one that adds to the sense of despair around Palermo following their relegation to Serie B. The good times when Miccoli led the team to within a whisker of qualifying for the Champions League and to the Coppa Italia final, scoring famous goals and recording famous victories against Italy’s giants have been eclipsed by the bad times. Once the idol of many fans at the Renzo Barbera he has fallen from grace and leaves under a dark cloud.
President Massimo Zamparini announced back in May that, with his contract set to expire, Miccoli’s contract wouldn’t be renewed. His picture has been taken down from Palermo’s official website.
Though he has expressed his opinion that Miccoli had been foolish in the company that he kept and that by now it was probably for the best he left Palermo, Zamparini did find some compassion and try to place the situation into context. “Footballers in the south have friendships with people not knowing whether they are criminals or normal people,” Zamparini said. “Heaven knows how many criminals I have shaken hands with and to how many of those I would not have offered my hand.”
A reminder of this is the earring Miccoli wears. He bought it at an auction some time ago. It once belonged to Diego Maradona. He of course became acquainted with members of underworld while at Napoli. There’s the famous picture of him sat in an empty bathtub shaped like a shell with the heads of a Camorra clan. But back to Miccoli.
It has been suggested that he visit via Notarbartolo. At Falcone’s funeral, Rosaria Costa, the young window of Vito Schifani, one of the bodyguards killed in the blast, gave a heartrending reading in which, addressing the mafia, she said: “I will forgive you but you must get down on your knees.” Miccoli, as he himself said, is a “footballer and not a mafioso” but he is asking for forgiveness. How and where better to do it, wrote Garlando in La Gazzetta dello Sport, than to kneel in front of the tree outside Falcone’s former residence on via Notarbartolo.