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Nineties Nostalgia: The rise and fall of a cult Parma side

Upon hearing the news of Parma’s recent relegation I became consumed by a sense of despondency, a fear at what the future might hold for one of the beloved clubs from my childhood.

The demotion made me ponder if I’d ever again witness the Gialloblu reach the heights they achieved in the 90s. Their 1999 UEFA Cup winning side in particular holds a special place in my heart, representing a time when my passion for the sport was in full bloom.


Like so many 90’s children growing up in the UK & Ireland I became familiar with Italian football through Channel 4’s highlight show Gazetta Football Italia. I was instantly enthralled by the spectacle of Serie A. The volatile atmosphere on the terraces, the innumerable bitter rivalries, the technical proficiency (and theatrics) of the players – the Virgilian drama of it all.

It was an alternate education in football. Like an Erasmus year spent in Rome, it broadened my horizons, teaching me about both the light, and dark sides of the beautiful game.

Serie A boasted a wealth of riches during this era, the cream of world football. Players like Roberto Baggio, Paulo Maldini, Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo, Giuseppi Signori, Francesco Totti – the top teams had not one, or two, but many stars. Indeed the decade represents a particularly prosperous period for Italian clubs in Europe, with eight Italian teams reaching European Cup or Champions league finals (3 wins), and thirteen reaching UEFA Cup finals (7 wins). It was an age of considerable continental dominance punctuated by relative European novices, Parma.

It is rather mind-blowing to think that the Emilia-Romagna club were an unknown quantity (outside of Italy) until their promotion to Serie A in 1990. The city of Parma was placed firmly on the European football map just one year later, when it was purchased by food corporation and club sponsor, Parmalat. The conglomerate, owned by local businessman Calisto Tanzi, pumped cash into the club, elevating it from the status of Serie A newcomers to UEFA Cup winners within just four years.

Under the stewardship of fabled manager Nevio Scala, Parma emerged as a real force in the early 90s. The Ducali’s meteoric rise saw them clinch the Coppa Italia in ‘92, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and European Super Cup in ‘93, and the UEFA Cup in ‘95. However, football is a fickle business. In a move indicative of Tanzi’s hunger for success, Scala, who had guided Parma to a disappointing sixth-placed finish that season, was sacked in the summer of ‘96.

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Scala’s replacement, Carlo Ancelotti, received the full financial backing of the Tanzi family from the outset. Parma’s defence was bolstered by the addition of Lillian Thuram, its midfield with the acquisition of Mario Stanić, and its attack with the signings of strikers Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa.

Ancelotti’s dynamic side finished runners-up in Serie A in ‘97, just two points behind champions Juventus. It may have been Parma’s highest league finish ever, but it wasn’t enough to save Ancelotti’s skin. The following season, after a sixth-placed finish in Serie A, Ancelotti was axed by the merciless Tanzi.

Enter ex-Fiorentina coach Alberto Malesani – the man who would guide the Crociati to the most successful season in their illustrious 107-year history. After an impressive ‘97/’98 campaign with La Viola, Malesani was handed the role of a lifetime, along with a squad of players who were the envy of his fellow managers.

He inherited a core of players who had immersed themselves in the culture of the club, and were fully committed to achieving Tanzi’s lofty ambitions. With the addition of key players like Juan Sebastián Verón, Alain Boghossian, Paolo Vanoli and Diego Fuser in the summer, Malesani had everything he needed to launch a two-pronged campaign for domestic and European success.

The spine of Malesani’s team read like a World XI team sheet. At the back were academy graduate Gianlugi Buffon, future Ballon d’Or winner Fabio Cannavaro, veteran Argentinian Néstor Sensini and, one of the most commanding defenders the game has ever seen, Thuram. In midfield, the silky talents of new boy Verón were complimented by the steel of Dino Baggio and Boghossian. Up front, the duo that had been installed by Ancelotti remained intact, with Crespo and Chiesa among the most feared strike partnerships in the division. Crespo in particular shone, his 28 goals in all competitions during the ‘98/’99 campaign remains the most goals scored by a Parma player in a season.

This is just a sampling from that great squad, the tip of the iceberg. Delve a little deeper and the names will still role off the tongue of any devout Serie A fan. Antonio Benarrivo, Luigi Sartor, Faustino Asprilla, Roberto Mussi, Stefano Fiore, Abel Balbo – it was a collection of players who, on their day, had the capacity to be world-beaters.

Parma began their ‘98/’99 Serie A campaign inconsistently, with just nine points taken from their opening six fixtures. Their patchy form continued well-into November, before a run of five wins in six matches, including a 4-0 demolition of AC Milan at Stadio Ennio Tardini, catapulted Maselani’s side to top of the table. Expectations sky-rocketed, as did the volume of coverage devoted to Parma in the Italian press. Speculation was rife about where their momentum might take them.

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By the end of February, Parma, who were still in contention for the Scudetto, were one of a tightly knit group of three teams (along with Fiorentina and AC Milan) chasing outright leaders Lazio. Unexpectedly, their Serie A campaign began to unravel thereafter. They ended the season with six losses in their final 11 fixtures, picking up just 11 points along the way. Though their fourth-placed finish secured Champions League football for the following season, it left both fans and pundits contemplating what might have been.

So where did it all go wrong?

It was easy to be blinded by the bright lights of Parma’s star-studded defence but, in reality, their performances in the latter stages of the season were well below par. Despite conceding the third fewest goals that season (36) they were prone to mistakes and conceded three goals to both rock-bottom Empoli and lowly Piacenza. However, to blame the team’s capitulation in the league on their defence alone is to overlook a comparatively misfiring offence.

While Crespo bagged a respectable tally of 16 league goals that campaign, his fellow attackers were anything but clinical. Strikers Chiesa, Asprilla and Balbo managed just 14 goals between them, and it was left to attack-minded midfielders Stanić (7) and Fuser (7) to pick up the slack.

In truth, their abysmal end of season league form was mostly a product of their own ambition. Their quest for success on all fronts fatigued their squad, with important players often missing for key league fixtures through injury. Mid-way through March, when an eight-point gap to leaders Lazio opened up, whether consciously or otherwise, their focus turned to the cup competitions.

Victory in the UEFA Cup and the Copa Italia were certainly more achievable goals, and there was a feeling within the club that they were a team more suited to the knock-out format. They had already demonstrated on numerous occasions that, on top form, they could outplay anyone.

Understandably Parma’s triumph in the ‘99 Coppa Italia has been overshadowed by their UEFA Cup success. It is a pity it has become something of an appendix to the their sterling season – for it too was a monumental achievement. Their first true test in the competition came against Inter, who sat just one place behind them in Serie A. The Milanese outfit was studded with superstars. Despite the abounding talents of Javier Zanetti, Youri Djorkaeff, Aron Winter, Iván Zamarano, Ronaldo, Baggio (Roberto) and others, Inter were having an underwhelming domestic season.

The two sides met at the San Siro in February for the first leg of their cup tie, with Parma running out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Verón and Balbo. A 2-1 result in the reverse fixture saw Malesani’s side progress to the final, and a date with fellow Scudetto hopefuls, Fiorentina. Under the guidance of Giovanni ‘Il Trap’ Trapattoni, the Gigliati were enjoying their best domestic campaign in years. With Trap at the helm, and generational talents like Rui Costa and Batistuta at his disposal, Fiorentina were a dangerous outfit.

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The two-legged final was an altogether captivating series. The first leg, played out in front of 21,000 partisan fans tightly packed into the Ennio Tardini, was a tense affair with neither side giving an inch defensively. With the away goals rule in effect, a 1-1 draw favoured Fiorentina. In the return leg, pressing home their advantage, the Florentines transformed the Stadio Artemio Franchi into a bubbling cauldron of home support. The oscillating banners, the blinding luminescence of the flares, the droning whistles whenever Parma were in possession – if Mount Amiata had erupted, you’d have been forgiven for not noticing.

Parma began the match in the ascendancy, probing and prodding the Fiorentina defence with some regularity. Three minutes before half-time their patience was rewarded. When Fuser pinged in a low cross from the right hand side danger man Crespo was there to meet it, flicking the ball into the back of the net with an audacious touch. Future West Ham defender Tomáš Řepka equalised three minutes after the restart, just before Sandro Cois put the Tuscan side ahead. However Cois’ joy was short-lived. Just nine minutes later Vanoli latched on to Chiesa’s lofted cross and powered a header past a helpless Francesco Toldo.

With the sides level at 3-3 on aggregate, and Parma ahead on away goals, Maselani relied on his experienced rearguard to see out the remaining minutes – and that they did. The victory was just their second in the competition (‘92 being the other) and represented a giant step towards the elite tag the Tanzi’s so desperately craved. More importantly though, the triumph came as a much welcomed boost in confidence, with the UEFA Cup final coming just a week later.

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Parma’s UEFA Cup adventure saw them endure a few close calls in the early rounds of the competition. Their 3-2 defeat of Fenerbahçe, 3-2 victory against Wisła Kraków and 4-2 triumph over Rangers were challenging ties, but were tighter scorelines than they should have been.

Malesani’s side were drawn against high-flying French outfit Bordeaux in the quarter-finals. The Nouvelle-Aquitaine outfit posed a potent attacking threat, with gifted playmaker Johan Micoud supplying the ammunition for strikers Sylvain Wiltord and Lilian Laslandes.

Bordeaux beat Parma 2-1 in the first leg in France, but the return leg was an altogether one-sided affair. The Italians battered their French opponents 6-0, with a brace each for Chiesa and Crespo. With that victory they laid down their marker. It was like a shot across the bows of their semi-final opponents, Atlético Madrid. Possibly rattled, the Spanish side crumbled in the first leg, going down 3-1 at home, before losing 2-1 in the reverse fixture. The 5-2 aggregate victory for Parma reaffirmed their European credentials – that resounding victory over Bordeaux was no fluke.

The final, played in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, is the match that cemented Parma’s reputation as an up and coming European club. Their opponents Marseille were a wounded animal, the sting of losing the Ligue 1 crown to rivals Bordeaux (by one point) was still fresh. Les Olympiens had enjoyed a comparatively easier path to Moscow, dispatching Monaco, Celta Vigo and Bologna en route to the final. The French side were weakened by bans to key players, but could still call upon the likes of Robert Pires, Laurent Blanc and Florian Maurice.

Parma dominated from the outset, relentlessly attacking the rigid Marseille backline. With 26 minutes on the clock an uncharacteristic mistake by veteran Blanc allowed Crespo in behind, and the Argentinian hitman lobbed the ball over a stranded Stéphane Porato and into the net. Before the French side could react they were two down – Vanoli meeting Fuser’s deep cross with a perfectly placed header. Ten minutes after the restart Chiesa killed the game off, latching on to Verón’s centre and powering a half-volley past the hapless Porato.

In the aftermath of the final came the inevitable exodus of talent – the fate of any overachieving side outside of the established elite. Verón was sold to Lazio, Chiesa to Fiorentina and Fiore to Udinese. The following season Crespo joined his compatriot Verón at Lazio and Stanić was snapped up by Chelsea.

In the summer of 2001 the heart was ripped out of Malesani’s team – the sales of Buffon and Thuram to Juventus marking the end of an era and indeed an end to Malesani’s tenure at the club. Loyal to the end Cannavaro was the last of the old guard to jump ship, leaving for Inter in the summer of ‘02.

This loss of personnel was but a mere setback compared to the storm that had been brewing on the horizon for years – The Parmalat scandal. It remains Europe’s biggest bankruptcy to this day. The company that had facilitated the club’s rapid rise was deemed “too big to fail”, yet it did just that. Parmalat’s debts were eventually fixed at €14.3bn in 2004, a figure eight times that which the Tanzi family had previously admitted to. The head of the family, Calisto, would serve an eight-year prison sentence after he was convicted of embezzling a reported €800m to offset his family’s losses.

The impact of this financial crisis had a catastrophic impact on the club, one that will undoubtedly echo for decades to come. The club went into administration in April 2004, before reforming as a phoenix club, known as Parma FC just three months later. The sordid affair doesn’t end there though. The newly formed club found themselves entrenched in another financial mire in 2015, and filed for bankruptcy once again. Reforming as Parma Calcio 1913 the club, who had been demoted to Serie D, were backed by new Chinese owner Jiang Lizhang and rose rapidly through the divisions.

Parma returned the top flight in 2018, but their stay was all too brief. Lacklustre performances this season have seen them win just three matches, picking up a paltry total of 20 points. I had hoped their return to Serie A might signal a Leeds-like revival at the club. Instead, their recent relegation has simply left me with a melancholic longing for those grand old days when Parma were the team on the lips of everyone in the school yard.

Read – Cherry-Picked: Five brilliant teams that overachieved before being bought up by Europe’s elite

Read Also – Iconic Performances: Fabio ‘The Berlin Wall’ Cannavaro in the 2006 World Cup semi-final

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