Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Rise and Fall of Parma FC

Channel 4’s Italian football coverage during the mid nineties was a phenomenon. The Premiership Genration’s alternative on a Sunday afternoon (or for those without Sky) was to tune in to James Richardson coming live from Venice, Milan, Rome or Turin as he introduced the weekend’s big game.

On Saturday mornings Richardson would present Gazzetta, Football Italia’s MOTD equivalent. Once again in some glamorous location, JR would be sat at some swanky cafe with a sexy looking ice cream or cappuccino that you bet your life doesn’t taste like the crap at Starbucks while the beautiful people of Italy did their thing in the background.

Fundamentally, the setting served as an allegory for the sport. While in England football was all about the blood and guts, hell for leather, all heart and no skills and various other clichés, our Italian cousins were all about the flair and skill which we could only look upon in awe.

Serie A was Europe’s top league at the end of the last century. Italian teams had all the money, the world’s best players and were contesting (read: winning) European finals on a regular basis.

In recent years all this has changed thanks to a) the explosion of the premier league over here and b) Italy’s massive corruption scandals.

In any event, back then, Lazio vs. AC Milan was a far more enticing prospect than Oldham vs. Wimbledon.

The influence of Calcio wasn't just about screaming GOLAZZO at the top of your lungs after lashing one into the top corner at lucnhtime when forced to play footy with a tennis ball. Alongside our favoured English side, every kid had an Italian side they would ‘support’ for the sake of variation. My team was not the dominant Juventus, the incredible Milan, or even Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne’s Lazio.

No, as a typical sucker for the underdog, my team was Parma.

Based in the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of Italy, the name is more often associated with the ham than the football club.

Parma FC doesn’t have much of a history and are not as famous as their more illustrious Serie A rivals. In fact, ‘AC’ Parma was only promoted to Italy’s top division for the first time in 1990 thanks mostly to Lire upon Lire of investment from parent company and dairy giant Parmalat.

My love affair began when the club won the now defunct European cup winners cup at Wembley stadium in 1993 – beating Belgian side Antwerp 3-1. They also beat AC Milan in the European Super Cup but were unable to successfully defend the ECWC when they lost the 1994 final 1-0 against Arsenal in Copenhagen.

Parma’s reputation had already been established with the likes of Faustino Asprilla, Gianfranco Zola and Thomas Brolin (when he wasn’t so fat) under the guidance of Nevio Scala, the club went on to win the UEFA Cup in 1995 beating Juventus 2-1 on aggregate. They also reached the Copa Italia final that year but Juve were to have their revenge winning 3-0 over two legs.

When Carlo Ancelotti replaced Scala in 1996, Parma came within a whisker of the 1997 Serie A title – ultimately losing out by just a couple of points.

More Italian Cup and UEFA cup success over the next few years were to follow but it wasn’t just trophies that cemented Parma’s reputation as one of Italy’s top clubs. The players that have been in and out of the revolving door that is the Ennio Tardini reads like a who’s who of footballing greats of the last decade. Aside from the aforementioned Zola et al, Hristo Stoichcov, Fabio Cannavro, Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo, Lillian Thuram, Adriano, Roberto Mussi, Hakan Suker, Adrian Mutu and the World’s most expensive goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon have all donned the Traditional white (or blue and yellow hooped) shirt.

Parma always found it hard to hold on to these stars and without the prestige and history of the likes of Inter or Fiorentina; players rarely showed any sort of loyalty and would often get itchy feet; using the club as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Parma was nothing more than the world’s most glamorous selling club.

Then came the Parmalat fraud scandal of 2003. The dairy company’s outrageous financial mismanagement and insolvency meant that, as an asset of company, AC Parma was screwed financially.

As the club fought for its very existence, big names and big contracts were scarce in Parma. In much the same way players had no loyalty to the club, there were no rich benefactors willing to bail them out. Parma was a small club punching above its weight. When Fiorentina suffered similar collapse some years back, they bounced back almost instantly and after today, will compete in next season’s Champion’s League competition. Unlike Parma, the Florence side had the stature, support and backing to make sure they wouldn’t stay down for long.

The last few years have seen some stability return at board level but not enough of a backing to see the club hit the heights of the last decade. The team has been battling against the dreaded drop for the past few years and today, finally, their fate was sealed following a 2-0 home defeat to Inter Milan which also handed the Nerazzurri the title.

A sad occasion for everyone who remembers the glory days.

Like WCW, The Spice Girls, The Super NES and other things popular in the 1990s, Parma’s 15 minutes are up. Serie B football is on the agenda for the foreseeable future and only time will tell if we will ever see Gialloblu rubbing shoulders with Italy’s big boys again.

1 comment:

Paulie said...

A well-written and memory-stirring account of a truly great club and a time when Italian football was the ultimate sporting produce.

So many great players, great Channel 4 coverage and a chance for those of us who grew up without Sky to witness quality live football every weekend.

I salute this blog and all those who remember the good old days.