Parma were one of football’s most popular teams of the ‘90s. The club enjoyed a glorious decade before being thrown into financial turmoil and forced to start life again as a semi-professional side. This is the rise, fall and rise again of Parma.
Few memories evoke stronger feelings of nostalgia than the Football Italia years, and few teams encapsulate that period better than Parma.
Parma were a provincial side from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. The club enjoyed limited success up until the early 1990s, when heavy investment was ploughed into the club by local business tycoon, Calisto Tanzi.
Tanzi was the founding owner of mass dairy conglomerate, Parmalat. At the time, the company was responsible for almost one-percent of Italy’s entire GDP and employed over 36,000 people across the country.
The sudden influx of cash helped propel Parma to Serie A promotion before the club built one of the most iconic sides in football history – with players like Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Juan Sebastián Verón and Hernán Crespo all donning the iconic yellow and blue strip.
Across an illustrious decade, Parma captured seven major trophies, including two UEFA Cups and three Coppa Italias. The success, however, wasn’t to last.
By 2004, the club was declared insolvent after Parmalat ran into financial disarray via a fraud scandal. Parma’s iconic team slowly started to disband as the club was propped up by administrators, who sought to raise funds by selling its prized assets.
A false dawn arose in 2007, when the club was bought out of administration by Tommaso Ghirardi. The new owner had promised to bankroll Parma back up the league, but upon discovering the club held debt closer to €200m, as opposed to the €40-50m he’d previously assumed, he quickly jumped ship.
One-and-a-half months later and Parma was sold again, this time for a pitiful €1. It was an insult to the club and its fans, who’d had to endure seeing their club’s reputation dragged through the mud as it slowly reached breaking point.
The situation spiralled out of control from there. The new owners attempted to build up a network of players to loan and sell but eventually ended up with 300 registered professionals on their books, the most in Europe.
It quickly became infeasible to pay everyone’s wages and, in the blink of an eye, the money tap was turned off. No-one, from the groundsman to the playing staff, were being paid for their services.
“We have to stick with the club and its fans and hopefully bring Parma back to where it belongs.”
Alessandro Lucarelli, former Parma captain
Despite going unpaid, the players initially rallied around and decided to keep the club afloat themselves; they funded everything, from match day stewarding, to away day travel for fans.
With little help from the Italian Football Federation, the players eventually decided to stop and implored their governing body to help save the club. No such support was forthcoming, and so, Parma was inevitably declared bankrupt in March 2015.
The club ceased to exist, stripped of all its former glories, and were forced to start a phoenix club, rising from the ashes under the new guise of Parma Calcio 1913, and starting life again in Italy’s highest tier of semi-professional football: Serie D.
Naturally, there were mass departures, but one man remained – club captain, Alessandro Lucarelli. The defender had been at Parma since 2008, and had been the glue holding a fragile club together up until the collapse.
“We have to stick with the club and its fans and hopefully bring Parma back to where it belongs,” he told COPA90. “Playing in Serie D is my way of paying the fans back. They are fantastic.”
His loyalty to the club did not go unnoticed by Parma’s fans, who bought up more season tickets ahead of the Serie D season than they had for their final Serie A campaign.
The increase in match day revenue, coupled with unprecedented support in Italy’s fourth tier, helped power Parma through an unbeaten season, as the club amassed the highest points tally ever accumulated in the division.
From there, the promotions kept coming in consecutive fashion. First, back up into Serie B, before the club again reached the promised land, securing Serie A promotion at the end of the 2017/18 season.
Parma’s final promotion was aided by a new Chinese investor, Jiang Lizhang. Shedding the murky, dodgy stereotype of owners past, Lizhang committed to supporting the club as well as ensuring it retained its local identity.
Lizhang’s 60-percent ownership was added to by the 30-percent owned by Nuovo Inizio – a group of local entrepreneurs – while former club legend, Hernán Crespo, was also appointed as Parma’s new Vice President.
At the heart of all three promotions was club captain, Lucarelli. He left the club in the summer of 2018, but his commitment, loyalty and passion for Parma has ensured he will forever be immortalised by its fans.
Parma have remained in Serie A ever since. The club is yet to hit the glorious heights of yesteryear, but with a strong playing squad and a comfortable 14th-placed finish last season, Parma finally look set for glory once more.