This feature is part of The Football Italia Years

The history of Italy can be traced through that of its cities. Each has carved out its own social, cultural and political identity, and each has endured its own struggles and victories. This was particularly pronounced during the Renaissance, when Italian city-states battled for supremacy.

These republics were ruled by wealthy dynasties who had a voracious appetite for power, the most influential of whom included the Medici of Florence, the Sforzas of Milan and the Borgias of Rome. When the Duchy of Parma was created in 1545 – after Pope Paul III bequeathed the city and its surrounding territory to his illegitimate son Pier Luigi – the papal House of Farnese ensured Parma’s influence rose with it.

The vestiges of this familial patronage and power-grabbing endure. And in the 1990s, the financial clout of the Tanzi family helped the city of Parma thrive like never before. Under the aegis of pater familias Calisto, their food conglomerate Parmalat made the province an economic and industrial hub. Above all, however, Calisto Tanzi recognised that Parma Calcio was the perfect vehicle through which to expand and conquer. Backed by Tanzi’s riches and guided by masterful tacticians, the Ducali became one of Italy’s seven powerful sisters and were dubbed Il Grande Parma.

In the space of a decade between 1992 and 2002, they won two UEFA Cups, one European Cup Winners’ Cup, one European Super Cup and three Coppa Italia. This unprecedented success would come at a fatal cost after the financial implosion of Parmalat in 2003. But the story of Parma’s rise is an indelible chapter in the Football Italia years.

 

Prologue

 

Campanilismo – or local patriotism – is keenly felt amongst the people of Parma. Located in Emilia-Romagna, a region bounded by the River Po and contiguous with Tuscany, Liguria, Lombardy and the Veneto, its natural resources have historically made the city prosperous. Indeed, the Parmigiani can be somewhat supercilious at times.

After all, this is a city that boasts a theatre (Teatro Regio) to rival Milan’s La Scala, Lamborghinis to rival Modena’s Ferraris and some of the world’s finest produce, such as prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The famed composer Giuseppe Verdi was also Parmigiano and in the past, the players of Parma Calcio have stepped onto the field at the Stadio Ennio Tardini to the tune of Verdi’s Marcia Trionfale. But in footballing terms, until the early 1990s, there had been little to be triumphant about.

Parma’s meteoric rise can be traced back to 1985 and their promotion to Serie B. This success owed much to their then head coach Arrigo Sacchi, who implemented his trademark 4-4-2 formation, honing his systems of zonal marking and integrated pressing – tactics that would later work with devastating effect at AC Milan. After steering Parma to within three points of Serie A promotion during the 1986-87 season, he answered Silvio Berlusconi’s call and joined the Rossoneri.

Whilst Sacchi completed his career-defining move to Milan, Parma were entering an epoch-changing contract of their own. Under president Ernesto Ceserini, they agreed a sponsorship deal with Parmalat. The fate of the club was sealed. Having oscillated between Serie D and Serie B since their inception in 1913, Parma were finally about to shed their provincial tag.

 

The Scala years: building a legacy

 

We tend to associate Il Grande Parma with the Carlo Ancelotti and Alberto Malesani years. These coaches boasted embarrassingly talented squads, with the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro, Juan Sebastián Verón, Diego Fuser, Enrico Chiesa and Hernán Crespo sporting the iconic yellow and blue stripes. Yet it was Nevio Scala who laid the groundwork and first took Serie A by storm.

Scala had enjoyed a successful start to his coaching career, leading Reggina to Serie B promotion during his debut season. Though reluctant to leave Calabria, Scala was percipient and recognised the potential in Parma’s project. When he arrived in Emilia, he dispensed with the customary platitudes and set about building something special. This was Scala, a man who worked assiduously on the training field and had little time for pontification.

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The Veneto-born coach immediately left his imprint, shelving Sacchi’s dogmatic 4-4-2 system for a 5-3-2 formation. The change brought instant success. After competing at the top of Serie B throughout the 1989-90 campaign, Parma beat local rivals Reggiana 2-0 in the season finale to claim the fourth and final promotion spot. After 77-years of existence, the Gialloblu had finally reached the paradise of Italy’s top-flight.

Poignantly, Ceserini – president since 1976 – was unable to enjoy this historic moment having passed away months earlier. But this only accelerated Parma’s revolution, paving the way for Parmalat to purchase 98 percent of the club’s shares. The helm was handed to the dairy giant’s CEO, Calisto Tanzi, and with the iconic Parmalat logo emblazoned across the breasts of the Crociati’s shirts, they began their crusade.

Calisto entrusted the presidential duties of the club to Parmalat colleague Giorgio Pedraneschi, who he set about enriching an already talented squad. Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel and Belgian sweeper Georges Grün joined the likes of Luigi Apolloni and Lorenzo Minotti to reinforce the back-line, whilst Sweden’s star of Italia 90, Thomas Brolin, was bought as an attacking foil to prima punta, Alessandro Melli.

Meanwhile, Scala continued to instil his tactical vision to great effect. The tecnico broke with the convention of a libero detached from the defensive line and his 5-3-2 was a hybrid system which could equally evolve into a 3-5-2, with the full-backs covering both wings. The Crociati reaped the rewards, finishing a remarkable fifth and qualifying for the UEFA Cup in their maiden Serie A season.

Investment in the squad continued and Scala headhunted young wing-backs Antonio Benarrivo and Alberto Di Chiara. The duo’s vibrancy was crucial to his tactical operandi, allowing for a seamless transition between his 5-3-2 and 3-5-2 configurations.

In light of the club’s ascending ambitions, their seventh-place finish in the following season came as a disappointment to their increasingly rapacious owners. However, victory over Juventus in the 1992 Coppa Italia final offered ample compensation. The triumph signalled the beginning of both a trophy-laden decade, and an era-defining rivalry with Juventus.

The Ducali’s success was also accompanied by increasing exposure for the Tanzis’ business. Indeed, the Parma jersey was one of the most valuable international advertising tools at Parmalat’s disposal. So entwined were brand and club that some foreign commentators even called the team Parmalat; a faux pas that delighted Calisto but irked Parmensi.

Whilst the cash continued to flow, Scala’s enthusiasm and relentless work-ethic was infectious. His team played rousing football, utilising swift counter-attacks and dynamic switches of play to stretch the opposition, whilst being able to rely on a compact defence and a good dose of cynicism whilst under pressure.

Furthermore, the Gialloblu’s shrewd transfer dealings maintained the balance between the creative and the industrious. The arrival of Faustino Asprilla from Atlético Nacional in 1992 and Gianfranco Zola from Napoli in 1993 provided fantasy and guile. Their attributes were supplemented by the diligence and mettle of Néstor Sensini and Massimo Crippa, who arrived from Udinese and Napoli respectively.

Between his fondness for the bella vita and his mesmerising footballing ability, Asprilla endeared himself to Parma fans. His status was cemented during the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, when his majestic double inspired Parma to victory against Atlético Madrid at the Vicente Calderón. Another magical night followed as Parma beat Royal Antwerp at Wembley and lifted their first piece of European silverware.

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Domestically, they finished the 1992-93 season in third, most notably putting an end to the 58-game unbeaten run of Fabio Capello’s AC Milan. Scala would prove Capello’s bête noire once again the following season, beating the Rossoneri in the European Super Cup.

But the pinnacle of Scala’s tenure came during the 1994-95 season, one which saw an incredible battle ensue with their new-found rivals Juventus. The two battled for honours on three fronts. Marcello Lippi’s Juve, irresistible as they were during that period, came out on top domestically, beating Parma in the Coppa Italia final whilst finishing 10-points ahead of them in Serie A. But when they met in the UEFA Cup final of 1995, it was Scala’s men who prevailed, thanks in no small part to their ex-Bianconero, Dino Baggio.

Having joined Parma in the summer, the tenacious central midfielder scored the only goal in the Crociati’s 1-0 first-leg victory at the Tardini, and then equalised in their 1-1 draw during the return fixture. Scala had outmanoeuvred Lippi, stifling Juve’s feared attacking triumvirate of Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravinelli and Roberto Baggio.

Forthright and realistic as always, however, Scala recognised that the Gialloblu could not sustain a domestic challenge: “We neither had the mental stamina nor resilience to win the Scudetto,” the Parma tactician reflected, “but in a one-off game, I can honestly say we were as good as anyone.”

Perhaps Scala’s greatest achievement lay in the simplicity of his overarching mantra: consistency. He resisted the temptation chop and change personnel, fostering a tight-knit group who were perfectly suited to his 5-3-2 system. But rulers such as Calisto Tanzi have always possessed a Machiavellian thirst for more and it was his meddling that ultimately led to Scala’s departure. The food tycoon desired a marquee name, a fuoriclasse who could change a game with the swing of a boot. A Scudetto title had become a priority.

Barcelona’s former Ballon d’Or winner Hristo Stoichkov was thought to be that man. However, Parma paid an eye-watering fee of £10 million for a player in the twilight of his career. Of course, that the Bulgarian’s arrival coincided with Parmalat’s expansion into Eastern Europe was wholly calculated. Tanzi was all about business and, as the Parmensi would later discover, his avarice knew no bounds.

Stoichkov’s introduction was also accompanied by the hierarchy’s demand for a change in tactics. But Scala had not earnt his colours by being obsequious and was unwilling to accommodate for three forwards, feeling that the Bulgarian’s presence was inhibiting Zola’s effectiveness and detracting from his team’s efficacy.

Nevertheless, after a sixth-place finish and no silverware to boot, Calisto had an overhaul in mind. Nepotism prevailed and the plutocrat passed the presidential crown from Pedraneschi to his son, Stefano. Despite his previous success, Parma’s Mister was also relieved of his duties and replaced by Reggio Emilia native, Carlo Ancelotti. Scala remained enamoured of the club and a doyen to the Parma faithful, but the quest for domination in Italy went on. For the first time, however, the pernicious and immoral hand of Calisto Tanzi had revealed itself.

 

Ancelotti and Malesani: disappointment and success

 

Compared to president Pedraneschi, Stefano Tanzi adopted a more hands-on and certainly less subtle approach. “Dreams are but wishes,” he uttered upon taking charge and he quickly set about maximising Ancelotti’s chances of domestic success. Thuram, Chiesa, Crespo and Mario Stanić were all added to an existing cornucopia of players, which included Cannavaro and youth product, Gigi Buffon. Tactically, Ancelotti shifted to a 4-4-2 and on occasions, stayed true to Scala’s tested 5-3-2 formation.

Unfortunately, however, disappointment imbued Ancelotti’s tenure. Pitted against the familiar foe of Lippi’s Vecchia Signora – who by that time were also reigning European champions – the Ducali were unable to budge the obdurate and wily Old Lady. With four games remaining, back-to-back 1-1 draws with Milan and Juve cost Parma dearly as their rivals claimed the 1996-97 title by a two-point margin.

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Ancelotti’s failure to win the Scudetto was compounded by his opposition to Stefano’s desire to sign AC Milan’s Roberto Baggio. The president wanted to be indulged and entertained. “At Parma,” he opined, “we can’t pretend that just winning the Scudetto is enough. We also need to play beautiful football.” But beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and like Scala before him, Ancelotti believed that signing a luxury player was not the answer.

The self-assured hubris of the Tanzis meant they soon grew impatient. After another trophy-less season, Ancelotti was jettisoned in favour of Alberto Malesani. The appointment was made not just with an eye towards success, it was also underpinned by the Tanzi’s desire for entertainment. The former Fiorentina boss was exuberant, loud-mouthed and renowned for playing a carefree style of football. His character was best embodied by his eccentric antics on the touchline and in particular his impassioned celebrations.

Parma’s players bought into these idiosyncrasies and after the experimentation of Ancelotti, the Gialoblu’s new Mister reverted to the familiar blueprint of Scala. And he certainly had the personnel to make it successful. With Buffon in goal and Thuram, Sensini and Cannavaro already occupying the central defensive positions, the Crociati signed Fuser and Paolo Vanoli to flank the aforementioned trio. The defence was protected by the deep-lying pair of Alain Boghossian and Baggio, whilst in front of them, Veron played as the fantasista behind Crespo and Chiesa – one of Europe’s deadliest strike duos. This side was the magnum opus of the Tanzi era: Il Grande Parma.

Unsurprisingly, the 1998-99 season proved the most successful in the club’s history, winning both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. Their 3-0 victory over Marseille in the final of the latter was utterly dominant and brutally clinical, encapsulated by the Gialloblu’s final goal. After a spell of concerted possession, Thuram stepped into midfield, carried the ball past two L’OM’ players and offloaded the ball to Veron on the right-wing. The Argentine then chipped a ball towards Hernán Crespo in the penalty area, who let the ball run through his legs for Chiesa to crash a volley into the roof of the net. Malesani danced on the touchline. Parma’s rise had reached its zenith.

Though the Ducali continued to enjoy some success – winning another Coppa Italia final in 2002 under coach Pietro Carmignani – the much-vaunted Scudetto eluded them. Furthermore, financial cracks started to appear in the Tanzi’s empire and the sale of Parma’s prized assets began: Verón and Crespo left to Lazio for a combined fee of over £50 million, followed by Thuram and Buffon to Juventus for almost £80 million. But this was not enough. The full extent of the Tanzi’s financial degeneracy was not revealed until 2003, by which time Parmalat had collapsed in a scandal often referred to as Europe’s Enron.

The company – which had been the eighth largest in Italy and represented one percent of its GDP – had accumulated debts totalling $20 billion. Calisto Tanzi was convicted of bankruptcy fraud, embezzlement and criminal association and sentenced to more than 17 years in prison.

With Parma’s fortunes tied both literally and figuratively to Parmalat, the club were put into controlled administration and run by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee until 2007. Just over 10 years after it had begun, Parma’s rise had been unceremoniously crushed.

 

Memories

 

In truth, Parma’s rise and fall resonates with that of Napoli’s, told earlier in this series. Both were the victims of the dubious business practices of their owners and both are symbolic of a glorious, yet dangerously extravagant era in Italian football.

Parma’s success during these years is inextricably linked to the patronage, corruption and chicanery of the Tanzi family. But the fans will always cherish the memories of a time when the Gialloblu became Italian and European powerhouses. Their Campanilismo was manifested through Parma’s glory and despite the chaos and suffering that followed, many Parmensi would not take any of it back.

In fact, according to Giovanni Dougall, a regular at the Tardini, there is a sense that the club are better for their trials and tribulations under the unscrupulous ownership of the Tanzis. Despite suffering a similar fate years later under yet another unscrupulous businessman in Tommaso Ghirardi, they remain optimistic that the glory days will return.

For now, however, they can remember with nostalgia the triumphs of Scala and Malesani. At that time, their rise seemed inexorable. But as a local proverb in Parmigiano vernacular reads: “When you climb a tree, remember that the higher you climb, the branches become thinner and you get further away from the ground.”

By Luca Hodges-Ramon. Follow @LH_Ramon25

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