Alessandro Lucarelli: Parma’s selfless hero who took them from the fourth tier back to Serie A

Alessandro Lucarelli: Parma’s selfless hero who took them from the fourth tier back to Serie A

Football produces many stories. Some are sad, some are uplifting, and just a few are writ through with an impossible tale of devotion and romance that would test the credibility of any Hollywood scriptwriter bent on wringing a few tears from his audience. The difference, of course, is that in football there are no tall tales, no preordained scripts, with lines rehearsed and honed to perfection, emotions delivered with cold sterility.

In football there is reality. Spontaneity and reality. Drama and reality. Romance and reality. Above all, there is reality. It’s something that can at times be both cruel and mundane but, at others, inspiring and uplifting. Some stories, some football realities, you simply couldn’t make up. This may well be one of them.

Over the years, the story of Parma has been one of ups and downs. Success on the field tempered with financial shenanigans. In the early days of Channel Four’s iconic Football Italia coverage of Serie A, they were the outriders of style, the hipsters of calcio, everyone’s second favourite Italian team. Illuminated by some world-class stars, Parma fans were entertained with the exploits of Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Hernán Crespo, Juan Sebastián Verón, Gianfranco Zola, Enrico Chiesa, Hristo Stoichkov and Faustino Asprilla. The list goes on.

In recent times, though, fans of the club – and perhaps others as well – will surely look back at the end of the 2017/18 season, a time of renaissance, and place a much less internationally celebrated player at the forefront of the club’s legion of honour – and rightly so.

Ahead of all of those international stars will be the name of a player who refused to watch his club die. He promised an improbable salvation to the fans and, at the age of 41, with a decade of devoted service behind him, he delivered on his oath. This is a story of loyalty, a quality oft-disregarded in the modern-day game, but it also goes beyond that. It’s a story of resilience and inspiration, and a determined and dogged refusal to go gentle into that good night.

By dint of personality, desire and devotion, this is how one man, one player, one club stalwart delivered a Lazarus-like resurrection and saved his team. The number six that he wore with such distinction has now been retired by the club, and that seems entirely fitting. It’s doubtful whether any future player would ever again be able to fill out the shirt that bustled with so much love for his club. As with all good stories, though, this one begins with a seemingly unsolvable problem, with invaders at the gate, traitors within and the need for a hero.

At the end of the 2013/14 season, former Italy international Roberto Donadoni had guided Parma to sixth place in Serie A and a third consecutive top 10 finish in the league. It seemed that the good times were here to stay for the club from Emilia-Romagna, where the famous cheese and ham delicacies are produced. A diet of much more basic fare would soon be on the menu, though. Behind the scenes, financial impropriety and mismanagement were already brewing up a set of major problems that would result in a near-death experience for the club.

A late payment of some €200,00 in income tax due on players’ salaries caused UEFA to deny the club a licence and therefore prevented them from taking up a spot in the Europa League that their league position would otherwise have brought with it. Worse was to come. A three-point deduction for the following season – later increased to seven for failure to pay wages on time – was followed by a series of boardroom upheavals, as news of the financial crisis spread.

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Ownership changed hands like some Pass the Parcel game. Parma’s fortunes plummeted and results on the field followed the same downward trend. There would be no last-minute rescue and, as the doors to oblivion opened, ready to swallow up Parma, the end seemed near. In their ranks of playing staff, however, was a man who would rage against the going down of the sun at the Stadio Ennio Tardini. Parma had a hero in its midst. His name was Alessandro Lucarelli.

Lucarelli had joined Parma at the age of 30, a year after Tommaso Ghiradi had taken control of the club, purchasing it out of Administration in an auction in 2007. He was joining his brother Cristiano in a deal worth some €1.2m from Genoa. At the time, the central defender had spent a fairly unspectacular career travelling around eight different clubs and plying his trade in both Serie A and Serie B without making anyone sit up and take notice; almost the epitome of a journeyman professional footballer – travelling but not really getting anywhere.

The move to join Parma may have seemed to be just another unspectacular and brief stopping point on that journey, but it would turn out to be anything but. After a dozen years of brief encounters, a decade’s stay with Parma would bring an undying fidelity.

The club were in Serie B at the time, having been relegated the season before, but under the guidance of Francesco Guidolin, and with Lucarelli in place, an immediate promotion was gained as they returned to the top tier of the league. In the following five seasons, he helped them to become a solid, if unspectacular, mid-table club, and it was to no-one’s surprise that Lucarelli was given the captain’s armband.

Despite the relative on-field success, though, during the 2013/14 season, as the players’ representative, Lucarelli had a hint of the problems to come. Payment of salaries was increasingly delayed, often arriving on deadline day. It was something he later related in an interview to the Gazzetta dello Sport. Despite enquiries to the club’s owners bringing reassurances and bland promises – often unfulfilled – it was a harbinger of the financial crisis that would become clear towards the end of the season and finally swamp the club in early 2015.

Things came to a head in February 2015. An emergency press conference was called at the club headquarters. A few hours earlier, Parma had become the first Serie A club in living memory to fail to fulfil a league fixture when the decision was taken to summarily call off a home game at the Stadio Ennio Tardini. The club simply had insufficient funds to pay the requisite number of stewards as mandated by the Italian federation for a Serie A fixture.

This wasn’t a cash-flow problem; this was financial Armageddon. Lucarelli sat next to Donadoni as the manager explained the reason for the abandonment of the fixture. After hearing the manager speak, in simple terms, Lucarelli summed up the situation: “We have asked for protection and respect from the institutions but nobody gave us a call,” he pleaded, hoping for understanding and empathy from the authorities. “So we decided not to play.”

It was a ‘game over’ scenario and there was no reset button available. A decade after going bankrupt, Parma were again set for insolvency, this time under Ghirardi. The man who had seemed like a white knight in 2007 had now been revealed to be anything but. At the end of the season, Ghirardi had announced that he would sell his stake in the club and resign as chairman. Whether he knew it or not, by then the club’s financial doom was cast, with the Balance Sheet anything but balanced due to the slippery slope Parma were already careering down at a gathering pace.

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Eventually, a shadowy Cypriot-Russian organisation, Dastraso Holdings, purchased his shares in December that year offering him the nominal sum of one euro in return. It’s less than clear, however, whether any due diligence was carried out on the club’s accounts, as surely, if even broadly accurate, they would have revealed a sorry state of affairs and a terminal decline. It didn’t take long for Dastraso to realise that there was little or no value in their new asset, and shortly afterwards, it was sold to Giampietro Manenti for the same trifling sum. Dastraso were surely glad to have removed the club from their portfolio, but for Manenti, troubled times lay ahead.

Wages went unpaid and players began to avail themselves of the exit door that the breach in contract offered to them. Antonio Cassano and Felipe had their contracts rescinded and walked out of the club. Manenti was arrested and charged with embezzlement in February as bailiffs seized club vehicles, with unpaid bills meaning a loss of hot water and electricity. Ghirardi was compelled to face the authorities later in 2015.

Amid all of this turmoil, however, one voice remained steadfast in support of the club and its interest, as it lay in intensive care with the life-support systems about to be turned off. Lucarelli declared his loyalty to the Gialloblù, despite the apparent overwhelming tides pouring over Parma appearing set to wash the club into the gutter, and the fact that he had not received his own salary that year.

He even offered to drive some of the players to Genoa himself, to ensure that the following week’s fixture was fulfilled and sought to rally support among teammates by his dedication to the cause. “I’d be prepared to play in Serie D for Parma if it was necessary,” he declared. Inevitably, others were less keen to rally around the yellow and blue coloured standard that he raised.

With total debts accumulating to some €218m, including more than €63m in unpaid wages, Parma were declared bankrupt in March 2015. Unsurprisingly, performances tailed off from an already low level and, despite the club being allowed to play out its remaining league fixtures, they finished bottom of the table. Parma had only been out of the relegation positions for three of the league’s entire 38 game weeks. They had remained rooted to the bottom place in the table since the halfway point of the season.

In the final analysis, they finished with just 19 points, and, disregarding the points deduction imposed by the league for the previous season’s irregularities, would still have been relegated. While the other relegated teams, Cagliari and Cesena, would play in Serie B the following season, however, the trials and tribulations experienced by Parma would mean a drop of three tiers to Serie D.   

For a club that had lifted the UEFA Cup less than two decades earlier, it was a tragic tumble, but at least they still existed – for the moment. If life was to be preserved, a rapid recovery was required. In July 2015, now under the reformed name of S.S.D. Parma Calcio 1913, the club began its first season in Serie D.

Lucarelli, true to his word, remained as a semi-professional, but precious few others from the Serie A days made the move. Many, for perfectly understandable reasons, had now decamped to other clubs in order to salvage their careers and financial stability. Perhaps driven by a devotion that shouted down any better judgement, Lucarelli promised the Parma fans that he would see the club returned to the top tier of Italian football. Whether it was mere hubris or a rallying call to the faithful is unclear, but time would prove it to be a pledge like no other.

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Now under the benevolent ownership both of a group of local businessmen, Nuovo Inizio, and a group of fans who raised sufficient capital through crowdfunding operations to take a share in the club, the financial standing, sufficient at least at the prevailing lower league status, gave Parma a foundation to build on.

A previous head coach, Nevio Scala, was appointed to head up the club as president, and despite being 67-years-old, Scala took on the role with gusto, and remains in the position today. Parma also looked to its former rolls for a head coach too, selecting Luigi Apolloni. In its time of greatest need, the club gathered its own around itself, and leading from the front was Lucarelli.

To some non-football fans, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if the fans of the club had turned their backs in search of much more pleasant ways of feeding their football hunger, rather than watching a team splashing around to survive in the murky waters of the regionalised fourth tier of Italian football. Such an assessment, however, would betray an ignorance to the fierce loyalty that draws fans to their club, and the intense tribalism at play, especially in calcio. In the club’s only season in Serie D, the rejuvenated Parma sold in excess of 9,000 season tickets, more than doubling the previous league record. If it was a statement of intent by the fans, it was ably rewarded on the field.

At the completion of the 38-game league season, they had amassed 94 points from 28 wins and 10 draws. Not a single defeat had been recorded. The gap to second place was a yawning 17 points, and with Lucarelli at the heart of the Parma defence, the club had conceded a mere 17 goals. The next best defensive record was 41. Promotion was assured well before the end of the term, and following a 2-1 victory against Delta Rovigo, plans could begin for the new term in Group B of Serie C. The fightback had begun. The following season would be less of an easy ride, though.

If the canter through to the title had offered a glimpse of further glories to come, the early part of the new season would bring with it a dollop of reality. Tougher opposition meant that deficiencies in the squad were exposed and, at one stage, Parma were languishing in mid-table. Decisive action was called for if momentum was not to be lost, and Apollini left the club. In his place, Roberto D’Aversa was appointed. The German-born manager had previously been with Virtus Lanciano but, following relegation from Serie B, he was dismissed. If it initially appeared to be a risky appointment, D’Aversa would reward the club for their gamble.

Parma ended the season in second place, qualifying for a place in the promotion playoffs. Victories over Piacenza, Lucchese and Pordenone took the club to a crunch final against Allessandria. For the winners, a place in Serie B awaited. The losers would spend another season in Serie C. Parma really couldn’t afford to miss out, and at least one player in their squad wasn’t prepared to contemplate that.

Ahead of the game, television cameras caught the captain rallying his troops to inspire them to victory. It was a stirring piece of oratory. “This is everything we are: suffering, fear, sweat, sacrifice, everything that took us to play this game right now,” he said with passion dripping from his words. “Serie B is out there. Ninety minutes in which we must give everything we’ve got. Every ounce of energy, we’ve got to give it today. And where we can’t reach with our legs, we’ll reach with our hearts. Because we deserve it. We are a real group. We’ve eaten shit all year to get here and we must prove them all wrong. There is one more thing. I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to try again, so you need to do me a favour. Today, you need to take me into Serie B. One for all, all for one!”

It was enough to carry his team over the line. A 2-0 victory and promotion was the reward. Lucarelli was now 40 years old and retirement beckoned, but with just one step – albeit the biggest one – of the comeback left to achieve, he agreed to play on for another season.

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Promotion also brought another reward. Jiang Lizhang, owner of the Spanish club Granada, saw in Parma an opportunity to buy into an Italian side that, although just promoted from the third tier of the league structure, had the potential to return to the big time. Costing somewhat more than the single euro that the club had been exchanged for in the past, the gamble involved meant that the 60 percent stake purchased offered outstanding value if Lucarelli delivered on his pledge. Nuovo Inizio retained a 30 percent share, with 10 percent owned by the fans. If the influx of capital was particularly welcome as the club progressed, the next step in its rejuvenation would still be a major task.

Serie B is a highly competitive league, somewhat akin to the Championship in England. It comprises a mixture of the upwardly mobile clubs on the rise with new investors or thrusting young managers making their mark, and those who have slipped from the highest perch, scrambling to regain former status and glories. It is, therefore, not a collection of clubs willing to roll over for a reborn Parma, led by a 40-year-old captain, bent on some kind of inspirational resurrection. This was the weight of the task facing Lucarelli and his teammates if the skipper was to deliver on his promise before time called an inevitable end to his playing career.

Ahead of the season, Parma were regarded as likely to end in mid-table, and their form in the opening weeks franked that assessment. A mere three wins from the first nine fixtures suggested that Lucarelli may well fall short of delivering on his pledge, but he simply wouldn’t be denied. From centre-back, he drove his team on and netted six goals across a six-game run – the best scoring return of his entire career – to reinvigorate the club’s fortunes, and a run of eight wins from 11 games meant a final day battle for promotion.

As Empoli galloped away with the championship and one of the automatic promotion places available, Parma were locked in a three-way struggle with Frosinone and Palermo for the remaining place at Italian football’s top table. Going into the final round of fixtures, the Sicilian club had dropped away, but Frosinone held the advantage. Sitting on 71 points, they were two clear of Parma, with a home game against Foggia to play. Parma had a better head-to-head record and a goal difference advantage, but none of that would mean anything unless the points gap could be eliminated. Parma were away to Spezia and knew that a win was essential to give them any chance.

In the Lazio region, just outside Rome, the Stadio Benito Stirpe was packed with fans expecting Frosinone to beat a Foggia team destined for an unremarkable mid-table position and clinch promotion. Early pressure from the home team was denied, but in the north-west of the country, Parma’s fortunes took an early upturn.

A clever pass found Fabio Ceravolo clear in front of goal and he coolly put Parma ahead, instantly mobbed by his teammates, officials and reserves from the bench. At that stage, with Parma ahead and Frosinone struggling to break down a surprisingly stubborn Foggia defence, things were going well for Lucarelli and his teammates. Ten minutes ahead of the break, it would get even better.

A rare Foggia attack saw a shot parried across goal, giving a simple tap-in for Fabio Mazzeo and the cheers of the Parma fans must have passed the news effectively to the players on the pitch. There was a brief moment of tension for Parma when a controversial handball decision offered Spezia a lifeline from 12 yards, but Alberto Gilardino blazed high and wide. At half-time the scores remained the same and, with attention concentrated by the penalty award, and marshalled by Lucarelli’s – cajoling and inspiring in equal measure – the Parma back line offered little encouragement to the home attacks.

Just past the hour mark, Parma broke forward quickly after a home attack was beaten off. The ball was transferred upfield and, after an initial shot was parried, Amato Ciciretti made the game safe for Parma with the second goal. Although Spezia continued to press for a way back into the game, there was no way that Lucarelli would allow his team to buckle under the pressure. The points were safe.

Original Series  |  The Football Italia Years

Over in Lazio, things were about to turn against Parma. Frosinone had been pressing heavily since the restart and just six minutes after Parma’s second goal, the pressure brought some tangible reward. Headers and crosses had flown across the Foggia goal, with Luca Paganini going close, but on 67 minutes, a corner from the left floated in and he rose to head home and level the scores. With Parma ahead, only a win would suffice for Frosinone and another goal was still required if the strike was to have any real value.

A further six minutes had passed when a corner from the opposite flank found Foggia defender Matteo Rubin slightly off balance in the six-yard box and his attempted hacked clearance skewed from his boot and into the net. Ecstatic celebrations in Lazio had an echo of a much more subdued atmosphere in Liguria as the news filtered through. Frosinone now had the advantage and there was little that even Lucarelli could do to change matters. It seemed inevitable Parma’s push would fail, and their talismanic captain would have to go through a complicated and hazardous playoff process to keep their hopes alive.

Frosinone were sensibly keeping the play as far away from their goal as possible, but fatigue and tension will eat away at confidence, and with just two minutes remaining on the clock, Foggia broke out in possession. Although only having two players in the attack against five defenders, panic ensued and a simple pass to Roberto Floriano exposed the Frosinone goal. A neat chip over the goalkeeper did the rest and the home players fell to their knees in despair.

Now the celebratory roles were reversed. A sudden stillness ruled in Lazio, while further north, Parma fans exploded with joy. Lucarelli would recall that moment: “It can’t be real, it’s impossible. Nobody could’ve imagined a finale like this, not even in my wildest dreams. The others were celebrating, then we heard a huge cheer from the stands. I don’t know what happened.”

A couple of minutes later, it was all over. Frosinone had tripped over their own feet, and Parma had sprinted past them to chest the tape, taking the final automatic promotion place to Serie A. Alessandro Lucarelli had delivered on his oath. Remarkably, Parma, a club bereft of finance and hope, had become the first in the history of Italian football to regain a place in the top division after three successive promotions. And they had done it with their redoubtable captain leading the way. At the end, with promotion assured, Lucarelli was carried shoulder-high by his teammates as the understandably wild celebrations kicked off. 

At the promotion party, Lucarelli would rejoice with the fans: “’I’ve been thinking about these days for a long time,” he told them.” I’ve been holding Parma close to my heart for 10 long years, giving myself and maybe even more. In Serie A now, our goal has been achieved.” There was more. It was time to acknowledge the end of the journey. “But the story I have written is with you,” he said. “The promise I had made to you three years ago has been kept. There is no way you can repay me and make me prouder than this incredible achievement.”

Later that evening came the inevitable announcement that Alessandro Lucarelli had kicked his last ball, headed his last clearance, and delivered his last tackle for Parma. At 41, he announced his retirement.

Parma have had a football club for more than a hundred years, and in that time, only one shirt number has been retired, that of Alessandro Lucarelli. The player who has appeared for the club on the most occasions is Alessandro Lucarelli. The player who had his captain’s armband forever marked onto his flesh with a tattoo is Alessandro Lucarelli. Despite all the world-class players that have adorned the Stadio Ennio Tardini, there is only one true Parma icon. That man, that player and saviour of Parma, is Alessandro Lucarelli.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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