There are great footballing stories. There are mind-numbingly shocking stories. And then there is Parma, who have filled the romantic’s heart to the brim. After bankruptcy in 2015, they have been promoted thrice in three seasons to return to the promised land, where they once belonged. As phoenixes do, Parma have proudly risen from their ashes.
Financial troubles can often be the bane of footballing clubs not beset by immense riches. Parma were once heavyweights of Serie A, a club at the top of the Italian table, flag-bearers of the country on the continental stage. But the collapse of owners Parmalat in 2004 was a warning of the troubles that off-field issues could bring to the field.
While they were establishing themselves as a solid mid-table side post-relegation in 2008, financial mismanagement rapidly caught up. Roberto Donadoni took them to sixth in the league in 2014, but they were barred from returning to the Europa League for the first time since 2007. Late payment of income tax on salaries restricted them from getting a UEFA license. They were also docked three points from the following season, and then another four later on, partly for not paying wages on time.
It was a period of torment, and, in all essence, a mockery of the faithful fan following. There were two controversial ownership changes: Tommaso Ghirardi, owner for seven years, sold his stake to a Cypriot-Russian club for the nominal sum of one euro, who themselves passed on the baton to Giampietro Manenti for the same sum. But he might as well have been steering a burning ship.
Manenti was eventually arrested for embezzlement and fraud. There were players unpaid for months; Antonio Cassano and Felipe rescinded their contracts and walked out, while home games were postponed on occasion due to the inability to pay the support staff. It was a mess that culminated in Parma’s folding, unable to pay their debts. While this was a merciful ending to a story that overshadowed the league, some wondered if Parma would ever bounce back.
The fans were taken for a ride, but there was hope at the end of the tunnel. News that Parma would re-form in the Serie D was met with relief, but also a joint belief that they could return to the top of the footballing pyramid. Simply, they didn’t belong in the lower leagues. Nevio Scala, former coach, was appointed as the president, while former player Luigi Apolloni was the new head coach. Ownership was split between several businessmen, some local. This was Parma Calcio 1913: a new iteration of the historic club that now returned to their roots in order to find their identity.
9,000 season tickets were sold for their first season – a Serie D record – and with such support, it was no surprise that they romped to promotion. Their Serie C season saw them face much more difficulty; they were seventh at one stage, which lead to Apolloni’s sacking, but new coach Roberto D’Aversa reversed their misfortune. They qualified for the knockouts, and duly dispatched Piacenza, Lucchese, Pordenon, and Alessandria to clinch consecutive promotion.
This was a stunning achievement in itself. It prompted Jiang Lizhang, the Chinese owner of Spain’s Granada, to purchase a 60% stake in the club, with the previous group of Italian investors, Nuovo Inizio, holding 30%. The fans, who had acquired shares of their own through crowdfunding, held a 10% stake. There was plenty of promise in the club’s future, but there was still the last, toughest hurdle to cross.
Foreign investment provided a timely boost, but Parma immediately challenging for promotion to Serie A wasn’t predicted at the start of the season. But they remained in the hunt until the final game day; to be promoted, they needed to beat Spezia away from home while hoping for Frosinone to drop points at home to Foggia. Remarkably, the situation remained favourable to Parma as time progressed, but then drama struck. Frosinone scored twice in quick succession to overtake Parma in the table, and it appeared that they would pip them to the final spot. It was at that point that Foggia’s Roberto Floriano emerged as the unlikely hero, equalising for his side.
As the whistle blew, their rebirth was complete.
Parma were back in the Serie A.
It is an incredible story, but one that would be impossible without captain Alessandro Lucarelli. He fell with Parma – the only player to have stayed and gone down to the Serie D. He was the heart of their renaissance, their homing beacon, the man that rallied his troops and urged them to fight. Having played for eight clubs prior to Parma, one could have expected him to jump ship when they went down, but he chose to stay. That dedication is why he will remain Parma forever. Now 40, he was a resolute defender in all three promotion seasons, providing the ballast and strength his motley crew required.
In some ways, he was Parma’s Lupa, guiding his team to a time when they would no longer require his services. He promised the fans he would return them back to their pedestal, and having done so, he departs on the ultimate high. For there is no greater feeling than achieving the impossible. The fighting spirit displayed by Lucarelli should galvanise the squad for years to come, and demonstrate the values that Parma need in the coming season. Capitano will be missed, but his time has come. His number six may now be retired, and he will remain a legend of the club, their mightiest servant.
Three consecutive promotions. An ownership structure that was strong, secure, and had the input of the fans, who stuck by the club through thick and thin. This was all achieved through limited expenditure and astute loans, one of whom was the Napoli-bound Amato Ciciretti in the winter. One cannot blame Parma fans if they believe themselves to be in a mirage, an alternate reality. For when the club crashed, all they had was pity and the thoughts of the neutral, no pretty place to be.
But they now stand strong, with their heads held high. Lucarelli, Parma, and their fans deserve this happy ending to their story. The Serie A season will be difficult without serious investment, but if they can spend within their capabilities, there is no reason why they cannot continue the fairy tale and remain in the league.
This is Parma Calcio 1913: new, but still old, reborn and renewed like a phoenix from the ashes, with a story that will be told for years to come.
Featured image credit: https://twitter.com/1913parmacalcio