During some of my very early interactions with Italian soccer during the late 1990s and early 2000s, it quickly became clear that Parma was a team well worth watching.
With players like Lilian Thuram, Gianluigi Buffon, Hernan Crespo and Juan Sebastian Veron in situ, the Gialloblu were one of the finest sides around, a tag that was given some emphatic credence when they won a Coppa Italia-UEFA Cup double in 1999.
But 16 years on from the halcyon days of that wonderful side, the club is clamped to the bottom of Serie A, has failed to pay any employees since July and has been sold this week for a meagre €1 ($1.14 or £0.74) for the second time in two months. For a team that was once revered amongst the Sette Sorelle, the seven sisters—the finest seven sides in Italian soccer—it’s a harrowing state of affairs.
It’s a fall from grace that should heed as a warning to what are perceivably flush times in soccer. But for Parma, the stagnation and subsequent deterioration of affairs is much to do with the club’s former owners, Parmalat, who became the biggest dairy company in Italy before the crisis that engulfed them.
The owner Calisto Tanzi bought his local club Parma in 1991 and with his company flourishing, the Gialloblu were bankrolled towards the most prosperous period in their existence. Just a year on from Stanzi’s purchase, the Emilia-Romagna team won their first ever major trophy in the form of the Coppa Italia and in the following season, they lifted the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Super Cup.
The good times continued to roll in too. Tanzi sanctioned the purchases of some iconic players—Dino Baggio, Tomas Brolin, Hristo Stoichkov to name but a few—and suddenly, Parma were considered as one of the finest sides in Serie A. The highest they would finish in the race for the Scudetto was second in 1997, but two years prior to that they toppled Juventus in the final of the UEFA Cup.
Their finest hours came, as aforementioned, in 1999 and although players like Crespo, Buffon and Thuram were sold on to perceivably more illustrious clubs, the funds accrued from their sales—circa £100 million just for those three—should have ensured that the club was in very good shape moving forward. But behind the scenes, something troublesome was afoot.
Not just troublesome either, but criminal too. Paramalat were accused of fraud after an investigation into a claimed lump-sum of €4 billion revealed the money didn’t exist and after a forensic examination into the company’s finances, Stanzi was arrested and charged with embezzlement, false accounting and fraud; he’s still behind bars, serving a 17-year jail sentence.
The full extent of the fraud committed soon became apparent when it was confirmed Paramalat had a void of €14.3 billion and in late 2004 the Italian government interfered in the mess in order to expedite the bankruptcy process.
Naturally, the effect this had on the pitch for the Gialloblu was pretty catastrophic. Key players were sold off, replacements weren’t drafted in and all logic dictated that Parma would be consigned to Serie B sooner rather than later. But remarkably, the club was still able to battle it out with some of European football’s finest.
In the 2004/05 season Parma performed admirably to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup despite a backdrop of financial ruin. But with a relegation playoff looming on the domestic front—one which they eventually won 2-1 on aggregate against Bologna—they rested key players for that tie, which they lost to tournament winners CSKA Moscow.
The club didn’t stave off relegation forever though and dropping into Serie B after the 2007-08 season could have finished them off. But they were back up the very next season and despite going into temporary administration, on the watch of Tommaso Ghirardi—who purchased the club for €30 million in 2007—things seemed to be pretty stable.
Indeed, last season they finished in a highly respectable sixth place, doing the double over AC Milan and Napoli in the process. But their inability to pay off a tax bill prevented Parma from taking their place in the Europa League and sadly, that was a sign of things to come for the provincial club.
At the time of writing, Parma are rock bottom of Serie A, having picked up just nine points; matters were made even worse for them when they were docked a point by the Italian FA for a failure to pay further tax bills in late 2014. According to transfermarkt.com, the club also has 101 players currently out on loan.
Earlier this season, key players Antonio Cassano and Felipe both walked out on the club, with the former claiming that he is owed €4 million in unpaid wages, per football-italia.net. Things have been so bad that the team was unable to appropriately prepare for their recent match with Chievo—in which they suffered their fifth consecutive loss—because they couldn’t afford to clear heavy snow from their grounds.
With the problems mounting, Ghirardi sanctioned the sale of the Gialloblu for €1 in December 2014 to a Russian-Cypriot conglomerate with tagline that promised of a brighter future.
But it didn’t last and the club’s most recent sale—for the same amount—to Italian businessman Giampietro Manenti comes at a perilous time for all those associated with the Stadio Ennio Tardini team. The players who have yet to receive a penny since July have set a deadline of Sunday Feb. 15 for monies to paid to them or they will take action.
If that deadline passes, the Emilia-Romagna club could be plunged into further disarray. Encouragingly, Pietro Leonardi—who very recently left the board with health problems—insisted that the players will be paid and eventually administration and potential bankruptcy will be avoided. But there’s a precarious sense this encapsulating club’s spell at the peak of Italian soccer is very much dependent on that promise being fulfilled.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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