Parma had already enjoyed a golden period, perhaps even boasting an iconic team, before 1998. Having been bought out by club sponsors and local dairy conglomerate Parmalat at the start of the decade, a team coached by Nevio Scala had won the Coppa Italia, the Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup between 1992 and 1995 after promotion from Serie B in 1990. Calisto Tanzi’s wealth had allowed a provincial club from Emilia-Romagna to compete with the pillars of Italian football. When Milan’s famous 58-game unbeaten run came to an end, Parma were their conquerors.
When Scala was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, a new era began at Parma. The then-novice coach made several high-profile mistakes (shunting Gianfranco Zola out on the wing and refusing to sign Roberto Baggio were two), but Ancelotti did continue to promote players from the club’s academy into the first team and created a new strike partnership of Enrico Chiesa and Hernan Crespo. Both would be vital to his replacement Alberto Malesani.
Ancelotti would eventually be sacked by Tanzi in 1998, before taking over at Juventus a year later. Tanzi was is in no mood for patience, and demanded that Parma play not just to win, but to entertain. The owner’s ambitions might seem fanciful now, but they were matched across a league still capable of attracting the best foreign footballers in the world.
Italian football – perhaps even club football – peaked in the late 1980s. For a few years a fascinating changing of the guard took place, with the lingering effects of catenaccio and teams built on defence challenged by a raft of spectacular attacking players, many of whom were imported by newly rich club owners. Look at the list of top Serie A scorers in 1989/90: Marco van Basten, Roberto Baggio, Diego Maradona, Rudi Voller, Jurgen Klinsmann, Abel Balbo. At least three once-in-a-generation forwards not only in the same era, but the same league.
A decade later, Serie A’s crop of centre-forwards peaked again. The top scorers in 1998/99: Gabriel Batistuta, Olivier Bierhoff, Ronaldo, Hernán Crespo, Marcelo Salas, Christian Vieri. The difference this time was that the English football public were allowed to witness the majesty. Football Italia, that foreign fancy of 1990s British sporting culture, aired between 1992 and 2002. We watched them all.
The sheer quality of those individuals, rather than the matches themselves, are what made Italian football so attractive. Another list, if I may, this time of names Parma faced in the semi-final and final alone of the Coppa Italia in 1998/99: Pagliuca, Bergomi, Zanetti, Winter, Pirlo, Simeone, Djorkaeff, Batistuta, Edmundo, Rui Costa.
It is an astounding roll call, but it is still surpassed by the players Malesani could call upon. The magic of that Parma team, and certainly what made them iconic, was not the achievement of the team but what their individuals would become. This was a who’s who of European football three years in advance, the Parma class of ’99. Almost all peaked elsewhere, but were nurtured at the same club.
The team that beat Fiorentina in 1999 contained the future most expensive goalkeeper in the world (Gianluigi Buffon), the future most expensive player in the world (Crespo), the future best player in the world (Fabio Cannavaro) and the future most-capped player for France (Lilian Thuram); three of the four were aged 25 or younger. Of the XI that started the second leg of the final, three would go on to play for Juventus, three for Inter, three for Chelsea and one each for Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Milan. This was a provincial club playing in a 29,000 capacity stadium.
The XI that faced Marseille in the UEFA Cup final a week later has become its own social media sensation, tweeted or posted by innumerable accounts to ignite 90s nostalgia. You have to remind yourself that younger supporters will only know those players for what they became, not where they were.
That’s particularly true given Parma’s decline since those glory days. Even after Malesani left, Parma did not finish outside the top six in Serie A until 2002, but the exodus was already well underway. One final list is the names of those who were sold by Parma between June 1999 and August 2003: Veron, Chiesa, Sensini, Crespo, Stanic, Baggio, Ortega, Buffon, Thuram, Cannavaro, Mutu, Adriano. Most were replaced by weaker players, often for wildly inflated fees.
There was an Icarus theme to Parma’s 90s journey; it is the tale of an owner that barely bothered to put on suncream for his flight and who eventually caused the demise of a great club. Yet that only makes that team, that snapshot in time, more special. This was not just a house built on sand, but a magnificent palace.
The iconic manager – Alberto Malesani
It seems strange in hindsight that the manager we most recognise from that Parma era is the least successful of the three. Scala established Parma as a genuine Serie A force and Malesani managed an absurd number of different personalities and egos effectively while dealing with regular departures of key players, while Ancelotti’s spell is all the more forgettable.
Malesani’s story is an excellent one; it is the story of a semi-professional player who retired at 24 to take a job with photographic company Canon but never gave up on his dream to coach. He worked in Amsterdam and studied Ajax’s Totaalvoetbal methods whenever time allowed. So committed was he to learning his craft that he even went to watch Johan Cruyff take Barcelona training while on his honeymoon.
Having saved enough money, Malesani quit his job at 33 to coach children at Chievo Verona, then in Serie C2. Three years later, Malesani became youth coach at the club and then assistant manager 12 months later. In 1993, he finally landed the manager’s job and promptly won the Serie C1 title in his first season. For the first time in their history, Chievo were in the second tier.
Having joined Parma after a season proving himself at Fiorentina, Malesani was seen as the answer to Tanzi’s prayers for attacking stylish football. He never provided the consistency required to form a serious title challenge, but Parma became a second team for Channel 4 Sunday afternoon acolytes. A 3-5-2 formation with Thuram, Cannavaro and Sensini was flanked by Paolo Vanoli and Diego Fuser, but it was the front three of Veron, Crespo and Chiesa that made them purr. If that didn’t work, few Serie A teams had reserve options with the skill of Balbo, Faustino Asprilla and Mario Stanic.
Sadly, there is a tragic end to the tale of Malesani, who watched so many baby birds fly the Parma nest but was unable to recreate his own success away from the Stadio Ennio Tardini. Still just 63, in the 16 years since leaving Parma, Malesani has managed Verona, Panathinaikos, Modena, Udinese, Siena, Bologna, Genoa (twice), Palermo and Sassuolo. He led Verona and Modena to relegation, and nine of his last 11 managerial jobs have lasted fewer than 50 games. That class of 1999 might have gone on to greatness, but away from the spotlight there are tales of tragedy.
The iconic player – Choose your favourite
Is it Buffon, who would go on to become perhaps the greatest goalkeeper of all time?
Is it Cannavaro, who would be named in the best foreign XI in Real Madrid’s history despite turning 33 shortly after joining the club?
It is Thuram, who had already won the World Cup prior to this season but would move to Juventus and become an all-time great?
Is it Dino Baggio, a vastly underrated box-to-box midfielder who both protected the defence and started so many of Parma’s attacking moves?
Is it Veron, a majestic playmaker who we sadly failed to see the best of in England?
Is it Crespo, who arrived at Parma at the age of 21 and scored 80 goals in four seasons?
Is it Chiesa, one of Serie A’s greatest all-round strikers who saved his best for some magnificent European performances?
Or is it Asprilla, that wound-up ball of craziness whose rubber legs and outrageous temper made him a cult hero at Parma, twice?
I’m buggered if I know, which means I suspect everyone has their own favourite.
The iconic game – UEFA Cup final, 1999
Parma were never likely to win a Scudetto, however much Tanzi coveted that domestic glory. The defence would go on to thrive elsewhere, but were young and made errors. The two defensive midfielders of Baggio and Alain Boghossian were reliable, but Parma were unusually expansive for a Serie A team. The attacking players (and there were usually at least three picked from the start) were each as mercurial as the other.
As far back as 1993, coach Scala admitted as much: “We neither had the mental stamina nor resilience to win the Scudetto. But in a one-off game, I can honestly say we are as good as anyone.” Neither Ancelotti nor Malesani could match his second-place finish.
In 1998/99, that lack of mental resilience was exposed. Parma took eight points from their last nine matches to slip far behind the top two, as Milan and Lazio pushed each other to the wire. Parma had beaten Milan 4-0 at home, Juventus home and away and beaten five of the top eight at home, but dropped 14 points against the division’s bottom six.
And so it figured that Parma’s greatest success would come in cup competitions. The UEFA Cup final of 1999 could have been picked purely because of that lasting image of the team photo, but there were several spectacular one-off performances. Parma scored 15 goals in five matches from the quarter-finals onwards. Their victory over Marseille in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium was a stroll.
In fact, the greatest display was in the quarter-final second leg against Bordeaux, who would that season win the Ligue 1 title ahead of a Marseille team littered with star names such as Laurent Blanc, Robert Pires, Andres Kopke, Fabrizio Ravanelli, William Gallas and Christophe Dugarry. Parma thrashed Bordeauz 6-0, with Crespo and Chiesa each scoring twice. As evidence of Parma’s rapid rise, it was witnessed by only 16,000 spectators.
What happened next?
Players were always likely to leave Parma for the financial heavyweights and nouveau riche of Serie A, La Liga and Premier League. The club could have coped with those departures too, even accounting for the occasional poor transfer decision. Yet Parma were helpless against the tidal wave which would engulf them thanks to the Parmalat crisis.
It was Europe’s biggest bankruptcy with debts of between €10bn and €13bn fraudulently kept from the balance sheets by Tanzi, who would eventually appeal and endure only an eight-year jail sentence. With a fanbase largely employed by Parmalat and now out of work, and a club unable to pay its own bills, Parma AC crumbled. They went into administration in April 2004 and eventually reformed as Parma FC.
The financial mismanagement does not end there. Somehow, Parma FC managed to get themselves into economic disarray once again, and were again plunged into bankruptcy for the second time in 2015. They reformed as Parma Calcio 1913, started in Serie D and after consecutive promotions are back in Serie B under the new majority ownership of Chinese businessman Jiang Lizhang, who also owns Granada after buying from the Pozzo family. There is hope that Serie A football may see those blue and yellow hoops again.