Parma: From tragedy to grand finale?

Two fallen giants of Italian football clash tomorrow in a battle for a spot in Serie A. For visitors Palermo, promotion would mean a return to the top tier after only two years. For hosts Parma, it would mean redemption after bankruptcy, disgrace and the arrests of two sitting club owners. Zaki Dogliani visits the city of ham, cheese and opera.

Even by Italian standards, the downfall and rebirth of Parma are worthy of a Verdi opera.

Founded in 1913 as Verdi Football Club in honour of the city’s most famous son, the later named Parma AC triumphed on the international stage through the 1990s until backers Parmalat imploded. Club owner and company CEO Calisto Tanzi was then served an 18-year jail sentence.

As players went unpaid, and Parma’s Serie A rivals forked out €5 million just to allow the stricken club to fulfil its fixtures, financial advisor Giampietro Manenti stepped in. In 2015, permanently unshaven Manenti bought Parma and its staggering debt for €1 from an Albanian consortium, only to then be arrested for fraud.

Wound up that year, the club was revived as Parma Calcio 1913, won the amateur Serie D division with record points, then achieved a consecutive promotion to Serie B in 2017.

Now Parma are a potential play-off away from Serie A.

The journalist behind local news daily Parmapress24 and lifestyle site Il Caffé Quotidiano, Francesca Devincenzi has followed the whole story.

‘The team have been structured for a rapid resurgence, and that’s exactly what’s happened,’ says Devincenzi. ‘Serie A has always been declared as the objective, and it’s what the city expects.’

Behind this resurgence has been Nevio Scala, Parma coach during the glory years and club chairman during the initial revival, pasta millionaire Guido Barilla and Chinese entrepreneur Jiang Lizhang, also owner of Granada CF in Spain.

Devincenzi puts successive promotions down to ‘capital investment and planning’. According to her, the club was reborn ‘miraculously with the will of Parma’s big industrialists’.

It also needed a helping hand from former fan favourite Hernán Crespo. A UEFA Cup winner with Parma in 1999, the former Chelsea striker was made vice-president of the phoenix club after helping broker its Chinese takeover in 2017. Parma had just beaten Alessandria 2-0 in the Lega Pro play-off final to gain their second successive promotion and reach Serie B.

Crespo, the most expensive player in the world when Parma sold him to Lazio in 2000, stepped out of the boardroom in January 2018 and is now the club’s international ambassador. He is currently working on the development of ‘Parma Legends’, a project that should showcase the great stars of the golden era.

Nonetheless, Devincenzi reckons supporters view Desports, the Chinese-backed group behind Parma, ‘with a mixture of hope and distrust’.

Top of the league in November before a run of one win in seven, the Gialloblù need to beat Palermo tomorrow night to stay in the race for a third straight promotion. Given its 42-game regular season and byzantine play-off system, Serie B can throw up all kinds of outcomes.

While acknowledging that hopes for automatic promotion hopes are fading, Devincenzi insists that ‘a strong play-off finish somewhere between third and fifth place remains the minimum objective’.

Parma-Palermo, Serie B, Monday April 2, 8.30pm CET. Stadio Ennio Tardini. Tribuna Est/Tribuna Laterale Ovest €20, Tribuna Laterale Petitot €35, Tribuna Centrale Petitot €55 from and its outlets in Parma. Stadium ticket office opens 2hrs before kick-off.