“I can’t believe that I was applauded off the field of play.” That was a young Hernan Crespo, in March 1997, as he was replaced by Sandro Melli with 10 minutes left of the League game between Parma and Cagliari. The Argentine had scored twice, the second an aesthetically pleasing scissor-kick following a cross from Dino Baggio.
Crespo’s surprise at the reaction of the Tardini faithful was understandable. After all, sections of the crowd had spent large parts of the season prior to that performance jeering the boy who was still just 21. It was primarily thanks to the insistence of boss Carlo Ancelotti that the South American not only eventually flourished at Parma, but Italian football in general.
“The public whistled me because I wasn’t scoring and they booed Ancelotti because he kept picking me,” the former Argentina international, 35 goals in 64 caps, once stated. “It was hard for both of us, but we eventually convinced everyone and that was the season that we finished second behind Juventus.”
Ancelotti was certain from the off that the summer signing from River Plate was something a bit special. Sure he was raw, but the comparison with 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano, made by Daniel Passarella, stood up to a degree and not just because of their bushy hair or muscular frames.
The tactician not only liked the South American as a footballer, he also approved of the way he conducted himself. The professional Crespo arrived in Italy with a motto – “meglio fare che parlare” – which loosely translated that he would let his feet do the talking. The former Milan midfielder gave him the stage to do that.
Crespo scored 12 goals in 27 games during his maiden Serie A campaign, just two shy of top scorer Enrico Chiesa’s tally, which came from an extra two appearances. He continued to ripple the net with some regularity for the Gialloblu, and in some style, until Lazio broke the world transfer record to sign him in 2000 for £35m. He would later move on to Inter and Chelsea, before being re-united with his Tardini teacher at Milan.
“Ancelotti allowed me to become a footballer at Parma, then he wanted me again with the Rossoneri,” Crespo commented. “If there wasn’t that comeback by Liverpool in Istanbul then we would have won the Champions League together. I still think about that game and it’s hard to find an answer to what happened. My brace in the Final was thus forgotten…”
Milan had the opportunity to keep Crespo at the end of the 2004-05 season, but Vice-President Adriano Galliani overruled Ancelotti. He subsequently returned to Chelsea, but England wasn’t Italy, the Premiership wasn’t Serie A. Inter called and Crespo responded, much to the surprise of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
“He thought I was mad when I asked him to let me go back to Italy,” Crespo stated. “He offered to renew my contract, he asked me what I wanted. He didn’t know why I wanted to return.”
Crespo, whose international partnership with Gabriel Batistuta never hit the heights that it promised, gave some decent service to the Nerazzurri during his second spell at the club. He became a serial Scudetto winner with the Beneamata during the post-Calciopoli days before a brief stint at Genoa and then a January 2010 return to Parma – a place he describes as home.
“My objective is to lead Parma to the left-hand side of the table,” he said as the club feared relegation into Serie B. “That is where I found them when I first joined back in 1996 and that is where I want to leave them.”
Crespo wasn’t quite able to fulfil that target when on Thursday, with his side just two points shy of 10th place, he confirmed with tears in his eyes that he had rescinded his contract and ended his playing days at the highest level. After a career bursting at the seams with goals and commitment, it was only right that the gathered Press – just like the fans at the Tardini 15 years ago – gave him a deserved round of applause.