In Italy, it is normal to witness football clubs reach the pinnacle of success and then suddenly fall due to some form of bankruptcy. Over the years, this has been the story for many small or mid-table Italian clubs. But if there is one club that strongly represents triumph and bankruptcy within Calcio, this title would go to Parma - the kings of back-to-back promotions. From being crowned UEFA Cup champions on two occasions to playing Serie D football – Parma has encountered it all.
Some Calcio fans, particularly the younger generations, may not realise that Parma are the fourth most successful Italian side in European football – behind Milan, Inter and Juventus. However, multiple bankruptcies in the 21st Century weakened the Ducali’s performances on the pitch, prompting the Parmigiani supporters to live off the nostalgic glory days from the 1990s.
While the city of Parma is renowned for its prosciutto and Parmigiano cheese, the local Parma Calcio 1913 team changed this status in the 1990s. That decade located Parma on the map of Calcio. Experiencing success domestically and almost disrupting the Juventus and Milan 1990s hegemony, the Emilians also took Europe by storm.
The 1990-91 Serie A season was the beginning of Parma’s rise. Because this was the Gialloblu’s first time in Italy’s top flight, few Serie A fans had envisaged what the Emilia-Romagna club would do next. With tactician Nevio Scala at the helm, the Crociati would accomplish a sixth-place finish in their maiden Serie A campaign.
The following season, Parma took its game to a new level: competing in the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) for the very first time. While playing in Europe and finishing sixth in Serie A, the Emilians won the 1991-92 Coppa Italia title – their first major silverware.
During Parma’s first two stints in Italy’s top division, their national success couldn’t have been produced without two Sicilian heroes: striker Alessandro Melli and midfielder Tarcisio Catanese. Melli was pivotal in the team’s attack, with the Agrigento-born forward finishing as Parma’s top goalscorer for three consecutive seasons.
Already claiming the Coppa Italia in 1992, Parma’s 1992-93 season saw them claim the European Cup Winners’ Cup – a significant feat for a club which was only playing for the third time in top-flight football. A famous 2-0 victory against Milan in the second leg of the UEFA Super Cup saw Parma win the 1993 title at San Siro. Posing a serious threat to the Serie A titans, the Gialloblu further established themselves as a genuine contender in Europe.
With Gianfranco Zola’s arrival from Napoli in the 1993-94 season, Parma’s attack continued to be one of its primary assets. The Sardinian formed a formidable attacking trio with Tomas Brolin and Faustino Asprilla. And later came Dino Baggio in 1994-95 – adding creativity and life to the midfield. Just as this talented Parma outfit couldn’t get any better, in entered a goalkeeping prodigy – Gianluigi Buffon. Debuting as a 17-year-old against reigning Serie A champions Milan, Gigi would save several incoming shots from Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Keeping a clean-sheet and putting in a mature display propelled Buffon into one of Italy’s most decorated goalkeepers.
In the 1995-96 Serie A season Neapolitan defender Fabio Cannavaro and striker Filippo Inzaghi both became new additions to the Parma squad, the latter struggling to get into any form at the club. However, with the departures of Zola and tactician Scala the following campaign, the Gialloblu still churned out talent.
New signings Enrico Chiesa, Lilian Thuram and Hernan Crespo became crucial recruits – the key members of the best Parma side that ever took to the field. With a talented side, new manager Carlo Ancelotti guided Parma to second place in the 1996-97 Serie A edition – keeping Juventus on their toes for the entire season.
After a defining 1996-97 season, the Crociati made their Champions League debut in 1997-98. But with a skilled team and a wise manager at the helm, Parma failed to progress past the group stages and could only muster a sixth-place finish in the Serie A. Despite being born 45 minutes away from the city of Parma, Ancelotti’s underwhelming second spell with the Ducali ended on a sour note – the club and the Reggiolo native separating in different directions.
The following 1998-99 season is where Parma earned immense respect in Italy and abroad. It is the campaign that all Parma tifosi still discuss and cherish to this day. A fourth-place finish in Serie A, Coppa Italia winners and crowned as the UEFA Cup champions – Parma found itself on top of the Calcio world.
New manager Alberto Malesani was the one who steered the Gialloblu to the pinnacle of success. Those iconic yellow and blue striped home shirts, Cannavaro and Thuram in defence, Buffon between the posts and Crespo and Chiesa scoring up front, these were the components that made Parma famous.
But, after the best campaign in Parma’s history, the Ducali would see out the 1990s decade with a fifth-place finish in the Serie A and an Italian Super Cup title. However, the 1999-2000 season was when the two-time UEFA Cup winners lost their star striker Hernan Crespo to Lazio. A fourth-place finish in the domestic league the following season was the last time the Emiliani finished inside the top-four.
Still boasting Buffon and Thuram for the 2001-02 campaign, Parma would narrowly avoid Serie A relegation by five points, even though they finished 10th. While the Ducali were struggling in the league, they still finished the season with some silverware – beating Juventus to claim their third and last Coppa Italia title. Both Buffon and Thuram’s departures to Juventus at the season’s conclusion left holes in the Parma backline for future years.
Just as Parma was heading in the wrong direction, the 2002-03 season offered some new hope among the Parmigiani supporters. With new Coach Cesare Prandelli implementing the fresh 4-3-3 formation, this allowed new offensive players Adriano and Adrian Mutu to excel in the attack. The Brazilian and Romanian forwards created many headaches for Italian defenders - helping the Ducali finish in fifth place in the league.
While Parma kept playing attractive football, the Parmalat scandal – involving owner Stefano Tanzi – rocked the Emilian club in the 2003-04 season. Eventually, the club declared bankruptcy but would still finish the campaign in fifth place. However, this horror was the beginning of Parma’s demise.
With the bankruptcy tainting Parma’s off-field image, the Ducali’s poor performances on the pitch followed up in the 2004-05 domestic season. The Gialloblu ended the Serie A campaign in 17th place – just missing relegation after beating Bologna. Thanks to their talismanic striker Alberto Gilardino and creative midfielder Mark Bresciano, the Emilians remained competitive on the European front – making it to the UEFA Cup semi-finals. However, Parma would play one more season in the UEFA Cup – the 2006-07 edition the last time that the three-time Coppa Italia winners would take part in any European football competition.
From here on, Parma turned into one of Serie A’s mid-table and mediocre sides. And in 2009, the Crociati descended to the Serie B – their first time playing in Italy’s second division in 19 years. However, promotion had been achieved for the following 2009-10 Serie A season, but the Crusaders would only remain as a mid-table outfit between the years of 2009 and 2015. In those six years, Parma boasted talented players such as Antonio Cassano, Sebastiano Giovinco and Amauri. Even Crespo returned to the Stadio Tardini for a two-year spell, but the Argentine was on the wrong end of his career – failing to emulate the days of the 1990s.
In 2015 Parma played its last Serie A game at the Luigi Ferraris Stadium against Sampdoria before they would plummet all the way to Italy’s fourth division – Serie D. During the entire 2014-15 campaign, the Ducali occupied last place in the Serie A table due to being docked seven points for financial reasons. To top it off, the club faced another bankruptcy – leaving it no choice but to restart in the amateur leagues.
Before Parma were about to compete in Serie D, all the club’s players from the previous season had left, except for one: captain and hero Alessandro Lucarelli. The defender opted to remain with the Ducali and would not rest until they would ascend from the ruins. It was fitting that during this period Nevio Scala – the former iconic manager of the 1990s – became Parma’s new President.
Parma fans understood Serie D was a strange and sad reality when their side was playing against minnow Emilia-Romagna clubs such as Imolese and Correggese. It was a culture shock to watch their team compete in smaller grounds crowded with 600 people. Those nights of playing at the San Siro, performing against Juventus and contending with Europe’s best were distant memories. But as always, Parma still possessed that fighting spirit – determined to claw their way back to calcio’s top division.
It was former Parma legend Luigi Apolloni that managed the Gialloblu to a first-place finish in Serie D, thus gaining promotion to the Lega Pro. Parma would follow up with a second consecutive promotion in 2016-17 with new manager Roberto D’Aversa. Finishing second in their Lega Pro group and beating their opponents in the play-offs, the Crociati would earn Serie B promotion.
The Emilians later topped off their journey by finishing Serie B in second place - gaining an automatic promotion to the Serie A. It only took Parma three years to return to top-flight football, making them the first Italian club to accomplish three consecutive promotions. Captain Alessandro Lucarelli saw it all – playing in four different divisions in four seasons.
Now, Parma sits firmly in 13th position in the Serie A with four wins, a draw and five losses. The Ducali are even creating new memories for the fans – the best one where they beat Inter 1-0 at the San Siro through a Federico Dimarco wonder goal. It also seems Gervinho’s trickery and pace – which caused havoc for the Cagliari and Juve defence – is entertaining the eyes of many crowd members at the Tardini Stadium.
While many calcio fans predicted Parma as relegation favourites this season, the team is proving that it boasts enough quality and ambition to finish above mid-table and threaten many Serie A sides.