There are many Serie A teams who gained cult status during the golden era of Italian club football in the nineties: Fiorentina and the free-scoring Batigol, Sampdoria with the marvelous Roberto Mancini, and Lazio during Gazzamania to name but a few. The most special and fondly remembered of them all however, is the Parma AC side that defied all expectations in the nineties and challenged for major honours in one of the most competitive eras in the league.
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Between 1992 and 2002, Parma won eight trophies thanks to the financial backing of Calisto Tanzi, but the crowning glory of that period was the UEFA Cup win in 1999. It was a special season that also ended with a Coppa Italia triumph, but it didn’t necessarily look promising from the outset.
After finishing a disappointing fifth in the league table the season beforehand, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked. Alberto Malesani was brought in, while Carlo went to Juventus. The Old Lady ended the season in seventh position, a total underachievement for a team who had just been in three straight Champions League finals. The two managers would go on diverging paths during the rest of their careers however, as the incredible success of Ancelotti in four different countries illustrates.
Much like his Parma squad though, Malesani peaked in the 1998-99 season while employing a 3-5-2 formation. Lilian Thuram, Fabio Cannavaro and Roberto Sensini marshaled a stern back-line with Diego Fuser and Paolo Vanoli on either flank. They were normally shielded by the fearsome twosome of World Cup winner Alain Boghossian and Dino “The Other” Baggio. So far, so great, but it’s the front-line that really catches the eye. Juan Sebastian Veron was in his pomp as the number ten behind Enrico Chiesa and a young Hernan Crespo. Together they created some beautiful patterns of play that year.
Oh, and they had Faustino Asprilla in reserve too. Not bad, like.
In their run to the final, the Gialloblu defeated Fenerbahce, Wisla Krakow, Rangers and Bordeaux, the last of which featured a 6-0 drubbing of their French opponents. The toughest game of all was the semi-final against Atletico Madrid, who had won La Liga in 1996. Even so, Parma won the tie by a three goal margin on aggregate. They could outscore just about anybody; indeed they did, scoring an astonishing 15 times in their final five games of the tournament.
This was a team who were always up for the big games, which made them perfect for the cup competitions. They did the double over Juventus that season, and beat eventual champions AC Milan 4-0 at home. It was also their undoing however, as consistency was a problem when playing teams they were entirely capable of beating. This is why they never won the ultimate, a Scudetto.
Nonetheless, Marseille would be no match for the Italians. The opening score came after 25 minutes and it was a gift, as if Parma needed one. Laurent Blanc completely misjudges a header back to the goalkeeper with the predatory Crespo waiting to pounce. There could not have been a worse player to intercept the pass at that moment, and the Argentine took full advantage with a lovely little lob over the goalkeeper.
Marseille were mortally wounded, conceding again soon after. This time it was Vanoli in the 36th minute, but the creme de la creme was to come in the second half. Just ten minutes after the interval, Lillian Thuram works the ball up the pitch with both power and grace at the same time. Beating two players, John Motson of the BBC nonchalantly comments, “Oh, knife through butter.” He lays it off to Veron on the right wing, who, instead of swinging one in like you might expect in the Premier League, chips a delightful ball into the path of Crespo. The striker’s intuitive relationship with his strike partner is such that, rather than have a go himself, he dummies it. Taking two defenders out in one go, Chiesa is in the perfect position to thwack it into the roof of the net. It is the perfect finish to the perfect move, exemplifying the best qualities of this Parma team.
The sheer delight on Crespo’s face at the final whistle encapsulates just what it meant for this small provincial side, who played in a stadium with a capacity of 29,000, to conquer one of Europe’s elite competitions. It’s the reason this underdog team has remained in the hearts of neutrals ever since and why so many football fans were so crestfallen to see the club demoted to Serie D following bankruptcy.
There is a counter-argument to the romanticism of this Parma team, however. The club was enriched by the money of Tanzi and his Parmalat company, who changed the kit colours from their classic white to the blue and yellow of the corporation. That money also happened to be somewhat of a myth, as a huge scandal was uncovered regarding the financial mismanagement of the company. It hit the club hard, although it managed to survive.
There are also the accusations of doping. In 2005, a video was shown on Italian TV of Cannavaro getting injected with a performance-enhancing substance the night before the 1999 UEFA Cup final. The sequence was shot in a Moscow hotel room and the substance turned out to be Neoton, a creatine phosphate, that was not on any banned lists in Italy at the time.
Nonetheless, these are black marks that barely register for many a football aficionado. Thankfully Parma, under the new guise of Parma Calcio 1913, have risen from the ashes after many tumultuous years as a phoenix club. They return to their rightful place in Serie A once more, but will it ever be the same again?
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