Parma: From rags, to riches, to bankruptcy
Before the 90s, Parma was nothing short of an average provincial Italian team with a yo-yo existence, further drifting from Serie B to lower divisions. Parma’s tale began in 1986, with the promotion back to Serie B under Arrigo Sacchi, who will be known for being Milan’s coach during their Golden Years. In their first season back in Serie B, Parma managed a 7th place finish, missing out promotion in Serie A by only 3 points, and knocked out Milan from Coppa Italia in the round of 16 after a 1-0 win on San Siro, and a blank draw on Ennio Tardini. It ensured Parma a historical qualification in the Cup’s quarter-finals, where they were eliminated by Atalanta, with only 0-1 on aggregate. Said result has convinced Milan’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, to hire Sacchi as the new manager of the Rossoneri and, as we know, Sacchi’s Milan is still hailed as one of the best teams football has ever seen. After Sacchi’s departure, Parma struggled to find a better replacement, with Zdenek Zeman fired after seven matches in charge, and Giamperi Vitali securing two mid-table finishes, before 1989, when Nevio Scala took over, introducing a 5–3–2 formation that will become the key for the Emilia side’s success in the 90s.
Scala’s first season in charge was marked by a lot of hardships, including a stadium disaster in a home game against bitter rivals Reggina, and by the death of long-time club president Ernesto Ceresin, yet in spite all of that, Parma, with a squad consisting of players like Luigi Apolloni, future captain Lorenzo Minotti and star striker Alessandro Melli, was able to secure a historical promotion in Serie A with a 2-0 win over Reggina in the final matchday. This accelerated Parma’s revolution, with Parmalat purcashing 98% of the club’s stakes, and buying players like Tomas Brolin, Claudio Taffarel and Georges Grun to strenghten the newly promoted’s squad. Parma made their Serie A debut on 9 September 1990, with a 1-2 defeat to Juventus, and went on to earn their first victory in top flight, 1-0 against Diego Maradonna’s Napoli, 15 days later. Their first season in Serie A ended with a 6th place finished that earned Parma its first participation in the UEFA Cup. This prompted Palmalat to further additions to the squad, bringing players like Antonio Benarrivo and Alberto Di Chiara, each of them would go on to become Italian internationals. In spite of all the early success, Parma’s first UEFA Cup adventure will be cut short by CSKA Sofia in the first round. However, Parma had more consistent domestic succes during the 1991-92 season, not only earning another 6th place finish in Serie A, but also securing their first major trophy as they won Coppa Italia against Juventus. Faustino Asprilla’s arrival from Atlético Nacional further improved the squad, which would prove essential in the Emilians’ adventure in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, Asprilla scoring a brace in the semi-finals against Atletico Madrid on Vicente Calderon to earn the club it’s first European competitions final. Parma went on to lift the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup after a 3–1 victory over Belgian side Royal Antwerp at Wembley Stadium on 12 May 1993. In the championship, Parma managed a historical 3rd place finish, but lost the Italian Supercup against Milan at the beggining of the season. Still, Parma was credited with ending Fabio Capelli’s Milan’s run of 56 (?) unbeaten games, and went on to win the UEFA Supercup against the same Milan later on. In the summer break, the squad was further strenghtened with the aquisitions of Nestor Sensini, Massimo Crippa and Gianfranco Zola, the latter coming from Napoli. However, the 1993-94 season didn’t bring that much achievements: Parma losing the Cup Winners’ Cup to Arsenal, and slipping to a 5th place in the league as a result of their leaky defense.
Next year, Parma went on to buy Fernando Couto from Porto, and Dino Baggio from Juventus. Parmalat was stepping up the game, and it was becoming clear that a Scudetto would soon be the main goal. The 1994-95 season would bring an interesting battle unfold between Parma and new-found rivals Juventus. In Serie A, Parma had to be content with a 3rd place finish, on par with Lazio but with a much slimmer goal difference, and Juve won the title on a 10 points gap. As Scala so accurately mentioned, Parma simply didn’t have what it took to win a Scudetto, but could be a problem for anyone in a direct match, and despite the failure to be a challenge in the championship, the battle with Marcelo Lippi’s Bianconeri was more competitive on other fronts. Juventus had managed to also win the Coppa Italia against Parma on a 3–0 aggregate basis, going on to full domestic dominance. However, there was one thing Juve couldn’t win that season, and that was the UEFA Cup. The third European competition had Juventus and Parma face off in the final, and Baggio went to score against his former team in both legs to bring Parma it’s first UEFA Cup with a 2-1 win on aggregate. The 1995-96 season saw Parma in an attempt to build a winning team, signing Barcelona’s Hristo Stoichkov, who had won the Ballon D’Or only one year back, as well as future Milan legend Filippo Inzaghi, not to mention promoting goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon from the youth team, and his form was encouraging. However, the season was trophy-less, as Parma was only able to gain a 6th place finish in Serie A, and was eliminated by Paris Saint-Germain in the Cup Winners’ Cup’s quarter-finals. After 7 years, in which he turned a provincial Italian team into one with domestic and European record, Scala stepped down as manager.
He was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, a former Parma player between 1976–1979, and would become one of Europe’s top managers in time. Upon returning on Ennio Tardini, Ancellotti immediately shoved of the 5–3–2 (switchable 3–5–2) formation in favor of a Sacchi inspired 4–4–2; sold Stoichkov, Couto, Inzag.hi and Di Chiara, and went on to sign Hernan Crespo, Enrico Chiesa, Ze Maria and Liliam Thuram. However, Parma’s failure to sign Roberto Baggio upon disagreement with Ancelotti is credited to be one of the biggest mistakes in Carletto’s managing career, and it’s something he will regret later on. Suffering a first round elimination by Vitoria Guimaraes in the UEFA Cup, and one by Pescara in Coppa Italia, Parma pretty much focused on Serie A that season. Despite a slow start, Parma climbed to the 2nd place by March 1997, and was starting to close in the gap with leaders Juventus. With three rounds remaining and a six points gap, Parma and Juve met in Turin in a match that would decide the Scudetto, and a win would have closed the gap to three points, further boosting their title chances. Parma took the lead after half an hour, with Zidane scoring a strange own goal, but two minutes before half-time, Juve scored under controversial circumstances. Referee Pierluigi Collina awarded Juventus an unlikely penalty after Vieri flung himself on the floor to imply that Cannavaro had tugged his shirt; Crippa and Ancelotti got sent off and Nicola Amoruso scored the equaliser. The game ended in a draw, but with a six points gap and three rounds remaining, Parma’s title chances were over, Juve already getting the point they needed against Lazio. By the season’s conclusion, Parma finished 2nd place, closing the gap at 2 points, but this is the closest they ever got to winning a Scudetto.