To sum up the strength of Italian football towards the end of the 20th century, you need only look at the team that helped Parma dismantle French outfit Olympique Marseille in the 1999 UEFA Cup final. On the night, a 3-0 win at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium cemented their dominance. These were calcio’s glory years, Serie A was the place to be and European titles were never far away.
What made that night so special for il Gialloblu (the yellow and blues) was the talent they had at their disposal, encapsulating the depth in quality not only in their squad, but also Italian football in general. Players like Gianluigi Buffon, who still stands today as the most expensive goalkeeper of all time, Lillian Thuram, a World Cup winner not a year earlier, Fabio Cannavaro and Hernan Crespo, the opening goalscorer, could all claim to be world class, but they were playing for a club who had never won the scudetto.
Seventeen years on from their crowning glory, Parma could not be further from adding to that success. Financial issues have crippled the club throughout the ensuing seasons. In 2015, though, things took a worse turn than ever before and one of the most nostalgic clubs around swallowed their toughest pill yet, filing for bankruptcy and subsequently being forced to rebuild in the amateur leagues.
Italian football is no stranger to demoralising crises, financial or otherwise, giving hope of a return for Parma one day. Napoli and Fiorentina each found themselves in the same boat and clawed their way back from the abyss, while the mighty Juventus showed no one is above the law after being relegated and deducted points following the 2006 match fixing scandal.
But Parma’s situation was viewed on another level of tragedy by a generation of football fans who remember a joyous era with great romance. It wasn’t just the UEFA Cup win which brings fond smiles, that same year, they won the Coppa Italia and two years prior they came closer than ever to a Serie A title. It was a decade that bared much fruit for the club, with a European Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup double in 1993 as well as other close encounters.
Teamwork and effort go hand in hand with talent when it comes to winning. There have been notable cases of David beating Goliath in recent times, thanks in no small part to Leicester City’s Premier League title win in 2015/16, but what set Parma apart were the names on their teamsheet. Although they couldn’t quite go all the way, the spine of that side mean the team is etched in history, proving in some cases the players can make the game.
Reputations were forged at the Stadio Municipale, and at that time in Italy, it was impossible to predict the outcome of a title race. By 2001, Roma had won Serie A with Gabriel Batistuta, arguably the best striker in the world at that time, as their talisman, while across the capital, Lazio triumphed the previous year having swooped for Crespo, in a then world record transfer, and Juan Sebastian Veron from Parma. Neither side had enjoyed many celebrations like that before.
As so often happens, that great team had to break up. To complete the separation, Buffon and Thuram moved to Juventus for a combined £55million following the sale of Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid that summer, while Cannavaro switched to the San Siro and Inter in 2002.
Few clubs can match Parma’s alumni over the past thirty years or so, with the likes of Diego Fuser, captain for the 1999 triumph, Colombian maverick Faustino Asprilla and Brazilian striker Adriano, who found true fame at Inter, all passing through. Dino Baggio, Gianfranco Zola, Fernando Couto, Hristo Stoichkov and Carlo Ancelotti, who played for and managed the club, should also not be forgotten.
Many of these players are better known for stints elsewhere, but that isn’t always a good thing. In England, for example, Juan Veron is seen as little more than a basket case who couldn’t get up to speed with the English game at Manchester United or Chelsea, when in fact he was a cultured and intelligent central midfielder who had honed his tactical skills in Italy with Sampdoria as well as Lazio and of course Parma.
Football is a sport with an ever-changing environment, with different ways of thinking developing the game year on year. High tempo is the modern way, but it was the defensive solidarity of the game in Italy that set the country apart in the 1990s. It became abundantly clear Parma would eventually lose the spine of that remarkable squad, but as Serie A struggles to keep up with LaLiga and the Premier League, theirs is a side which defined an era and will always have a special place in the heart of football purists.
About the author – Harry De Cosemo
Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish and Italian football. He has worked for a number of top publications including MARCA in English, uMAXit football, FourFourTwo and The Press Association