How Parma returned from oblivion

Words by Chloe Beresford Illustration by Philippe Fenner
June 14, 2018

Published in association with Classic Football Shirts

When the news broke that Parma had gained promotion to Serie A, many casual observers will have pricked up their ears. For those who had delighted in all that Italian football had to offer in the 1990s, this side were one that truly indulged lovers of the game. International stars such as Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastian Veron and Lilian Thuram all graced the yellow and blue shirts, in addition to a list of talented native players that included Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro.

Even the sponsor – Parmalat – emblazoned on the front of those kits was instantly recognisable. However, this local corporation that funded such great times was ultimately responsible for the club’s demise. It was to become the house built on sand, as the company went into financial meltdown in 2004, with a string of new owners unable to provide any semblance of stability.

The club was subjected to ten years of crisis and unthinkable mismanagement before they were eventually made bankrupt and relegated to Serie D at the end of the 2014/15 campaign, playing their football just one tier above amateur level. From the height of their glamourous success to the doldrums of the Italian professional game was one of the hardest falls ever seen, a drop that many other clubs – both on the peninsula and abroad – never recover from.

Yet after reaching rock bottom, Parma have learned their lesson.

When a team is at the point of losing its very existence and there is nothing left to harvest, the only thing that remains is its very best asset: the supporters. Parma fans rallied when their club was at its very lowest ebb, buying shares at €500 each to secure a total stake of around 25%. The rest was made up by a conglomerate of local businesses, ensuring that never again will their football team be at the mercy of one owner, nevermore would their fate be tied up with the fortunes of just one company.

That was to be the all-important first step in ensuring the club had a future, however the fact remained that Parma had a mountain to climb back from Serie D. With reports of unpaid wages and not even being able to afford bottled water at training sessions during their last season in the top flight, it was no surprise that only one player opted to remain with the club following their bankruptcy.

That man was Captain Alessandro Lucarelli, a veteran defender who has since become a symbol of loyalty, dedication and sacrifice. His incredible journey has seen back-to-back promotions as Parma defied all the odds to return to Serie A at the earliest possible opportunity. With this, they became the first Italian club to have ever journeyed from Serie D to the top flight in successive campaigns, a record which stands as testament to the incredible effort put into this most unlikely of resurgences.

Despite lifting the UEFA Cup trophy in both 1995 and 1999, sealing automatic promotion on May 18th with a 2-0 win over Spezia surely meant more to this club’s loyal supporters, the celebrations virulent among the away sector at the Stadio Alberto Picco and – of course – led by Lucarelli.

Such euphoria was further heightened by the manner in which their success was achieved, Parma heading for the playoffs up until the 89th minute of Frosinone’s match with Foggia. At 2-1 up, the Canarini were about to take second place in the league – that was until Roberto Floriano scored for Foggia right at the death, a goal that would see Pama clinch that automatic spot.

“I made a promise. I said I’d take Parma back to Serie A. I kept my promise,” declared a tearful Lucarelli to reporters at the final whistle. “It can’t be real, it’s impossible. Nobody could’ve imagined a finale like this, not even in my wildest dreams. The others were celebrating, then we heard a huge cheer from the stands. I didn’t know what happened.

“This is a journey we started three years ago in front of these amazing fans. We had difficult moments, we always got back on our feet. They never gave up and I am proud to have been their Captain.”

Lucarelli had given everything for this cause that meant so much to him, even postponing his retirement last year in order to have one last roll of the dice in an unlikely attempt to win promotion from Serie B. To have achieved what seemed impossible is the ultimate reward for his loyalty, the 42-year-old skipper finally settling into a long-overdue retreat from playing football after the hardest climb had revealed the most beautiful view.

In a time when “hero” is often overused, here it can genuinely be used to describe Lucarelli. His achievements will go down in the history of the club, his number six shirt now officially retired by Parma. For his own personal memory of all that he has overcome, the defender has opted to have his Captain’s armband tattooed on his arm, a permanent symbol of what the club means to him and what he has meant to them.

Underneath that tribute, the date 18.05.2018 has been inked. This may have been Alessandro Lucarelli’s endpoint, however it marks the start of a new beginning for Parma. Reaching the heights of the 1990s is unlikely for them, but at least this time their house is built upon a solid brick foundation rather than sand.

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