The Stadio Ennio Tardini is one of Italy’s oldest football grounds still in use. Immortalised by the famous Parma side of the 1990s, the stadium had remained untouched until Parmalat’s ownership of the club came into fruition at the same time.
The stadium was built in the 1920s by club president Ennio Tardini. In a sad twist, he died before construction was completed. To respect the deceased owner, the club name the stadium after Tardini. The stadium opened for the first time on 16 September 1923. It would have been somewhat unrecognisable, however. Back then as it was a small circular stadium and, as so often the case in Italy, it had a running track around the pitch.
The stadium gradually expanded as football took over the peninsula and during the decades that followed the club developed a tight little ground. It still remained modest until Parma became more successful in the mid-1980s. Then things took shape.
In the Parmalat era, the stadium became an all-seater and the capacity was almost doubled. The club have since moved up and down the divisions and suffered financially. However, the stadium has continued to improve. The changes were so significant that the venue was included in Italy’s unsuccessful Euro 2016 bid. Despite the failure of the bid, Parma’s chairman said the stadium’s enhancement and improvements will still continue.
There are talks about Parma buying the stadium from the local authorities but they are in early stages. Attendances at the Stadio Ennio Tardini have averaged around 15,000 in the first few seasons after their return to Serie A in 2009. The atmosphere is always kept alive by the infamous ultra group Boys Parma 1977, who conduct many of the choreographed shows in the curva. The team have needed the sport more than ever this season, as they have struggled. They had fewer than 10,000 fans for their game against Empoli this season and most of these were on the curva.
Even to Italian football fanatics, a match between Parma and Empoli on a misty Sunday afternoon in late November would appear rather inconspicuous. For the clubs’ supporters, however, it was a fixture of particular importance. That both teams are locked in a relegation scrap this season was a contributing factor, but above all, this was the celebration of a 30-year gemellaggio (twinning) between the ultras of Parma and Empoli.
The friendship began when the two sides played in Serie B in 1984. Empoli triumphed 1-0, a fact many fans were apparently unaware of due to the thick fog that had descended over the Stadio Carlo Castellini. Gracefully accepting their defeat, the thousands of travelling Parmensi felt obliged to inform their adversaries that they had actually triumphed. From then a friendship was born and last Sunday it was honoured as the two sets of fans mixed amicably, eating lunch together and exchanging messages during a match that was again won by Empoli. While the Parma players left the field to a chorus of whistles from the home support, the cordial relationship between the fans was maintained.
Parma lies in the north west of Emilia Romagna, a region contiguous with Tuscany to the south, Liguria to the west and Lombardy and the Veneto to the north. The region is bounded by the River Po and it is one of the most prosperous on the peninsula. In the wealthy city of Parma, Campanilismo (local pride) is keenly felt by the population.
Indeed the Parmigiani can be somewhat supercilious at times, revelling in their affluent identity. But is it any wonder? This is a city that has given us Lamborghinis and some of the world’s finest produce, such as prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The composer Giuseppe Verdi was also a Parmigiano and the Parms players step into the Stadio Ennio Tardini to the tune of Verdi’s Marcia Trionfale. While the city is generally renowned for its music, art and gastronomy, to a handful of its population Parma FC represents an integral part of a Parmigiano’s identity.
During the summer of 1977, a group of youngsters united by their love for Parma FC and inspired by the ultras movement proliferating across Italy, formed the group BOYS. The thinking was simple. The club colours would be defended under the aegis of this newly fledged group.
A banner was promptly designed in the city’s colours: blue and yellow with two stars on either side of the group’s name. Over the years this name has been tweaked to BOYS PARMA 1977 and they have moved to the Curva Nord, but they have stood the test of time, as they pointed out in their fanzine in 2012:
Throughout the 1990s, groups that made history during the [ultra] movement such as the Fossa dei Leoni [AC Milan], Brigate Gialloblu [Hellas Verona], CUCS Roma disbanded for reasons that aren’t our business. However, just like us they were born back in the 1970s and thus 35 years of existence is a reason to be extremely proud.
Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Dino Baggio, Gianfranco Zola, Hernan Crespo and Enrico Chiesa were but of a few of the illustrious names to wear the yellow and blue jersey. This newfound success meant the supporters encountered new rivalries. Their battles with Juventus, including Parma’s famous victory in the 1995 Uefa Cup final, ensured the Vecchia Signora remains a coveted scalp. This is not to say their historic rivals were forgotten. The local derbies against Reggiana (Derby del Grana) and Bologna (Derby D’Emilia) have been the ultras’ traditional battlegrounds.
However, as the old proverb goes, “all good things must come to an end”. In 2003 a criminal investigation into Parmalat uncovered gross financial irregularities, leading to bankruptcy and its CEO, Calisto Tanzi, being imprisoned in 2006. This had a disastrous knock-on effect. In 2004 Parma were declared insolvent and this culminated in the club’s relegation from the top flight in 2008. The club have since bounced back, enjoying a sixth-place finish in Serie A under coach Roberto Donadoni during the 2013-14 season. However, financial problems continue to haunt them and a return to Europe was barred due to the late payment of a tax bill.
Just like the club, the ultras have not always enjoyed an easy ride. During the late 1980s the nucleus of the BOYS was decimated after a derby against Bologna turned nasty. Twenty-nine policemen were injured and, as a result, a wave of repression threatened the group’s very existence. In March 2008 tragedy struck when one of the group’s leading members, Matteo Bagnaresi, was run over and killed on his way to a game against Juventus. The bus that hit the 27-year-old was carrying Juve fans and accounts regarding the incident differ. Some claimed it was as a result of fan-related violence, causing the driver to panic and consequently run down Bagnaresi. Others maintain that this was a simple road accident.
Following Bagnaresi’s death, the Curva Nord was renamed in his honour. His loss is still keenly felt by Parma ultras and on the fifth anniversary of his passing, before a game against Pescara, the BOYS orchestrated a grand choreography with an image of Bagnaresi and the caption “Ribelle col sorriso, Bagna vive” (“Rebel with a smile, Bagna lives”).
While the presence and power of the ultras on the terraces has diminished, their influence in club affairs is still significant. This remains a questionable aspect of Italian football, unimaginable in England. Yet, it is hard not to sympathise with the logic behind these actions. The ultras simply expect their own commitment to be matched with the same intensity by the players on the pitch. Indeed, for the huge sums of money supporters spend on watching their teams play, you wouldn’t mind betting there are plenty of other disgruntled fans who would welcome the opportunity to question the commitment of some of their under-performing, yet extremely well-paid players. Regardless, Parma’s ultras will continue to enjoy and suffer every moment of their team’s emotional rollercoaster.
Classic player: Tomas Brolin
The £1.2m price tag was enough for the young Swedish forward to feel the pressure. He was known around the world after being one of the few impressive parts of Sweden’s World Cup squad. With Alessandro Melli played just behind Brolin, the pair shone in his first season. They scored 20 goals between them in Parma’s first season and even managed to help their team finish in the European places.
Faustino Asprilla, the flamboyant Colombian, was then brought to the club and the ungamely Swede was dropped. This could have been the beginning of the end but an injury to Asprilla allowed Brolin back into the squad and he proved his worth.
Brolin had performed well at the 1992 European Championship in Sweden and helped them reach the semi-finals, where they were knocked out by Germany. He famously scored a superb goal to knock England out in the final group game and his stock continued to rise.
Brolin was now a household name in Serie A and abroad. His technique, strength, range of passing and eye for goal were all complimented by his adaptability and character. He was one of the stars of USA 94, scoring three times in Sweden’s incredible run. He made the team of the World Cup and his performances led Swedish journalist Rikard Aberg to conclude that: “Romario scored goals, but Brolin was the better overall footballer. Brolin could score too, but he was the engine and the brain of the Swedish team back in 1994. If you would ask anyone in Sweden, they would tell you Brolin’s the best Swedish player ever. He was best player in the world in those days, period.”
Things fell apart for Brolin after the World Cup. He sustained a serious ankle injury in November 1994 and Parma signed the legendary Hristo Stoichkov for £6.5m in 1995. Brolin had battled against good players in the past but his injury and the calibre of his replacement meant his time as soon up. Sold to Leeds United in 1995, he never recaptured his form. Despite returning to Parma on loan in 1997, his story was over.
He was never a prolific goalscorer but he was an intelligent frontman who gave Parma and Sweden his best years. When calcio ruled the world, Brolin was the conductor of a mythical front-line.
Words by Richard Hall: @Gentleman_Ultra & Luca Hodges-Ramon: @LH_Ramon25