It took the court just 10 minutes to declare Parma FC bankrupt in March 2015.
It was a quick decision, finally ending months of torment after the mismanagement of then owner Tommaso Ghirardi (until selling the club in December 2014) and Chief Executive Officer Pietro Leonardi. During the 2014/15 season, Parma had been docked points on two separate occasions; the players had not been paid, while some of their home league games had to be postponed, as II Ducali couldn’t pay the police or stewards to provide security on matchdays. Giampietro Maneti, their owner since February, had been arrested for embezzlement and fraud. Mercifully, Parma were allowed to finish the season in Serie A, with relegation to Serie B a formality.
However, when the club’s sporting debt (owed to players and staff) of €22.6m couldn’t be paid, they were denied a place in Serie B. Unable to pay their overall debts of roughly €75m, Parma were folded, the second time in 11 years. It led to the founding of Parma Calcio 1913 who were allowed to re-start their journey in Serie D for the 2015/16 season, Italy’s fourth tier. For Parma fans, it had been a stressful period, eliciting a range of emotions.
“When we were wound up, and all the news was breaking of what Ghirardi and Leonardi had been up to, it was simply a feeling of sheer anger,” explained Giovanni Dougall, a passionate Parma fan and regular visitor to the city. “Also, there was no guarantee Parma would re-form again in Serie D, we effectively had no club for several weeks. When we did re-form, there was a feeling of hope and togetherness, as the club was being formed in the correct manner with people at the heart of it who truly cared for Parma.”
Italian clubs going bankrupt sadly isn’t a rare occurrence, as Fiorentina (in 2002) and Napoli (in 2004) suffered the same fate. Like Parma, they went to Serie D as re-formed clubs, and the duo managed to reach promotion to Serie A within four years. With Parma now owned by a local group of businessmen known as Nuovo Inizio, they sought to replicate Fiorentina and Napoli’s achievements by heading back up Italy’s football pyramid.
They appointed former coach Nevio Scala as president and former player Luigi Apollini as coach. Both figures were part of the club’s golden period of the 1990s and this helped strike a connection with fans. Over 9,000 season tickets were sold for Parma’s first season in Serie D – a new record for the division. The support on the terraces was reciprocated on the field, as II Ducali won promotion to Serie C in style, amassing the highest points total ever recorded in the league. But for Scala, getting out of Serie D at the first attempt was merely the beginning:
“We are enjoying the rewards of an extraordinary ride. Let’s enjoy the victory, as it’s the first of a process that we hope will see us as contenders again next year:”
However, ambition quickly turned into reality, as Parma competed for promotion in Serie C, but had to do it the hard way. A string of defeats resulted in them falling to seventh in their regional group, which led to Apollini’s sacking in November 2016. Roberto D’Aversa took over, in just his second coaching job, and quickly turned things around. He guided Parma to second place and qualified for the gruelling promotion knockout stages.
Placed in the second round, Parma beat Piacenza (2-0) over two legs, before dispatching Lucchese (4-2) in the quarter finals. The latter part of the playoffs now became single elimination and Parma sneaked past Pordenone 2-1 to face Alessandria in the final. With club legend Hernan Crespo in the crowd to offer support, II Ducali won 2-0 to seal promotion to Serie B.
Euphoria swept across the city at clinching back-to-back promotions to Serie B. Thousands of fans celebrated the return of the victorious squad and it was certainly worth the wait. The city had stayed loyal in the club’s darkest hour. Their average attendance in Serie D at the Stadio Ennio Tardini was 10,945, while in Serie C it was 10,230, in a stadium that holds under 28,000. These impressive figures helped financially by generating matchday revenue. In addition, the fans also helped by acquiring shares in the club, largely thanks to crowdfunding. So when Parma won promotion to Serie B, D’Aversa was quick to pay tribute to them:
“I want to thank the owners for giving me the opportunity to pursue this dream, but I would also like to thank the splendid fans, who always gave us a hand. Getting promoted to Serie B is all down to these lads, who I have to say a big thank you to. I’m proud to have led this club to promotion.”
Back-to-back promotions rapidly led to off-field developments for Parma. Jiang Lizhang, a Chinese businessman who owned Granada in Spain’s second tier, bought a 60% stake in the club to become Parma’s majority owner and new President. Lizhang was wise. He ensured the club retained its local feel and did not alienate fans. Nuovo Inizio, the previous owners, had a 30% stake, while the crowdfunding supporters had 10%. Furthermore, Lizhang appointed Hernan Crespo as Vice President, his eyes and ears. The Chinese businessman had lofty plans for his new club:
“Parma will rise again like a giant to take back its rightful place in Italian football. I hope that we can soon celebrate Serie A with the team and the fans.”
In the past, many new owners of Italian clubs would stamp their authority immediately by spending recklessly in the transfer market. To Lizhang’s credit, he didn’t do that, as most of their 2017 summer signings were free transfers or loan deals. Parma’s only outlays were on wingers Antonio Di Gaudio of Carpi and a loan fee for Benevento’s Amato Circetti. With the boost of foreign investment, Parma set about establishing themselves as promotion contenders once again.
Remarkably, on May 18, 2018 – the final day of the regular campaign – Parma were still in with a chance of automatic promotion to Serie A. They needed to win at Spezia while hoping that second-ranked Frosinone would drop points at home to Foggia. With just over an hour gone, Parma had opened a 2-0 lead and Foggia were a goal up at the Stadio Partenio-Adriano Lombardi. As things stood, Roberto D’Aversa’s men were on course for automatic promotion. But this script needed another twist.
In the space of five minutes, Frosinone struck twice, once through Luca Paganini and once via a Matteo Rubin own goal. Now it was the Lazio-based team who occupied the automatic promotion spot at Parma’s expense. As the clock ticked down, it seemed increasingly likely that the Crociati would have to do things the hard way via the play-offs. But then, with just a minute of normal time remaining, Foggia equalised at Frosinone.
As the final whistle sounded, the reality of Parma’s revival from the ashes flashed before the eyes of calcio fans worldwide: the loyalty of their supporters, Nuovo Inizio providing the financial base for the club to re-form in 2015, then becoming the first team to win three consecutive promotions – the first under Luigi Apolloni before Roberto D’Aversa completed the sequence.
Yet throughout all this, the beating heart of II Ducali’s renaissance had been their captain Alessandro Lucarelli. The centre-back had been at the club for seven years before they folded. As captain during such a difficult period, Lucarelli was a beacon of strength, offering to play in Serie D as far back as February 2015:
“I’d be prepared to play in Serie D for Parma if it was necessary. After seven years, I feel like this shirt is mine and I’m available to play for this club at whatever level.”
True to his word, he stayed at the club when they fell to Serie D, the only player to do so. Amazingly, now at the age of 40, Lucarelli has played a vital role in Parma’s return to the top. He’s played at least 30 games in each of the last three seasons and has been a commanding presence in defence. Dougall spoke for all Parma fans when asked to sum up his career at the Stadio Ennio Tardini.
“Lucarelli was and is Parma, on and off the park. A spokesman for the players through the tough times and now a true inspirational leader.”
The skipper represents the collective effort of a side that has works hard for each other. He is also a man who kept a promise: that he would take the club back to Serie A. Due to retire at the end of the campaign, there are many in the game who would like to see the veteran – who turns 41 in July – make at least one last appearance for Parma in the top flight. But whatever happens, the story of his and his club’s incredible renaissance will be told for many years to come.