The 1990’s saw several of calcio’s established elite have periods in which they sampled the unfamiliar taste of mediocrity, as Inter, Milan and Roma all had seasons in which they finished below halfway in la classifica during this decade.
So it speaks volumes that a side who were never part of this famous clique managed to finish no lower than seventh between 1991 and 2000. Along the way, Parma, and some of the brilliant individuals who played for and coached them, made names for themselves that reverberated around the football world. They were at times exhilarating and showed absolutely no fear, making their modest Ennio Tardini stadium a graveyard for reputations.
Parma’s rise to the higher echelons of calcio was something that had never looked likely in their previous history. Indeed until the mid 1980’s, they had oscillated between Serie B and Serie C1, seeing existence as a club in the second tier as relative success. It was only when Arrigo Sacchi became coach in 1985 that hope of a brighter future arose. A near-miss on promotion in 1987 was followed by Sacchi’s departure for Milan. Parma spent two years searching for the right man until Nevio Scala came within a whisker of taking tiny Reggina into Serie A in 1989. Carlisto Tanzi had made a wise choice, and a 2-0 victory over Reggiana in the penultimate game of 1989/90 saw them make the unprecedented rise to the elite level.
Where many promoted sides have struggled has been in improving the squad to meet the new challenges. With the Parmalat millions now firmly behind Ducali, key signings were made that summer, most notably the Swedish star Tomas Brolin. Equally adept as a playmaker or deep-lying forward, Brolin would be a key player in those early years. An added bonus was the ability of players already at the club to adapt. Luigi Apolloni, Lorenzo Minotti and Alessandro Melli would all receive international recognition. Antonio Benarrivo, an inspired signing from Padova in 1991, would be another of five Parma players who would board the plane for the USA in 1994.
That their first game in Serie A was lost to Juventus would pale into insignificance as they took Serie A by storm to finish sixth and qualify for Europe. The following season saw a 2-1 aggregate victory over Juventus win the Coppa Italia, their first major honour. This gained qualification for the Cup Winners Cup in 1992/93, and Ujpest, Boavista, Sparta Prague and Atletico Madrid were all beaten to set up a clash with Royal Antwerp at Wembley. When the Belgians were brushed aside 3-1, Parma had become a force to be reckoned with in Europe as well as at home, a point enforced by their Super Cup triumph over Milan.
A key signing that season was Faustino Asprilla, the often frustrating but frequently unplayable Colombian giving them additional offensive quality. It was his goal that broke Milan’s 58-game unbeaten run as a late charge saw Parma finish third. With the additon of Gianfranco Zola from Napoli that summer, Parma had two players score double figures in Serie A for the first time in 1993/94. They finished fifth and were desperately unlucky not to retain the Cup Winners Cup. After beating Degefors, Maccabi Haifa, Ajax and Benfica to reach the final, Arsenal had one meaningful attack against them and Alan Smith scored from it. In 1994/95, only a loss at Napoli on the last day prevented them from finishing second to Juventus. They also had a two-way battle with the Turin giants in Cup competitions. It finished one apiece, with Juventus winning both legs of the Coppa Italia final and Dino Baggio haunting his old club to win Parma their first UEFA Cup.
Scala’s last season as coach saw Brolin leave for a disastrous spell at Leeds and Parma finish a disappointing sixth, though only one point separated them from third placed Lazio. It was also the season in which Gianluigi Buffon made his début in goal. The new coach that summer was Carlo Ancelotti, who had just secured Reggiana’s immediate return to Serie A. Controversially, both Asprilla and Zola were sold to Newcastle and Chelsea respectively. He aimed to build a new sort of Parma, with Lilian Thuram coming from Monaco to shore up the defence, Hernan Crespo signing from River Plate to own the six yard box and Enrico Chiesa moving from Sampdoria. The ex-Modena man had been imperious for the Genoa club the previous season, scoring 22 goals with some spectacular strikes amongst them.
This more efficient and pragmatic team fared poorly in cup competition, crashing out of the UEFA Cup in the first round to Vitoria Guimares of Portugal and suffering an embarrassing Coppa Italia second round loss at Pescara. More crucially, however, they finished second in Serie A, their highest finish ever and took the intimidating Juventus side of that time to the penultimate game. So the hopes in 1997/98 were probably not realised as the club finished sixth and saw its Champions League début end in the group stages. Ancelotti’s final season, however, was probably Parma’s best of all time in terms of achievement. With the skilful ball play of Juan Sebastian Veron now in the midfield, Parma won the Coppa Italia on away goals against Fiorentina, while sealing their second UEFA Cup with a 3-0 win over Marseille in Moscow. Add a 4th placed finish earning another crack at the Champions League and it is no surprise that Juventus came calling for Ancelotti in the summer of 1999. That the millenium ended on an anticlimatic note was perhaps a warning of the slow decline that would follow in the next decade. Rangers made the Champions League groups at their expense and a play-off for a shot at them the next season was lost to Inter. Though it tells you how far they had come that they prised coach Alberto Malesani from Fiorentina, he would be far less successful than his two predecessors.
As calcio became more popular among English football supporters, Parma were one of those sides who had more appeal than most. This probably had a great deal to do with their exciting style of play under Scala and playing in one of the few Serie A stadia that did not have a running track diluting the atmosphere. Moreover, while the Parmalat empire bankrolled ambitions which were probably above a club of their stature, Parma retained the spirit of a smaller club, fighting for everything and raising their game against the best opposition. Indeed, their worst results in the 1990’s invariably came in matches they began as favourites. Scala also saw the value of signing young players with a point to prove. Brolin and Asprilla had their reputations enhanced by their time at Ennio Tardini, Parma made money on both of them and you could argue neither ever scaled the same heights after leaving. Parma have of course returned to Serie A after a disastrous few years which saw Parmalat embroiled in scandal and the club relegated. They may well qualify for Europe again someday soon but they will never recreate the vibe that was around them for the best decade in their history.