While the last couple of years have gone some way towards re-establishing Serie A's reputation, the preceding decade was an unforgiving one for Italian football. With its teams having dominated the major European competitions throughout the late eighties and nineties, Serie A was once widely considered to be the most prestigious league on the continent. Between 1988 and 2000, Italy provided nine finalists in the European Cup and 13 in the UEFA Cup, including four all-Italian finals in the latter. Italian sides also won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup on three occasions and a whole litany of minor honours abroad, establishing a reputation for defensive excellence, tactical superiority and some of the most talented homegrown players in the world.
Things started to change come the turn of the millennium, with the Premier League and La Liga coming into the ascendency. Though the two Milanese clubs managed to win the Champions League in the noughties (with AC Milan triumphing twice), Italy failed to provide a single finalist in the Europa League all decade, and there was a feeling that many of the clubs in Serie A had lost their way. The Italian league was hit especially hard by the global financial crisis, with an overreliance on television revenue and spiralling debts seeing many clubs offload their best players. Soon enough, the UEFA coefficient of Serie A had fallen below that of the Portuguese Primeira Liga, and Italy's reputation as the home of sublime defensive football had began to dissipate and ebb away.
During this period of turmoil and upheaval, few clubs suffered quite as much as Parma. While the Crociati's problems went back well before the financial crisis, the general dysfunction across Italian football certainly didn't help them as they swirled down the plughole towards the fiscal abyss. Having been bought up by local food and dairy conglomerate Parmalat – formerly the club's sponsors – at the start of the nineties, Parma faced catastrophe when the company was declared bankrupt in late 2003, this on account of major financial fraud. Parmalat had been massively understating their company debts as well as selling themselves credit-linked notes, and Calisto Tanzi – the man whose riches had financed the football club for just over a decade – was eventually given multiple jail sentences for fraud and money laundering, among other things.
In the aftermath of Parmalat's collapse, Parma were also declared insolvent and went into controlled administration for several years. There was a very real chance that the club could go out of existence altogether, with a contemporary BBC report on the Parmalat scandal stating: "The Italian town of Parma could see its football team left in ruins, in a financial disaster which makes the plight of Leeds United seem strictly small-time." Many of the club's fans were Parmalat employees, with the company responsible for tens of thousands of jobs in the region, and so the city and its supporters suffered along with the football club, even more so when world markets crashed a few years later. The club survived and underwent several failed takeover bids before it was bought at auction in 2007 by Tommaso Ghirardi, the heir to a successful steel and engineering business. Parma finally came out of administration, and it looked as though a perilous chapter in the club's history had come to a close.
Unfortunately, despite two or three years of relative stability under Ghirardi's stewardship, he turned out to be as disastrous for the club as the Parmalat scandal which preceded him. In 2014, the club were refused a license to play in the Europa League owing to unpaid taxes, and Ghirardi announced he was leaving in protest. Soon afterwards, it emerged that Parma were in over €200m of debt – this at the height of Serie A's financial troubles – and it was not long before salaries were going unpaid, fixtures unfulfilled, creditors unsatisfied and points deducted. The club was once again insolvent and, in the ensuing chaos, was briefly taken over by Giampietro Manenti, a chancer described by one Italian journalist as "the poorest man you ever met in Parma." He was arrested on charges of money laundering before long, and Parma were officially declared bankrupt in the meantime. With no prospective owners to be found the Crociati's fate was sealed, and the club was re-formed as Parma Calcio 1913 and relegated to Serie D.
It was a tragic and ignominious end to a period of disastrous and at times criminal mismanagement, and a far-cry from the glory days which initially came with Calisto Tanzi's ownership. Having been a regional side with lower-league aspirations for almost all of their history – Parma had never been promoted to Serie A before Parmalat arrived on the scene – the Crociati were promoted to the top tier in 1990 after finishing fourth in Serie B. The foundations for their achievement had been laid by Arrigo Sacchi, who departed for a glittering spell with AC Milan in 1987, but it was under the ambitious management of Nevio Scala that they finally fulfilled their potential. Rewarded with enormous investment from Tanzi and sporting the Parmalat logo on their shirts, Parma embarked on a journey of silverware, European football and unprecedented success with an incredible team.
Having finished a remarkable sixth in their first two seasons in Serie A, the Crociati won the Coppa Italia in 1992 after beating an imperious Juventus team over two legs. In Parma's modest size and regional status, this would have been roughly equivalent to one of Luton, Oldham or Notts County – all of which found themselves in the English top tier that season – securing European football two campaigns running and beating Manchester United in a major final along the way. The Parma side which won the Coppa Italia included a solid Italian defensive core of Antonio Benarrivo, Lorenzo Minotti, Luigi Apolloni and Alberto Di Chiara, all of whom would go on to get caps for Italy, and a tricky attack spearheaded by an exciting young Swede by the name of Tomas Brolin. Three years later he would become a marquee signing for Leeds United, though his time in England is mainly remembered for a litany of injuries and some serious weight gain.
As for their forays into Europe, Parma's success drew admiring glances from across the continent. They won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1993, beating Sparta Prague, Atletico Madrid and Boavista on their way to a straightforward final against Royal Antwerp, before edging past AC Milan to win the European Super Cup several months later. With their yellow and blue kits fast becoming iconic, the Crociati reached the final of the Cup Winners' Cup again the following season, only to lose out to Arsenal in a game which was widely considered a coup for the North Londoners. Brolin smashed a shot against the post early on before Alan Smith scored a stunning half-volley for George Graham's side, and only through the tenacity of their famous back four did Arsenal contain their opponents. Faustino Asprilla and Gianfranco Zola were on the losing side that evening, having been lured to the Stadio Ennio Tardini at considerable expense.
Parma continued to do well in Serie A, finishing no lower than fifth for the rest of the decade. They came within a whisker of winning the league in the 1996-97 season, but missed out by two points to Marcello Lippi's Juventus, with the Bianconeri by now their fiercest rivals in the game. This was a testament to how far Parma had come, with the regional overachievers now competing with the biggest and best-supported club in Italy. They were certainly the neutral's choice among Italian fans elsewhere, and were seen by many as likeable underdogs despite Parmalat financing their meteoric rise.
Though it feels almost unreal now, the Stadio Ennio Tardini was where Gianluigi Buffon made his first strides in professional football. Callow, fresh-faced and with his hair parted boyishly down the middle, he steadfastly guarded Parma's goalmouth behind a back four which was marshalled by Fabio Cannavaro, this back when the world's first Ballon d'Or-winning defender had to wear a hairband to hold back his tousled locks. Lilian Thuram was a starter at right-back, and was still a Parma player when he won the World Cup in 1998. All three of them would end up at Juve, which although a source of immense frustration for Parma fans could also be seen as a tribute to the club's huge progress.
The Parma of Zola and Asprilla would go on to win the UEFA Cup in 1995, vanquishing newfound rivals Juventus on aggregate, while the Parma of Buffon, Cannavaro and Thuram would win the competition again in 1999 – overcoming Marseille in the final – and the Coppa Italia the very same year. With club legend Hernan Crespo leading the line at this point, briefly featuring alongside Juan Sebastian Veron, the team also took on an Argentine flavour which helped to further spread their image across the globe. All the while, Parmalat saw its profile burgeon and Calisto Tanzi's ego grew ever more gargantuan, though his outgoings on the club were enormous too. For the moment Tanzi was still a hero in Parma, though his kingly reign was entering its twilight years.
The last great triumph for Parma came in 2002, when a diminished team featuring the likes of Alain Boghossian, Stephen Appiah and Hakan Sukur frustrated Juventus in the Coppa Italia once more. The victory was made especially sweet by the sight of Thuram and Buffon receiving runners-up medals, with Parma fans able to laud it over the Bianconeri despite losing their star players to their nemeses. Little did they know that the beginning of the end was upon them, with the Parmalat scandal just around the corner and an era of decline and anguish hot on its heels.
While Serie A has made several strides forward since its nadir in the years following the global recession, so too have the green shoots of recovery begun to emerge at the Stadio Ennio Tardini. Having escaped Serie D at the first time of asking, the Crociati beat Alessandria in the third division play-off final this term and will contest next season in Serie B. While there is a long way to go before they are once more capturing hearts and minds in Europe, not to mention challenging Juventus for major silverware, Parma can look to their golden era for inspiration in the coming years. The glory days may well be over, but there is still something mesmerising about the regional side climbing determinedly up the leagues.