Gianfranco Zola, Lilian Thuram, Hernan Crespo, Fabio Cannavaro, Roberto Sensini, Faustino Asprilla, Gianluigi Buffon.
Three World Cup winners, three international captains, some of the best players to have played in Serie A in the modern era.
All saw their careers blossom at Parma F.C., the Romagna-based club once owned by food giant Parmalat. In the 1990s, when Serie A was the most competitive, dominant, and exciting league perhaps to ever exist, Parma were a regular near the top of Italian football. Though they never won Serie A – their best finish was 2nd in 1996-97 – they achieved considerable success in knockout competitions: 3 Coppa Italias, 2 UEFA Cups, 1 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, and 2 Supercups. Only fourteen clubs have won more European silverware than Parma. Even when they faced insolvency in 2003 – when a $14 billion hole was discovered in Parmalat’s bank account – they endured, returned to Serie A, and finished a mere two points from European competition.
The reports coming out of Italy right now are conflicting: according to some, the club has been liquidated and banished to the depths of the Italian football pyramid. According to others, the club still exists, but will likely be dissolved by the end of the day. Their demise follows on the abandonment of Parma’s game against Udinese over the former’s failure to pay club wages since July. Even if they somehow survive the weekend, the situation will not get better: Parma are bottom of Serie A with 10 points from 23 games, have had three owners in the last six months, and are saddled with €197m in debt. Players haven’t been paid since the summer, and the club lacks the cash to even pay game-day staff or their electricity bill, let alone rent on the Stadio Ennio Tardini. If this isn’t quite the end for Parma F.C., then you can certainly see it from here.
How did this happen?
Parma are no strangers to financial mismanagement: the club was declared insolvent in 2003 and relegated to Serie B – with basically all their players sold to cover the aforementioned hole in Parmalat’s accounts. But under the careful guidance of Tommaso Ghirard – who bought the club in 2007 – investment was made on new players and the club looked to be on the way up again: they were brilliant last season, with Antonio Cassano scoring thirteen goals and manager Roberto Donadoni playing an inventive, effective brand of football. They finished sixth in Serie A but, due to unpaid tax bills, were denied a UEFA License and barred from European competition.
This is when things started to fall apart. Ghirardi vowed to step away from football altogether, accusing the FIGC (Italian FA) of “managing to make me abandon my greatest passion.” In May 2014, Ghirardi stepped down as Parma President and declared his intention to sell the club. Having stopped paying his players’ wages in August, he eventually did so, handing control of the club to Albanian businessman Rezart Tassi. With close connections to Russian finance, he promised to stabilize the club and pay his players. But then the bottom fell out of the price of oil and, with the Ruble continuing to collapse in the face of western sanctions against Russia, Taci was forced to sell Parma to Giampietro Manenti for the nominal price of €1.
Things have gone steadily downhill since: Not being paid, Cassano sued the club for breach of contract, then cancelled his contract with the club altogether. The club’s sporting director was twice hospitalized for heart problems, and has since been moved to a specialist hospital for depression and anxiety. Facing insolvency, Parma’s players and staff delivered an ultimatum to Manenti: pay up by February 19th, or face the consequences. Menenti, whose business interests are primarily in Slovenia, insisted that he had the funds to do so, but that he faced difficulty transferring them from abroad. Parma’s mayor told a less hopeful story: he described a meeting over the club’s finances as “heated”, noting that the money to pay wages was not forthcoming. Things got even weirder this morning, with Gazzetta dello Sport claiming that the bank accounts of Menenti’s holding company were emptied and closed on Thursday, and that Manenti “was nowhere to be seen in Parma and was no longer answering his phone.”
It’s unclear what happens next, in part due to the cloudiness of much of the information that has come out. What we know for now is that the club has not officially been liquidated, but that bankruptcy proceedings have been opened. If those are successful, it will result in administrative relegation – possibly to Serie B, but more likely to Serie D, as was the case when Napoli were declared insolvent in 2004. It’s also unclear whether the current Parma would cease to exist – as happened when Rangers FC went bankrupt in Scotland three season ago. Either way, the situation speaks to the great risks of murky and substandard ownership in modern football. Napoli were lucky – they benefited from the benevolence of Aurelio Delaurentis, who resurrected the club and brought it back to the top of Serie A. I’m not sure if Parma will be so lucky. Parma were once a great club, and it’s unfortunate to see them fall so far due to the malevolence and incompetence of poor ownership.