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Old 23rd June 2015, 11:42   #1
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Default Parma: the football club milked for all their worth

Parma: the football club milked for all their worth

It is incredible that a Serie A team could go bankrupt so spectacularly twice in a little over 10 years. But in Italy the incredible has become the commonplace

David Gendelman
The Guardian
Tuesday 23 June 2015

• Originally published in Howler Magazine

Roberto Donadoni, the coach of Parma, looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He had bags under his eyes, and his hair was a messy tangle of grey. He was sitting at a conference table beside Parma’s captain, Alessandro Lucarelli, who could not keep still, frowning and fidgeting when he paused between exasperated monologues. The men had held press conferences at the team’s headquarters in the Parma suburb of Collecchio before, but usually in front of no more than a dozen reporters. On this day in late February, the room was packed with far more than that.

The day before, for the second time in as many weeks, Parma announced that they would not play their scheduled game in Serie A. A week earlier, the team had cancelled their home match against Udinese because they didn’t have enough money to pay stewards to open the stadium to the public. This time, the team couldn’t cover travel expenses for the 100-mile trip west to Genoa. It was the first time in the modern history of the Italian league that a club had stopped playing mid-season because they were broke. In the week prior to the announcement, several cars belonging to the club had been repossessed; their medical staff ’s training equipment had been removed so it could be sold at auction; their laundry service had been cancelled. The players and much of the staff hadn’t been paid since July. Twice in the last three months, the team had been sold for a figure in the single digits: one euro, to be precise. The price was low because the new owners assumed the roughly $100m debt that had been amassed by the man who had run the club for the last seven years. To top it all off, the current owner, Giampietro Manenti, who had bought the team three weeks earlier, had yet to prove to anyone that his bank account contained more than the single euro he had paid for the team, despite his daily assurances that the millions the players and staff were owed would be arriving “domani” (“tomorrow”).

A meeting of the Serie A team presidents had been scheduled for 6 March to discuss Parma’s situation, but that was still a week away. After Parma cancelled their match against Genoa, FIGC, the Italian football federation, granted the postponement, but it did not show much sympathy in doing so. “This is the last lifeline for Parma,” the federation’s president, Carlo Tavecchio, said. “I’ve done all I can. I can’t postpone matches every Sunday.” Despite there being a committee within FIGC that checks the financial health of every club at appointed times throughout the season, Tavecchio added that: “FIGC bears no responsibility for the Parma situation.”

It was in this context that Lucarelli and Donadoni called their press conference. “We have asked for protection and respect from the institutions that represent soccer,” Lucarelli said. “But nobody gave us a call. Nobody from the top brass of FIGC pried themselves away from their armchair to come and see what is happening in Parma. So we decided not to play, only and simply because we didn’t see any interest from the institutions.” The players had initially offered to pay their own way to Genoa, but once Lucarelli announced that the team wouldn’t play, that came off the table. “It is not about the money,” Lucarelli continued. “An assembly was set for 6 March, and I don’t even know if we will make it to 6 March.”

Donadoni, 51, was equally frustrated. “It’s time to look each other in the eye and say we have to intervene in a radical way,” the revered former Italy midfielder and former Azzurri coach said to the journalists gathered before him. “These are situations that can never be repeated.”

The two men sat in front of a backdrop that featured the standard Italian football banner: a blue curtain crammed with the logos of every Serie A sponsor. Cameras clicked continuously inside the room, but outside, where the team’s multi-million-dollar training facility – one of the finest in Italy – spread for acres, where transmission towers painted the national colours of green, white, and red stretched endlessly in the distance, it was quiet.

“We feel like a carcass in the middle of the desert with only vultures and jackals around,” Donadoni said. Indeed, the vultures and jackals were circling. Less than three weeks later, on 18 March, Manenti, the team’s owner, was arrested on the charge of attempted money laundering, as part of a criminal organisation whose money was intended to be used to fund the team. Lucarelli called the situation “a farce”, but it has turned out to be an enlightening one – the team’s collapse has put under the spotlight the utterly frail state of a league that little more than a decade ago was the best in the world.

‘It is a place of genuine worldwide exclusivity’

The city of Parma has a population of only 180,000 and a reputation throughout Italy as one of the most sophisticated cities in the country. Its opera house, Teatro Regio, rivals Milan’s La Scala as one of the best in the world. Italy’s economic decline over the last decade has hit Parma particularly hard, due to the collapse of local dairy giant Parmalat 12 years ago. Before this, Italian newspaper polls regularly ranked the city as one of the finest in the country in which to live.

“It is a proper, nice, small, medieval, wealthy, and bourgeois city,” said the actor and lifelong Parma fan Rocco Di Gregorio, 39, who was born and raised there but now lives in New York. “It is a place of genuine worldwide exclusivity. Prosciutto di Parma, there is only one in the world. Parmesan cheese is the prince of cheese. Everybody knows [the pasta maker] Barilla, because it is in every supermarket in the world, but Bormioli, the glassmaker, is equally huge.”

“It’s really different,” said Vittorio Farnetti, 40, a Parma museum operator and another local fan, who has spent his entire life in the city and whom I met there in March in the town’s main square, Piazza Garibaldi, where we drank espresso on a sunny day that was still cold enough that Farnetti wore a wool cap over his dreadlocks. “We are universally known for the fact that you can come here with your babies and your girls and nobody will punch you and spit at you just because you have the shirt of the other team.”

For most of their 101 year existence, Parma competed in Italy’s lower divisions. It wasn’t until 1990, in fact, that they reached Serie A. With the team enjoying as much national renown as they ever had before, the dairy company Parmalat purchased them, handing over the reins of the team to the company’s CEO, Calisto Tanzi. Running an Italian football club, historically speaking, has never been a very profitable venture. For the most part, an official at one of the bigger Serie A teams told me, team owners either “invested in their image or in increasing the chances of having fun with their toys”. Tanzi was a fine example of this.

He spent millions on the team and created one that would become known as Parma’s “golden generation”. Over the course of the next 10 years, during a period in which Serie A attracted a great majority of the best players in the world, Tanzi signed several of them, including the Argentinian Hernán Crespo, who is Parma’s all-time leading scorer and currently the coach of their youth team; the defender Lilian Thuram, who has the most caps of any French national player in history; the Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla, a part of his own country’s golden generation; and Italy’s 2006 World Cup captain Fabio Cannavaro. The team won two Uefa Cups, three Coppa Italias, one European Cup Winners’ Cup, and one European Super Cup. You can still see the trophies from these victories – directly beside a photo of the team celebrating their 100th anniversary last year by meeting the pope in Vatican City – displayed in glass cases lining the entrance hallway of Parma HQ, known as Centro Sportivo. This training facility was built in the early 2000s under the watch of Tanzi, who wanted to move the team next to the offices of Parmalat in Collecchio, and spent a small fortune to do so.

Parma’s success was not only the team’s. It was Parmalat’s, too. Just as sports fans the world over can recognise in the blink of an eye the logo of Etihad Airways on the shirts of the Manchester City and now the New York City FC football teams, in the 1990s the Parma jersey was an international travelling advertisement for Parmalat. When the company began its expansion into Eastern Europe in the mid-90s, Tanzi bought the Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov, a former Ballon d’Or winner, on the downside of his career, from Barcelona for £10m, nearly as much as anyone had ever paid for a player before. When the company expanded into Africa, the Parma roster began to feature players from Ivory Coast and Ghana. Perhaps Parmalat’s success became most evident after it had broken ground in the United States and appeared on American television, in the refrigerator of Carrie Bradshaw, the main character of HBO’s hit show Sex and the City, a programme in which brand recognition was practically a leading cast member.

But in 2003 Parmalat collapsed in spectacular fashion, in a scandal often referred to as Europe’s Enron. The company – which was the eighth largest in all of Italy, employed 36,000 people, and represented nearly 1% of Italy’s GDP – had built up a debt of $20bn . Tanzi was convicted of bankruptcy fraud and criminal association, among other things, and sentenced to more than 17 years in prison. The team was put into controlled administration and taken over by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee. It took the trustee four years before he could find another owner, but in 2007, he did, in perhaps the most hated man in Parma today, Tommaso Ghirardi.

‘The debts the club has now began in 2009’

“My first impression was very, very good,” Crespo said of Ghirardi, the team’s owner, who in 2010 had brought the striker back to Parma, where he would spend the last three years of his playing career. Crespo and I were standing outside at Centro Sportivo on a sunny afternoon in the first week of March, beside a pitch on which Parma’s first team had just defeated the Crespo-coached youth squad 4–0. At that point in time, Parma had not won a Serie A match in two months. It had not scored in one in more than a month. It had not even played one in nearly three weeks. “Ghirardi seemed like a man who had a great passion for football and wanted this Parma to be a great team – not like the old times [the golden generation], but to play at a high level in the first division for a long time, without being relegated,” Crespo said. “This was the target.” In January 2007, Ghirardi, then 31, had bought Parma, by then entirely free of its Parmalat debt, at auction for $39m. The scion of a family with successful steel and engineering businesses based in Carpenedolo, a small town outside Brescia, 50 miles north of Parma, Ghirardi was well dressed, baby faced, and overweight, the Pillsbury Doughboy in Italian fashion.

“He is very arrogant, the typical son of rich people, who never managed to graduate from school,” said Paolo Emilio Pacciani, the sports director of Gazzetta di Parma, the city’s largest newspaper. “He spent his life partying, having fun, spending money he didn’t make.” Yet in his first years as the president of Parma, no one saw him this way. “He apparently was a very nice guy and a very rich man,” Pacciani said. “He appeared to be a very good choice by [the bankruptcy trustee].”

“The first two years were good,” said Massimo Gobbi, Parma’s vice-captain and left-back who had also signed with the team in 2010. “But after that there was something suspicious, because they started to say that Parma had liquidity problems, so we had to wait for our pay-cheques.”

FIGC has a rule that teams must pay players at prescheduled quarterly dates throughout the year, and if they don’t meet this deadline, they will then be penalised, both financially and with point deductions. Parma met these deadlines, paying the team with three monthly pay-cheques at once.

“A lot of clubs have problems paying every month,” Crespo said. At 39, he has aged gracefully from the prime of his playing career. He still has his perpetual South American tan and his good looks, and now he also has a head of grey hair that makes him look like a young version of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, like someone whose wealth of experience extends beyond the football pitch. The day before, he and a few other former Parma players appeared in court, where they were officially cleared of any criminal wrongdoing during the Parmalat scandal more than a decade earlier.

When the mandatory payment deadline arrives, Crespo continued, “Everybody comes like this.” He gestured with his two hands cupping bowls of cash and pushed them toward me. “‘OK, I pay before the penalty.’ At the same time, you always get the money.”

In 2009, Ghirardi hired Pietro Leonardi as the team’s general director. Leonardi had over a decade of front-office Italian football experience behind him. He came from a successful stint at Udinese, a team respected for their ability to spot young talent, nurture it into bigger talent at home or allow it to develop on loan with other teams, and then sell it at a profit. The method had worked well at Udinese, and Leonardi was hired to achieve the same success at Parma. It did not work out that way.

“The debts the club has now began in 2009,” said Andrea Schianchi, a journalist with Italy’s famous pink sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. When the Parma story broke in the fall of 2014, it was reported that the club at one point had nearly 250 players under contract playing for teams spread across the globe. It was a startling number. The best teams in Serie A have about one-quarter that amount. When the players took full notice of this practice in 2013, Gobbi said, “it was something else that looked suspicious to us”.

Soon rumours began to spread around town about the team’s financial problems. In April 2014, Schianchi wrote an article that stated how local “doctors, pharmacists, and greengrocers” weren’t getting paid by the team. The club denied the allegations.

In the midst of all this, somehow, the team excelled. In the early months of 2014, when they traveled to Vatican City to meet the pope, Parma were in the middle of what would become a club-record 17-game unbeaten streak. When Parma defeated Livorno 2–0 on the last day of the 2013–14 season, they secured sixth place in Serie A, their best finish since 2004, and a spot in the Europa League the next season. It was the high point not only of that year but of the team’s decade-long climb back to respectability following the crash of Parmalat. The euphoria lasted 24 hours.

The very next day, FIGC refused to grant Parma the licence to play in the Europa League because, it said, the team had not paid $325,000 in taxes on players it had on loan around the world.

After the team’s appeal failed two weeks later, Ghirardi called a press conference. “I am convinced that we have paid – we have fulfilled our requirements,” he said. “I have spoken with the league and the federation, who gave me directions on what to do. And that has led to the failure to give us a Uefa licence.

“We are good people who run a good house,” he continued. “But they have managed to push me away from the game. I’m done with football. I’m done. I’m resigning as Parma president, and as of 1 July, a new story will begin. Parma is now for sale.”

Six months later, it would come out that Ghirardi had built up a total debt of more than $200m. No one could account for the enormity of the sum. People had suspicions, though few were wholesome. In March 2015, it was announced that Ghirardi and Leonardi were being investigated for fraudulent bankruptcy.

“The ideas of the [investigating magistrate] are very, very heavy,” Schianchi said. Ghirardi publicly denied any wrongdoing, but his name has become shorthand in Parma for betrayal.

“If the same things had happened in Naples or Rome, or even Brescia, people would’ve burned down Ghirardi’s house,” Pacciani said. “At least his car.”

When I mentioned this at Parma’s headquarters, one employee said: “Or Ghirardi himself.”

Instead, Parma’s largest fan group, Boys Parma 1977, traveled to Carpenedolo, the former owner’s hometown, and performed a mock funeral. The character of Ghirardi was dressed as a pig, based on the physical resemblance.

The problem in this instance was Parma’s, but it’s not as though the club’s situation was an anomaly in Italian football. Far from it. In 2002, Fiorentina went bankrupt after they too reportedly couldn’t make payroll. In 2004, Napoli, then in Serie B, went bankrupt, with a debt of more than $80m. In 2005, the Serie B team Torino also collapsed, directly after they won promotion to Serie A. Those were just a few of the many clubs that had to reform under new ownership in the lower divisions during those years. FIGC had financial rules in place to try to regulate the disintegrating situation. At the end of the 2006–07 season, if those rules had been applied, by one count possibly only half of the 20 Serie A teams would have been allowed to enter the championship the next season. In May 2007, FIGC eased those restrictions, essentially requiring teams only to have paid players’ and coaches’ salaries at the end of the previous season in order to enter Serie A the following one.

“The rules made it even easier for a club to have debt,” said Giorgio Lugaresi, the president of Serie A side Cesena. “It basically allowed clubs to grow their debts in a controlled way, and you can say that this is why Parma is in the situation it is.”

As Francesco Saverio Intorcia, a journalist at the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, reported in March, teams in Serie A finished last season with a combined debt of about $1.8bn . Several of the teams had debts that far exceeded Parma’s. The financial difficulty, not surprisingly, is far worse in the lower divisions. According to FIGC’s 2014 annual report, from 2000–07, 47 professional teams were excluded from Italy’s four professional divisions (there are now only three) and folded altogether. In the seven years since the financial rules were changed in 2007, 68 teams have disappeared.

“The whole system doesn’t work,” Lugaresi said. “All Italian clubs spend more than what they have, because they want to win, so they don’t care. There really should be a policy of saving, but nobody is doing this.”

I spoke to Lugaresi through a translator during the mid-March international break, a few days after I had returned from Parma. I phoned him from New York, and he answered in Macedonia, where he was training his four dogs for hunting.

“Parma is typical of Italian football,” he said. “Even Cesena, when I returned to the team [in 2013, after leaving in 2007 following the death of his wife], had a hole of €43m, and there were a lot of debts and bad management. There will be a hearing, but the facts are pretty clear, and some money was stolen from the club.” Lugaresi said that he has reduced Cesena’s debt, but if the team is demoted to Serie B, as seemed likely when we spoke, it will take him another six or seven years before the team is in the black. “Every time I look at the report of the financial situation of all the Serie A soccer clubs, I realise that my debt is not even one of the scariest. There are clubs in much worse shape than we are.”

“Very few in this country have ever seen football like an industry,” an official at one of the bigger Serie A teams told me. “It’s a way to get money. It’s a way to get recognition. It’s a way to do, let’s say, dirty jobs. It’s a way to play. But the level of professionalism in the professional divisions in this country is very low.”

Also low are the requirements to own an Italian team. “There are evidently none,” Paolo Grossi, a journalist at Gazzetta di Parma, told me. When Manenti bought Parma on 6 February, he proved just how low those requirements actually are.

‘It is like copy and paste’

After the Uefa license refusal, Ghirardi did indeed leave the team, but he didn’t leave much of one behind. Apparently without any money on hand, Leonardi, the general director, spent the summer selling players. He sold central midfielder Marco Parolo, one of the team’s three representatives on Italy’s 2014 World Cup team, to Lazio. He sold Amauri, two years earlier the team’s leading scorer, and the defender Cristian Molinaro to Torino (who were now back in Serie A, having reformed after their 2005 crisis). He returned Walter Gargano and Ezequiel Schelotto to the teams from which Parma had taken them on loan. The players Leonardi brought in to replace them, said Gobbi, the vice-captain, “came from teams in Serie B and Serie C. A lot of them had never played in Serie A. We started this season with a team that was not like last season.”

“I thought we would have had a very quiet season,” said Farnetti, the lifelong Parma resident and fan. “There should have been at least five or six teams much, much, much worse in a sport way than mine. But then you start to lose, and to lose, and to lose to other teams that are not so strong, and you begin to understand that something is wrong.”

By 15 November, the next league-mandated pay date, Parma had lost nine of their first 11 matches, including the most recent one to Juventus 7–0.

“Ghirardi came back to sell the club,” Gobbi said. “But at the 15th of November, he didn’t pay. And this is when we understood that there was a big, big problem in Parma.”

Gobbi, 34, is a former Italy international. He is a fan of true-crime books and has an air of innocence that makes him seem as though the books were as close as he thought he’d ever get to true crime. I met him after lunch one day in March at the team’s cafeteria. In the four months since that November pay date, Parma had cemented their place at the bottom of the league, but they now had far more serious concerns than the outcome of yet another weekend thumping. The team had not played for two weeks in a row, and the players had just threatened not to play a third. The team were now awaiting the outcome of the 6 March meeting of the Serie A club owners, in two days, which would determine whether or not the league would bail out the club so they could finish the season. With no money forthcoming from the owner, Manenti, Parma’s catering service had announced that this would be its last week at Collecchio. The day before, the team’s internet provider had cut their connection. Every dawn, it seemed, presented a new challenge. At lunch the next afternoon, the head of the team’s youth squads told Gobbi in heated frustration about how he was trying any way possible to secure funding for the youth teams’ upcoming away matches. He punctuated nearly every sentence with the word “disastro”.

“We train every day, but we have to think about this situation every day,” Gobbi said. “We have to talk with the AIC [the Association of Italian Footballers ]. We meet with the mayor.” A month earlier, Gobbi had testified before a magistrate about the situation. He called it the low point of the season for him. “We have so many different things to look at and think about. It’s difficult to train. We try to act like the situation is normal, but it is not.”

Once Ghirardi missed the 15 November pay date, the team were penalised one point in the league standings and fined €5,000. Ghirardi and Leonardi were suspended for two months. In late December, Ghirardi finally sold the team. The buyer, Dastraso Holdings Limited, a Russian-Cypriot oil company, had reportedly been formed only one month earlier and was headed, it would eventually be made public, by the Albanian oil tycoon Rezart Taci.

“But the name of Taci never came out,” said Paolo Emilio Pacciani, the Gazzetta di Parma sports editor, perhaps because Taci, who had failed in his efforts over the past several years to buy three different Serie A teams, including Milan, “was known to be not very dependable”.

Taci soon met the mayor of Parma, Federico Pizzarotti, at a dinner of the city’s business leaders, at which he promised vast investments into the team and the town. “We can see now that it is not true,” Pizzarotti said when I met him. “He said he needed to look over the bills and register of the team, and then he would present himself to the city.”

That never happened. Exactly one week before the next league-mandated pay date in mid-February, Dastraso, without having altered the financial situation of the team, sold Parma to Manenti for €1. Apparently, it was the same price that Dastraso had paid Ghirardi. Meanwhile, Parma had played another 10 matches and won only one of them.

Manenti first met the team at Centro Sportivo. “He promised a lot of things, like millions of euros would be here in a few days,” Lucarelli told me. “We had just had six months of all these promises, that the millions would be here. So this was another time when someone promised a lot. We weren’t impressed.”

Manenti is a shaggily dressed, unshaven middle-aged man from a small town outside Milan. At the time he drove a black Citroën C3. “It is like a Ford Fiesta,” Farnetti said. “It is the car that you use as the second car in your family.”

In the last two years, Manenti had failed in his attempts to buy the Serie B teams Pro Vercelli and Brescia. He ran a business based in Slovenia called the Mapi Group, which allegedly made its money acting as a go-between for business interests. When a reporter from Sky Sport 24 visited its headquarters on the edge of a tiny town on the border of Italy, she found a two-story residential house with a small note taped to the mailbox that read, “Mapi Group”. In his first weeks as owner, Manenti repeated daily to the press the same promise he had given to the team. But no money ever surfaced.

“It is like copy and paste,” Lucarelli said at the February press conference. Earlier that month, to go to Slovenia to “unblock the bank transfers,” Manenti reportedly used money from the little that remained in Parma’s possession. Shortly after he returned, his Citroën was towed for $2,000 in unpaid parking tickets. The car, it turned out, was registered to his father. One reporter discovered that, only a few years earlier, he’d interviewed for a job slicing deli meat at a supermarket – and had been passed over. He was said to have made his “fortune” selling olives and olive oil on eBay. The phrase “bonifico da Manenti” (“Manenti bank transfer”) went viral. One Photoshop creation depicted a skeleton on a park bench. The caption read: “He was waiting for a Manenti bank transfer.”

After more than two weeks of Manenti’s unfulfilled promises, Mayor Pizzarotti set up a meeting with him for 27 February (the day before Donadoni and Lucarelli’s press conference) at Pizzarotti’s office in Piazza Garibaldi. I met the mayor in the sitting room of the stone tower that houses his office, the walls around us covered in paintings, some centuries older than the United States. The mayor is 41, but he looks younger. He was elected in 2012 after the former mayor, Pietro Vignali, resigned following a corruption scandal that left the city nearly $900m in debt. Vignali was later arrested on charges of corruption and misappropriation of public money. I asked Pizzarotti how the meeting with Manenti had gone.

“He didn’t have an answer about the money, about the future of the football team, about the legal question of the tribunal [the club’s bankruptcy hearing that had been scheduled for 19 March],” Pizzarotti said. “The answer was always: ‘No problem. There is money. No problem.’

“I thought I had lost my mind,” Pizzarotti continued. “Because the situation is very serious, and he doesn’t have a serious lawyer or a serious accountant. He says only, ‘No problem. I have the money.’”

“Manenti is the poorest man you ever met in Parma,” said Paolo Grossi, the Gazzetta di Parma journalist. “He has absolutely no money, but he can go to the assembly of the league along with [Juventus president Andrea] Agnelli, [Milan CEO Adriano] Galliani, all the presidents, millionaires, club owners, and just sit among them. And that means that there are great holes in the security system of the league.”

The players felt the same way. Once the team had stopped playing, complaints began to rise throughout the league that the entire Serie A championship had become invalidated. Lucarelli and Donadoni held their press conference to explain why the team refused to play – and to state that if changes weren’t made to prevent this from happening again, they would continue not to play.

“I am almost in love with those two guys,” Farnetti said of Lucarelli and Donadoni, who had become icons of Parma’s struggle. “The fact that they stay here, and they fight, and they break their balls, and they say we are ready not to play so people cannot look away. People say: ‘I don’t care if Parma wins or loses.’ I understand this. But if they don’t play, and all the other teams have to wait for Parma’s match to be played so the table and the championship are regular, they start to care. It’s the only way. We have a saying in Italy: rompe il meccanismo. You have to do something to break the toy.”

In the week of waiting for the Serie A assembly, Sky Italia sent a letter to the league. TV revenue accounts for 59% of total Serie A revenue, which is higher than for any of the other big European leagues. This makes the Italian league particularly attentive to the desires of their broadcast partners, of which Sky is the largest. “We cannot fail to express our grave and growing concern about what is happening at Parma,” Jacques Raynaud, a Sky executive vice-president, wrote. “Particularly, we are astounded that the situation could have gotten this far without any intervention from you to prevent it. As the main partner of the football system, we ask you to explain what you intend to do to face the situation effectively and ensure that at least all the matches on the schedule take place.”

On 6 March, Tavecchio, the FIGC president, arrived at the meeting of the Serie A owners with a plan: to use €5m, the money collected from the fines that teams pay throughout the year, to see Parma through to the end of the season.

Sixteen of the team representatives voted for the measure, three abstained, and one, Cesena’s Lugaresi, rejected it. “Mr Tavecchio pointed to the fact that the championship started with 20 teams, so it would create a very bad image in Italy, and outside Italy, if we ended up with only 19 teams finishing the season,” Lugaresi said. “I said, we don’t have to fix things ‘Italian style’. It is better to cut off something that is not working, that was not well managed, and that is now a problem than to just try to cover it up.”

The players deliberated over Tavecchio’s offer for hours in a hotel in Collecchio. In the end, they voted to play, but that decision was reportedly not unanimous.

I met Lucarelli the next night at Centro Sportivo, on the eve of the team’s match against Atalanta. At 37, he is old for a footballer but too young, it seems, for the mix of grey in his long black hair and beard. With Gobbi acting as translator, the three of us looked for an empty room in which to conduct our interview. We found one, its conference table littered with an overripe, browned banana and enough bread crumbs to fill a salad bowl. Gobbi made a joke about the fact that Parma couldn’t afford a cleaning staff. Except it wasn’t a joke. We laughed anyway.

Lucarelli said: “We chose to play because they guaranteed to change some of the rules and because with the five million, we can pay the full salaries of the Parma employees. This five million allows us to continue the season, and by continuing the season, we hope someone can buy the team.

“But the mood of the team is not good,” he continued. “Because we’ve had seven months of trouble. We want to play. We are happy to play, but we have had seven months of these troubles, so it is difficult to restart.” Lucarelli didn’t mention that for their seven months of trouble, the league’s offer was said to cover about 75% of the players’ salaries.

Many fans weren’t pleased with the deal, either. About an hour before kick-off the next day, I found myself one block from the stadium, on the upper floor of a building that was home to the Petitot Parma Club Association, a fan club in which they served espresso with grappa-soaked sugar cubes. A group of members were rehearsing “Quel mazzolin di fiori”, an Italian folk song about a jilted lover, but with rewritten lyrics that called for Ghirardi to be put in jail. The singers held a sign in front of them that read, “THEY MADE YOU PLAY … LEAGUE, GO **** YOURSELF”. They were led by a conductor who looked like he had had far more than his share of sugar cubes.

The match had one of the poorest turnouts of the season. Signs posted in the stadium read: “FIGC AND SERIE A HAVE FAILED WITH US.” Chants cursed, in rotation Ghirardi, Manenti, and Leonardi. Atalanta, the fourth-worst team in the league, held Parma to a 0–0 draw. After the game, Donadoni heralded this as positive.

And yet, the worst was still to come. On 18 March, the day before the bankruptcy hearing, Manenti was arrested on the charge of attempted money laundering. He was accused of being part of a criminal group that used “Mafia methods” and included 21 others who were arrested with him. Manenti was identified when the group allegedly tried to transfer nearly $5m – which was taken from fake and stolen credit cards obtained through computer hacking – to him in mid-February. That money was meant to be used to keep Parma afloat. He remains under house arrest as of going to press.

The next day in court, the judge officially declared Parma bankrupt, with a total debt of more than $230m. Two trustees were put in charge of the club, and it is now their responsibility to manage the team through the end of the season, handle its finances, and find new owners. The pair will work with the bankruptcy court to fix a sale price for the team, which will include an agreed-upon amount of its debt. The club, due to their place at the bottom of the table, has been relegated. [Further to the original publication of this article, Parma have since been relegated to Serie D after failing to find a buyer]

In late March, FIGC announced several rule changes intended to avoid another situation like Parma’s. These included a rule that anyone who bought a minimum of 10% of a Serie A club would now need to provide proof of financial integrity and stability. For a team to play in the league, it would need to balance its budget within three years. Tavecchio promised that similar regulations would be made for Serie B and Lega Pro, the other two Italian professional divisions.

However the rule changes play out, it is clear that the current environment for Italian football is a poor one for fostering growth in the game. Under the circumstances – and despite the country’s appearance in the final of the 2012 European Championship, where it suffered a 4–0 thrashing by Spain – it seems hardly a surprise that in the two World Cups since Italy’s 2006 victory, they have been eliminated both times at the initial group stage.

But when I asked Grossi, the Gazzetta di Parma journalist, if the situation at Parma and the many other teams like it is indicative of a decline in the national game, he balked. “It’s an example of the decline of Italian human values more than soccer,” he said. “I want to go to bed and think I’m at peace with the world. That’s ethics. There’s a correct way and a dishonest way to make profit. In Italy, a lot of people take the second way.”

“The real pity for me is that there’s this toy for adults that stands on its own, the football, the sport,” Farnetti, the Parma fan, said. “It can make you forget a lot of bad things that are real, like the economy. It’s like an opiate for the people, and I think it’s a good opiate. Maybe you don’t have enough to eat, you can’t afford to make it to the end of the month, but if your team wins, and the sun is out, then you are happy. And they can’t manage to keep this situation? That is not fair.”

In April, in perhaps the biggest shock result of the Serie A season, Parma handed league-leading Juventus only their second loss of the season, 1–0, at Stadio Tardini in Parma. The team celebrated the victory by hosting practice in a public park the next morning. Nearly 1,000 fans joined them. The win was the one bright spot on a black season, but it couldn’t erase all that had come before it.

“If you cannot play because there is a world war, it is OK,” Farnetti had said in March. “But in 2015, it is not possible that a team cannot play because the club cannot afford to pay the fuel and hotel for away matches. Are you joking? It is incredible.”

What is also incredible is that a Serie A team could go bankrupt in such spectacular fashion as Parma did under Parmalat, and then a little more than 10 years later, it could go through the same indignity all over again. But in Italy, it seems, the incredible has become the commonplace.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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