Trouble in Food Valley
You could sense the glee and the gloom in Italian football after yesterday's emergency meeting of Parmalat sanctioned the exit of Calisto Tanzi from his long-held president and CEO position of the Italian food giant.
A financial crisis engulfed Parmalat last week, when it emerged they were in danger of not being able to guarantee bonds for the amount of four billion euros before a last-gasp influx of money temporarily saved them, something which eerily reminded nearly a hundred thousand small investors of the Cirio situation a few weeks ago, when no one came to the rescue at all.
Cirio's collapse had dragged down its (and Lazio's) owner Sergio Cragnotti, with long-range consequences now involving some of the top brass of one of Italy's top banks, Capitalia.
On the football side, Parmalat's current troubles have affected Parma FC's chances of carrying on as one of Italy's most brilliant teams. Benevolent readers of this column will be familiar with Parma, whose style on the pitch is easy and flowing to the eye.
Cesare Prandelli's side will probably lose some of their best players when the dreaded transfer window reopens in January (hence the gloom), to the glee of some of the usual suspect potential buyers.
But where the appeal of some of Parma's players would have meant a transfer next summer, Parmalat's troubles will probably accelerate the process and Tuesday's Gazzetta dello Sport headline, 'Supermercato Parma' (Supermarket Parma), was spot on.
Adriano was already due to join Inter - who enjoy a right of first refusal on him and partially own him - next summer, but his departure could come early.
Others like captain and central defender Matteo Ferrari, right back Daniele Bonera, forward Alberto Gilardino and right winger Marco Marchionni could be on their way, although one of Parma's directors, Patrick Nebiolo, insists the club will not veer away from its recently adopted policy to detatch its fortunes from Parmalat and become as self-sustaining as possible.
A general assembly of shareholders has been called for January 9 in accordance to a state law that requires such a procedure when financial losses equate one third or more of the club's worth, despite huge proceeds in recent years from the sales of players like Buffon, Thuram, Crespo, Mutu, Zola (notice a pattern in the last three names?), Veron, Cannavaro, Fiore.
Wages had already been slashed in half in the past year and the so-called Progetto Parma (Project Parma) had been set in motion, a plan to develop young players - irrespective of their nationality - and sell them on for a big fee.
That has so far been effective: the Crociati (more on this later) provided eleven players to the various national sides for the mid-November friendlies, their style of play has been brilliant even after Adriano's hamstring injury in early November and last Sunday's meek 0-4 surrender to Juventus can be classified under the season's freakest incidents, although Parma had already lost stunningly at lowly Empoli in late November and their away form is anything but consistent.
Tanzi and Parmalat had been - appropriately, given the company's core business in dairy products and sweets - Parma's sugar daddies since the late Eighties, and Tanzi's money had helped propel the side to the top of the Serie A and to European success: two second-place finishings in the top division, one Cup Winners' Cup in 1993, Uefa Cups in 1995 and 1999, Italian Cups in 1992, 1999, 2002.
A quiet, monument-rich and elegant town of 170,000 along the Via Emilia, the ancient Roman road which connects Piacenza, Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and goes all the way to Rimini on the Adriatic Coast, Parma is but one hour's drive - Italian style, of course: add 30 minutes for regular, law-abiding drivers - southeast of Milan and its privileged position in the heart of Italy's more advanced region means the quality of living has always been high.
Its surrounding area is known even to Italians as 'Food Valley', for the variety of its great food, and it is easy to understand why great companies like Parmalat, Parmacotto and Barilla would be based here. In fact Parma has just been designated as the new HQ of the European Food Authority, which was created after the BSE scare and will supervise all food oplicies in Europe.
Even the post-game snacks in the Press Room at the Stadio Tardini carry - lucky us - a local flavour, consisting in slices of world-famous prosciutto di Parma (Parma ham) wrapped around breasticks. And no, for those who by now may have grown suspicious, I am not a paid member of the City of Parma's PR staff.
Fact is, Tanzi and Parmalat's money had given birth to a peculiar phenomenon, in Parma, a place where apparently you could create a winner with no strings attached: players could still train, as they did during the halcyon years of the early Nineties, in a public park without feeling slighted.
Fans would travel to road games equipped with boxes of home-made sandwiches and you would get the general feeling that this was a club that did not want to wiggle free of their roots and become a plc in spirit and substance, although it may have been a cliche that everyone in Italian football loved cuddly, newcomer Parma.
I distinctly remember the grumblings and the rolled eyes among the live audience in Bologna when I did a little regional football show on Monday nights then whenever it was 'Parma time' on the air, and not everybody was happy to see the Parma Parvenues - although with hardly any of the negative traits of the noveau riches - climb up the table.
With some notable exceptions, among them Zdenek Zeman and Daniel Passarella, the latter filling an interim position after the previous manager had been sacked and picking up no point in one month, Parma and Tanzi have always made the right choices in picking the men to lead the side, most notably Nevio Scala, who led the side to the Serie A in 1989-90.
It must not be forgotten that Arrigo Sacchi (chosen by previous chairman, the late Ernesto Ceresini) got his big break after Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi had witnessed Sacchi-coached, serie B Parma dismantle the Rossoneri at the San Siro in an Italian Cup game.
Attracted by the visitor's playing style and flair, Berlusconi - who knows an entertainer and a winner when he sees one - hired Sacchi a few months later and Milan went on to dominate Italy and Europe.
As it was, Monday's board meeting of Parmalat which saw Tanzi relinquish his executive role - he remains the major shareholder but that is also expected to change - could not have happened at a worse time. December 16, 2003, marked Parma's 90th birthday, and the celebrations planned for this week are sure to have a rather subdued tone.
Parma will even play Saturdays' home match against Reggina wearing their original, beloved jerseys, white with a big black cross spanning the chest, which themselves had given birth to the nickname Crociati (Crusaders) that is still very popular despite Parmalat's decision to change the colours into their own yellow and blue.
Perhaps, with Reggina not the most glamorous opponents and many of the notoriously football-skeptical residents jumping headfirst into the last great shopping day before Christmas, the Stadio Tardini will not be in its best shape for the celebrations, but this would pale in comparison with the task awaiting coach Prandelli if half of his brilliant team actually changes address in January.
It would be a(nother) very sad indictment on the state of Italian football if Parma were reduced to the role of also-rans, but an even sadder thought is that fans of the really big clubs would not care, as long as they can see the Gilardinos, the Ferraris and the Boneras wear the bianconero, the nerazzurro, the rossonero.