A year of living dangerously
It's been a little more than a year since food giant Parmalat was found to have feet - and almost everything else - of clay and other, even less valuable, stuff.
In other words, the cash flow was scarce. But banks and, more importantly, tens of thousands of small investors were led to believe things were looking up; then one day the cover was blown.
Parmalat ran out of money and all its activities went bust, despite good sales in shops and supermarkets. It will take years, if it ever happens, for those people to get their money back, while the general suspicion is that banks that more or less willingly sold junk bonds will land on their feet thanks to their connections across the spectrum of Italian politics.
But the financial and political ramifications of the Parmalat scandal are too complicated to be discussed here. What matters on the football side of things is that Parma have just completed their first twelve months without the corporation's financial backing; and boy, has it been tough.
At the turn of the year, with 16 games played out of a total of 38, Parma are second from bottom with only two wins, four points from safety as only three teams will be relegated this year. They have already dispensed with one coach, Silvio Baldini, replaced in December by 59-yr old Pietro 'Gedeone' Carmignani, a former goalkeeper with Juventus (he won a Scudetto in 1971-72) and an Arrigo Sacchi protege who had a first spell in charge during the 1984-85 season during Parma's Serie B years.
His brief is obvious: save Parma from relegation, as he'd done during the only other crisis which hit the Emilian club since their elevation to the Serie A in 1990-91. Then, in 2001-02, Carmignani had been asked to repair some of the damage first Renzo Ulivieri and then Daniel Passarella, an ill-adviced choice as Ulivieri's replacement, had done. But the task looks to be more difficult this time round.
Parma never seemed to play with confidence under the 46-yr old Baldini, who'd previously enjoyed success with Empoli before being sacked midway through last season by Serie A-bound Palermo and their quick triggered owner Maurizio Zamparini. Baldini employed the same 4-2-3-1 style which had been used by his predecessor Cesare Prandelli, but the quality of the squad is inferior to the one which again qualified for Europe last year.
Captain and defensive leader Matteo Ferrari was sold to Roma, where he's had some disappointing performances, and others join the exodus were midfielders Donadel, Blasi, Barone, Benny Carbone.
With Parmalat in administration and unable to contribute, most of the additions to the squad were low priced youngsters or loanees like Massimo Maccarone (who's now joined Siena), which was always going to make for a difficult season.
Baldini left with a disappointing record of only four wins and seven draws in 21 Serie A and Uefa Cup matches and the legacy of a torrid last afternoon at Livorno: after the game, which Parma lost 2-0 without putting up much resistance, Baldini was heard from the Press table adjacent to the dressing room screaming at his players, basically telling them they were costing him his job and they knew it.
|“||Carmignani, a man of few words and a workaholic, may just have turned the corner (never mind the 0-5 aggregate defeat to Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia; that's another distraction taken care of). ”|
Parma's main problems with Baldini were too much tinkering by the coach - albeit caused by a few injuries - and the relevant absence of a consistent pattern of play, too many defensive mistakes during open play and especially so on set-pieces.
In keeping with his beliefs, Baldini had asked his players to play a zone or mixed zone defence in those situations, and this had not gone well with some players, goalkeeper Sebastian Frey remarking at one point the obvious: 'There are so many quick and smart players in the Serie A, if one of them is good at making runs into the box we're in trouble'.
Giving up late goals was another weakness which cost Baldini's Parma no less than six points in the closing stages of matches. One example was the early December home match against Milan, on a wet and windy Saturday night which had seemed to create the perfect conditions for an upset. Parma went ahead midway through the second half with a header from their classy centre-forward Alberto Gilardino - a rumoured Milan target this month or in the summer - and were minutes away from getting all three points, despite being outplayed by the visitors.
They then gave away a goal from a corner kick which was headed on by Tomasson and bundled in. Defeat was assured a couple of minutes later again following a corner kick which was not cleared properly, leading to Pirlo firing in the winner from inside the penalty area.
Carmignani, who was soon left without Sacchi's support as the former Parma coach and consultant headed for Real Madrid, started with a win over Besiktas in the Uefa Cup - which is more a nuisance than a chance to win something for Parma this year - but only three days later his side went down badly (2-5) at Roma and the task in front of him again seemed huge.
The players were given only a few days rest for Christmas then got back to training on December 27 in order to prepare for the January 6 visit by Juventus. That game, which Parma drew 1-1 with rejuvenated winger Marchionni netting a late equaliser, was followed last weekend by a huge win at Siena, 1-0 with Gilardino deflecting a shot by Bresciano past the home keeper. All of a sudden things are looking up for the team, who are back playing in their traditional white shirts with a black cross spanning the front.
Watching them now, it seems clear they just could not get in synch with Baldini's beliefs, and that Carmignani, a man of few words and a workaholic, may just have turned the corner (never mind the 0-5 aggregate defeat to Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia; that's another distraction taken care of).
His goal of keeping Parma up has huge side-effects: the club is still struggling off the pitch and one of the directors recently dropped a not-so-subtle hint that relegation, with the huge drop in income that would come with it, may be calamitous for many, especially some club employees who were hit hard by the financial troubles and are now getting by on a mere one thousand euros a month.
It is obvious that many of Parma's hopes rest on the shoulders of Gilardino. After a disappointing start, which perhaps owed to fatigue following his involvement with both the Under 21s European Championship-winning side and the Olympic team, Alberto Gilardino has lived up to the fame he built for himself in the latter part of last season after Adriano had been sold back to Inter. But Baldini's decision to use him as a lone striker on many instances turned out not to be the best one, as he was too frequently left alone and forced to chase long balls coming from the defensive quarter of the field.
'We must stay closer to Alberto, he cannot be asked to go after those long balls' was one of Carmignani's first edicts after he was promoted, and Parma seem to have enough decent players to feed Gilardino on the ground, which was actually more consistent with Baldini's concepts, too. Carmignani has the support of the fans, who see him as a loyal, humble man who's always putting the team first - aren't all interim coaches like that? - and refuses to play the misunderstood genius, as some of his colleagues love to do (just pick one).
Ugly scenes followed the match against Juventus, with a pitch invasion by some home fans who - let's put it this way - were not exactly looking to exchange scarves with the Juve supporters, but the environment has generally been a benevolent one.
When a coach load of fans returning from the last-gasp defeat at Sampdoria spotted the team coach travelling just ahead of them, they motioned for it to stop at a highway restaurant, and the driver obliged. You wonder why he did, as such a circumstance in Italy, after yet another defeat, usually means the players would have to run for their lives, but this time no confrontation ensued. Instead, so the story was related, the fans patted the players on the back and offered them salami sandwiches, which for all the delicacies you can find in Italy is one of the best bets you could have if you visit.
It remains to be seen whether Carmignani can drag Parma out of the mess they were in as recently as ten days ago, but one can be certain he will do his best not to let outside influences filter through to the training ground. In a move which is unprecedented for a football club in Italy, but consistent with new company laws which got into effect on January 5, Parma were put up for sale with an ad in a couple of newspapers last Monday, with offers written in Italian getting considered first (don't ask).
Whoever stumps up the money would surely be wise not to make any promises. After everything that happened in the past year, no one would listen to them anyway.