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Praise be for Parma

Not for the first time, and hopefully not for the last, real football has provided respite from some rather depressing proceedings.

This time it is an ongoing investigation into on corrupt influence in the sport, triggered by the wire-tapping of several prominent calcio personalities which has led many to call for a complete overhaul of the system, or at least the removal and banning of those involved.

Italy being Italy, my suspicion is that they will simply be replaced by younger, shadier, slicker types, masquerading under the pretension of cleanliness, but let's not digress. On Sunday real football took the shape of Parma's home match against Milan. The plot was well-known: Parma were safe, Milan trailed Juventus by three points and needed to win in order to enter their last game of the season, next Sunday at home to Roma, with any hope of catching their rivals.

Games where one side has safety assured and the other is still motivated to achieve generally favour the latter, particularly in Italy. But this time it made for an exciting contest with only the final result, a 3-2 win for Milan, bearing a whiff of late season absent-mindedness with the visitors giving up two goals, which is 1.22 more than they conceded on average so far.

That Parma have been safe for a few weeks, exactly four matches before the end of the season must in itself rank as a minor miracle in a land where miracles and prayers have too many times seemed better options that hard work.

In fact, next Sunday at Lazio it will be the first time in years that Parma go into the last match of the season with nothing on the line. In good years it used to be a Champions League or UEFA Cup place or even a chance to win the Scudetto, in recent times it's been more a matter of survival.

Readers may know the facts. In late December 2003 Parmalat, the locally-based dairy giant who'd had a controlling interest in the club, was exposed as perpetrators of a series of gigantic frauds to the tune of 9 billion euros, and the club were left on the brink of bankruptcy, even going as far as offering a stake to Roman Abramovich.

You can understand the point made by some; that Parma should not be allowed to keep trading, since most of the money that had gone into strengthening the club had illicit origins. Last year, safety was achieved after a dramatic two-legged play-off which saw regional rivals Bologna win the first leg 1-0 away then give up two first half goals at home, but that merely guaranteed Parma would stay up.

On the business front, they were, in a sense, single and looking - not to mention nearly broke. A perspective buyer came along in the shape of Swiss/Neapolitan businessman Gaetano Valenza, but the Government-appointed committee still presiding over Parma and all things formerly known as Parmalat - wait a minute, it's still Parmalat, in name - were not impressed by his credentials and another name stepped at the front of the (two-man) queue, Lorenzo Sanz, who'd made the successful transition from one Real (Madrid, as club president) to another (estate; fewer front pages, more money, hardly a Cassano in sight).

The Sanz saga would require another full column to be told. Let's just say that a series of deadlines came and went and after putting in a 7.5 million euros down payment the Sanz family - son Lorenzo Jnr was going to be the hands-on person - never managed to come up with the rest of the money, until the above mentioned committee grew tired and ended negotiations with Sanz.

Valenza again entered the picture, which didn't require much since he'd been a frequent (paying) visitor at the Stadio Tardini, but as of now everything is up in the air.

You can hardly fault the home fans for displaying a banner which read 'After the Serie A, we want a club', but rumour has it a deal with a yet unnamed group of buyers will be struck soon and, again, the mere fact Parma kept their top flight status is almost astonishing.

Firstly, the Parma squad was never one to shout enthusiastically about and injuries depleted it so much that the Milan match, the 37th in a 38-match season, was the first in which coach Mario Beretta had all of his defence at his disposal.

Secondly, in the first half of the season Parma never appeared to be able to take a point away from home; They lost their first seven matches on the road and nine of the first ten before finally winning at Empoli on January 29.

Thirdly, Beretta, who'd basically been hired on the cheap after getting the sack from Chievo, had to endure the constant, unenviable pressure of knowing that the Sanz family would most likely have replaced him with former Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde, while Zdenek Zeman (an update: Brescia lost at home 3-0 to lowly Vicenza and the fans are turning against him) was also said to be waiting for Valenza to take over and install him.

Beretta kept his composure all along, saw some players speak out in support for him and has been rewarded with a Parma revival in which, until last Sunday, under his prodding and his refusal to let outside considerations burst into the training pitch, trailed only Milan, Roma, Juventus and Inter for points taken in the second half of the season. Much of the credit on the pitch must go to a few players who have seen their market value grow exponentially.

Forward Marco Marchionni, a right winger who can also play on the opposite side and as a withdrawn striker in the 4-2-3-1 Beretta has frequently used; Brazilian attacking midfielder Fabio Simplicio, who's scored ten goals so far and has suitors among the big boys; Mark Bresciano, scorer of crucial goals in the away wins in late winter that propelled the team above the relegation zone; and centre-forward Bernardo Corradi, who had a hard time winning over the fans because of his apparently poor goal-scoring record, despite the fact he was forced to play alone up front most of the time and did a great job at being a forward line all by himself, flying elbows, dodgy first touch and all.

Marchionni has already signed with Juventus for next season and was given a warm farewell by the home fans, defender Paolo Cannavaro may also be on his way out, while another defender, Daniele Bonera, whose contract will be up in June 2007, has also long attracted the interest of the Big Three. Another pair entering the last year on their deals are Bresciano and midfielder Vincenzo Grella, both expected to play a big part for Australia in the World Cup.

This means that unless a buyer comes up with the required 27.5 million euros Parma will again have to make do with what they have: a good bunch of youngsters, goalkeeper De Lucia, defenders Ferronetti and Rossi, midfielders Dessena, Savi and Cigarini, forwards Pisanu, Ruopolo and Paponi.

But someone will have to ensure salaries keep coming and incoming players are not only of the loan ranger variety. Empoli, Ascoli and Chievo have shown you can keep your Serie A status by way of shrewd planning, and Parma will try to follow their example, perhaps in some ways trying to fulfil former coach and director Arrigo Sacchi's vision of the club as a 'new' Ajax.

What the Parma public will make of this remains to be seen. There is of course no such thing as a 'Parma public', rather several thousand people who care deeply about their local club but have wildly diverse opinions about it.

The near full houses that provided a nice backdrop during the Scudetto-chasing, trophy-winning seasons were probably not a true reflection of the real interest in a town rich in other cultural activities, and the hard core of about 10,500 season ticket holders - 2005/06's number - is probably closer to the real mark.

On Sunday, 21,920 were there, a number bumped up by a couple of thousand Milan fans, and their general attitude veered wildly taking in a full gamut of emotions.

There was exhilaration at Parma's bright start, raging fury towards Milan after the awarding of what looked like a dodgy penalty, there was stunned surprise when the Rossoneri scored the second with a perfect 3-on-4 break, an outpouring of appreciation with a warm round of applause for former local hero Gilardino as he replaced the injured Shevchenko after only seven minutes, and just for good measure a further showing of sporting appreciation when most of the stadium acknowledged Seedorf's stunning 35-yard shot in the left top corner.

All of this probably just means the crowd was fair, which is satisfying enough in these times and in this country. Now, if only Parma fans had a clue about the identity of the next owner...

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