In the late 20th century, the team embarked on a remarkable journey, but it all began with one man’s vision.
From 1990 to 2004, Parma established itself as one of Italy’s finest teams, enjoying 14 consecutive seasons in European competitions and claiming 4 continental trophies. However, their main sponsor and parent company, “Parmalat,” faced a devastating collapse due to a financial scandal of unprecedented proportions.
While the club faced technical dissolution, a rebranded version emerged in its place. Despite facing challenges in the following decade, including a spell in Serie D after bankruptcy in 2015, Parma eventually experienced a sensational rise back to the top tier through three consecutive promotions. However, the true story of their beginnings is often overlooked. It was not with “Parmalat,” but with a man named Ernesto Ceresini, who assumed the club’s presidency in 1976. Parma, then in the third division, had never reached higher than the second tier. With a population of only 200,000, the city was primarily known for its passion for baseball, volleyball, and cycling.
Ceresini, a local businessman who made his fortune in construction, acquired Parma seemingly as a distraction following his wife’s passing. Yet, it was the appointment of Arrigo Sacchi as head coach in 1985 that marked a turning point. Sacchi, a former shoe salesman, had just guided Rimini to Serie B promotion, and he replicated that success with Parma. In his second season, the team narrowly missed out on top-flight promotion by just three points, but they made their mark by eliminating the illustrious AC Milan in the Italian Cup.
Towards the end of that season, “Parmalat” stepped in as the club’s main sponsor, acquiring a minority stake from Ceresini. The company was renowned for its exceptional success story, evolving from a local dairy firm into a global food conglomerate within two decades.
Parma’s football club experienced a similarly meteoric rise. Sacchi was briefly succeeded by Zdenek Zeman and then by Nevio Scala, appointed by Ceresini in 1989 to guide the team to the promised land. The dream was swiftly realized as Parma secured promotion to the top flight for the first time in their history, defeating local rivals Reggiana. However, few could have anticipated what lay ahead. Fulvio Ceresini, Ernesto’s son, sold a significant portion of his stake to “Parmalat,” leading to the arrival of three standout players who had impressed at the 1994 World Cup in Italy: Brazil’s Claudio Taffarel, Belgium’s Georges Grun, and young Swedish talent Tomas Brolin.
In their maiden Serie A campaign, Parma faced the challenge of not having a fixed training ground. The players would travel to the Tardini stadium each morning, change there, and then board a bus to other club facilities for training.
Brolin’s impact was immense as he seamlessly moved between the lines in Scala’s attacking 3-5-1-1 system, a style relatively unfamiliar in Serie A at the time. Parma finished sixth, and in the 1991/92 season, they lifted the Coppa Italia, triumphing over Juventus in the final. This marked another significant turning point, with Scala stating, “From now on, we won’t be regarded as a provincial club with an uncertain future.”
The summer signings continued to elevate Parma’s status. Faustino Asprilla joined and played a pivotal role in their incredible achievement of winning the UEFA Cup in 1993. Although Asprilla scored four goals in the tournament, he found himself on the bench during the final, making way for Brolin.
Buoyed by their first European success, Parma’s owners began investing substantial amounts of money in the club. Gianfranco Zola was acquired from Napoli, and Nestor Sensini arrived from Udinese. In 1994, they defeated AC Milan to claim the UEFA Super Cup and reached the Coppa Italia final again, narrowly losing to Arsenal.
The awe-inspiring transfers continued with the arrival of Dino Baggio from Juventus, who seized the opportunity to haunt his former team in the UEFA Cup final in 1995, securing victory for Parma. Scala, in his first five seasons as Parma’s coach in the top flight, guided the team to four major trophies.
Although the trophy haul diminished in subsequent years, Parma’s new additions continued to be world-class. In 1995, they welcomed Ballon d’Or winner Hristo Stoichkov, along with Fabio Cannavaro and Filippo Inzaghi.
The following year saw the arrivals of Hernan Crespo, Lilian Thuram, and Enrico Chiesa. In 1998, Juan Sebastian Veron joined the ranks. Additionally, Parma’s academy produced the exceptional young goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who exuded confidence.
In 1999, Parma clinched the UEFA Cup with a starting lineup that showcased immense talent. With Buffon guarding the goal, Cannavaro, Thuram, and Sensini formed a formidable defense. Veron, Baggio, and Boghossian controlled the midfield, while Vanoli and Diego Fuser operated on the wings. Upfront, Crespo and Chiesa posed a constant threat. The team’s journey to the title was marked by comprehensive victories, including a 7-2 aggregate win against Bordeaux in the quarterfinals, a 5-2 triumph over Atletico Madrid in the semifinals, and a resounding 3-0 victory against Marseille in the final.
This squad, managed by Alberto Malesani (following Scala’s departure in 1996), remains the last representative of Serie A to have won the Europa League in its current format. Parma replicated their success with a triumph in the Coppa Italia, and in 2002, they secured that trophy for the third and final time in their history.
Subsequently, “Parmalat” faced a catastrophic collapse, resulting in widespread human consequences. Thousands of employees worldwide lost their livelihoods, and countless others who depended on their business suffered. While the Parma football staff bore no responsibility for these events, their achievements were inevitably overshadowed by the knowledge that their remarkable team had been assembled with nonexistent funds. Perhaps that’s why many fans still hold the early Parma teams in the highest regard, particularly the era of Ernesto Ceresini – the owner whose dream became a reality, albeit too late for him to witness. Notably, a colossal banner was raised at Lazio’s home stadium in February, bearing the words: “Ceresini – the eternal president.”