EXCLUSIVE - Former European champions Parma begin the rebuilding process in Italy's regional fifth division

Andy Mitten visits Italy to find out how former European champions Parma are rebuilding following bankruptcy, and discovers what life in the fifth tier of Italian football is like for the re-born side.

It’s Thursday afternoon in Correggio, a wealthy, sleepy town of 24,000 in northern Italy. The daytime mist of early winter hasn’t fully lifted as a resident asks a policeman why the road is closed.

“A football match,” explains the officer. “Remember Parma? Today they’re here.”

The nonplussed resident hastily thinks of a detour away from the football ground which boasts two hedges instead of stands behind either goal. This writer is allowed to pass on production of a press card.

“What brings an English journalist to Correggese?” asks a kindly club official who appears to help. “How do you know about us?”

The official busies himself with numerous jobs at the ground which usually stages regional fifth division football.

“It’s a very important day for us,” he explains. “We had (third division) Rimini here last season, but we’ve never hosted a team who’ve played in the Champions League before.”

In the bar beneath the ground’s only stand, an old fashioned league ladder table shows Correggese in 16th. Parma top the Campionato Nazionale Serie D and the pair have also been drawn in an Italian Cup match, but why play the game at 2pm on a working day?

“It’s cheaper,” explains the official. The 300 home fans in the concrete stand comprise students, unemployed and a group of enthusiastic kids playing at being ultras, but most are pensioners. Early afternoon suits them fine, yet some of the pensioners are working.

Nevio Scala, 67, once played for AC Milan and managed Borussia Dortmund. In Italy, he’s most famous for being Parma manager between 1989-96.

“I led Parma out against Antwerp in the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup final at Wembley,” said the man who lifted Parma’s first three European trophies. “I took them from the second division to European trophies. I had Asprilla, Zola, Brolin…and many more great players.”

Parma were big time. Not the biggest, but among the best. When Swedish winger Jesper Blomqvist was unhappy at AC Milan, who could lay claim to being the best team in the world in the mid-90s, it was Parma, managed by Nervo’s successor Carlo Ancelotti, who came calling.

Bankrolled by the dairy giants Parmalat, Parma had just finished a point behind European champions Juventus when Blomqvist signed in 1996.

“It was much smaller and more homely than Milan,” recalls the Swede of his time spent in the pretty, prosperous city of 230,000 between Milan and Bologna. “But we had big names like Buffon (who signed at 17), Lillian Thuram, Dino Baggio, Hernan Crespo and Fabio Cannavaro – a very good team. I came from Milan so I was well respected. I had a good year and enjoyed working with Ancelotti.”

Manchester United paid Parma £4.4 million for Blomqvist in July 1998 and also signed Giuseppe Rossi from Parma, a club who who won four European trophies in a decade.

Financial problems started when Parmalat went bust in 2003, owing $20 billion. The CEO Calisto Tanzi, who was also Parma president, was convicted of bankruptcy fraud. Parma were put into controlled administration before being sold to Tommaso Ghirardi for $39 million in 2007.

Problems soon arose over late payments. Ghirardi resigned in 2014, having put the club in $194 million of debt. His plan for Parma to have affiliate players around the world, the best which could be sold for profit, failed.

In December 2014, Albanian Renart Taci bought the club for a nominal €1 fee, selling it for the same price two months later without paying any of the wages. Still in Serie A, the club chairman Giampietro Manenti was arrested on charges of money laundering.

In March 2015, Parma were declared bankrupt owing £278 million, with £70 million in wages. One game was postponed because they couldn’t afford to pay stewards. With no buyer, Parma were dissolved and even their trophies were put up for sale.

“It was so sad what happened to the club. I felt like a part of me died, that my creature had died,” said Scala.

But the club wouldn’t die. Moves began to re-start Parma as a phoenix club Parma Calcio 1913 in Serie D.

“They called me and asked to see me,” explains Scala. “I live two hours away but drove there straight away. I could see that many good people were involved, important, successful, people in Parma.”

Among those there were senior figures from Parmalat, who’d had to start again after the 2003 meltdown, plus Barila, a major pasta producer.

“I trusted them and said yes when they asked me to be president,” explains Scala, “but I also told them that we had to be clean and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. I’m enjoying it so far. We have 10,000 season ticket holders at the Ennio Tardini. It’s incredible.” Fans own 25% of the shares of the new club.

As he talks, the second-half kicks off with the score goalless but the 300 travelling Parma fans (they can take up to 3,000 to away games which aren’t played at 2pm on a Thursday) continue their non-stop singing. The game is officiated by a capable female referee, though the home crowd dispute one decision a suggest that she ‘get back in the house!’.

Sitting next to Scala and equally impressively attired is Lorenzo Minotti, one of people brought in by Scala.

“I’m the technical director,” explains Minotti, who played for that great Parma team between ‘87-96 and scored the opening goal in the ’93 final at Wembley. A year later, he was in the Italy squad which reached the final of the 1994 World Cup.

“It was horrible to watch Parma disintegrate,” explains Minotti. “But I’m happy to be back. Of course we have ambitions, but first we need to create a feeling with the supporters and the town. We had nothing but good people and passion when we started, but we’re making the feeling. We want to play a good style of football, then to return to play against Juventus and the Milan clubs.”

Minotti’s friend and former Italy and Parma teammate Luigi Apolloni is manager. Like Minotti, he won the Italian Cup, Uefa Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup. Captain is locally-born Alessandro Lucarelli, 38, who was also captain in their final Serie A season.

“We will play again in Serie A,” smiles Scala. “I don’t know how long it will take, but we will rise again.”

Hopefully they will, but Parma won’t be going any further in the Coppa Italia this season. Correggese beat them on penalties. That meant the policeman directing traffic had to work another hour.