Nestled between the industrial Milan and the rolling landscapes of Florence, Parma sits peacefully in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Red and beige-hued bricks form its Romanesque buildings while breathtaking frescos adorn their interior. Beauty is evident, but on closer inspection, the city’s architecture reveals scars of Parma’s past.
The iconic Duomo di Parma only partially showcases its original design. Decimated by an earthquake in the 12th century, the cathedral was left in need of mass renovation. Almost 500 metres away, along Parma’s winding cobbled streets, lies the Palazzo della Pilotta, a palace turned museum, whose asymmetrical facade tells the sorrowing story of World War Two bombings. Parmensi resilience is a defining quality, one that is perhaps best captured through its football.
In 2002, Parma welcomed two new forwards, Adrian Mutu and Adriano. The duo, despite their youth, were seen as the men to fire Parma to glory. The club was riding on the wave of an illustrious decade; financed by food conglomerate Parmalat, the Gialloblù took home three Coppa Italia, two UEFA Cups, one Cup Winners’ Cup and a European Super Cup over 10 magical years.
The prior season, however, had seen a slump in form. Parma’s unprecedented success piqued the interest of national powerhouse Juventus, who wasted little time in recruiting two of their burgeoning stars, Gianluigi Buffon and Lilian Thuram. One lacklustre campaign and three managers later, the Bianconeri were back, this time to prize club top-scorer Marco Di Vaio away from their grasp. Parma’s misery was compounded when captain Fabio Cannavaro also decided to jump ship, signing a four-year deal with Internazionale. The decimated squad, much like Parma’s landmarks, required reconstruction.
Parma’s triumphs throughout the 1990s had been built on sublime attacking talent. First came Faustino Asprilla, plucked from the murky, Narco-governed world of Colombian football. The South American striker formed a lethal partnership with Gianfranco Zola as the pair kick-started a Gialloblù revolution. Next came the truly exceptional strikeforce of Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa. Creative and potent in equal measure, both imbued Serie A with their stunning talent.
Like most good partnerships, there was a balance to Mutu and Adriano’s respective games. The former had been a creative force for Hellas Verona, regularly cutting in from the left to carve out chances. The latter, a powerful centre-forward with a cannon of a left foot, had recently bulldozed his way through Italy’s defences in the purple strip of Fiorentina.
Parma’s attack was completed by Japan international Hidetoshi Nakata, forming a forward line that had even the most casual of football hipsters purring. The man tasked with turning talent into cohesive play was Cesare Prandelli. Admired for his work with Verona, guiding the provincial side to Serie A promotion, the Italian coach immediately got to work, implementing a 4-3-3 formation and fluid style of play to provide his new-look strikeforce with a platform upon which to express themselves.
“Their impact was immediate,” lifelong Parma fan Giovanni Dougall tells These Football Times. “Adriano scored three in his first three games. It took Mutu until game week four to open his account, but once he started, he didn’t stop.”
Mutu’s first goal came against Perugia in October. In the words of Dougall: “Mutu was being ushered towards the line down by the right of Perugia’s penalty area, then, quick as a flash, a Cruyff turn and he was free, using his pace and power to brush off challenges before tucking the ball into the bottom corner.”
Subsequently, Mutu took flight. Adriano’s hold-up play became the perfect foil, allowing the Romanian to drive inside and instantly punish his opponents. Mutu would regularly return the favour, opening up back lines with defence-splitting passes or perfectly-weighted crosses for his colleague to finish with aplomb. At times it was like watching a skilled matador and an irrepressible bull; Mutu providing the elegant yet elusive glides while Adriano, the powerful bison, devastated in the penalty area.
A 4-0 rout of Torino in early December highlighted exactly how captivating the pair could be in the iconic blue and yellow of Parma, Mutu adding to midfielder Matteo Brighi’s opener before helping to orchestrate Adriano’s contest-ending brace. An avalanche of rave reviews followed. So too, did burdening comparisons.
Mutu was billed as the next Gheorghe Hagi, his nation’s biggest star. Similarly, Adriano’s form saw him touted as the new Ronaldo, with Brazilians desperate to see a world-class striker fulfil his potential following the cruel injuries that curtailed O Fenómeno. However, for now, it appeared hype only elevated the players’ performances to greater heights.
The only question remaining was whether they could perform against calcio’s elite. Typically, Parma had blown teams away, their attacking trident too hot to handle, but defeats to Milan, Inter and arch-rivals Juventus portrayed them as more of a best of the rest than serious Scudetto challengers – a tag they shed when Milan visited the Stadio Ennio Tardini.
Red smoke from lit flares billowed across the away end as the Milanisti tried to impose themselves on the city of Parma. The Gialloblù, in true fashion, remained resilient, countering with the usual sound of horns blaring from the tannoys and banners aplenty lining the Curva Nord. Parma were not here to be walked over; they were here for the fight.
A pulsating tension radiated from the stands, but rather than the usual exhilarating play, the game became a cagier, Catenaccio-esque contest. The sides cancelled the other out and at half-time, the match remained scoreless. Only a moment of magic would be enough to separate the two and in the 77th minute, that’s exactly what happened.
Regaining possession on the halfway line, Mutu took the ball under his spell. As the space opened up ahead, the forward drove into it to reach the byline. Spotting Adriano’s surge into the penalty box, Mutu delayed his cross before rolling a delightful ball across the face of the six-yard box. A quick change of pace from the Brazilian was enough to bamboozle Rossoneri captain Paolo Maldini and, with the deftest of flicks, he caressed the ball past the outstretched leg of Dida.
Parma one, Milan nil was the final result, the club’s sixth match undefeated. Indeed, having beaten Lazio the week before, courtesy of a last-gasp Adriano winner, Parma looked on course to book their place in European competition. Ultimately, it would be a nearly season for Parma, missing out on the Champions League, finishing fifth, and seeing Inter’s Christian Vieri capture the Capocannoniere ahead of both Mutu and Adriano, who came second and third respectively. More worrying, however, was the club’s financial situation.
Parmalat’s debt stood at around £300m and they would soon file for bankruptcy. With such turmoil, Parma’s hand was inevitably forced, reluctantly selling their two brightest stars. Mutu had earned himself a big-money move to Chelsea while Adriano returned to former employers, Inter.
The story of both players’ tragic fall from grace thereafter is well-documented. Mutu, no stranger to the Romanian nightlife scene when back on international duty, tested positive for cocaine and was subsequently arrested, later released in disgrace. It was the death of Adriano’s father that derailed his prosperous career, causing the striker to spiral into deep depression, dealing with the trauma by way of alcohol.
Neither the club or players would be the same again, but, for that one season, talent truly trumped turmoil. Much like the city walls of Parma, the players’ al dente exteriors cloaked their fragile minds, yet in Parma’s hour of need, both shone through to help rebuild a crumbling city.