Even to Italian football fanatics, a match between Parma and Empoli on a misty Sunday afternoon in late November would appear rather inconspicuous. For the clubs’ supporters, however, it was a fixture of particular importance. That both teams were locked in a relegation scrap was a contributing factor, but above all, this was the celebration of a 30-year gemellaggio (twinning) between the ultras of Parma and Empoli.
The friendship began when the two sides played in Serie B in 1984. Empoli triumphed 1-0, a fact many fans were apparently unaware due to the thick fog that had descended over the Stadio Carlo Castellini. Gracefully accepting their defeat, the thousands of travelling Parmensi felt obliged to inform their adversaries that they had actually triumphed. From then a friendship was born and on a Sunday back in November 2014 it was honoured. The two sets of fans mixed amicably, eating lunch together and exchanging messages during a match that was again won by Empoli. While the Parma players left the field to a chorus of whistles from the home support, the cordial relationship between the fans was maintained.
Parma lies in the north west of Emilia Romagna, a region contiguous with Tuscany to the south, Liguria to the west and Lombardy and the Veneto to the north. The region is bounded by the River Po and it is one of the most prosperous on the peninsula. In this wealthy city, Campanilismo (local pride) is keenly felt by the population. Indeed the Parmigiani can be somewhat supercilious at times, revelling in their affluent identity. But is it any wonder? This is a city that has given us Lamborghinis and some of the world’s finest produce, such as Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The composer Giuseppe Verdi was also a Parmigiano and the Parma players often step into the Stadio Ennio Tardini to the tune of Verdi’s Marcia Trionfale. But while the city is generally renowned for its music, art and gastronomy, to a handful of its population, Parma FC represents an integral part of a Parmigiano’s identity.
During the summer of 1977, a group of youngsters formed the BOYS. United by their love for Parma FC and inspired by the ultras movement proliferating across Italy, the thinking was simple. The club colours would be defended under the aegis of this newly fledged group.
A banner was promptly designed in the city’s colours: blue and yellow with two stars on either side of the group’s name. Over the years this name has been tweaked to BOYS PARMA 1977 and they have moved to the Curva Nord, but they have stood the test of time, as they pointed out in their fanzine in 2012:
“Throughout the 1990s, groups that made history during the [ultra] movement such as the Fossa dei Leoni [AC Milan], Brigate Gialloblu [Hellas Verona], CUCS Roma disbanded for reasons that aren’t our business. However, just like us they were born back in the 1970s and thus 35 years of existence is a reason to be extremely proud.”
Supporters’ clubs were already well established at the Stadio Ennio Tardini before the BOYS were formed. Il Centro di Coordinamento del Parma represented the majority of the Crociati fanbase, and like the BOYS, the organisation still exists. However, the BOYS labelled themselves as ultras. The significance lies in the etymology of the word “ultra”, Latin for “beyond”. This is the mentality through which the BOYS differentiated themselves, going beyond the average call of duty for a supporter. Turning up to watch their team labour in Serie C and Serie B until the Ducali finally earned an historic promotion to Serie A in 1990. And between the years of 1990 and 2004 the supporters had plenty to shout about.
Bankrolled by the Tanzi family, owner of the local dairy industry giant Parmalat, Parma became one of the most successful clubs in Italy. Three Coppa Italia triumphs, two Uefa Cups, one Cup Winners’ Cup and a second-place finish in Serie A earned them the tag as one of the Sette Sorelle (Seven Sisters), the most prominent clubs in Serie A.
Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Dino Baggio, Gianfranco Zola, Hernan Crespo and Enrico Chiesa were but of a few of the illustrious names to wear the yellow and blue jersey. This newfound success meant the supporters encountered new rivalries. Their battles with Juventus, including Parma’s famous victory in the 1995 Uefa Cup final, ensured the Vecchia Signora remains a coveted scalp. This is not to say their historic rivals were forgotten. The local derbies against Reggiana (Derby del Grana) and Bologna (Derby D’Emilia) have been the ultras’ traditional battlegrounds.
However, as the old proverb goes, “all good things must come to an end”. In 2003 a criminal investigation into Parmalat uncovered gross financial irregularities, leading to bankruptcy and its CEO, Calisto Tanzi, being imprisoned in 2006. This had a disastrous knock-on effect. In 2004 Parma were declared insolvent and this culminated in the club’s relegation from the top flight in 2008. The club bounced back, enjoying a sixth-place finish in Serie A under coach Roberto Donadoni during the 2013-14 season.
However, financial problems would come back to haunt the club and after a return to Europe was barred due to the late payment of a tax bill, the sheer scale of the clubs debts became apparent during the 2014-15 season. Club President Tommaso Ghirardi had accumulated a total debt of more than $200m and in December 2014, he sold Parma for one euro to a Russian-Cypriot conglomerate. The situation left the Parmensi humiliated and culminated in the clubs bankruptcy and relegation to Italy’s fourth tier. Under the guise of Parma Calcio 1913, the Ducali are rebuilding in Serie D. They will do so with the staunch backing of their supporters, who broke a Serie D record for season ticket holders after just three days of tickets being on sale.
Just like the club, the ultras have not always enjoyed an easy ride. During the late 1980s the nucleus of the BOYS was decimated after a derby against Bologna turned nasty. Twenty-nine policemen were injured and, as a result, a wave of repression threatened the group’s very existence.
In March 2008 tragedy struck when one of the group’s leading members, Matteo Bagnaresi, was run over and killed on his way to a game against Juventus. The bus that hit the 27-year-old was carrying Juve fans and accounts regarding the incident differ. Some claimed it was as a result of fan-related violence, causing the driver to panic and consequently run down Bagnaresi. Others maintain that this was a simple road accident. Following Bagnaresi’s death, the Curva Nord was renamed in his honour. His loss is still keenly felt by Parma ultras and on the fifth anniversary of his passing, before a game against Pescara, the BOYS orchestrated an imposing choreography with an image of Bagnaresi and the caption “Ribelle col sorriso, Bagna vive” (“Rebel with a smile, Bagna lives”).
Despite this poignant episode, the BOYS are known across Italy for being somewhat tame. Laughable though it may be, this reputation has made them a target for mockery by rival supporters. On occasions, however, this patient demeanour is tested. Last season, following the team’s sixth defeat in seven games against Atalanta, the BOYS stayed in the stands after the final whistle and demanded answers. A face-to-face meeting was held with the players, with club captain Alessandro Lucarelli taking the brunt of the disgruntled inquiries.
While the presence and power of the ultras on the terraces has diminished, their influence in club affairs is still significant. This remains a questionable aspect of Italian football, unimaginable in England. Yet, it is hard not to sympathise with the logic behind these actions. The ultras simply expect their own commitment to be matched on the field. Indeed, for the huge sums of money supporters spend on watching their teams, there are plenty of other disgruntled fans who would welcome the opportunity to question the commitment of some of their under-performing, yet extremely well-paid players. Regardless, Parma’s ultras will continue to enjoy and suffer every moment of their team’s emotional rollercoaster.