The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan


Posted by steigs on March 4, 2008

As I consider what team next to take on in my “virtual managing” career, I’m inclined to take a run at Serie A with Parma.  Who?  Huh?  One of the also-rans these days, they had a pretty nice stretch in the 90s before their patron had some, well, Enron-like finanical issues.  I watched some of their loss to Roma this weekend.  Not what they used to be…

 But I really enjoyed my stop there back in 2000, a city that gave us Parmigiano cheese and, mmmm, prosciutto di Parma.  Maybe I’m the guy to turn them around.  At least in a virtual sense…

 For more on my stop in Parma, read on after the jump.

Parma – November 2000

Parma is a wealthy city of about 170,000, not far from Bologna, known abroad for Parmesan cheese, prosciutto ham, and the Stendhal novel AThe Charterhouse of Parma.@  (The novel, however, largely takes place elsewhere in Italy.)  When I arrive it is an overcast Thursday afternoon.  I am here for an evening UEFA Cup game featuring the hometown side, Parma.  The UEFA Cup is a secondary multi-league tourney for good but not champion teams, an NIT to the Champions League=s NCAA.  Today is Thanksgiving back home so I am missing the traditional football games for a different sort of football match-up.

Parma is a pleasant town, considered by other Italians to be quietly upscale and to be blessed with an excellent opera.  Toscanini, for example, was born here.  The city center is split by the trickling Parma river.  The leading tourist site is the Palazzo delle Pilotta, the half-shattered remnants of a palace begun in the 15th century by Pope Paul III for his son.  (Yes, those Renaissance Popes didn=t follow the vows of celibacy as zealously as our modern prelates are required to do so.)  The Palazzo was bombed during World War II.  The Germans are back today; Parma=s opponents tonight are 1860 Munich, a middling Bundesliga team long overshadowed by their city rivals, Bayern Munich.

While pleasant, even charming, Parma is low on the tourist itinerary of Italy.  Even I had spent the previous evening in Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, a stop to see its Byzantine mosaics.  The Munich fans and I appear to be the only visitors as I poke around the center of Parma, making it to the Palazzo delle Pilotta only a half-hour before it closes for the day.  I decide against rushing through it and instead head over to the Duomo, which features works by Correggio and Parmigianino.  The Munich fans B easily identifiable by their team scarves B and I gaze at the Renaissance religious art, craning our necks to stare at the ceiling and to see around the scaffolds from the latest renovation.

The Munich fans are a felt presence in town, roaming the sleepy afternoon streets in small groups, bluff and blonde, singing bits of soccer songs.  Near the Ennio Tardini stadium they gather outside hole-in-the wall pizza joints, drinking and singing.  They are a burly lot, some in leather jackets, others in jeans jackets with rude patches insulting other German teams, especially Bayern Munich.  I=m reminded of the bikers I met during an afternoon at the Sturgis rally a few years back B jovial, half-drunk, muscular men.  Perhaps I grew up on too many World War II movies but I can=t help feeling a mild sense of threat at being around packs of big drinking Germans.  (And I’m of German descent!)  However, when I talk to them they prove universally friendly, happy to be on an outing to Italy.

The weather worsens into periodic drizzle.  Fog rolls in.  I find my way to the stadium, on the fringe of the city center.  It is a modest affair, no San Siro, seating only about 20,000.  Just one tier here.  The surrounding neighborhood is residential, sleek modern townhouses behind gates.  There is even an elementary school right beside the stadium.  As I walk past, the children are pouring out, some to waiting parents, others dashing home with their backpacks.  How cool would it be to have your school right there beside the stadium!

I have little trouble purchasing a ticket.  There are a couple of ramshackle souvenir stands across the street from the main entrance and a low-key atmosphere.  It doesn=t look that different from the outside of RFK before an MLS match, except for the packs of Germans.  As I enter the Tardini I pass the team shop/museum.  A UEFA Cup gleams in a protected glass case, proclaiming the team=s class.  Parma is a relatively small city for Serie A.  In fact, for most of their history Parma have played in the lower divisions of Italian soccer.  They have only become a top team of late.

The rise of Parma in the late 1980s coincided with financial support from the local Parmalet agribusiness giant.  A big financial investment, a couple of excellent coaches, and a series of young stars led to two UEFA Cups during the 1990s and some top three finishes in Serie A.  They have become the type of team which is usually good and which, from time to time, puts together a special side to challenge the big boys.  However, when that happens they get picked apart B the coach goes to AC Milan and the key midfielder to Juventus and so on and it=s back to being just good.  Dangerous, but not dominant.  The expansion of European competitions, such as the enlarged UEFA Cup, has been key in giving teams like Parma more for which to play.  (Three years after my visit Parmalet unraveled in a spectacular Enron-like fashion, suggesting that Parma fans will have less to look forward to in the future.)

My seat puts me on a side, in the middle of the half of the field initially defended by Parma.  It is a section of elderly regulars, wiry balding men and their wives.  During the game my neighbors jabber continually and negatively on the goings-on.  I have an odd sense of being in a crowd of bitter barbers.  I don=t have much luck making conversation B they do not appear to know much English and are too consumed with commenting to one another to be intrigued by the American in their midst.

Behind each goal are the fan club sections.  The 1860 Munich fans seem especially loud, perhaps inspired by the hostile setting (or the beer).  Or, more likely, Parma is the sort of comfortable middle-class city where most of the fans would rather watch the game and comment on it B like my neighbors B than sing and drum throughout it. 

Even so, the beginning of the game, a few minutes after five o=clock, is greeted with the inevitable wave of flares.  The smoke combines with the low-level ground fog and the distant goal, and the German fans behind it, vanishes into the dank white mist.  This proves unfortunate because Stephen Appiah of Parma scores on a volley in the opening two minutes.  The action being invisible in the fog we learn of it only from the celebrations.  (I only find out the name of the goal-scorer in the paper the next day.)  The goal generates another round of flares, of course, only making the visibility even worse.  Ten minutes later, Johan Micoud of Parma punches in another invisible goal.  (I read in the paper the next day that it involved stealing the ball from an 1860 Munich defender and then slotting home a shot.  Wish I=d been able to see that.)  2-0, Parma. 

Now it is the Parma ultras who are doing the singing.  Things are looking good.  The Parma keeper is Gianlugi Buffon, a lanky giant good enough to start regularly for the Italian national team, which gives some confidence that a 2-0 lead can be defended.  The men around me, however, continue to critique the play.  I have the sense that little these current players could do would match some golden age they have in mind.  It must be a recent golden age, given how little Parma achieved before its 1990s teams.

As the first half goes on, the weather improves.  The drizzle stops and the fog rolls away, revealing the whole field.  The German fans haven=t given up and manage a steady singing.  It is distant and indistinct to me but it is always there, an undertone.  They also wave immense blue flags with a heraldic lion symbol.  It looks vaguely familiar.  After a few minutes I place it.  Ah!  Lowenbrau!  The team is sponsored by the beer!  How appropriate, for a Munich side. 

Half-time.  It is still on the cold side so I get a hot chocolate.  Then, feeling warmer, I get a beer.  Well, a non-alcoholic beer, the only kind available at the simple snack bar under the stands.  The barbers stand, rub hands, continue talking.  I wonder if the wives, who seem to be talking amongst themselves, insist on trips to the opera as their reward for the soccer outings. 

Despite Parma=s 2-0 advantage, the game after half-time is lively, moving end to end.  Shots are close; at least two rebound off the crossbar of the goal.  Then, around 80 minutes, disaster for Parma.  There is a mad scramble for a loose ball in the Parma penalty area and midfielder Roma Tyce of 1860 Munich pokes it in the goal.  2-1, Parma.  The Germans attack with renewed hope; the Parma players are back on their heels.  It=s all about holding on now. 

They can=t pull it off.  In the very last minute, 1860 Munich gets a strong cross into the Parma box and, bang, Markus Beierle of 1860 Munich volleys it right in. 2-2!  Pandemonium among the German fans; horror among the Parma fans.  My neighbors mostly sound disgusted, although one guy seems to be claiming to have seen it coming all along. 

Game over.  A 2-2 draw.  This is the first leg of the tie.  There=s no extra time.  They=ll play the second leg in Munich in two weeks.  The Germans are in good shape, though B even and with two road goals, which count extra as a tie-breaker.  Parma will have to win in Munich to advance.  (Which, it later turns out, they go and do.  Good cup team, Parma.)

The Parma police are very much in evidence on the way out.  Perhaps I=m not the only one made nervous by the Germans.  But there is little work for them to do.  The singing Germans and glowering locals go their separate ways in peace. 

I walk back to the city center, shivering a bit in the night air, and find a delicious pasta dinner.  With prosciutto on it, of course.  Ah, Italy.  You make me happy in so many different ways. 


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