un’estate italiana / chapter five

“The past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”; the phrase is often assigned to Mark Twain, but like most quotes by the famous American author, there are many versions and no one’s quite sure where and when he said it first. Regardless, there’s some truth to it as once again the Parma Calcio season has ended with a penalty. When I pointed out this to Serafín Vázquez he chuckled. “I think probably it would have been best if we had scored that other one”, he said. This time, the setting for the kick that wrapped up the Crociati’s season wasn’t a big European night, but a simple league match; it was scored in the 95th minute of regulation rather than a high-stakes shootout. However, it still had many big repercussions.

American author Mark Twain. He was apparently unable to speak anything but famous (mis)quotes

As fate would have it, four teams arrived at the last matchday of the 2026-27 Serie A season with a lot on the table. For league leaders Juventus and second-placed Inter Milan, it was the league title that was on the table. Two spots and some 20 league points behind them, it was Lazio and Parma that fought for a Champions League spot. “We knew, coming to it, that it was a long shot”, admitted Vázquez to me days after the final whistle went. 

Parma had been fighting for a spot in Europe’s elite competition all season. For the longest of stretches, it looked like the Crociati were in with a very good chance, reaching the winter break comfortably in fourth position, some four points off third-placed Napoli, who looked off from their title-challenging strength of the previous cycle, and some distance away from fourth place contenders, SS Lazio, Fiorentina and AC Milan. However, by the last matchday, the fact that they were in with an outside chance was surprising in itself.

“We really lost our way somewhere after the break”, explained Vázquez. A run of bad results against top contenders, including back-to-back 1-0 defeats to the title challengers and draws against mid-table sides like Bologna and Sassuolo meant that with 8 games to go, they had to make a push to even challenge for UCL football. “We were lucky that Lazio dropped a few points here and there, but in all honesty, I’d rather we had earned it”, explained the Argentine manager, who went on to be bluntly honest: “When you lose each time you’re faced with top opposition, you have to wonder… What the hell are we going to do in the UCL? We didn’t deserve that spot”. As the Argentine manager himself explained, it made sense that Parma could never find their footing when push came to shove this season.

Parma’s last Champions League game was in 2001, when they were eliminated in the Third Qualifying Round by LOSC Lille

The omens weren’t good the moment the second edition of the Coppa Nevio Scala, the highly successful curtain raiser for the previous season was cancelled as two of the clubs booked to participate had to withdraw from the commitment; while Vázquez refuses to give credence to it, that club certainly struggled to settle. The new cycle had come with several changes in the staff, key among them a restructuring of the scouting and recruitment system, but also in the playing staff. Names like Leandro Chichizola, Veldin Hodza, Dennis Man, Gennaro Tutino and Woyo Coulibaly, who had counted themselves among the most important men in Vázquez’s team since the Serie B days, departed the team. “We sensed that after the Coppa title last year, we needed to take the necessary steps to take the team to the next level, to use our success to consolidate what we had achieved”, explained the Argentine manager. It made sense, but it also set up the club for a rocky year. Additions like Juan Sforza from Manchester City, Giacomo Faticanti from Roma, Martin Baturina from Dynamo Zagreb and Koen Casteels from Wolfsburg gave the Parma squad a new quality but also set back the extremely well-oiled that the team had become. Regardless, the biggest blow would undoubtedly come in January. 

With Oscar Vilhelmsson keeping form long enough to give battle to Enzo Copetti for the starting spot, the 30-year-old Argentine saw the writing on the wall and informed Serafín Vázquez he would be moving on at the end of his contract. This was a problem: Copetti was one of the squad’s highest-paid players, meaning Parma would have had a self-proclaimed sub at massive expense. “When Enzo came to us with his decision, we knew we had to pull the trigger”, Vázquez told me after the move was complete. The divorce was anything but friendly, with Copetti going public with his decision and creating tension in the dressing room. Eventually, a move to Spanish side Levante (where he has already made himself a nuisance) was set for a meagre-sounding €5M, which is still twice as much as Parma paid for the Argentine striker. Copetti leaves a legacy of 85 goals in 138 games with the Crociati, in three and a half seasons.

Enzo Copetti bid farewell to Parma Calcio just six months after breaking Hernán Crespo’s record for most league goals in a season

With the team at times reeling from all this, it wasn’t just the clashes against the challenges that Parma Calcio lost, but crucially both legs against Lazio in the league, meaning due to Serie A sorting rules, any tie-in points would have resulted in favour of the Biancocelesti. Added to that comes another defeat in a Coppa Italia quarter-finals, to make it a terrible 0-3 against Lazio, perhaps too harsh a revenge after their cup win over the Laziale the prior season.

This, added to a rather dissappointing UEFA Europa League campaign, where Vázquez’s side were eliminated by French side OGC Nice in the Round of 16, meant the only highlight of Parma Calcio during the season was the obtention of the Supercoppa after beating Scudetto winners Inter in early January. “It’s always nice to add a trophy to the collection, but we have to stay focused. We have loftier goals”, had said a then-smiling Vázquez right before the run of form that took Parma stumbling down the table from UCL candidates to UEL hopefuls.

Still, after a hectic 3-3 draw against AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, Parma had some chances. Lazio had clawed some ground by beating Empoli, but the Crociati could still do it, provided they won their last game and Lazio lost against Cremonese. However, their test for the final matchday couldn’t have been more difficult: they hosted 2nd placed Inter Milan, who were in it to make it back-to-back Serie A titles. “We knew that Inter were coming for blood, they had the title on the line. But we had our own battle, so I sent out the guys like always”, explained Vázquez. On the other end of Italy, Juve visited Napoli to secure the title, but with just a single point between them and the Nerazzurri, they needed a win to do it.

Inter Milan wanted to become the first repeat winners of Serie A since Juventus 7 years ago

However, all games began, only one thing looked certain, Juve weren’t up to the task. Napoli may have been behind the Derby d’Italia rivals all season long, but even after ruining a fantastic comeback in the last third of the season with a challenge-ruining loss to Inter, they were very much the team in form. Two-nil up before the hour-mark, they forced the Bianconeri fans to look at the Ennio Tardini for some inspiration. The desperation must’ve been absolute when mere minutes after Napoli’s second, Marco Asensio took advantage of Parma missing a goal literally in front of the goal to make it 1-0 to Inter. Very similar were the feelings in Vázquez’s dugout as Cremonese put themselves ahead, meaning they were now throwing away the result they needed to make it into Europe’s elite.

But, like all season, moods were very swinging for Serie A’s fans. Within fifteen minutes, the Eternal Ciro Immobile made it 1-1 for the Biancocelesti and then Yvandro Borges Sanches squared everything up for Parma, bringing temporary celebrations to Juve fans, who were now equalling Inter on points. However, the day was far from done.

For about sixty seconds, joy at the Ennio Tardini was absolute. In the 81st minute, Walter Mazarri’s Cremonose went ahead once again, and then just two minutes later Hicham Boudauoi scored to make it 2-1 for Parma Calcio. The dream was nothing more than a mirage; seconds before the Algerian gave the Crociati the lead, Immobile had equalised again for Lazio. As the goals are counted, the former Dortmund man scored in the 83rd minute of his match, whilst the Parma man did it in the 84th of their game, meaning Vázquez’s team were never in the UCL spots that day, despite the delay in the news bringing some hope. 

Juve fans had an emotional rollercoster as many followed the matches in screens set up at the city

Where it did count was over at the Diego Armando Maradona, where Juventus fans celebrated their temporary title; that too was fleeting. Within five minutes, back-to-back goals by Nikola Illiev and Richarlison put Inter ahead 3-2 with just the added time to be played. With the Juve game already completed, all hopes for the Bianconeri resided in whatever Parma could do. The full time whistle went in the Lazio game as well, meaning the dream ended up being just barely out of reach, yet Vázquez was seen pushing his players forward. “Did you just feel like ruining Inter’s day too?”, I asked him jokingly afterwards, but he failed to see the humour: “I just wanted us to finish the season on 9 games undefeated. Give our home fans as good a send-off as possible”.

Regardless of the reason, ruin Inter Milan’s day they did. In the 95th minute, Yvandro Borges Sanches fell inside the box after a nervous tackle by Milan Skriniar took him down, right after a sloppy Nerazzurri possession granted Parma a counter. Referee Marco Piccinini gave the penalty and VAR confirmed it. Just like two years before in that final against Marseille, a Parma player took the ball to take the penalty, the last kick of the ball in their season. Unlike Samu in that ocassion, Joelson Fernandes scored but Parma still went home without a real prize.

The result, of course, sent shockwaves through Italy. Whilst Juve fans celebrated in the streets of Napoli (a sight about as rare as Diego Maradona with an England shirt), Inter fans protested against the call and were none too hesitant to invoke ghosts of the past: Juve and the referees? That rings a bell. 

Rare, but not impossible

Still, the Nerazzurri had one last shot at redemption. Rules in Serie A explicitly make it so a points tie at the top of the league is different to a points tie everywhere else, and a playoff was necessary to determine the winner, regardless of the teams’ head-to-head. The same rule that would’ve condemned Parma to the UEL had they achieved equal points as Lazio gave Inter another chance. “It’s always one rule for the powerful and another one for everyone else, isn’t it?”, laughed Vázquez.

It would be once again a penalty that undid Inter Milan. After an absolute bore-fest of a match where just four shots on goal were recorded, springing memories of the 2003 Champions League final between Juventus and AC Milan, penalties were required to determine the winner. It would be Denzel Dumfries, the man who gave away the ball for Parma’s counter that missed the definitive penalty, branding himself as the villain for the season, although an earlier miss by Niccolo Barella meant Juve only had to score the next penalty to make it anyways.

Serafín Vázquez struggled to put a tag on the season as a whole. “I think it has been the reckoning for us in many ways. Last season was the crowning of a project, and this season it was all about reconstruction and evolution. It makes some sense that we struggled, it makes some sense that we’ve had to adjust”.

Serafín Vázquez’s Parma wrapped up their best season ever since returning to Serie A, but it does leave a bit of a deception aftertaste

“So what comes next?”, I asked him.

“Improvement, hopefully. It’s always about the next step”.

Tobiáš Vacík, for theangrylinesmen

A few words from your host…

Hello everyone! As you can see, a bit of a different one to what this series has been usually focused on. More of a season review this time, alla FM21’s Blood and Blue. In all honesty, it’s not that I didn’t want to put a focus on anything else, but this season simply didn’t lend itself to make any insightful commentary.

We went through it at fairly expectable pace, getting fairly expectable results, and falling at fairly expectable hurdles. I’m not happy that we lost most of our games against the top four teams, but I’m not overly concerned about it. Inter and Juve quadruple our wage expenditure, even after the likes of Sforza, Casteels and Baturina have earned themselves wages I wouldn’t have dreamt of paying just one or two seasons ago. “The best predictor of a club’s success is not who picks the team but the squad’s total wage bill”, wrote Simon Kuper six years ago and that remains true, IRL and FM wise.

Pictured: Me talking to the Lazio boss after the last game

However, I do feel we’re approaching a tipping point. Next season will be the first we ever have back-to-back European football and while we have to be careful not to overspend ourselves, it could be just what it takes to push us over the line. Once you enter the UCL riches, the sky is the limit, particularly in a league as wide open as the Serie A.

Talking of not overspending ourselves in pharaonic proyects, I do think it may be time to bid farewell to the Ennio Tardini. For the third season in a row we’ve made it to the podium of average attendance by capacity %, selling out 12 out of 19 league games. At 22,000 capacity, it may simple be too small now. In fact, out of clubs with bigger stadiums only Juventus comes near us, packing over 40,000 people in their ground which amounts to 98% capacity. Closer rivals in terms of capacity are nowhere to be found, with Udinese and Atalanta packing 77% and 85% capacity on average, while Sassuolo’s 21,000 seats Mapei Stadium only hosted half its capacity.

Right now, our economy is feeling the impact of our wages spenditure jumping from 35 million euros in 2024 to nearly 50 million as of today, but should a big sell come our way, I make have to snap the board out of their sleep.

Regardless, for now it remains a process with deminishing returns, as footballing aerodynamics dictate that every step forwards takes double the effort than the one before. That will remain the game until, I hope, we reach the stratosphere and cruise like an airliner on fuel saving mode.

Until then, thanks for reading.

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