Parma Is Latest In Italys Seven Sisters Of Soccer To Crumble

Milan, Jan 9 | Updated: Jan 10 2004, 05:30am hrs
They were known as the seven sisters - the giants of the Italian game who, thanks to the backing of millionaire businessmen, could be guaranteed to be among the contenders for the Serie A title and European trophies.

Yet, within the space of just two years, three of the elite group of Italian clubs have been plunged into crisis as their owners financial empires fell to pieces, leaving only the stark reality of a loss-making business.

Fiorentina, Lazio and Parma may still be big names in European soccer, but their financial woes mean they can no longer be considered to be in the same bracket as AC Milan, Inter, Juventus and AS Roma.

Fans of twice UEFA Cup winners Parma are the latest to discover that a wealthy benefactor can bring as much pain as joy -- when the cash runs out.

On Thursday, Italys industry minister gave the go-ahead for the club to be put up for sale at the end of the season and two or three of their players placed on the transfer list straight away.

Parma, currently sixth in Serie A, have been thrown into crisis by the multibillion-euro accounting scandal that has hit their owners, multinational food company Parmalat.

It was the millions invested by Parmalats founder Calisto Tanzi that helped transform the club in the 1990s from a lower division provincial outfit into a serious force in Europe capable of attracting some of the worlds top players. But now that Tanzi has been arrested, having admitted to diverting about 500 million euros from Parmalat to family companies, all that remains are debts and a very uncertain future.

It will all sound very familiar to fans of Fiorentina who fell from the Champions League to the fourth division after the financial mismanagement of their sugar daddy, film mogul Vittorio Cecchi Gori, led them to bankruptcy in 2002.

Despite selling top players, such as Rui Costa and Francesco Toldo, Fiorentina were unable to pay their players wages and after relegation to Serie B they were formally declared bankrupt. Fans of the Florence club rallied round and created a new club which after winning promotion to Serie C1 bought the rights to the name Fiorentina and the clubs crest and colours.

In a chaotic restructuring of Serie B during the close-season, Fiorentina were handed a place back in Italys second division but the not so distant days when they were beating Manchester United and Arsenal in the Champions League still seem far from reach.

Lazios troubles have been less dramatic, with coach Roberto Mancini guiding them to a Champions League qualifying slot last season, but they have still to be fully resolved.

The Rome side won the title in 2000, finally delivering the scudetto to president Sergio Cragnotti who had invested millions in top players during a decade long search for glory.

But Cragnotti was forced to stand down last season as the financial problems at his food company Cirio impacted on the football club, which like most in Italy, is running at a loss.

Players went without pay for long stretches of last season and although they accepted shares in return for a cut in their back pay, the absence of a new backer leaves the club still facing an uncertain future.

Even Roma, current leaders of Serie A, have lost their purchasing power in the transfer market and the likelihood of their owner and president Franco Sensi standing down at the end of this season has fuelled speculation about the clubs future. Roma were caught up in a scandal over forged bank guarantees during the close season and while they denied any wrongdoing the problems they had in paying Dutch club Ajax for Romanian defender Cristian Chivu and an international ban from transfers imposed due to an unpaid fee also raised questions about their financial health. In terms of financial power and stability, the seven sisters have been reduced to three. Only Juventus, winners of the last two titles and backed by the Agnelli family who built up the Fiat group, European champions AC Milan, backed by billionaire businessman turned prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Inter Milan, who enjoy the patronage of the wealthy Moratti family, can really be considered firm members of the elite. While their fans can justifiably feel secure in the knowledge that Berlusconis billions and Massimo Morattis millions can continue to bring in big name players even they will surely have taken note of what can happen when the benefactor falls and the money runs out.