Alessandro Lucarelli: The Parma captain who kept the club going

Alessandro Lucarelli
Alessandro Lucarelli celebrating promotion to Serie A with his Parma Calcio 1913 team-mates

Four years ago, Alessandro Lucarelli was buying medical supplies, bottles of water and making sure the laundry bills were paid on time at Parma.

But he wasn't the kit man, club doctor or a passionate volunteer - he was the team captain.

The club had debt of more than 200m euros (£179m), a quarter of which was unpaid wages. It was a story with the inevitable ending of extinction.

"During that season I wasn't just a player. I had to represent the club off the pitch as well with the city institutions," Lucarelli told the BBC's World Football programme, referring to regular deputations to the courts on behalf of the failing club.

"The problem wasn't the lack of money for the players, but the unpaid wages for the staff - they also had families.

"When we knew that Parma wasn't going to be saved, the players received some money from the Italian league. But we asked that the money would be used to pay the wages of the club's staff instead."

As well as keeping the club operational and looking after the office staff, Lucarelli also had to keep his players motivated.

"We still had to play every Sunday. So before every game, I said: 'OK, let's get on the pitch and play for everybody.' All we wanted was to end the season and be saved."

Parma enjoyed 10 years of success at the end of the 20th Century during the height of Serie A's popularity, winning eight trophies between 1992 and 2002.

They were runners-up in Serie A in 1997 and won the Uefa Cup in 1995 and 1999, as well as the 1993 Cup Winners' Cup and three Coppa Italias.

Their team boasted the talents of Italy internationals Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon, as well as Colombia forward Faustino Asprilla, Argentina striker Hernan Crespo, Bulgaria great Hristo Stoichkov and France defender Lilian Thuram.

Faustino Asprilla playing for Parma in the 1994 European Cup Winners' Cup final against Arsenal
Faustino Asprilla playing for Parma in the 1994 European Cup Winners' Cup final - Arsenal won 1-0

But in March 2015 they were declared bankrupt and at the end of the 2014-15 season, the club began its fourth iteration - as Parma Calcio 1913.

The pitches at the training ground were parched and bare because there was no groundsman. The phone lines had been cut because of unpaid bills and there was hardly a stick of furniture left.

"When Parma had to face bankruptcy, it was the worst day not only for the club, but also for me," said Lucarelli.

"I decided to belong to this club 10 years ago and it's a huge part of me and a huge part of my life.

"I was the captain and I decided to stay as the captain to help the new club restart from the fourth tier - and now here we are."

So Lucarelli, who had just spent a season marking the likes of Luca Toni, Mauro Icardi and Gonzalo Higuain, had to adjust to life in the fourth tier of Italian football.

"I discovered regional football, and I had fun," he said.

"All our opponents tried their best against us and I saw other fans in other towns for whom it was like a big occasion, a big party.

One of Parma's trips was to Borgo San Lorenzo, an area of Florence. "Before the match there was a tractor show on the pitch. It was very peculiar," said Lucarelli.

Another away game was played on a pitch with wonky lines and during a match in Chioggia, near Venice, a clearance took the ball into the sea and a man with a boat had to go out and get it back.

In the end, defender Lucarelli played on until a few weeks before his 41st birthday, only retiring in May 2018 once he had guided Parma through their return to Serie A, which involved a record three successive promotions.

And on Saturday Parma will host Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus at their famous old Tardini stadium - a meeting that was beyond contemplation for Lucarelli in 2015.

"Are you crazy? I could never imagine that Parma would return to Serie A in three years," he said.

And while some at the club are hoping for damage limitation against the team who have won the past seven Serie A titles, Lucarelli has a captain's message.

"Of course it will be a hard match, but four years ago in our previous Serie A season, we beat Juventus 1-0 at Tardini - so everything is possible."

And nowhere is the possible more evident than in the club that Lucarelli has helped to rebuild.

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