Zebre struggle in Parma shadow

Zebre may be competing in the top tier of European club rugby this season but even if they beat Connacht this weekend to record their first victory in the Champions Cup, their heroics will go largely unnoticed in their home town of Parma.

Zebre struggle in Parma shadow

Calcio is king in the northern Italian city and, despite their storied football club currently languishing in the country’s third tier of professional football, Zebre are used to playing second fiddle.

“The whole city is behind the soccer club. It’s the culture,” Zebre head coach Gianluca Guidi said with an air of resignation.

“The Parma soccer club is at the bottom end but in Italy, it’s a different culture. Soccer is incredible and it’s impossible (for rugby) to share. There are different cultural elements in Italy, especially the soccer fans, that makes it impossible to understand (each other).”

Parma have fallen far from the heights they enjoyed in the 1990s when Nevio Scala, Carlo Ancelotti and Arrigo Sacchi were among the coaches and stars of the calibre of Gianfranco Zola, Juan Sebastian Veron and Faustino Asprilla were guiding them to two Uefa Cup victories, one Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Super Cup.

They have been bankrupted twice since 2004 and in 2015 were relegated to the fourth-tier Serie D but with Scala as chairman and former European hero Luigi Apolloni as head coach won instant promotion to Lega Pro, where this weekend, backed by more than 9,000 season-ticket holders and average crowds of more than 10,000, they will meet bottom club Mantova in a bid to move from mid-table to towards a top-four berth which will earn them another promotion.

Zebre, meanwhile, will go in search of their first Champions Cup win after 12 previous pool defeats when they host PRO12 rivals Connacht having welcomed an average European crowd of just 1,850.

And who knows what impact their 82-14 thumping by Wasps in last Friday’s pool opener will have on the gate at Stadio Lanfranchi this Sunday. For Scotland-born club captain George Biagi the only way is up and the previous giant-killing efforts of Connacht in the PRO12 and Leicester City in the Premier League last season are serving as inspiration, even if he doubts lightning will strike twice for either outfit.

“I don’t think Connacht will be winning the Champions Cup this year. They’ve come a long way but they’ve done that because they put a system in place at the club that has allowed them to perform,” Biagi said.

“It’s obviously inspirational, the same way Leicester City is, they are different experiences but it doesn’t happen every year. So there’s a lot of work for us to do but we’re going in the right direction.”

He and Guidi were talking in Dublin at the Champions Cup launch a fortnight ago and ahead of the opening round that would provide them with the most miserable of trips to Coventry. Yet it is on home soil, regardless of the support they receive from the locals, that Zebre feel they are best placed to thrive in Europe.

“We know Connacht very well. We’re playing them five or six times this season so I think we’re going to get sick of each other by the end. For us, it’s important to do well at home and those are the games we’ll be targetting.

“When teams do underestimate us it’s up to us to make sure we punish them for it. It’s happened in the past. It’s tough to come to Parma, just as it’s hard for us to travel when we go anywhere. So we need to make the most of it.”

Zebre will also be motivated by the most recent visit of Pat Lam’s men to Parma, when the reigning PRO12 champions were on the rack, trailing the Italians 22-10 and by three tries to one when lightning and hailstones forced the game’s abandonment at half-time.

Connacht have been flying ever since, last weekend beating Toulouse in their European pool opener, only further fuelling Zebre’s motivation.

“We were very frustrated and angered at the end of the game,” Biagi said. “Now we tend to laugh about it because now it’s done and it’s kind of ridiculous what happened. It’s in the past now and we’ve just got to focus on when they come back and make sure we put things right then.”

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