The Importance Of Being Atalanta

Atalanta embodies the civic identity of Bergamo and the coronavirus did not wear down that bond. On the contrary, it bolstered it, representing a flag to rally around.

Although 2020 represented a painful year for Bergamo due to the coronavirus crisis, the city may be reborn thanks to its once provincial team which has now become an elite soccer juggernaut: Atalanta.

Five years ago, a small-town soccer club from Bergamo was struggling to stay in the Serie A, the Italian national league, eventually getting itself into the 17th position. Last year, the Atalanta soccer team clinched the third spot in the final standing and accessed the UEFA Champions League for the second year in a row. The team has indeed managed to expand quickly its horizons, even in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

A not so provincial manager: Gian Piero Gasperini

The club took a quantum leap forward when Gian Piero Gasperini got his job as the new trainer in 2016. After a rocky start, the team ended up finishing fourth in Serie A. In the following season, when Atalanta got kicked out of the Europa League at the last minute by German giants Borussia Dortmund, many pundits and sportsmen claimed that the match was the high watermark of Gasperini’s career. 

But the silver-haired trainer got his own back on those haters. He was adamant about sticking to his guns: a high-risk, hyper-offensive system that boosts team game rather than individual players. 

It was a matter of time that results would have come out in the wash. In the last two seasons, Gasperini’s steamroller reached third place overall, scoring 175 goals and trouncing heavyweights like Inter 4-1 in 2018, Milan 5-0 in 2019, and Lazio 4-1 in the current season. 

Credit is due to the excellent work of the Italian version of the longtime Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Gian Piero Gasperini. Gasperson — as sports columnists call him — led many small teams like Palermo, Genoa, and Crotone, gaining a lot of experience and many dismissals by quick-tempered presidents who were too hell on wheels when results were negative. 

On the contrary, Gasperini found an excellent environment in Bergamo. The club has always focused on the big picture, investing in young players, and sitting tight for the results to pay off.

The activity behind the scenes

Gian Piero Gasperini represents only the execution phase of the ‘Atalanta model’. But the manager’s work counts on the backing of President Percassi and Sports Director Sartori. While the former comes up with ideas and long-term investments, the latter carries out the more operational aspects of the job, especially scouting players. 

The system works marvelously well since Gasperini sharpens off-the-radar players up while Sartori sells them for sky-high prices. Consequently, the club makes big bucks trading players. In particular, income has ballooned, thanks to a staggering €322 million from swapping players to other clubs in the last two seasons.

Interestingly, due to the excellent work of Sartori, the team did not lose any sense of competitiveness. On the contrary, the club ramped its upshots up, even clinching a quarter-final round in the last Champions League that represented more than the club had bargained for.

Lastly, the President’s role represents a plus, since he is managing the club just like his firm, the Odissea Holding, without missing a beat. Clear-cut investments and a far-sighted administration are leading to more than €600 million in revenue for his wide-ranging company. Thanks to Atalanta’s clean accounts, the President even green-lighted the purchase of the stadium from the Municipality of Bergamo. Consequently, more money is coming down the pipeline, making the club’s revenue skyrocket. 

Soccer in Bergamo and coronavirus

Giorgio Gori, Bergamo’s mayor, was astounded when he learned that Atalanta swept Valencia 4-1 in San Siro, the stadium hosting Milan and Inter’s home games. 

That February 19 represents the proudest moment in the modest history of the Atalanta soccer team. Not only a small, provincial team was finally breathing the thin air of the wealthy elite soccer teams, but an entire city made the short journey from Bergamo to the stadium. Atalanta dragged a stunning exodus of more than 40,000 fans. According to Alessandro Pezzotta, an Atalanta follower who organizes buses for away games, more than 120 coaches were going to Milan. The traffic just never seemed to stop coming to a once-in-a-lifetime event like that. After the match, it was as clear as day that the underdog Atalanta soccer team was in the Champions League quarter-finals. 

Unfortunately, the next day the mayor came up against an alarming scenario: on February 20, a patient in an emergency room in Codogno (an hour’s drive away from Bergamo) tested positive for coronavirus. The next day, doctors discovered another case of COVID-19 in Alzano Lombardo, just a few minutes from the city. 

From those points, coronavirus started to snowball among the people of Bergamo. The city completely shut down, cases started overwhelming hospitals and there were so many deaths that the government rallied the army to remove bodies. 

According to several virologists, the match between Atalanta and Valencia was a catalyst for the increased spread, since thousands of people gathered in small spaces; not only at the stadium, but also in bars, houses, and restaurants people were watching the game together. 

The outcome was clear-cut: in March, Bergamo registered a death every 30 minutes due to coronavirus. 

Thank you, Atalanta

Although the match between Atalanta and Valencia represented the zero hour of the pandemic in Bergamo, nobody held the team responsible for it. At that time, people believed that coronavirus was still in China.

Even during the outbreak, the Atalanta soccer team still embodied the civic identity of Bergamo. The virus did not wear down that bond. On the contrary, it bolstered it, representing a flag to rally around. 

The fan base of the club was on the very frontline against COVID-19, bending over backward to give a hand where possible. 

Not only did they help the army build a new field hospital in the trade center of Bergamo, but they even gifted €60,000 to the local hospital. And when negotiations about resuming Serie A took place, there were many Atalanta supporters lined up behind a bloccade “to respect coronavirus’ deaths.”

When the city (and soccer) got back on their feet, many felt a push back toward normality. And the team’s success represented a symbol that it is possible to overcome all odds. That the city can get back up and be famous not only for army trucks removing COVID-19 victims but also for the Atalanta soccer team. It is no coincidence that in the empty Gewiss Stadium of Bergamo, a song echoes before every game: “I will be reborn, you will be reborn” by the local songwriter Roby Facchinetti. 

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