Atalanta fans in denial as hero Doni accused of match-fixing

A primitive-looking sign made out of cardboard hangs in the window of the Barettino, a bar just a few streets down from Atalanta’s ground, the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.

It bears a message scribbled in the local dialect, probably by the man who runs the joint, Claudio Galimberti, better known as ‘Bocia’, the shaggy-haired head of the club’s group of ultrà. It reads: “Paura de nisù,” Fear of no one.

Ever since newly promoted Atalanta were seriously implicated in Italian football’s latest betting scandal, a mood of defiance has swept through the Lombard town of Bergamo. Its proud and hard-working residents, distinguished by the findings of a recent study showing that only the people of Milan declare more income for tax purposes, continue to walk through the streets with crapa olta - their heads held high.

Around 4,000 marched in defence of their club on June 9 with the front line of protesters holding up a banner on which the slogan “get your hands off Atalanta” was written. No one has been left indifferent by the situation. Bergamo after all is a one-club town. Just ask the mayor Franco Tentorio. His father Luigi was a player, a coach and later a director with the club.

It’s enough to remember that only last November, Atalanta’s president and former player Antonio Percassi announced an initiative to send every newborn baby in the town a mini replica kit. With that in mind, is it any wonder so few Bergamaschi support any other team in Italy even considering the relative proximity of Milan and Inter? This is a family affair and thereby a matter of honour for Atalanta as their adopted son and captain Cristiano Doni is at the centre of match-fixing allegations, and not for the first time.

A decade ago, he along with 10 other players was accused of manipulating the result of a Coppa Italia tie between Atalanta and Pistoiese. Doni was eventually cleared and reminds spectators of the ruling every time he finds the back of the net with a provocative goal celebration, placing a hand under the chin to gesture that he too can walk with crapa olta.

After 10 seasons at the club with a brief parenthesis at Sampdoria and Mallorca in the middle, Atalanta supporters revere Doni. His rhetoric is typical of a talismanic figure. He needles local rivals and former club Brescia by saying: “We’re back in our home, Serie A, while they’re back in their home, Serie B,” and often talks of blue and black blood running through his veins.

“This is a really special shirt, almost magical,” he gushes. “Perhaps I could jokingly liken it to the costume that transformed Clark Kent into Superman.” Doni’s acts of heroism include becoming Atalanta’s all-time top scorer with 103 goals between Serie A and B, a remarkable achievement for a midfielder, and though Roman by birth, he was made an honorary citizen of Bergamo in 2008.

Percassi has repeatedly said, with a finger on the populist pulse, that Doni has a future at the club once his playing days are over, even going so far as to suggest: “He would be the ideal president.”

All of which makes the very idea Doni has in any way wronged Atalanta inconceivable to the fans.

One told La Repubblica: “I don’t believe it… It’s not our thing. Because Doni is Bergamasco, I swear… He can’t have stolen. He couldn’t have, could he?”

His coach Stefano Colantuono won’t accept the accusations either. “Cristiano would never do anything to hurt Atalanta,” he insisted.

However, on Tuesday, Doni along with 25 others including his teammate, the defender, Thomas Manfredini were ordered by the FIGC’s chief prosecutor Stefano Palazzi to appear before a disciplinary commission to be held next week. He faces a three-year ban, which if imposed would almost certainly bring about the 38-year-old’s retirement.

Fears that Atalanta’s promotion would be revoked have been played down with the latest reports speculating that they will start the season with a seven-point penalty.

Under scrutiny are two matches from last March. The first a 1-1 draw at Ascoli with their defender Vittorio Micolucci asserting that “before the game Manfredini said to me: ‘Oh come on Vitto, what do you say, today let’s draw, it’s better for both of us?’” The second came a week later at home to Piacenza (video above), with abnormal betting patterns raising alarm bells after a suspicious amount of money was staked on at least three goals being scored in the first half. Sure enough, that’s how it happened.

Doni scored two soft penalties, the first called for hand-ball on Damiano Zenoni, the second for an avoidable challenge made by another player under investigation, Carlo Gervasoni, on the Atalanta striker Francesco Ruopolo who would get his side’s third just before the interval with a close range finish at the far post.

The prosecution alleges that a fix had been arranged with wiretaps appearing to indicate that Doni and Gervasoni were contacted by mediators acting on the behalf of one group in the betting ring.

In Doni’s case, this was apparently Nicola Santoni, a former goalkeeping coach at Ravenna and someone he admitted to knowing in an interview with La Repubblica. It is claimed Santoni bet €30,000 on Atalanta beating Piacenza in the first half and by full time. He was also overheard on the wire the day before the game telling Gianfranco Parlato, a former player caught up in the scandal, “I have seen my man…” Santoni’s explanations when presented with the evidence were found to be unconvincing.

The town of Bergamo, meanwhile, continues to rally behind Doni who claims to have been made a scapegoat. “It’s an ugly story even if the things that I have read in the papers seem very vague,” the mayor sighed. “Up until now the wiretaps that have emerged on Doni and the club are third hand, between a friend and the friend of a friend,” added Daniele Belotti, a town planner and ultrà. “We demand certain proof. If they come up with it we’ll make our own judgements. What has come out up to now is not enough to renounce Doni.” 

That of course is for the disciplinary commission to decide and as the so-called queen of the provinces embarks on a 51st season in Serie A, the question is will she do so without her king?